Welcome to Karlstad, the Moose Capital of the North

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Karlstad, Minn., Aug. 20 – We left the Grand Forks YMCA feeling rather pleased with ourselves. We had gotten some exercise and, better still, bathed for the first time in more than a week.
Now it was time to celebrate. Naturally. We drove past a Ground Round. I was stunned. I wasn’t stunned to see a Ground Round in Grand Forks, though it had been an eternity since I’d seen a Ground Round anywhere.
I was startled to learn Ground Round was serving Long Island Ice Teas for $2.75. Colossal teas, is how they billed them.
So we stopped. The heat, even at this hour, was thick and difficult to penetrate. A cool drink sounded refreshing.
Becky and I each had a colossal Long Island, though the chill of the air-conditioning sapped most of the joy from the experience. Max had chocolate milk and macaroni and cheese. While we waited for 9 o’clock and happy hour to roll ‘around, I slipped out to the Behemoth, which was parked across from a McDonald’s.
I checked my email. Jefferson Pepper had checked in! The one and only Jefferson Pepper. What an honor, I thought.
He’d heard we were in Grand Forks. This spring he flew into Grand Forks because it was the closest airport to Karlstad, Minn. And Karlstad was where a man had died and left his collection of beer cans up for grabs.
Karlstad is a nice little town, and I’m not sorry we let Jefferson Pepper’s imperious whimsy guide us here. I can’t blame Karlstad for the searing temperatures. In any case, with the city park offering full hook-up for just $10, Karlstad made sure we had easy access to electricity so we could bask in air-conditioning.
Everyone here, from city clerk Sue Dufault to Daryl Bristlin, who found me wandering in the stifling heat and gave me a ride to the nursing home where I met 108-year-old Bertha Turnwall, treated me with unfailing generosity.
Yes, Karlstad’s a nice town. I can’t think of anything Karlstad is guilty of except maybe killing all its moose.
And I am sure that even that regrettable episode was purely unintentional.
After chatting with Sue, I walked out of the trailer that houses the modest city offices and into the boiler room that was Main Street.
In another minute I walked into the North Star News. I solicited advice on finding someone who might enlighten me on Karlstad. I was led into the office of editor Dan Nordine.
He considered the question. He rolled it around in his head for a few moments then came up with an answer. The person best suited to tell me about Karlstad was Dan Nordine.

Dan Nordine in his office at the North Star News in Karlstad, Minn.

Dan Nordine holes up in his office at the North Star News in Karlstad, Minn.

Alas, he was on deadline today. He wouldn’t be available.
What a shame. The North Star, which began life as the Pelan Advocate in 1895, was a family-run operation for more than 80 years. Dan’s grandfather, O.S. Nordine, was barely more than a lad when he took over the Karlstad Advocate in 1911. O.S. ran the paper until his death in 1948, and in all that time nobody figured out what the “O.S.” stood for.
Oh, the questions you wish you asked when you still had a chance.
Dan Nordine’s dad, Dane Nordine, took the reins and remained in charge until 1993, when he sold the paper to his son.
Two years later, Dan turned around and sold it to a regional newspaper group called Page 1 Publications.
I pestered Dan for as long as I figured I could get away with. I asked if it had been a difficult decision to sell off the family legacy.
The answer was yes. He said he’d engaged in more than one soul-searching session with his dad before they agreed to sell.
“We talked about it for many, many hours,” he said. “He finally agreed I should sell it while it still had some value. Small towns are dying.”
Then he shrugged as if to say: It is what it is.
I got a phone number and abandoned Dan to his deadline troubles. And I didn’t even ask about the goddamn moose.
The moose. They are everywhere. Too many to count. None, alas, are of the living, breathing variety.

