2021 in Review: COVID continues, as city celebrates 150th birthday
The COVID-19 pandemic continued to dominate headlines around the world in 2021, and Detroit Lakes was no exception, though restrictions on public gatherings and mask mandates slowly began to ease. First, Detroit Lakes Public schools opened their doors to fully in-person learning, then local businesses began easing back into allowing full capacity once again, and finally, the region's much-loved summer festivals, in-person concerts and other large public gatherings began to return as well. Despite a resurgence of COVID in the fall, as variants Delta and Omicron began to slowly make their way up to northern Minnesota, neither the city of Detroit Lakes nor Becker County as a whole returned to mandating masks or restricting crowd sizes. In Detroit Lakes, the city's Sesquicentennial (150th birthday) festivities also continued throughout the year, with the finale set for the city's 2022 Polar Fest celebration in February.
As the last gasp of 2021 enters our collective rear view mirror, it's time to take a look at the year's ups and downs.
Here's a glimpse at all the month-to-month action, courtesy of the Detroit Lakes Tribune's archives.
- A Jan. 2 fire at a Frazee residence left 30-year residents Arnie and Tammy Krejce without a home and destroyed most of their possessions as well. A group of high school students belonging to the Interact club later raised $1,750 to help mitigate their loss.
- Essentia Health St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes welcomed its first baby of 2021 at 5:20 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 2. Mika Mistic, the daughter of Moon and Josh Mistic, entered the world weighing 6 pounds, 14.1 ounces and measuring 19.5 inches long. She was the fourth child born to the Pelican Rapids couple.
- Elementary students at Detroit Lakes Public Schools returned to fully in-person learning on Jan. 19, after nearly a year of pivoting between distance, in-person and hybrid (a combination of the two) learning models. Middle and high school students remained in hybrid learning mode.
- Detroit Lakes attorney Simon George was named as a finalist for the judge's bench in Minnesota's 7th Judicial District, along with first-term Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd and Assistant Todd County Attorney Heidi Schultz. Judd was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz on Jan. 24.
- After a two-year absence, Detroit Lakes' WE Fest country music festival announced that the headliners for its August 2021 return would be Florida Georgia Line, Dierks Bentley and Blake Shelton.
- A 24-year-old Pine River man was sentenced to 51 years in prison for beating a woman and her son to death at their mobile home in Frazee. William Hillman was given consecutive (back-to-back) sentences after being convicted on two counts of second degree murder in connection with the April 17, 2018 incident. The sentencing took place Jan. 26 in Fergus Falls.
- Detroit Lakes High School Principal Darren Wolf announced that he would be leaving at the end of the school year, after seven years at that position.
- Essentia Health St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes began offering the COVID-19 treatment bamlanivimab — known as "Bam" — to patients diagnosed with a mild to moderate form of the virus who were at high risk for severe complications and hospitalization. The drug had recently been authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- A scaled-down version of Polar Fest and the MN Sn'Ice Snow and Ice Showcase began Feb. 5 and continued through Feb. 16, though many of the outdoor events were canceled outright or postponed due to a bout of severe cold that swept through the region mid-celebration. Some of the events were delayed until Saturday, Feb. 20. Actor Josh Duhamel served as the "Proxy Plunger" for the 2021 Polar Fest Plunge, raising thousands of dollars for the Boys & Girls Club of Detroit Lakes. Duhamel took the plunge at a remote location that was not open to the public, but the event was recorded and broadcast on Feb. 16 via local news media and social media outlets. The outdoor temperature was an arctic minus 13 degrees when Duhamel took the plunge.
- Detroit Lakes Middle School students and Detroit Lakes High School freshmen returned to fully in-person learning on Feb. 8, with high schoolers in grades 10-12 remaining in the hybrid learning model until Feb. 16, when they began in-person learning as well.
- Detroit Lakes fifth-grader Jake Erickson raised more than $5,500 for the American Heart Association, becoming one of the nation's top fundraisers for AHA. Jake, the son of Amy and Jed Erickson, was born with multiple heart defects and needed four heart surgeries before he was even a year old.
