Photographer preserves Minnesota’s vanishing landmarks, stories
Wednesday, March 08, 2017 12:52 PM
With a click of a button, slides of Minnesota landmarks flashed past on the screen – places that photographer and storyteller Doug Ohman counts himself privileged to have captured in pictures before they are forgotten or gone forever.
He introduced himself to the audience at the Spring Valley Public Library last Tuesday evening, Feb. 28, as the “church guy,” widely known across the state as the freelance photographer who began his career making images of churches big and small, but the first photograph he showed the audience was most certainly not a church. The large blue structure appeared to be a house, but it wasn’t.
“This is my ‘Vanishing Landmarks’ program, and a ‘landmark’ could be anything…an old house you grew up in, barns, churches. I’m a storyteller, and when I see a picture, it’s a story,” he told the large crowd gathered at the library. “How many of you have a shoebox of old black and white photographs that you pull out and get excited about, but if you flip them over, on the back there’s no story? Without ID, the picture has limited value, but if you have the story…my work is not just taking pictures – it’s telling a story.”
He referred to his first slide, saying, “This building is outside of Starbuck, Minnesota, and what do you think it is?”
Answers volunteered included “hotel,” “barn,” “really big house,” “school,” “church” and more.
Ohman gave the caption that should be on the photograph: “It’s a 13-bed hospital. It was the biggest, busiest hospital between St. Cloud and Moorhead, and it closed in the 1940s. The fastest way to ruin a landmark is to hold a Halloween haunted house in it…don’t destroy landmarks that way. But the diary of the country doctor who worked there talks about how he delivered every baby within a 50-mile radius. He wrote in great detail of when he was called out to a farm accident, which was one of the worst jobs he had to do.”
The second slide illustrated the little St. Peter’s Church on the way to Hokah. Ohman related that he gained a friendship with the church’s keepers when they arrived after hearing through the grapevine that there was someone stopped at the little church – Joyce and Raymond came to check on their church.
“The party line was humming that day…and Joyce and Raymond were the last two members of the church. It closed in 1984, and so they were the caretakers,” he said. “I wanted to look inside, so Raymond opened the doors, went in, and soon there was the sound of an engine…Raymond drove out on a big orange lawn tractor. He said, ‘We live in a townhouse so I haven’t mowed lawn in 20 years, but I get to mow lawn here.’ You could see on the back pew the orange paint that had come off when Raymond wasn’t too careful getting that lawn tractor out of the church, but that was just character.”
He recounted how Joyce put him to work watering the maple saplings the couple had planted to replace trees lost in a storm, then told how Joyce, well into her 80s, said, “I can’t wait to see these trees grown up,” meaning that she had hope for the church and the next generation. Over the next years, Ohman received Christmas cards from Joyce and Raymond, until the year he didn’t, and that’s when he knew to visit the church and the surrounding cemetery.
The photographer clicked to the next picture of a church belonging to a northern Minnesota Finnish congregation that had begun it in 1915 and remained faithful until the 1940s. He had been put to work there as well when he stopped by to preserve that church on film and when he thought he’d put in enough time mopping, he was invited to dinner at the home of the man doing the work, hearing stories of the little country church and how the man and his wife had met in Sunday school in the 1930s.
“I meet incredible people…that’s what I do – people scattered across the state, telling stories at their kitchen tables,” he said.
The subject of barns followed, and Ohman cited a University of Minnesota statistic about the loss of 90 to 100 barns a year in Minnesota that are over 100 years old. One he captured on film had particularly interesting feature.
“I’m glad that I saw this one, because first, the farmer decided to make it a poultry barn, and second, see anything unusual? That’s right, a phone booth.”
The farmer and his wife relayed the story of how the phone booth arrived at the farm – the farmer’s wife proudly outing her husband’s “farmer habit” of not letting a good deal pass him by when he found it at a farm auction and intended to get it connected for use.
“They never used that phone booth in 21 years, but he got it for $5,” Ohman noted. “Farmers always have great ideas, but they don’t always have time to get to it all. Do farmers ever throw anything away?”
That’s when longtime Spring Valley resident Joe Bezdicek volunteered, “Want to tour my shed?”
A gem Ohman was proud to show off came next — a 1902 Sears & Roebuck barn, the only one in Minnesota. It’s near Waseca, on the way to New Richland.
Someone in the audience asked Ohman, “Did you know the Sears family lived here? Just a block over that way.”
The photographer replied that he did not know that fact, but that he found it interesting.
He then showed the audience pictures of a pink barn that has been pink since it was built, and of a German barn in Stevens County that was constructed with a concrete floor in the haymow.
“The father made his sons wheelbarrow concrete up a ramp into that barn for 33 hours straight,” said Ohman. “They actually took their shoes and socks off because they were sliding backward down the ramp, and when they told him they needed a break, he wouldn’t let them quit because he knew that the concrete would crack if they did stop.”
Grand courthouses, such as the one in Stillwater and the one in Bemidji, garnered Ohman’s attention. He related that he made the unfortunate observation that Lady Justice atop the Bemidji courthouse was holding only one scale, so he ventured inside to ask someone who seemed rather harried but in need of a pick-me-up, “Is that why I can’t get a fair trial today in Bemidji? What happened to the other scale?” The courthouse employee apparently wasn’t amused, but Ohman did learn that the other scale was lost in a storm.
He also pointed out the now-shuttered windows at the top of the courthouse tower.
“Courthouses were used in civil defense during the Cold War — volunteers were put in the dome of the courthouse and were looking for Russian planes,” he said. “That must’ve been some strategic planning…‘We’re going out tonight, boys, to hit a strategic location in northern Minnesota…Bemidji’.”
Ohman’s photographs also illustrated train stations, creameries, drive-in theaters, restaurants, water towers, schoolhouses — including Duluth’s Central High School and some very rural one-room schoolhouses.
His collection included Carnegie libraries, such as the one in Two Harbors, Minn., and one of his local favorites, the Fremont Store just up the road, where he enjoyed homemade root beer at the “WalMart of the country,” where “on the same shelf, you could buy an oil filter, a loaf of bread and a gopher trap.”
The last remaining Civil War recruiting station in Minnesota, located in Wasioja, is where the Second Minnesota Regiment gathered to depart for the war, and the photographer was not remiss in its inclusion.
He rounded out his presentation with pictures and a story of the Marble Lutheran Church, donated to a Bible camp in New London, 100 miles up the road, sharing how the last six members signed it over and presented the camp director with a check that he later unfolded.
“You know, as Minnesotans, when you get a check that’s folded, you don’t look at it right there. You wait until later. And when the camp director, who had bought the church for a dollar, opened that check, he saw that Elwood, the treasurer, had made it out for $70,000,” said Ohman. “That church took five days to be moved up the road, and they parked it in farm yards on the way. That’s what’s called a ‘100-mile journey of faith’.”
And to make his point that landmarks are not permanent, he clicked to a slide of the day after the Ford Building in Lanesboro, when the remains of the historic building lay in rubble after arson — a “hero fire” — leveled it.
“Landmarks can disappear, and you can’t replace them. That’s why they’re historic and one of a kind,” he said. “If you remember nothing else, I want you to remember this: It’s important that we’re telling these stories. Think about all the stories you have ever heard…I can only imagine what you have to tell me over a cup of coffee.”
Ohman thanked the audience for coming to hear him tell his stories as he concluded, “You might have heard it said, but ‘The best way to keep a trail alive is to walk on it again and again.’ Don’t let your stories get lost.”