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Owen Bensen and his dog Blackie stand in front of the rocket ship on his property. All of his friends know to "turn at the rocket ship" to find him. (Photo by Courtney Sinner/DL Tribune)

Cormorant man's 'rocket ship' is a local landmark

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region Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Friends of Owen Bensen know to "turn at the rocket ship" to find him.

"They say, 'Well, what's the address?'" Bensen said. "'It doesn't matter - turn at the rocket ship.'"

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The 20-foot-tall silver and red rocket ship acts as a landmark to Bensen's property, but it's not the only oddball "yard art" that sits on the property.

Keeping it company are an old boat in a tree, a pond made out of a satellite dish, and a "Scud Buster," a little driveable machine that used to run on a Datsun motor and hydraulics to spin around and squirt water.

Most of the organized chaos is left over from Bensen's stepfather, Orville Brenden, and Bensen said he keeps it around as a sort of shrine to him, and the nostalgia of days gone by.

Brenden, who passed away in 2003, was a decorated WWII veteran who fought with General George S. Patton in seven of the toughest battles the war saw, including the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day.

His job under Patton, Bensen said, was as a tank mechanic.

"It was his job to fix stuff right away and get it back up to the boys up front," he said, noting that his stepfather didn't talk about the war much, other than the "good times."

After coming back to the States, Brenden worked as a mechanic in the Detroit Lakes area for about 35 years and married Bensen's mother, Ethel, in 1964, Bensen said.

"He was a mechanic, a well-driller, a Sanford-and-Son kind of guy," he said.

After retiring, Bensen said his stepfather drilled most of the wells still used by other property owners on Big Cormorant Lake.

Bensen described him as a "mechanical genius with a penchant for junk."

"He could take anything and make it run," he said.

The love of "tinkering" is something Brenden passed on to his stepson - Bensen, now 62 and never married, spends his days fiddling with classic cars, planning a replica of a Civil War cannon with old wooden wagon wheels and 24 bowling balls, and repainting the rocket ship in an American flag pattern (Brenden, he said, "was kind of red-white-and-blue crazy.")

And spending time near the lake is likely a nice respite from the traveling that Bensen did in his younger days as a "crazy bachelor," after spending nine months in Germany "doing nothing" during the Vietnam War.

He'd been drafted in 1966, but after totaling a government vehicle, he was court-martialed and held in jail while the rest of his battalion was shipped out to Vietnam.

Two weeks later, he was found not guilty of neglecting the truck he crashed, and was sent to Germany, where he looked after a truck with no motor - and no replacement for it was ever sent since equipment was being sent to Vietnam.

He's disabled now after years working in construction in Arizona, Denver and all parts of the Alaskan bush, where he built village schools with his brother. But between those trips, he always returned to the area where his family had spent summer vacations on Cormorant.

After Bensen's mother, uncle and younger brother died in 2004, within a year of his stepfather's death, Bensen said he and his sister didn't think the property would remain in the family - but he decided to purchase it.

"It's been five years of re-roofing, repainting ... everything was kind of falling apart," he said. "I drug many tons of stuff out ... he did a lot of welding, fabricating, old docks, combines, boat lifts, it was quite the pile."

The landmark rocketship, which Bensen said was made out of a gas tank used in a 1950's jet fighter, has been in the same spot since about 1962, and will "be here as long as I live."

It used to have florescent lights on it, Bensen said, and was used as a yard light - the cords were connected to a big old-fashioned red electrical switch labeled "blast off."

And now, even though time and weather have worn many of his stepfather's "projects," Bensen tries to hold on to the simpler times, like when they'd have weddings and anniversary parties on a double-decker 48-foot-long paddleboat that Brenden had built.

People still come around and enjoy the lake, Bensen said, including his siblings in the Fargo area, and he'll often enjoy a bonfire and a few beers with buddies on the weekends.

"The people that have seen what was here before, and the people along the lake, there's no doubt this is Orville Brenden's old place," Bensen said.

"These developers now, I call them speculators, they want everything nice, vinyl, beautiful yards, and it takes such a flavor of the lakes away," he said.

"You used to be able to go along and see somebody throwing something together whether it worked or not - docks, boatlifts, everything was kind of hand-done ... That was the way everything went down here before it's been modernized.

"Just a little bit of the old days, I want to keep it as long as I can."

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