- Official readings in Detroit Lakes this month broke a 30-year record for the longest stretch where temperatures remained below zero, according to Dick Hecock, a retired geography professor and longtime observer of local weather trends.
- The inaugural Farmers to Families food giveaway at the Boys & Girls Club Thrift Store parking lot brought in so many cars that the line stretched from the parking lot to the frontage road and back out to Highway 10, prompting organizers to switch the location of the next giveaway out to the Soo Pass Ranch — home of WE Fest.
- The White Earth Tribal Health department made headlines by offering free doses of COVID-19 vaccine to both tribal and non-tribal residents of Becker, Mahnomen, Clearwater and Norman counties. They expanded vaccine eligibility requirements to include neighboring counties because of a philosophy that "we want to protect everyone within the boundaries of the White Earth Reservation," said White Earth Emergency Services manager Ed Snetsinger. "We have families that are both tribal and nontribal, so we have to serve the population as a whole."`
- The owners of the Spitfire Bar & Grill in Detroit Lakes were ordered to pay $14,695 to their 50 employees — or about $282 per worker — after forcing their servers to pool a portion of their tips into a fund that was distributed to other employees.
- Members of Company A, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry of the Minnesota National Guard, based in Detroit Lakes, learned that they were to be deployed for an assignment in Kuwait as part of Operation Spartan Shield, and departed for their new assignment on March 16. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, members of the public were asked to view the soldiers' deployment ceremony virtually, though a few family members and well-wishers did come out and line the streets outside the National Guard Armory to cheer them on as the buses rolled out of town.
- Detroit Lakes High School football coach and Academy coordinator Josh Omang resigned from his positions, effective at the end of the current school year, to take on a new role as high school principal. Omang was chosen from a field of four finalists for the position; a total of 24 applications were received.
- The Detroit Lakes City Council approved splitting the lot where the Boys & Girls Club Thrift Store was located into two business lots, to make room for a new ALDI grocery store.
- More than 2,400 food boxes were given away during the second monthly Farmers to Families food distribution event at the Soo Pass Ranch south of Detroit Lakes on March 22. The U.S. Department of Agriculture program was open to all.
American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford visited Detroit Lakes on Friday, April 9, along with Mark Dvorak, American Legion department leader for Minnesota. The two men were feted at a celebratory dinner held at the Legion Post 15 home on West Lake Drive.
- A Perham man was charged with two felony counts of criminal vehicular operation, felony fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle and misdemeanor not stopping after a collision following a Monday, April 12 car-pedestrian incident near the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center. Julius Jermaine Frederick, 20, was charged in Becker County District Court after the collision with a 60-year-old Detroit Lakes woman, who sustained a broken pelvis and broken arm.
- The Detroit Lakes School Board voted unanimously on Monday, April 19 to terminate 14 teaching contracts, largely due to a COVID-19 related reduction in enrollment. The district started the 2020-21 school year with 199 fewer students than the previous year, and the numbers had declined by another 38 students since then. Superintendent Mark Jenson noted that many of those teachers could be rehired if enrollment numbers picked up sufficiently by next fall.
- Becker County became a "Second Amendment sanctuary" after a unanimous vote of the county board on Tuesday, April 20, to approve a resolution affirming residents' rights to own arms under the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment. The county board also approved an agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service that will allow the Becker County Jail to house between 10-20 federal prisoners, as space allows, for which the county would be reimbursed by the federal government.
- Detroit Lakes High School was named as a 2021 Best High School by U.S. News & World Report, ranking 32nd in the state of Minnesota and 2,114th among all high schools in the U.S.
- The 150 Sails Up in DL public art project was unveiled at a special Sailboat Regatta Party at Detroit Lakes' Kent Freeman Arena on Friday, April 30, with all 150 sailboat sculptures — 75 large, 4-foot sculptures and 75 small, tabletop ones — displayed together for the first and only time inside the arena. Hundreds attended the celebration, after which the sculptures were distributed to their new homes at businesses and public venues around the city, for display through the end of the year, after which sponsors and private donors could take possession.
