Editor's note: This article originally appeared as the cover story for the Detroit Lakes Tribune's August 2020 Generations magazine, on newsstands now and available HERE.
Growing up in the tiny town of Junior, West Virginia, Phletus Williams wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with his life: His passions included science, music, literature and everything in between.
At one point, becoming a world-renowned concert pianist appeared to be entirely within reach of this modern-day Renaissance man, who just turned 87 in August and now lives near Dunvilla.
After taking some early tutelage from his cousin, Zelma Richards, young Phletus took over her position as pianist for the local Methodist church.
“I played ‘Moonlight Sonata’ for her dad’s funeral,” he says — and after that, he played at every Sunday worship service and church choir performance until the day he graduated high school.
Looking to parlay his musical talent into a possible career, Phletus eventually sought out storied piano instructor Dulcie Johnson.
“She was on Broadway for many years,” he says of Johnson. “George Gershwin (the famed American composer) was her accompanist.”
Initially, Johnson was reluctant to take on Phletus as a pupil because of his lack of classical music training.
“I begged her,” Phletus admits, and after considerable persuasion, she agreed. Within two years, he had become so proficient that Johnson declared him to be her best student.
So enamored of his talent was Johnson that, while he was still a junior in high school, she took him on a trip to New York City, where he auditioned for the world-renowned Julliard School as well as the Manhattan School of Music — and was accepted to both. At one point, he was even invited to perform a private concert in the glamorous home of renowned opera star Paul Althouse.
Unfortunately, however, his mother was not impressed with his plans. She “put her foot down,” Phletus says, demanding that he return home and focus on a more conventional career path that did not involve moving to New York.
“Thus ended my dreams of being a concert pianist,” Phletus jokes, though music would continue to be a passionately pursued hobby throughout his life. In fact, he recently sat down and recorded some of his original musical compositions for a CD titled, “Sounds of the Ice Age,” as well as for a compilation of the classical and contemporary pieces he performed during that teenage trip to New York, titled “Musical Memories.”
“I recorded both of those CDs in a single session,” Phletus says, noting that the entire process took about four hours.
Swept away by science
His musical aspirations temporarily dashed, Phletus turned to another passion, scientific research, and pursued a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and biochemistry from Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia.
“I stayed with my old music teacher (Johnson) for another four years,” he says.
When Phletus was a sophomore at Davis & Elkins, the college’s dean offered him his first job, which he told him, “would pave my way to graduate school.”
Sure enough, Phletus ended up earning his master’s degree in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Maryland, and also did some post-graduate work at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“I walked past the White House every day on my way to work,” he recalls.
In 1959, Phletus accepted his first non-university job, married his first wife and became a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland.
“I loved it there,” he says — in fact, he loved it so much that he would spend nearly four decades with the USDA, doing the kind of groundbreaking work that got him published in both veterinary and medical research journals.
“I published more than 100 articles,” he says, some of which are still publicly viewable via his author page on the Semantic Scholar website at www.semanticscholar.org.
Eventually, his work with the USDA brought Phletus to Fargo, where he attended courses at North Dakota State University and received his Ph.D. degree.
He spent 13 years in Fargo, and he and his wife had three children together before they divorced, in part because she did not want to follow her husband to Ames, Iowa, where he had accepted a position as research leader at the USDA’s National Animal Disease Center. He held that position for 23 years.
In 1995, after 37 years with the USDA, Phletus retired; not long thereafter, he and his second wife, Sally (whom he married in 1980), moved to their current home on Fish Lake, near Dunvilla.
A remote location with few neighbors and frequent visits from the local wildlife, the couple’s home was originally built by Phletus himself, in an octagonal shape that was eventually altered and expanded by the inclusion of more octagonal additions. Though Phletus did not do all the work on the house himself, he did design much of it.
“I love it there,” he says, adding that he enjoys being “nestled in the woods,” surrounded by nature. “It’s so tranquil.”
Though he did enjoy his new surroundings, Phletus found retirement to be less than stimulating after years of working long hours at a challenging job, and fell into a deep depression brought on by a lack of direction for his future.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I disliked being a homebody.”
After a few years of searching, he found his inspiration.
It was in the early 2000s that Sally Williams first became intrigued by a local archaeological phenomenon known as the Glacial Minnesota Woman. When Sally gave her first presentation on the prehistoric woman at the Pelican Rapids library, Phletus found himself quite inspired by the story.