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Moose to the left of me. Moose to the right of me. Stuck in the men’s room with moose.
Here in Karlstad, you can’t take a piss without a moose looking over your shoulder. There’s one on the screensaver at the grocery store. There’s a moose on the water tower. There’s one in the city office.
The whole sorry saga led me to an inescapable conclusion: Karlstad killed the moose. Smothered them. I can’t say if it was love or lust or a combination of the two, but it was all too much for the moose.
The death warrant was signed in the 1990s when the city fathers decided to rebrand Karlstad as the Moose Capital of the North.
Within a decade, the moose were gone. Dead. Exterminated.
Every last one of them.
One day in 1997, a moose wandered onto the grounds of city hall. There’s a photo of the poor bastard nuzzling Wayne Rund, Sue’s predecessor.
The next day they found that moose dead in the park. Everyone has a theory on what killed the moose. Brain-eating parasites. Deer ticks. Warming temperatures. Overzealous hunting.
It’s a moose-murder smorgasbord. Take your pick.
I walked across Main Street to Germundson’s, the local furniture emporium. I asked after Loren, the owner, who opened the store back in 1965. He wasn’t in. I was advised to come back in an hour.
I walked to the park, where the clydesdale-cum-moose stood sentinel, and checked in with the family.  A few minutes later I turned and headed back to Main Street.
When I walked into Germundson’s, I spied a man at a desk in an open office in the back. I assumed this was Loren Germundson.
He stubbed out a cigarette and invited me to sit across a small counter from him. TV news whined in the background.

Loren Germundson in his office on Main Street in Karlstad.

Loren Germundson in his office on Main Street in Karlstad.

Loren Germundson beheld his interloper with pale blue eyes that were ringed with worry. Resignation suffused his bearing. He answered my questions in a friendly but weary baritone.
I asked him about Karlstad. He said, oh, it’s getting by, and considering the odds arrayed against it, that is just fine.
Take the furniture business, for instance.
“It’s not like it used to be,” he said. “I’m not making any money. I’m just paying expenses. If I didn’t have this to do, I’d get in trouble.”
Karlstad remains in his blood. That much is clear. He was born here. His mom was born here. His dad came here from Elbow Lake as a kid and did a little farming before going into business. He owned the Phillips 66 station. He sold cars. Did a little bit of everything.
I didn’t know this: Loren’s wife, Lola, had died just a month ago, on July 18. She had health issues, including COPD, but her death took everyone by surprise. They would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on Aug. 1.
Yet here he was, shouldering his pain with dignity, treating a stranger with simple kindness. I couldn’t help but imagine Loren Germundson as the personification of Karlstad.
“It’s a small town, but I think if we can maintain, we’re OK,” he said. “We’ve got the essentials. We have two schools, a clinic, a nursing home, an assisted living facility, a dentist. And then we have Wiktel here, which is big. I remembered when they started in the early ’50s. Then we have Mattracks over here.”
Karlstad has held on to its high school, and that has kept the town in reasonably good health.
“There’s people living here, there’s people working here,” Loren said. “Also, a lot of people that live here work out of here. In Thief River, in Roseau, in Drayton. We have, I think, five border patrol people living here. And it all adds up. We’ve got a nice, big grocery store, and two hardware stores, which is unbelievable. Three gas stations up at the corner here, and they’re all busy.”
Yeah, all that’s well and good. But Loren, what about the moose? What did you do to the moose?
“Twenty years ago there was moose all over the place,” he said. “They just they died, either from diseases … I think probably the biggest problem was a few years ago they had a hunting season. They overhunted them.”
Things have changed in small-town America, changes that have put towns like Karlstad in peril.
The farms around here once were worked by local farmers like his dad, Orville. Now they are all big-time operations.
Seems something’s been lost in the process.
“I grew up on a farm that had grain and cattle, sheep and chickens and everything,” he said. “That’s the way it was back then. You haul your grain to town and sell it. Take your grain check and buy groceries. And you didn’t buy many groceries. Maybe basics like flour and sugar. You butchered your own meat. You milked the cows by hand.
“We used to have a farmer every half-mile. A farm with livestock, about 300 acres. Now if they can’t get 3,000 acres, they can’t make it work. There’s as much land being farmed but with fewer farmers. That’s not always good. These big farmers, they don’t buy their fuel from the local dealers; they buy semi loads direct. They’re so big they bypass the middle man altogether.”
I asked Loren if anyone had ever considered lifting the curse on the moose and changing Karlstad’s nickname to something less cruel. I imagined a sign that read, “Welcome to Karlstad, A Town in Northwest Minnesota.”
He shook his head.
“Every year we have a Moose Festival, so why change it?” he said. “Maybe the moose will come back someday.”