- Six Becker County townships declared independence from the City of Detroit Lakes' subdivision rules at a May 4 meeting of the Becker County Board. The townships of Audubon, Burlington, Detroit, Erie, Lakeview and Lake Eunice announced their support for ending Detroit Lakes' longtime subdivision zoning control of all land within a two-mile radius of the city limits. The six townships, along with Becker County, intended to form a joint powers zoning agreement, relying largely on the county's zoning process.
- The groundbreaking for a new playground and multi-purpose sport court at Detroit Lakes' South Shore Park was held on May 19. The $900,000 park improvement project was set for completion in the fall.
- U.S. Senator Tina Smith toured the Detroit Lakes Boys & Girls Club and some downtown businesses during a visit to the city on May 8.
- Detroit Lakes' popular Festival of Birds returned on May 20-22, but with a twist: COVID-19 restrictions caused festival organizers to plan for all-virtual birding workshops and make all field trips into caravan-type excursions rather than having participants travel via bus.
- After seven years of planning and construction, Detroit Lakes' new wastewater treatment plant was opened to the public for tours on May 18. The $34 million project was designed to operate through at least 2034 and can handle a population of up to 15,584 — about 70% more than the current number of people living in the city.
Detroit Lakes Public Schools continued to mandate the wearing of masks through May 28, as well as at graduation ceremonies on May 29. Roughly 220 Detroit Lakes High School seniors earned their diplomas at the 131st DLHS Commencement Ceremonies, which were held for a second time at the school track due to COVID-19 safety concerns — though this time, unlike in 2020, families and friends were allowed to sit on the field and in the bleachers rather than being forced to watch from behind the fence.
The groundbreaking for the Becker County Museum's new $6.8 million, 30,000 square foot facility, adjacent to the Historic Holmes Theatre, took place on May 27 — the same day that a new sesquicentennial exhibit opened at the existing museum building on Summit Avenue. Completion of the new museum is slated for next summer.
- The Detroit Lakes Tribune ceased to employ newspaper carriers on June 2, ending a tradition that dated back to the founding of the newspaper more than 100 years earlier.
- A Becker County District Court jury convicted Morris Silas Dodd, Jr., for the 2018 shooting death of Lake Park Police Chief Jay Nelson, who had been on a hunting trip near Little Floyd Lake; Nelson was found dead in his vehicle.
- Detroit Lakes teenager Hunter Zehnacker earned a berth at the National Junior High Rodeo in Des Moines, Iowa, and competed there during the week of June 20-26. Zehnacker competed in the bull riding event.
- The main classroom at Concordia College's Long Lake Biological Field Station, located just outside Detroit Lakes, was renamed in memory of the late Michelle Marko, an associate professor of biology at the college, who helped to establish the field station.
- The historic pioneer cabin at the Becker County Fairgrounds got a facelift in advance of July's county fair. The cabin is the property of the Becker County Museum. Much of the work was done by a six-person crew from the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps, which is based in Duluth, though there were volunteers and museum staff on hand to assist with the project.
- North Dakota native Tim Godfrey started work as the new superintendent at Lake Park-Audubon Public Schools on July 1. He and his wife Jackie purchased a home in Audubon and made plans to settle in the community.
- Fireworks returned to Detroit Lakes' City Beach for this year's Independence Day celebration on July 4. There were no fireworks in 2020 due to pandemic safety restrictions on large crowd gatherings, so this year's fireworks were given an upgrade to celebrate the city's 150th birthday. Holiday boat parades were also held on several area lakes for the first time in two years.
- Detroit Lakes' Northwest Water Carnival returned on July 9 and concluded on July 18. After a two-year absence, many water carnival events drew record or near-record crowds.
