Contact Perham Focus Editor J.J. Perry at 218-844-1466, email@example.com or follow @jjperry on Twitter.
Being new to Minnesota this year, a look back at 2019 in Perham and Otter Tail County is full of fresh insights and information for me.
As I went through the Focus back issues from the year, a lot of surprising, heartbreaking and inspiring stories jumped off the page.
Here is my month-by-month look back at some of the most memorable headlines and stories from the year, starting with December of 2018. (What am I missing? Let me know by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Downtown fire: Dec. 28 brought a sad end to 2018 in Perham, with a downtown fire destroying Suds Tavern and Make Me Wine. The good news: No one was injured, and one of those businesses -- Make Me Wine -- reopened later in the year. The homebrewing supply outlet, gift, decor and more store reopened in Wadena.
New sheriff in county: New Otter Tail County Sheriff Barry Fitzgibbons was sworn into office on Jan. 8.
Road reconstruction: Otter Tail County Commissioners held a public meeting to discuss the planned reconstruction of 5.9 miles of County Highway 34 between County Highway 35 and U.S Highway 10. The plan included a new bike trail spanning 6.4 miles along 34. The construction budget was $7 million, coming from local sales and wheelage tax funds.
Snow joke: A record-breaking February snowfall of over 30 inches brought the season’s total accumulation to 63 inches, or about 5 feet. Perham’s city hall and school administration braced for more in March. Perham canceled school four times and delayed its start time five times due to adverse weather conditions.
Bus driver killed: Richard Henry Fisette, 39, of Perham, was sentenced to 58-68 months in state prison for causing the death of Marlin Roger Miller, 50, of Ponsford. Miller, a longtime driver for Anderson Bus, was sitting in his parked car Oct. 29 in front of the bus company in Frazee when his car was struck by Fisette’s. A witness reported Fisette’s car was moving faster than the posted speed limit, with the headlights off. Fisette told an officer that the last time he had checked his speedometer he was going 42 mph.
Shopko closing: Perham’s Shopko store will close by June 16, according to bankruptcy court documents filed in Nebraska on March 18. The Wisconsin-based retailer had more than 30 locations across Minnesota, including Perham. Perham’s Shopko Hometown Pharmacy already closed in January, with outstanding prescriptions being filled at Thrifty White Pharmacy inside Central Market.
Director retires: Chuck Johnson, who spent 16 years as Perham’s Economic Development Director, announced he was retiring in April. Former Perham mayor Kevin Keil was named the new director; later in the year, Keil would announce that he was stepping down from the role by the end of December.
Bulldozer recovered: In December 1975, landowner Leonard Grotnes told the bulldozer crew carving out a snowmobile trail through the woods of Valhalla Resort not to go near the swamp. They did anyway, and lost their 56,000-pound Army surplus bulldozer. More than 40 years later, the massive machine was unearthed by a group that intended to bring it to the Perham Pioneer Village.
Taylor’s fight: Perham rallied around kindergartener Taylor Johnson, who on Jan. 25 was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most treatable form of the cancer.
Open in Ottertail: Periwinkle Marketplace in Ottertail reopened for business. After losing everything in a fire, owner Stephanie Ellingson started from scratch in redesigning the store from top to bottom.
New restaurant: The original St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was renovated and retrofitted into the restaurant 1894. Owners Pam Osterfeld and Marcus Zitzow spent years talking about opening their own restaurant while they worked at Zorbaz, before finally committing to buying the 125-year-old empty church in 2018.
Taste of home: Lula’s Tienda popped up in May in the ITOW Museum. The store stocks a modest amount of groceries, medicine, candy, toys and cleaning supplies from Mexico and Central America. Owner Lourdes Escareño satisfies her loyal customers with local delicacies from around Latin America.
Fishing opener: Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and other dignitaries will converge on Otter Tail County in May 2020 for the Governor’s Fishing Opener. Thumper Pond Resort in Ottertail, on the east side of Otter Tail Lake, will serve as the headquarters, it was announced.
Rescued: Vergas native Logan Schrupp rescued a man who had gotten pinned under the driver’s side door of his semi-truck after a rollover accident near Killdeer, N.D.
Grunewald dies: Perham graduate Gabriele Grunewald, one of the country’s top middle-distance runners and a national champion at the University of Minnesota, died June 11 at her home in Minneapolis at age 32. She was one of the nation’s most adored track and field athletes, openly sharing her life with cancer in recent years. With the help of friends, Grunewald started a foundation called Brave Like Gabe in 2018 to raise funds and awareness for rare cancer research. Gov. Tim Walz declared June 25 as “Gabe Day” at a memorial run.
Golden celebration: For decades Connie and Steve Richter have been thanking their loyal customers, but recently their customers have started to thank them. “We don’t know them personally, but they were just so happy, they thanked us,” Connie said. “It’s unbelievable how they do really miss service.” Richter’s Men’s Wear celebrated 50 years of business in June.
Trail disagreement: Frustrated residents clashed with Otter Tail County officials June 13 at a status update meeting in the Dent Community Center for the Perham to Pelican Rapids Regional Trail. Residents who spoke during public comment voiced their frustration with how the project had proceeded.
Dark anniversary: 1919 was a rough year for Otter Tail County. The international flu pandemic had killed 235 people — most of them children — and 87 men had died fighting in World War I. Then on June 22, dozens were killed in one of Minnesota’s worst disasters on record — the Fergus Falls cyclone.
Action! Dave Quincer bought Perham’s Comet Theater in June. The Comet was originally built in the late 1920s as a JC Penney store, but was converted into a movie theater in 1938. When the theater was slated to close in 1971, Joe Wasche Sr. and wife Delores took over and bought it. The theater has been in the family since then, with recent owners Pam Wasche Wilson and her husband, Scott Wilson.