The mysterious young woman, whose skeletal remains were found by construction workers near Pelican Rapids in 1931, has since become something of an obsession for the couple — in fact, they even gave the woman a name: Nimuué, which means “Lady of the Lake.”
“When we first decided to retire, we retired to Minnesota, and we’d drive past a monument that was established in her honor,” Sally says in a 2017 Detroit Lakes Tribune article about Nimuué.
The monument, considered a historical marker, marks the spot where Nimuué’s remains were found and was what sparked the couple’s interest in the first place. They would take their grandkids and visitors to see the monument, but realized that there wasn’t much information available about it, or the woman it represented.
Nimuué’s remains were first called the “Minnesota Man,” Sally explains, and the name was officially changed to “Minnesota Woman” in 1976, but there wasn’t much information available other than that.
“Interest was on other things,” Sally says. “People were thinking about survival and economics and other things.”
After visiting local, regional, state and national libraries, Phletus explains, the couple’s basement is now full of files and old newspaper clippings about the ancient remains — and they’re still searching for more answers, along with fellow historical buffs who formed the nonprofit Glacial Minnesota Woman Organization, or GMWO.
The GMWO focuses on promoting the legacy of Nimuué by increasing knowledge and awareness of her story, while treating her with respect and dignity. The organization’s volunteers plan activities like “Unveiling Nimuué” each year, to help visitors and residents identify this area as a site contributing to the state’s archaeological history, and to develop knowledge of the ice age that formed the land in western Minnesota.
What they know so far: Nimuué’s remains were discovered by a construction crew working on Highway 59 near Pelican Rapids.
“It was quite a historical adventure,” Sally says. “The repairmen were out there and you might want to know that most of them were from Detroit Lakes, and that many of their descendents are still here.”
On that sunny day in June of 1931, one of the men working at the construction site, Carl Steffen, noticed the sun glinting off something in the silt and began to dig. Sally explains that he soon exposed the edge of a shell and, after that, a skull.
“He was very, very meticulous,” she says, “so he was the perfect man to discover this skeleton. He took the skeleton and the bones and, with the help of some of the other workers, they laid the bones out in anatomical order on the side of the road.”
Nimuué was found with a dagger-like item and a shell that is typically found in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Sally, in addition to other items that may have been in line with a medicine woman at the time.
“We’ve speculated about why she had that shell with her,” she says. “Was it here because of trade that her people had done or was it used to communicate with others?”
It was determined that the bones should be sent to the University of Minnesota, where archeologist Dr. Albert Jenks had recently reported having a premonition about an important skeletal discovery looming on the horizon — adding another layer of intrigue to the story, Sally says. Unfortunately, rain filled the bones with silt and some bones disappeared overnight, before they could be transported.
Her skull, Phletus says, was also covered in motor oil.
Therefore, Nimuué’s bones were not only exposed to the elements but also, to further complicate any testing, archeological practices at the time were not what they are today, Sally explains.
“Another thing that happened that has kind of disturbed archeologists is that the bones were scrubbed,” she says. “Perhaps Clorox was used on them and then they were shellacked. They didn’t know all of the procedures to use, and that caused a lot of problems later when they wanted to retest the bones.”
In wasn’t until 1976, according to Phletus, that the skeleton was determined to have belonged to a 15- or 16-year-old woman who had borne no children — hence the name change from “Minnesota Man” to “Minnesota Woman” — and that she was considered to be Minnesota’s first human skeleton from the glacial era.
Early researchers and scientists also determined that Nimuué had been healthy at the time of her death and had perfectly aligned teeth.
However, no other skeletons were found around Nimuué, and she didn’t appear to have been buried purposefully, implying that she may have been traveling alone at the time of her death.
“She carried around these medicinal tools,” he says, “but where was her family?”
Despite the number of years that have passed and the technological advances that have come about since the initial discovery of Nimuué, the exact age of the bones and a specific cause of death have yet to be determined. It is assumed, due to the position of her body, that she may have drowned or been killed in a landslide, Phletus says.
“She was a solo being in a tough environment,” he explains, his tone affectionate. “I look at her as being a very intelligent and compassionate person.”
Overall, there are still quite a few questions surrounding Nimuué’s life and death — and Phletus and Sally show no sign of slowing down in their quest for those answers.
