Autumn Lights Gala for Sherburne County History Center on Friday Oct. 25

As we near the annual fall fundraiser for Sherburne County’s History Center, we realize we have the opportunity to support a historical retention center for future generations to use.

In researching the history of the Hungarian settlement north of Elk River, Betty Belanger discovered the family, Bedoch, whose home burnt to the ground with five small girls inside 88 years ago. Many stories surfaced about what happened out there, so far from town, and piecing it together became a part of her book.

She called me one day to ask if I had heard of this burnt cabin site, and I told her all the years I lived at the Bowe’s and cultivated corn fields, that site was never disturbed. I had seen the lilac bushes and plum trees that grew there but had no idea of the history. So we planned a trek to visit the site. My son, Tom, and grandson, Michael, went with and brought their metal detectors. It was a hike for Betty, who was fighting cancer, a walk down the old railroad bed and then up a big hill and we walked right to the site. Tom also had worked for Lynn Bowe and knew where the site was.

Using the metal detectors, we found what was the piece of tin that the family used to vent the heater with pipe through the outside wall. We also found burnt pieces of logs, small pieces of glass and an old ax head. Betty took the items home to be used in a future Hungarian display at the History Center.

This poor family settled on the top of a hill; the cabin would have been windswept and cold. The father walked to town (Zimmerman) to get kerosene for the heater, but because of his lack of English, he came home with gasoline. He filled the stove with the gas and went out to milk the cow. His wife went to light the stove; the five girls were probably huddling under covers to keep warm – January in Minnesota is not a time of the year to be without heat. When she struck the match, the cabin exploded, the fumes ignited, she was partially burnt, and the girls perished. The father tried to rescue them but could not. The parents walked to John and Katy Vicha’s, where they were given shelter. The mother was pregnant with their sixth child and, I would imagine, quite distraught.

The father was questioned by the sheriff and put in jail on suspicion of murder; until the grand jury convened, he was kept in jail. The girls were buried in St. Andrew’s cemetery, where they rest today.

The sheriff searched the site for the father’s ax, which the coroner thought the girls were killed with. They did not find the ax. The grand jury convened and the father was found innocent. The family then moved to Chicago, where the mother had relatives.

My daughter, Joy, lives in Glencoe and purchased a box of old newspapers at an auction. Since I am a history buff, she brought the box to me. In this box was an old Minneapolis Journal newspaper, dated Tuesday Evening, Jan. 20, 1925. The headline reads “Ax hunted in fire ruins where 5 died.” It states that the father was accused of manslaughter in the case.

After realizing the significance of the ax that we found, I brought the process that we had gone through to the board of directors at the History Center. They suggested I have the Sheriff’s Office check for blood residue on the ax. I took the ax to the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office along with the newspaper, and they had the state crime lab run tests. After 88 years of being in the ground and in the air, they could not determine anything by the condition of the ax. The detective at the Sheriff’s Office made copies of the newspaper story, and one of the employees put flowers on the girls’ burial site. After 88 years, they were remembered.

These are the stories that make our county’s history unique and should be preserved for future generations. The site of the burnt cabin is now in the middle of a gravel pit and will be lost except for Betty’s determination to find the facts and the will to walk to visit the site. The circumstance of finding the newspaper is rare; I am thinking somehow it was meant to be found.

Betty convinced me to join the board of directors of the History Center, I used the center extensively for researching the history of the Sherburne County Fair. I know others in the county use the History Center and future generations will also.

With that, I am hoping the citizens of the county will support the fundraiser “Autumn Lights Gala” that the board and employees of the center are working hard to present to raise money to keep the center going and make improvements as needed.

The gala is 5:30-11 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25, at the Carousell Works in Big Lake.— Marion Salzmann, Elk River