Hit-and-run death: Tyler Wohlers, 21, from Wahpeton, N.D., was killed July 6 in a hit-and-run collision near Ottertail. Wohlers was walking with two other men on the shoulder of Highway 78 when he tripped and fell and was fatally hit by a passing car, which then drove away. A suspect has not been caught; anyone with information should call Sgt. Rod Eischens at 218-846-8244.
Fatal crash at airport: Bradley Gibb, 69, of Vergas, was killed when he crashed an ultralight aircraft July 11, at the Hawley Airport. He was the only occupant of the plane when it went down, and died at the scene.
New pantry: After years of planning, earmarking funds and securing grants, The Bridge Community Pantry unveiled a complete overhaul. Executive Director John Leikness said the renovation started when a five-year plan predicted the food shelf would run out of room around this time.
Train collision: A 25-year-old Vergas man was killed Aug. 1 after his pickup truck was struck by an oncoming BNSF train west of Perham. Derick John Brehm was driving a 2014 Chevy Silverado pickup when he was struck by the eastbound train; authorities said it is unclear as to why Brehm didn’t hear the train.
Strong defense: Tuffy’s Pet Foods says it will “strongly defend” itself from a class-action lawsuit from a California woman accusing the company of misleading consumers through deceptive marketing. The suit claims Tuffy’s sold its NutriSource dog food brand as a “super premium” product, despite knowing it was lacking a nutrient the company knew to be vital to a dog’s diet.
Sales and use tax: The Perham City Council voted Aug. 12 to approve legislation authorizing the local option sales tax. The Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz passed the article that authorizes Perham to impose a sales tax of one-half of 1% to finance the Perham Area Community Center (PACC) expansion in an amount not to exceed $5,200,000. The tax takes effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
Extra life: Ultima Gaming on Perham’s Main Street closed Sept. 4, in preparation for the store’s relocation to Washington Square Mall in Detroit Lakes. Ultima was open in Perham for three years.
Download: Perham native Cory Hepola, a TV and radio host, launched a podcast alongside his wife, Camille. The two got the idea for the parenting podcast, “Hey, They Grow Up So Fast,” after being asked how they balance their careers as news anchors with three young kids, all under the age of 5.
Floor exercises: After months of planning and discussion, the public got its first look at the proposed gymnastics building. Sept. 18, the Perham-Dent school board gave the greenlight for construction by approving a lease agreement and lease limits with the gymnastics booster program.
Aquatics expansion: Perham City Council chambers were packed with residents showing support for a proposed aquatics expansion at the PACC. The estimated cost is $8 million. A fundraising campaign had already garnered $2.5 million from KLN, $200,000 from the Perham Rotary and $100,000 from the Perham Foundation.
School board vacancy: Perham-Dent School Board member Christi Stoll resigned Sept. 11. Superintendent Mitch Anderson said Stoll’s departure leaves the district with a unique situation: The board is left with a vacancy until the next election in November 2020.
Honored: Jacob Werner, a Perham High School graduate, earned a Medal of Valor at the Best of the Badge Awards for his work on the SWAT team of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Bank on it: The old Bank of Perham window was installed at Level iii after undergoing a complete restoration. Level iii Owner Andrea Greiff had the 120-year-old window removed during a renovation of the store following a fire last year.
The Hub: The final hurdle toward demolishing and renovating the old Perham High School into The Hub was cleared in October when the Perham City Council approved proposals for architectural and engineering services for the demolition of the old school, and for The Hub renovation.
Boat found after 40 years: A Vergas-area resident, looking online Sept. 27 for used boats, said to himself, “Hey, that’s my boat that went missing about 40 years ago, in 1979.” He contacted authorities and learned the boat had gone through at least two owners over the years, and authorities said these two owners would not have known the boat had likely been stolen. The Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Office said the man could come and pick up his boat that had been missing all these years.
Big 4-0: Nadine’s Ladies Fashions, a retail pillar on Perham’s robust Main Street, celebrated 40 years of business in November, an achievement owner Denise Schornack said was nothing short of mind-blowing.
Public works retirement: Public Works Manager Merle Meece, 62, was preparing to retire at the end of November, after a 39-year career spent in public works.
Trail funds: Otter Tail County is seeking state legacy funds for a section of the Perham to Pelican Rapids Regional Trail. A grant request of $1.8 million is in the works, with county officials requesting funds through the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission.
New hospital: A new $67 million Tri-County Health Care hospital will be built along the county line between Otter Tail and Wadena counties, with the frontage on Highway 10 in Otter Tail County.
History denied: The Jamestown, N.D., Frontier Village Association approved turning all assets and debt of the organization over to the city of Jamestown Nov. 1. The decision means that the village assets will stay in Jamestown, rather than be transferred to the Perham Pioneer Village, a nonprofit operated by the History, Arts and Cultural Association of East Otter Tail County. Previously, Frontier Village and Perham Pioneer officials said that arrangements had been made to move the North Dakota village to Minnesota.
Guardsmen mourned: Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles Paul Nord, 30, of Perham was one of three soldiers killed in a Minnesota National Guard helicopter crash shortly after takeoff south of St. Cloud on Dec. 5. Also killed in the accident were Chief Warrant Officer 2 James A. Rogers Jr. and Sgt. Kort M. Plantenberg, both 28. Nord is survived by his wife, Kaley Nord, 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, and their expected child. Hundreds turned out for Nord’s funeral at Perham High School.
‘Yes’ to refugees: On Sept. 26, President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring local governments such as Otter Tail County to provide written consent to the federal government before refugees can be resettled in jurisdictions such as counties. Otter Tail County commissioners, on Dec. 17, voted in favor of an official consent. Official documents will be submitted to the U.S. Department of State.