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Carter's Red Wagon founders to be feted Saturday

Maxine and Russ Carter arrived in Hubbard County in 1954 as rural missionaries. A background in and penchant for agriculture - as well as an expanding family - prompted the produce business. "I couldn't have done it without her," he said. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)1 / 2
The signature red wagon greets visitors at the farm southwest of Park Rapids, as well as the market on Highway 34 east. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)2 / 2

More than a half century ago, a little red wagon rolled into Park Rapids with fresh fruits and veggies aboard.

Park Rapids' vitamin and mineral intake has been elevated ever since.

Saturday, Aug. 13 the second and third generations of Carter's Red Wagon originators Russell and Maxine Carter will host a Founders' Day. They will be serving cake and punch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and asking people to share memories of the market that began with a bumper crop of tomatoes in the summer of '55.

Newlyweds and Moody Bible Institute graduates Russ and Maxine Carter came to Minnesota in the fall of 1954 to do rural mission work.

When spring arrived, "it was just natural" to plant tomatoes, Russ recalled.

When a bumper crop of the ruby orbs began to ripen that first year, he decided to share the bounty.

"Jack Kaiser let me put up a stand," he said of the self-pay operation on Highway 71 near Straight River.

Meanwhile, the family was growing. Russ worked as a mail carrier and as pastor at the Straight River Chapel. Bibles in hand, he and Maxine headed out to teach release time classes in rural schools.

"With seven children, we had to put food on the table," he said of his varied occupations.

They bought a piece of property southwest of Park Rapids "with a shell of a house" and began clearing the land, originally 140 acres.

Russ Carter was no stranger to farming. He grew up in southern Michigan on property his great-great-grandfather had homesteaded. Born during the potato harvest, his mom dubbed him Spud.

Russ's entrepreneurial father gained national attention when in 1949 he developed a motorized "pickle picking machine" to harvest cucumbers.

This too had been necessity driven. Local residents were not prone to accept field jobs, and migrant workers were in short supply, he said.

Tomatoes were Carters' signature product, initially. Then a friend suggested they raise and market sweet corn. Russ found an old wagon, painted it red and covered it with a canopy; the trademark was born.

He "borrowed" land across from Thielen Motors and the family of agronomists began selling the produce, long before CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) became part of the vernacular or farmers markets emerged.

They sold from the wagon for seven or eight years, one year with it parked near the post office, before constructing a small building near the American Legion. Meanwhile strawberries joined the line-up, with customers arriving at the farm to harvest them.

The Carters sold the property about 1980 when the Legion was looking to expand the parking lot.

The following year, the timber frame post and beam building rose on Park Rapids' eastern perimeter.

The components of the "barn" were constructed at the farm, Russ working on the structure through the winter in the barn.

"I had a notion to do a barn raising," he recalled. But concerned with liability, he hired a contractor. "It was done in an hour's time."

Meanwhile, the Carter farm had become home to Ayrshire cattle, recognized as the highest producing herd in the U.S. in 1989. Twins Ole and Sven gained notoriety in Park Rapids Logging Days parades, toting a wagon down Main.

The farm has grown to 400 acres, about half of it timber. Twenty-some Herefords roam the pasture now and a couple of chickens call the farm home.

At 87, Russ is still behind the wheel of the tractor, despite a kidney transplant a few years ago.

The couple's youngest son, Tony, and wife Linda now manage Carter's Red Wagon.

"Maxine was an integral part of the whole thing," Russ said. "I couldn't have done it without her."