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Nary Wiped Out by Two Fires in 1900 and 1908

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

By Cecelia McKeig

Nary, Helga Township, before the fire of 1900.

The summer of 1900 was hot and dry. Clouds of smoke hung over the Bemidji area and forest fires were reported from all directions. With high winds and a total lack of rain, the danger prevailed everywhere. Considerable property was destroyed within the county, and days and nights of hard fire fighting was carried on. Fire raged along the Brainerd & Northern tracks for 40 miles, burning out several settlers.

On Friday, April 20, 1900, the thriving agricultural village of Nary, about nine miles south of Bemidji, on the B. & N. M., was almost totally wiped out. The depot, schoolhouse and a few dwellings were untouched. Out of the population of 170, the only insurance carried was by Mr. Taylor of the large mercantile store. A large quantity of lumber and several flat cars belonging to the railroad were destroyed.

Henry Saunders, Helga Township. Unknown date.

The hotel man was too discouraged to rebuild. He left town. N. J. Case saw a business opportunity and erected a new hotel, 24x40 feet two stories high, with a kitchen 14x24 feet on the main business block.

J. R. Roach was the pioneer merchant at Nary. He enjoyed a brisk trade prior to the fire and carried an inventory of general merchandise valued at about $6000. The fire wiped out the business, and he had no insurance on his stock. Nevertheless, he rebuilt, and the new building was an improvement over the previous one. Mr. Roach was also the postmaster.

The second general store in Nary was owned by Tuller, Terpenning & Coleman. This firm owned five stores, one each in Nary, Bena, Deer River, Cohasset, and Cass Lake. Mr. CoIeman managed the Nary store and lived in the store building with his family. They too were burnt out and rebuilt.

Nary had two saloons. One was owned by John Davis and another by J. C. Croon. An interesting fact is that all the businessmen in Nary in 1900, except two, were bachelors!

Nary had a wooden schoolhouse which was a nicely furnished building measuring 28x40 feet. They needed more families with children to fill it, but they were optimistic that the town would grow.

George Clark Rogers, farmer in Helga Township. He and wife Mary moved from Nebraska to Navy and raised their seven children in Helga Township.

A second fire in April 1908 destroyed most of the town. This time all that was left was Coleman’s store and the church. The fire took out one entire block, consisting of six buildings. The fire started on the south side of the kitchen of the Smiley hotel, and was discovered by Iva Naugle, sister of Mrs. Harding. The fire spread rapidly and soon the entire block was a mass of flames. It was impossible, with a bucket brigade, to douse the flames, and it took barely an hour to reduce the six buildings to ashes. The following were the main losses sustained by the fire. E. E. Smiley owned the hotel. C. E. Harding owned a store, barn, and icehouse. Paul Cowan and A. Lessard owned two store buildings and lost an inventory of seed, grain, and machinery that they stored in Harding’s barn.

The Smiley hotel was built again. Fred Coleman hung in and stayed with the store. In May, linemen for the Northwestern Telephone Exchange company put in phone connections so that Nary could again have long-distance service. The new station was put in Coleman’s store. Ida and Fred Coleman remained in Nary until their respective deaths in 1933 and 1939.

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