Doug Ohman presents his program on behalf of the Chatfield Public Library at the American Legion Room in the Chatfield Center for the Arts. (Chatfield News photo by Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy)
Doug Ohman presents his program on behalf of the Chatfield Public Library at the American Legion Room in the Chatfield Center for the Arts. (Chatfield News photo by Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy)
Doug Ohman stood right there in the landmark, giving his vanishing act. A hundred people saw him go nowhere and everywhere, all at once.

"Think about the little places you may have visited or lived in Minnesota," said photographer Ohman, author of the "Minnesota Byways" book series, speaking to a gathering of nearly 100 in the American Legion Room the evening of Feb. 23. He was in the historic Chatfield Center for the Arts, a venue in a place formerly known as Chatfield Elementary School and before that, as Chatfield High School.

Ohman shared his "Vanishing Landmarks" presentation with the crowd as a service of the Chatfield Public Library and Friends of the Chatfield Public Library, saying, "They're vanishing... the old courthouses, churches, libraries, one-room schoolhouses, the little country stores, drive-in theaters, the small town hamburger joints... but they're important parts of our history."

Courthouses

He began with the proud historic courthouses Minnesota boasts, noting that he went to all 87 counties to do his book, "Courthouses of Minnesota," and Stillwater's is the oldest standing courthouse in the state.

"The cornerstone for the Stillwater courthouse was laid during the Civil War.

"Do any of you remember the old courthouses in Rochester, in Preston? The nearest old courthouse in this part of the state is in Mantorville, and it was built in 1865. Its walls are two feet thick. The courthouse has been hit by two tornadoes, but both times, the tornadoes lost."

He told how the courthouse in Bemidji, built in 1902, has a statue of "Lady Justice" standing atop its spire, but she's holding only a sword and one half a scale. Upon inquiring inside the courthouse, he was met with the irritated answer - that the county was aware that it was missing half its scale of justice, but no, nobody knew where it was, and thanks for the reminder.

He wondered, "Does this mean I get only half a fair trial?"

A curious fact about the Bemidji courthouse is that "it has lookout posts in its tower... that's so that during the Cold War, Bemidji could post spotters in the courthouse, looking for Russian airplanes."

Schools

The regal Central High School Duluth building, constructed in 1888, is what "most people mistake for the St. Louis County courthouse," Ohman noted. "The stone was quarried in Sandstone, Minnesota, and there's something about the tower...

"Only seniors were allowed to go up in the tower. They were allowed to sign their names on the wall, along with the year they graduated. I got to go up there, and there are some names that date back to the late 1800s and early last century."

Ohman expressed his affection for one-room schoolhouses, pointing out that "most are abandoned shells, but we have to explore them... there is only one one-room schoolhouse in operation in Minnesota today, up in the northern corner of the state."

"You could learn the same thing over and over again seven times, and by the time you got to eighth grade, you might be able to learn it and pass the test," he joked.

Libraries

Libraries throughout the state shown in "Vanishing Landmarks" included the Taylors Falls library, the first one established in Minnesota in 1854. It began as a millinery shop that made hats for the Minnesota First and Second Regiments at Fort Snelling.

"It's Minnesota's first library still continuously open," he stated. "Minnesota had 66 Carnegie libraries and, of those, there are fewer than 35 left. Andrew Carnegie funded 1,700 libraries nationwide and because they were given grants based on town population, people began to lie about how many people there were in their towns. Carnegie gave them grants anyway, and the lowest amount a library could receive was $4,000, which is what the Brown's Valley library was built with."

Ohman explained the Brown's Valley library also served as a Red Cross influenza clinic during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. The books checked out to patrons during the influenza epidemic weren't burned as a precaution once the library re-opened. Instead, they were placed in a zinc-lined room and surrounded by burning sulfa candles to disinfect them, should any virus-infected hands have touched them.

"Their library served two uses. The town gave up its library when the epidemic got so bad that the hospital overflowed. The people were proud to share their library."

