Bemidji, the First City on the Mississippi (the official slogan!), is a small but vibrant city with an active arts scene and enough outdoors activities to get a couch potato outside any time of year.
The city takes its name from the Ojibwe word for the lake: Bay-me-ji-ga (where the current cuts across, named as such because of the way the Mississippi River passes through). The first settler in the area was Shay-Now-Ish-Kung (Rattler, later also known as Chief Bemidji) who arrived in 1882 after traveling up the Mississippi by canoe. He lived on the south shore of Lake Bemidji with his wife Kah-ge-gay-ah-nah-quod-oke (Eternal Cloud Woman) and family and was leader of a small community of some fifty people.
In 1890, Merian Ellsworth Carson established a trading post on the Mississippi River between Lakes Irving and Bemidji, running it with his brother George Earl. They offered overnight lodging in the room upstairs and ran the first post office beginning in 1894 when the town was known as “Bermidji.” The “r” was officially dropped in 1898.
Bemidji is one of the few towns along the Mississippi that doesn’t owe its origins directly to the river. Even though Carlson set up a trading post on the Mississippi between the lakes, the primary reasons the town took off were logging and the Great Northern Railroad. The railroad chose to built through here largely because its president (James Hill) and the leading town proprietor (Tams Bixby) were buddies. The arrival of the railroad also triggered a logging boom. Even though logging surveys began in the 1870s, few trees were cut before the railroad arrived because the rivers in this part of the state were not a reliable means of transporting cut timber.
Bemidji benefited from being near a lot of logging camps (20,000 lumberjacks worked in the surrounding woods), but the city also had several mills. The largest was the Crookston Lumber Mill, which operated from 1903 until it burned down on November 8, 1924. At its peak, 2,000 men and boys worked there. When the mill was operating and the doors were opened, the noise was loud enough to make it hard for folks who lived in Bemidji to get a good night’s sleep. After the mills closed, a few lumber-related businesses survived, primarily those that manufactured wood products.
Bemidji also got a boost when it became the county seat, the result of intense lobbying in which the town proprietors donated land for a county courthouse, elementary and high schools, and set aside a square block to expand the courthouse to include a jail and sheriff’s office.
The Bemidji Woolen Mills have been a fixture in town since 1920, almost as long as Bemidji State University, which opened in 1919 as Bemidji Normal School. After World War II, the city became a regional retail center. The economy today is largely based on education, health care, and tourism.
Exploring the Area
For a city of 13,000 people, Bemidji has a lot to offer. Let’s start with that lake in the middle of town. Lake Bemidji was actually two separate bodies of water before a dam was built downstream; if you head out with a depth finder, around the middle of the lake you will find a ridge that is about two feet below the water line. In the winter, the lake is a popular place to establish a second home; the huts that pop up are for ice fishing, or at least that’s what they tell their spouses. If you’d like to get on the lake but didn’t bring a boat with you, you can rent a canoe or kayak through the Outdoor Program Center at Bemiji State University or at Lake Bemidji State Park.
Located on the north side of the lake, Lake Bemidji State Park has good hiking (check out the Bog Walk), a nice beach, and ranger-led activities, in addition to the boat rentals and camping mentioned elsewhere in this piece.
The Tourist Information Center is located along the lakefront near downtown. You’ll know you are there when you see the tall statues of Paul Bunyan (18 feet tall) and Babe the Blue Ox. They were built in 1937 as a tribute to local logging industry. There’s have a live webcam pointed at Paul and Babe, so you can text your family and friends that you’re here and let them watch you wave hello! Inside the visitor center, you’ll find a unique fireplace. It was built in 1933-34 using stones from each Minnesota county, all US states, all Canadian provinces, and each national park. Just north of the center, you’ll find a statue of Chief Bemidji (Shay-Now-Ish-Kung).
Scattered around the lively downtown area, you’ll find a number of sculptures from local artists, including the last remaining beaver from a series of artistic beavers. Gaea (by Blackduck, Minnesota artist Deborah Davis) aroused some controversy for what some folks believed was overtly sexual imagery; it was removed at one point but reinstalled after counter-protests.
The Headwaters Science Center has hands-on policy that will interest the kids, mostly.