Carolyn and Hollis Turnwall outside Karlstad Korner.

Carolyn and Hollis Turnwall outside Karlstad Korner.

Turns out we only missed the Karlstad Moose Fest by nine days. We missed the moose, on the other hand, by a good 15 years.
I thanked Loren for his time and wished him well.
“You betcha,” he said.
That’s what he said.
I crossed Main Street one more time and stood in the lot at Karlstad Korner, where they still pump the gas for you. I asked after Hollis Turnwall, the owner. Before I knew it, I was inside talking to his wife, Carolyn. She said Hollis had gone home a little while ago but promised to summon him back to town.
I took one more walk to the park and back. At least I was getting a little exercise. And sweating spectacularly.
In this cauldron, it’s not hard to imagine the end of life as we know it. And not just moose, either.
Ninety-five degrees, at least. And they say that, at least until the past few years, it wasn’t unusual to experience winter weeks where the temperature never got above 20-below zero.
Hollis Turnwall was in the house. He assured me such unbearable cold has been a regular feature of life in the Great North Woods for most of his life.
“Its tough,” he said. “The birds and pheasants just drop over dead. They can take it for a day or two, but not a whole week.”
I hadn’t come to ask Hollis about birds and pheasants.
I came to talk about the Moose Capital of the North, and I think he understood this.
“They died off,” he said. “The local belief is the deer tick was responsible. There were many, many, many cases where they got infested with ticks so bad. They didn’t know how to get rid of them. They weren’t natural for the moose. They’d get up inside in the brain and they’d eat away at the brain. And the moose would walk in circles.
“And they’d walk in circles till the point where all they could do was turn around in circles, or they’d just die. And they died there.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hollis said, this corner of the state was littered with dead and dying moose. In the mid-1980s, there were 4,000 moose in northwestern Minnesota.
Now there are fewer than 100.
And in Karlstad, the Moose Capital of the North, no one has seen a moose in years. And nobody’s quite sure why.
“I think the official DNR reaction to that is ‘we don’t know,'” he said.
To this day, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources remains flummoxed by the wholesale death of the state’s iconic ungulate. That’s the official line, anyway.
It’s a damn shame they never figured out what happened to the moose in the Moose Capital of the North, because the scourge that killed off Karlstad’s moose is now ravaging the larger moose population in northeastern Minnesota. In the past year, 35 percent of the moose population there have died, leaving about 2,700 survivors. And they continue to die in alarming numbers.
Hollis Turnwall, 67, is the youngest of Alvin and Bertha Turnwall’s eight children. They named their first child Carol, the second Dean, and each new child was christened with a name that began with the next letter of the alphabet.
His father came home from World War I and bought into Karlstad Motor Company. He operated a Chevrolet dealership, one of three dealers in town, the Phillips 66 station.
“In that business he had a three-bay garage with a welding shop,” Hollis said. “Behind it there was a hardware store and a Case machinery dealership. It was all in that location.”
Alvin Turnwall went to Minneapolis for a petroleum convention, fell down a flight of stairs at the Minneapolis Hotel and cracked his head wide open.
“Somehow he lived through it, but never really recovered,” Hollis said.
Hollis recalls a time everyone thought Karlstad was destined to explode.
“We thought it was going to grow,” he said. “I remember talking about it. ‘I wonder how big this place is going to get?’ Needless to say, it didn’t happen.”
On the other side of the street, Loren Germundson shared similar recollections of a livelier Karlstad.
“I remember when I first got married, half of this building was a hardware store and I went to work here,” Loren said. “And we were open from 8 to 6 every day except Wednesdays and Saturdays, when we were open at night till 10 o’clock. Every Wednesday night and every Saturday night. And on Saturday nights the town would be full.”
That was when Karlstad was simply Karlstad and not the Moose Capital of the North. Those were better days for moose and town alike.
The moose, as you might surmise from all the surviving iconography, were a big, big deal around here. They were so big that hunters came from all over the state just to shoot one. Karlstad was the epicenter of the annual, DNR-sanctioned moose hunt. Four hunting zones came together at the town’s main intersection, right here at Karlstad Korner, at the junction of Main and Cleveland.
“They shot all kinds of record moose at that time,” he said. “They cleaned ’em out that way. But their biggest problem was the worm (or tick). They couldn’t control that. There was really nothing they could do. The hunting season they could regulate.”
The disappearance of the moose did more than rob Karlstad of its icon. It took a large bite out of the local economy.
“It was an economic boom for us,” he said. “Our biggest day of the year was opening day, or the day before opening day of moose season. Moose season was at that time a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in Minnesota. They had four guys who would band together and apply for a moose license. There was a lottery pick. If you got picked, you got your license. You probably never were going to get another one. You couldn’t even apply for a number of years.”
So once a year, the carnival came to Karlstad. It seemed that way, anyway. Those were memorable times.
“So those guys pulled into town,” he said. “The first year they pulled in with their car with their trailer behind it. And they went home with a great, big monster moose on the roof of their car, which was caved in. There were four guys sitting in a car on the way to Minneapolis. The moose is in the middle of the car, and they’ve all got their heads out the windows. The windows were all blown out. The moose was so heavy it smashed the car. I saw that many times.
It was a wild, wonderful windfall. While it lasted.
“They’d walk in here in my little store and spend $100 bills,” Hollis said. “They could have cared less. Money was no object. They were never going to do this again. They spent money like that. It was their one opportunity and they were going to do it right. They paid guides. They asked permission and paid land owners to hunt on their properties. Just threw $100 bills out.
“There were four zones, and 10 or 12 licenses in each zone. So there was 50 guys hunting in each zone or something like that. The motel would be full. Some people in town would rent out their houses. As the moose started disappearing, they stopped the hunting up here.
“Those days are over.”
My time with Hollis Turnwall about over, I asked if it might be OK to visit his 108-year-old mother in the nursing home. Bertha Turnwall lived at home alone till she was 99.