Val's, a hamburger joint in St. Cloud, had an interesting sign that captured Ohman's attention, and when he stopped to photograph it, the owner traded him lunch for a promise to include the sign in a book someday.

"The guy brought me a white paper bag that I set down on the seat in my truck, and I stuck my hand in the bag while I was driving. My hand came out wet, and the bottom had dropped out of the bag. That was the greasiest cheeseburger I've ever had, but it was the best, and the fries were to die for."

Theaters

Drive-in theaters, of which there were 113 in Minnesota during the 1950s, "had to keep a full-time electrician employed to keep up with the people like my dad who would take the speakers off the pole, put them on the car window and forget them when they drove away at the end of the movie."

Ohman garnered admissions from the audience when he said, "How much did you pay to get into the drive-in? And how many of you put your friends in the trunk and told them to be quiet until you got into the movie? Today, there are only six drive-in theaters in Minnesota. We should try to revive them somehow."

Another theater, the Odeon in Belleview, was built for vaudeville plays, but after the age of vaudeville passed, it was used as the local high school's basketball court.

"The first movie that showed there in 1924 was 'Rin Tin Tin.' And then there are the old Art Deco theaters that began popping up in the 1930s. Old theaters like that vanish every year. In Minneapolis, there was the Gopher Theater, with Bridgeman's next door. The Palace Theatre in Luverne was restored after they raised over $1 million to save it."

Churches

"Vanishing Landmarks" also featured churches, one which had a dwindling membership that convened to decide that it should sell its building. "The Marble Lutheran Church had been standing for 125 years and its membership had dwindled to seven people. Elwood, who was the janitor, pastor, clerk and everything else, signed the sale papers at the Granite Falls courthouse, selling the church to a Christian camp in New London, over 100 miles away.

"When he did that, he handed the director a check. In Minnesota, you know, it's polite to just fold the check, put it in your pocket and look at it later. The director did that, tucked it in his pocket and nearly forgot about it after buying the church for one dollar.

"He said he nearly drove off the road when he opened the check and saw that it was for $70,000. The camp used the money to move the church, and they called the move the '100-mile journey of faith'."

Water towers

And water towers... Ohman has a fascination for water towers as well - one that led him to learn that the "tin man water towers built between 1900 and 1925" were often built by teenage boys recruited from orphanages, including the orphanage at Owatonna, because the construction job was so dangerous.

One of his favorite water towers "is the Witch's Hat" in Minneapolis, built with a gazebo atop it for a most unusual reason... not for use as a lookout tower for fire or invading aircraft, but as a music performance venue.

"The first time they had a concert up there, the men and ladies who played hauled their big basses and tubas up there, and by the time they got to the top, they were so winded that they couldn't play for the next 20 minutes. They never held another concert up there again."

Tell the story

Ohman rounded out his presentation by reminding the audience members how important it is to convey oral history as well as written and pictorial history.

"We've looked at a lot of history tonight. How many of you have reminisced about things that you haven't in a long time? History is about stories. We should tell those stories because it's the best way to keep them alive.

"What happens when there's a trail in the woods that you forget to walk on? When we don't tell stories, we forget them. History is not something you have to get from a book. It's telling your own personal stories."

Before he departed, Ohman answered questions and autographed books for those who wished to purchase one of his photographic collections, thanking the attendees for their curiosity and stories told about the vanishing corners of Minnesota's history.

Programs and information

Doug Ohman's photography is available online at www.pioneerphotography.com

If you would like to hear and see another of his programs, as he presents for area libraries through SELCO, he still has these presentations:

• Saturday, March 3, at 7 p.m., "Scandinavian Churches of Minnesota" at the Rushford Public Library.

• Saturday, March 10, at 2 p.m., "Historic Homes of Minnesota" at the Austin Public Library.

• Sunday, March 11, at 2 p.m., " School House Memories" at the Freeborn County Historical Museum in Albert Lea.

• Monday, March 19, at 6 p.m., "Minnesota Byways" at the LeRoy Public Library.

• Tuesday March 20, at 7 p.m., "Heart of the Farm" at the Preston Public Library.