- A 74-year-old Detroit Lakes man was killed in a motorcycle crash on Saturday, July 10. Darryl Anthony Satkowski was reportedly wearing a helmet; the crash occurred at the intersection of Highway 34 and Highland Drive at the east edge of Detroit Lakes.
- Detroit Lakes celebrated its 150th birthday on Thursday, July 29, with speeches, live music, food trucks and more at the City Park.
- The Intrepid Adventure Film Festival made its Detroit Lakes debut on July 30 as part of the city's 150th anniversary festivities. The festival was held at the Detroit Lakes Pavilion, and included live music, food and vendor booths.
- The Becker County Fair returned after a two-year absence on July 28, drawing huge crowds every day through its finale on Saturday, July 31. Sally Hausken and Art Bakker were chosen as Becker County's Outstanding Senior Citizens on Thursday, July 29.
- WE Fest returned to Detroit Lakes' Soo Pass Ranch for the first time since 2019, with headliners Florida Georgia Line, Dierks Bentley and Blake Shelton drawing crowds of around 25,000 people. Organizers said they were pleased with the turnout, though they had plans to grow the 36-year-old festival back to where it was at its peak, when attendance reached 50,000. Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert were announced as the 2022 headliners.
- The Lake Park-Audubon School Board set a special bond referendum vote for November. Residents were asked to approve $23 million in improvements to the school district's existing facilities in Lake Park and Audubon.
- The Street Faire at the Lakes returned to downtown Detroit Lakes on Aug. 13-14, after a two-year absence. The festival is slated to reclaim its original early June time slot in 2022.
- The ribbon was finally cut Aug. 13 on the Detroit Lakes-Becker County Airport runway project that was completed last summer.
- Usually held in April, the United Way Celebration of Heroes took place this year on Thursday, Aug. 19, with five awards presented: Community Spirit-Individual, to Mackenzie Hamm; Community Spirit-Organization, to White Earth Tribal Health; Everyday Hero-Adult, to Terry Eiter; Everyday Hero-Youth, to Sydney Porter; and the Bob & Michelle Harris Memorial Award, to Dr. Thomas Seaworth.
- Big crowds gathered for the 67th annual Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion at Rollag, held during Labor Day weekend.
- Detroit Lakes Public Schools opened for fall classes, with no social distancing or masks required. Roosevelt Elementary School achieved Minnesota School of Excellence status for 2021-22; a celebration will be held in the spring. The achievement reflects the school's "commitment to modern teaching and learning."
- A blaze that caused significant damage to several businesses in the Washington Square Mall on Friday, Sept. 10 , was apparently caused by a recreational fire on an outdoor back deck area, and was ruled "unintentional" by the state fire marshal's office.
- The Historic Holmes Theatre launched its 2021-22 season with a Sept. 11 outdoor concert at the City Park Bandshell, featuring Post Traumatic Funk Syndrome.
- Delores Mae Lubitz, 74, of Frazee, was killed in a house fire on Sept. 20. The fire had probably begun the night before, according to Fire Chief Joe Nelson.
- State lawmakers on a bonding tour made a stop in Detroit Lakes on Sept. 22 to hear about plans for a $2.34 million improvement project to the baseball field and grandstand at the historic Washington Park.
- The City of Detroit Lakes and Becker County Museum co-hosted a Celebration of Heritage event at the Detroit Lakes Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 25, with Native American drum and dance performers, lefse-making and woodcarving demonstrations, historic displays and more.
A black bear was sighted in downtown Detroit Lakes on Sept. 30, according to local social media reports. The bear hung out around McKinley Plaza for a while before wandering off.
- A dispute between the city and West Lake Drive residents over placement of a new multi-purpose trail along the roadway ended when the council voted unanimously to place the trail on the lake side, despite opposition from residents.
- Becker County committed $100,000 in seed money for establishing new home child care businesses, and another $85,000 in both 2021 and 2022 for emergency assistance grants to existing child care operators.
- The Becker County Board and the Detroit Lakes City Council both approved funding for a new medical airlift service at the Detroit Lakes-Becker County Airport. Each will match up to $350,000 in funding for the project.