I walked southeast along Main Street in the general direction of the nursing home. Didn’t take me long to get lost. I found the clinic. I found Tri-County High School. I found the Lutheran church. Fortunately, Daryl Bristlin found me before I melted and stopped to inquire about my welfare.
“You look lost,” he said.
On the very short drive to the nursing home, Daryl told me a bit aboutt himself. He works as a custodian at Marvin Windows in Warroad, a job which requires a 130-mile commute each day. He’s made that drive for 24 years.
I thanked Daryl and walked through the doors of the Karlstad Healthcare Center. I asked for Bertha, and soon was sitting opposite her.
She’s suffered a series strokes in the past decade. They have robbed her of her vitality. I wish I had met her a few years ago.
She was feisty.
Alvin Turnwall was of Swedish stock. Bertha was Norwegian. Obstinately Norwegian. Hollis remembered a trip he took with his mother to Karlstad, Sweden. And the man they met there and the story he wrote about his trip to Karlstad, Minn.
“I got a copy of that and brought it up to her and sat it on her bed,” Hollis recalled. “She was just in the nursing home then. And she looks and it and picks it up and says, ‘That’s Swedish.’ She threw it on the bed and said, ‘I’ll have you know I’m Norwegian!’ I said, ‘but mom, all your kids are half-Swedish.’
“Her beady brown eyes stared at me and she said, ‘Is that so? She didn’t know if she agreed with that.”