In fact, their quest took a slightly dramatic turn in 2017.
The story of Nimuué’s life, death and modern-day rediscovery formed the basis of an original theatrical work, “Unveiling Nimuué,” which made its debut at Detroit Lakes’ Historic Holmes Theatre on Sept. 21, 2017.
The script for the theatrical presentation was a collaboration between the Williamses and longtime local actor/director Doug Schultz, as well as local writer and actor Lynn Hummel.
Backed by a musical score created by Phletus especially for the event, the presentation was a success for all involved.
The script has essentially been sitting on a shelf collecting dust since then, but next summer, in honor of the 90th anniversary of the discovery of Nimuué’s remains, the Williamses are planning a special evening performance of “Unveiling Nimuué,” as well as related art and historical exhibits, programs and activities throughout a two-day commemorative event, tentatively scheduled for June 18-19, 2021 at Fair Hills Resort on Pelican Lake.
The GMWO is inviting area artists to consider submitting an original work of art to be exhibited as part of the tribute celebration. The piece should portray the artist’s vision of Nimuué and/or her life and environment during the ice age. The medium used is the artist’s choice, and can include everything from basketry, fiber art and pottery to sculpture (wood, glass or metal), painting, music and poetry/prose.
For more information, including an invitation letter, application form, and information about Nimuué, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More adventures, of the literary kind
Though Nimuué has been a big part of Phletus’s life over the past decade or so, his renewed passion for research and writing has taken many other forms, as well.
In 2010, Phletus decided to enter a short story competition held as part of Detroit Lakes’ annual Polar Fest celebration.
Aspiring writers were asked to submit fictional stories of 1,000 words or less, telling the story of "The Legend of Polar Pete," the festival’s mascot. Phletus got such positive feedback from his submission that he decided to turn it into a children’s book, titled “Peter the Polar Bear.”
"Peter the Polar Bear" was published in 2011 by Minion Editing & Design of Fergus Falls, and is now available for purchase at the Becker County Museum in Detroit Lakes, and online through the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
He has continued to sell copies of the book not only during the annual Polar Fest celebration, but at assorted book signings.
"I'd never written a book like this before," Phletus says.
He decided to give it a try after attending some writer's workshops and getting positive feedback from his instructors.
He met with members of the White Earth Band of Chippewa to learn more about Native American folklore, and also drew on his love of astronomy (he has his own observatory that he built next to his home in Dunvilla) to lend authenticity to his tale.
"I would like to see people build on this story and make it into a true local legend," Phletus said at the time the book was published. "I'm excited for Detroit Lakes, that we now have a story that represents Polar Fest."
His book contains references to such Polar Fest staples as the "Freeze Your Buns" 5K run and the "Winter Plunge," also known as the Polar Fest Plunge, which is a fundraiser held each year to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Detroit Lakes.
It even has a glossary that explains the origins of these terms, as well as some of the Native American place names and mythology that are used in the story.
After his book was published, Phletus was approached by his 12-year-old granddaughter, Ella, who said she had read his book — and it inspired her to do some writing of her own.
"That just blew my mind," he says. "We talked for over an hour."
The following Christmas, Ella presented her grandmother, Sally, with a hand-written collection of poems that she had composed herself.
"I think that's profound," Phletus says, adding that it served as further inspiration for him to write more books.
His second work of fiction, "Echos in a Pelican's Pouch," is currently in the works, and he has plans for a couple of other nonfiction works, as well: The first, “Tidbits of Wonderment,” is a collection of stories about his own life, while the second, “My Beloved Companion Trees,” is more focused on nature and his favorite trees.
In addition, he is heavily involved in researching his family’s genealogy, which he plans to turn into a book for his family to enjoy long after he’s gone.
“I remember my Grandpa always said, ‘You can do anything — you’re a Williams,’” he says, and with all the latest advances in DNA research, “I decided I wanted to know if I really am (a Williams).”
What he found is that he is directly related to one of the men who signed the original Declaration of Independence — John Hart — as well as to a Revolutionary War soldier named Joseph Williams.
“The Williamses have been a part of this country’s history since at least the 1680s,” Phletus says.
Ultimately, Phletus’s goal is to finish all his projects by the time he’s ready to move on to the next great adventure.
“I just turned 87 on Aug. 3,” he says. “Hopefully I’ll be around long enough to finish everything I’m working on.”