- The Detroit Lakes Chamber of Commerce presented its 2021 Splash Awards on Oct. 28, honoring "150 Sails Up in DL" public art project creators Hans and Mary Beth Gilsdorf, the Friends of Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, Essentia Health St. Mary's, BTD Manufacturing and Detroit Lakes City Administrator Kelcey Klemm for their impact and community involvement over the past year.
- A trunk-or-treat event at Zion Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes drew an estimated 1,000 kids and their parents on Sunday, Oct. 31. Lines curled around the church building and down the block for the Halloween event.
Alex Lindsay, a barber at Al's Barbershop, formerly Mattson's Barbershop, cuts a patron's hair during their reopening week at their new location in the Greystone Building in Detroit Lakes on Nov. 19, 2021. The shop had been shuttered for two months due to a overhead apartment fire at their Washington Avenue location. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
- Detroit Lakes' Roosevelt Elementary School was named one of the state's best by U.S. News and World Report, in its first-ever rankings of elementary schools across the country. Roosevelt was ranked among the top 30% of all elementary schools in the state, just a couple of months after it was named as a Minnesota School of Excellence for 2021-22.
- Lake Park-Audubon school district voters approved a $23 million bond referendum Nov. 2 for improvements to both the elementary school in Audubon and the high school in Lake Park. Two ballot questions were approved, authorizing $21.63 million in improvements to the elementary school and $1.33 million in upgrades at the high school.
- Detroit Lakes High School was temporarily closed to the public on Tuesday, Nov. 2, after an anonymous threat was reported. Students were still allowed to attend classes, though the campus was closed over the noon hour and students were not allowed to leave until classes let out for the day. The individuals involved were "identified and dealt with in an appropriate manner," according to school officials and local police, who issued a joint statement on the matter.
- The Becker County Board voted to make the recorder position an appointed rather than elected one on Tuesday, Nov. 16, following a public hearing on the proposed change.
- In a "road swap" between Becker County, Detroit Township and the City of Detroit Lakes, Becker County assumed responsibility for Highland Drive, while Detroit Township accepted maintenance responsibility for County Road 141, just east of the city.
- Mattson's Barber Shop and Glik's reopened in November, after the two local businesses were forced to close for more than two months due to damages sustained in the Sept. 10 fire at Washington Square Mall. Mattson's actually relocated to a new home in the Graystone building, while Glik's retained its original space in the mall.
- Detroit Lakes' Dynamic Homes gave a little early Christmas present to another local business, Bergen's Greenhouses, delivering more than 600 tons of scrap wood that could be used to provide heat to its facilities on Willow Street during the winter months. The wood will fuel Bergen's two-story biomass boiler, which can heat up to 4 acres of the 12-acre facility. The remainder is heated by two standard, natural-gas boilers.
- Detroit Lakes National Guardsmen marched through downtown from the Veterans Memorial Park to the Becker County Food Pantry on Saturday, Dec. 11, collecting more than 1,000 in food donations for the local food shelf, which is located right next door to the armory. The event, called Operation Hunger Resolve, was a community outreach project of the local National Guard unit.
- ALDI opened up a new store in Detroit Lakes on Dec. 18, next to the Boys & Girls Club Thrift Store on Highway 10 at the west edge of town.
- Former Mille Lacs County Administrator Pat Oman reached agreement with the Becker County Board to begin work as the county's new administrator, replacing Mike Brethorst, who left his position at the beginning of October.
- Lakeshirts is projecting a 50% growth in business next year, leading the local t-shirt manufacturing company to build a new warehouse on Eighth Street, near its existing facilities on Randolph Road.
- A post-Christmas snow storm dumped more than 8 inches of fresh powder on Detroit Lakes area residents during the evening of Dec. 26-27, with about 4 inches more added on Tuesday, Dec. 28. The snowstorm was followed by several days of subzero temperatures, at times dipping into the minus-20s.