The Beltrami County History Center has a number of displays highlighting the region’s characters and events from the past, as well as a good research library.
At Concordia Language Villages, you can immerse yourself in the traditions and language of another culture, just pick one of the 15 different language programs that interest you. While many of the programs are organized as summer camps for children and young adults, they offer programs for people of all ages.
Rabideau CCC Camp, near Blackduck (about 30 minutes northeast of Bemidji) is one of the few remaining camps from the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Fifteen buildings still stand; visitors can tour the education building, bunkhouses, and mess hall.
If you think summer is the only time of year to visit, you would be wrong. Winter has nearly as much going on, you just need more clothing. Bemidji is crazy for curling; if you drop in at the Bemidji Curling Club on a league night, like I did in 2011, you are welcome to watch and you may even get a lesson. What else can you do in winter? How about:
• Snowmobiling (500+ miles of trails in the area!)
• Cross-country skiing
• Buena Vista Ski Area (skiing, sleigh rides, snowboarding)
• Ice skating
• Ice fishing
The previously mentioned Bemidji Woolen Mills still manufactures many of its products in Bemidji. They can help outfit you for that winter visit I know you want to make.
If you forgot to buy a refrigerator magnet of California when you visited San Francisco that last time, you can probably buy one at Gifts O’ the Wild, an eclectic and eccentric gift shop a few miles south of Bemidji on US 71. If you’re looking for something with more of a Minnesota theme, you’re in luck for that, too, as the store has many varieties of wild rice, jams from local producers, art and crafts from local Native Americans, and shot glasses that say Minnesota. The store sells a lot of junk, but there’s plenty of good stuff at reasonable prices, too; definitely worth a stop.
If you’re in the area in August, don’t miss the Dragon Boat Festival. You might even be able to join a crew. In winter, Brrmidji Polar Daze is full of cold-weather fun, including an invigorating dip in Lake Bemidji.
Where to Stay
Bemidji has a shortage of budget accommodations, as well as locally-owned properties in the immediate area, but these places will take good care of you.
Camping. Lake Bemidji State Park has nearly 100 sites in a heavily wooded area on the north side of the lake. The sites are large and about half have access to electricity.
Resorts. Taber’s Historic Log Cabins (open May-Oct) is a traditional small resort with affordable, well-kept cabins originally built in the 1930s; it is near the university and the lake.
Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge is an appealing resort on the northern side of the lake. In summer, affordable rooms are available in a variety of forms, including the historic lodge (which also has a full-service restaurant), cabins, and suites. In winter, the lodge closes but many other types of rooms remain open, as does the indoor swimming pool.
Where to Eat and Drink
Bemidji has a good selection of places to eat and to enjoy an adult beverage. Most are quite affordable. Here are a few highlights.
Craft beer has arrived in Bemidji, thanks to Bemidji Brewing and the taproom that they opened in downtown Bemidji in summer 2013. They are off to a good start. The night I visited they had six beers on tap, and I enjoyed each one, in moderation, of course. They are currently open 3 evenings a week (Th-Sa 4-9) but they may increase their hours in the future, so check their website to confirm when they are open.
The Cabin Coffee House & Cafe is a relaxed and friendly place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a delicious and health-conscious meal.
The Wild Hare Bistro and Coffeehouse is known for tasty made-from-scratch meals that lean lighter, mostly soup, salad, and sandwiches; no credit cards.
Brigid’s Pub (317 Beltramia Ave.; 218.444.0567) is a popular Irish-themed bar with a lot going on, including live music and trivia nights; the Irish pub food is very good.
Minnesota Nice Café is a place that lives up to its name; they also serve delicious and hearty food, especially for breakfast; their location next to the Bemidji Woolen Mills is a lovely space with plenty of elbow room.
If you’re in the mood for Mexican food, Mi Rancho is a good choice for affordability and freshness.
Located on the narrow strip of land between the lakes, Sparking Waters serves up fine dining in a casual, but classy setting. Walleye is always a good choice.
Next stop downriver: The Land of Lakes: Bemidji to Grand Rapids
Next stop upriver: Itasca State Park
©Dean Klinkenberg, 2012