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Honoring those who have gone before

Whenever this newspaper is looking for stories on the history of Becker County, one of the first names on the list of people to call is Roger Engstrom.

A lifelong resident of the farm established by his grandfather on Pickerel Lake, Roger has spent much of his post-retirement years compiling research on local history.

He's shared that research by writing columns for this newspaper, narrating the "Museum Road Show" program for TV-3, the local public access television station, and by publishing stories in the annual Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion history book.

In addition, he has published stories on the "Pickerel Lake Pioneers," written for the Danielson Family Reunion in 1997; "125 Years of Faith and Love" for the Lund Lutheran Church 125th anniversary celebration in 2009; and "This Little Old Barn of Mine," the story of the barn built by Arvid Kaiser on the Oliver and Hattie Strom family farm, back in1950.

The story of the Stroms' barn earned Roger a grand championship ribbon from the Becker County Fair in 2008; and the story of Lund Lutheran Church's history earned him a blue ribbon at the fair in 2008.

Roger has also served as host of the annual Century Farm Awards Program at the Becker County Fair since 1987.

"We started the century farm recognition program at the Becker County Fair in 1987," Engstrom said. "Since then, 77 century farms have been recognized in Becker County, though not all the farmers we've approached have accepted the award."

Engstrom's own family farm on Pickerel Lake was recognized as earning century status in 1993 -- exactly 100 years after his grandfather, Peter, homesteaded the farm on the north side of Pickerel Lake.

Peter Engstrom, together with August Danielson and John Wennerstrom, first came to Pickerel Lake from the mines near Palmer, Michigan.

"The (mining) industry was going bad, and they realized they'd better leave," Engstrom said.

So the three men and their wives pooled together $1,596.12 in cash and purchased 345.75 acres of land on the north end of Pickerel Lake, from the Northern Pacific Railroad.

The three men lived in a dugout together during that first winter; by the time their wives and children arrived on April 26, 1994, they had already built three log cabins on the property.

The Engstroms raised their children in that log cabin for the next decade, until building the house that would serve as the home of the next generation.

"I'm still living in the house that my grandpa built in 1905," said Roger, whose father Fredrick took over the operation of the farm after his older brothers, Albert and Harold, went on to college.

"He took over where his dad (Peter) had left off," said Roger. "My dad was a pretty innovative farmer.

"He had running water in his house back in the 1930s -- it was a crude system, but it worked," Roger said.

Fred Engstrom also constructed a big wood furnace in the basement of his home during the 1930s, and "we had the first milking machines in Becker County," Roger said.

"In 1945, he (Fred) bought his first tractor, a Ford Ferguson," Roger added. "A lot of farmers in this area had Ford tractors, they were very popular back in the late 1940s and 50s."

That was also the year Roger was born, the oldest of three sons. After his father retired from farming, he and his younger brother Donald farmed the property in partnership until Don's death in 1994. (Youngest brother Gary died in 1955, at age 5, from a kidney disease.)

The Engstroms raised dairy cows, just as their father had done.

"From the time I was a kid, all I wanted was to farm -- it was all I could think about," said Roger.

And from the time he graduated from Detroit Lakes High School in 1963, farming pretty much became his life.

"Sept. 9, 1995, was the day I milked my last dairy cow," Roger said.

A bachelor farmer for much of his life, Roger married his wife Debbie on May 23, 1987 -- the same year that the Minnesota Twins won their first World Series title.

That was significant, Roger said, because "some people thought the odds of the Twins winning the World Series and me getting married were about the same."

He had met Debbie through the University of Minnesota Extension Service, where she was working at the time. She was the one who took the initiative and went out to visit him one day while he was milking cows on the farm.

"She said, 'No wonder this guy never goes anywhere -- look at all those cows!'"

One evening, while having dinner with his family, Roger's uncle Henry told him, "You need to start paying more attention to Debbie than you do to those cows!"

Roger listened. And they've been together ever since.

About a year after their marriage, in 1998, Roger discovered that he had inherited more than his love of farming from his father.

"I was diagnosed with alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency -- an inherited, genetic lung disease," Roger said.

He started a drug treatment regimen in 1990, and has been taking supplemental oxygen since April 1997.

"It's 13 years that I've been 'on the bottle,'" Engstrom said -- a joking reference to the oxygen tank that he needs to carry with him at all times.

One thing that has helped his breathing significantly, Engstrom said, is a regular program of physical exercise.

He has been a member of the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center since 2007, and before that, he was enrolled in an exercise program at the hospital for about seven years.

"I try pretty faithfully to get over there (to the DLCCC) at least 12-15 times a month," said Engstrom.

Though he has never smoked a single cigarette, Engstrom said, his early years as a dairy farmer probably didn't do his lungs any favors.

"It's (dairy farming) not a good environment" for someone with lung disease. "But I didn't know that at the time," he added.

Still, Roger has no regrets.

"I enjoyed farming while I was doing it," he said. "I got to farm during the best of times, the 1970s."

Engstrom is also quick to point out that he owed much of his success as a farmer to his father and grandfather.

"In doing all this history work, I've come to realize that we are all the beneficiaries of the labor of those who came before us," he said.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454