Birthday celebration moved from ‘Old Clitherall’ to Pelican Rapids; and all corners of county

A century-and-a-half of “county-hood” were celebrated across the Otter Tail lake and prairie country over the past week.

Observances, which were the culmination of at least two years of planning, included a special Sept. 12 Otter Tail County board meeting at the county’s first settlement, “Old Clitherall.” Then, four performances of “Otter Tales: The musical” were staged all around the county. These included the outdoor show in Pelican Rapids city parks Sept.

“PlaceBase” productions founders Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord, who research and write scripts for historic theatrical productions, spoke to the audience following the Pelican performance Sept. 15. It was nearly a year-long process, which was supported by grants and donations from arts and culture agencies, the county and cities–including a grant from Pelican Rapids.

15, under clear skies and mild autumn weather. The Pelican show was among the best-attended, with a crowd of about 200.

A lot of historic ground was coverered at the various events. The musical, a remarkable production that required cast, crew and volunteers numbering more than 40, featured hundreds of historic references–with a bit of artistic license, in some cases.

But we’ve pulled some trivia, tidbits and anecdotes of Otter Tail County history from the 150th Sesquicentennial celebration of the county in the following (mostly historically accurate!) excerpts:

Con man “Lord Gordon Gordon,” who posed as British royalty, came to Pelican Rapids with a “grand plan” to turn the town into a “utopia.” He conned city fathers and businessmen to invest, ran off with the money, and eventually committed suicide–with lawmen on his trail.

Hannah Kempfer was deservedly portrayed in “Otter Tales.” Among the first group of women elected to the legislature, she was a country school teacher in the rural countryside between Pelican Rapids and Fergus Falls. She was a crusader for public education, children, new immigrants and public health. As noted in the script, Kempfer and these early “feminists” took the attitude “get on board, or get out of the way…”

Music was provided during the 150th county anniversary celebration at Old Clitherall on Sept. 12. The musical presentation included cast members from the “Otter Tales” musical, which was presented at four shows around the county last weekend, including a Pelican program on Sept. 15.
County Board Chairman Wayne Johnson of Pelican Rapids, seated, graciously took part in the skit Sept. 12 as part of Otter Tail County’s 150th anniversary celebration.

References to the Pelican Rapids area discover of the “Minnesota Woman” during a highway project in 1931 were included in the opening, and closing, of the Otter Tales musical.

Pelican area’s county commissioner Wayne Johnson has the distinction 0f being chairman of the board during the 150th birthday year. 2018 also happens to be an election year, and all the observances and associated publicity provide Wayne Johnson a bit of an election-year advantage over his opponent, when the polls open November 6.

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Editor’s note: In the interest of political fair-play, the Pelican Rapids Press invites Johnson’s county board opponent, Jeff Gontarek, the opportunity to write a guest column for the newspaper. Gontarek can call Louis Hoglund at the Press (218-863-1421) for guidelines — with the idea of downplaying political attacks, but up-playing the county’s colorful history and wonderful attributes!

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A fishing opener segment in “Otter Tales: The Musical” featured a special song listing 95 of the best fishing lakes of the county’s 1,076 lakes. There was also a reference to the famous 102 pound sturgeon speared in Lake Lida, in 1948.

• Debates and controversies over the location of the Otter Tail County seat occurred several times over the course of the first half-century. A lesser-known bit of history was the final attempt–to form a new county in the northeast, centered around New York Mills. Its proposed name: “Clover County.”

After the great Fergus Falls Cyclone of June 22, 1919, destroyed the top two stories of the courthouse, it was obvious a new courthouse was needed.

Two months later a vote for a bond issue to construct a new courthouse was defeated. There was no consensus on what should be done. The courthouse dilemma opened the door for another attempt at county division. There were proposals from Henning, Perham, Ottertail and New York Mills to divide the county and make their respective communities the seat of a new county.

The Fergus Falls based newspaper Wheelocks Weekly reported on July 29, 1920, that New York Mills offered $500 in prizes to get more signers on a petition to vote for county division at the November general election.

Those prizes must have worked as New York Mills put together a serious and well organized attempt to become a county seat. Their proposal was to take the 16 northeastern townships to form a new county called Clover. On October 5, 1920, a big rally was held at the Burmeister’s Hall in Ottertail.

The issue was decided at the November 1920 general election when voters defeated the Clover County proposal by a vote of 4,020 for and 9,839 against. Thus ended the last concerted effort at county division.

The first two settlements in Otter Tail County were both driven by religious freedom and expression. Clitherall was settled by a Mormon group that broke away and came north while the larger group of emigrants ultimately ended up in Utah and Salt Lake City.

The second settlement was Rush Lake, south of Perham, where a renegade Catholic priest led his followers from Ohio in 1866. The church, now St. Lawrence, remains today.

The “Otter Tales” musical noted the suspicion and scepticism of the Mormons of Old Clitherall. Mormons were generally viewed as “heretics” by mainstream Christians, and were persecuted almost everywhere they moved. The play made reference to other settlers spinning rumors that Mormons had “horns growing out of their heads; and fish hooks for fingers.”

• During the Otter Tales musical finale, there were references to the century-old conflicts between farmers, “townies,” and the seasonal invaders: “The Lake People.”

• The Perham segment of the musical featured an industrious group of civic leaders and business owners, planning Christmas season shopping promotions in the early 1970s.

It was a vehicle to portray Perham’s many progressive and successful enterprises, ranging from Tuffy’s dog food to Bongard’s creameries to Barrel O Fun snacks. They even incorporated the Vergas area’s “Big Foot” legend of the “Hairy Man”–as one business owner portrayed by Pelican’s Annie Wrigg, proposed the Hairy Man as a Christmas mascot, and copyrighting the name as “The Hairy, Merry Christmas Man.”

• The Otter Tales musical incorporated historic references to as many places and historic events as possible, with four performances Sept. 14-16 from Parkers Prairie to Perham to Battle Lake and Pelican. Parkers Prairie lays claim to the first formal U.S. Mail service, in 1889.

• A look into the future closed the Otter Tales musical, as actors offered hopes and dreams.

Among them:
– Preserving the lakes for great-grandchildren– and their grandchildren.
– That politicians work not for the next election– but the next generation.
– Celebrate history for a broader understanding of ourselves, and the future.
– Foster a more compassionate, caring citizenry.