 

With a moose over her shoulder, Sue Dufault sits at her desk in the Karlstad city offices.

With a moose over her shoulder, Sue Dufault sits at her desk in the Karlstad city offices.

I started back on the walk to the park. I stumbled across city hall and decided to go in and thank Sue again for all her help. She grew up in northeastern Minneapolis and is a transplant here. She came here with her husband, Todd.
She wasn’t sure she’d last.
“People had bets on me, figuring I wouldn’t last,” she said. “Sometimes I’d like to be a little closer to the life of the city.”
She lives in the country, three miles outside of Karlstad. Like everyone else, she regularly saw moose on the highways while driving into town. And like everyone else, she hasn’t seen a moose for years.
But she has seen Karlstad’s resident celebrity. Years ago, Ned Beatty met and married Karlstad girl Sandy Johnson.
“He’s very conservative,” Sue said. “He has a little tiny house. They travel in an RV, and sometimes her mother goes with them. When they’re here, they park the RV next to the house, so they have an extra room.
“He likes to play golf, and he plays at odd hours so he can play alone. The people here are pretty good about giving him his privacy.”
Perhaps I should resist the thought, but it makes sense, doesn’t it? When the defining moment of your career involves you getting buggered by crazed rednecks, you might need to find a quiet place to while away the time, a solitary place where assholes don’t come up to you every day and ask you to squeal like a pig.
Maybe I’m just projecting. In any case I didn’t want to share my degenerate thoughts with Sue, who had been so nice.
She even gave me a copy of Karlstad’s centennial book, which was published in 2005. Bertha Turnwall, who was born the same year as Karlstad, was the grand marshall of the centennial parade.
Aside from the vanishing moose, not all that much has changed in Karlstad. And, Sue said, not all that much is likely to change.
“The young people don’t want to live here anymore, and the old people want the town to thrive but they don’t want it to change,” Sue said. “So that presents problems.”
At least they’ve got Ned Beatty.
He’s no moose, but maybe he’s the next best thing.

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5 Responses to Welcome to Karlstad, the Moose Capital of the North

  1. smatlock1 says:

    I can’t stop saying it… “iconic ungulate.”

    • rubewaddell says:

      Damn. Just when I thought I was special, I made the mistake of googling “iconic ungulate.” Perhaps I’m nothing more than a sniveling plagiarist:http://gazette.com/22nd-annual-moose-festival-pumps-tourism-in-nh-vt/article/feed/35604And I was going to suggest it might be work for a night or two if ever you find yourself with an ad hoc band in search of a last-minute name. Ladies and gentleman, the Iconic Ungulates! .

      ________________________________

  2. Robert Turnwall says:

    Being a Turnwall I enjoyed reading this, Alvin was my grandfathers brother he was Gotfred had sons Robert & Dwayne I’m Roberts son age 64 living in South Louisiana for the past 50 years.I also have the 100 year book very good history. I’m told all the Turnwalls in the USA appox 165 are from the one family…Thanks

  3. Dallas Germundson says:

    I have to agree that I think if asked a lot of people would say that Loren is the personification of what Karlstad is.

    Although I am admittedly biased in my belief since Loren is my Grandpa. I was fortunate enough to grow up just south of Karlstad in Thief River Falls and to have spent about 1/2 my life in Karlstad. I remember Christmas parties at Germundson’s included all of “main street” in attendance and Grandma Lola singing in her angelic soprano at 1st Lutheran on Sunday’s.

    I stumbled upon your post while randomly surfing the interwebs, thank you for bringing back so many fond memories.

    – Dallas Germundson

  4. jbenisek says:

    I don’t remember very many hot days in Karlstad. We had two seasons, Winter and the Fourth of July. Moose Day is something new. “Potato Day” was the big annual potato harvest celebration. Maybe they killed the potato too. Good to see cousin Loren and the youngest Turnwall kid, Hollis. We all loved his Mom and good looking sisters.
    Tom Swenson, Class of “53”..

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