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Nevis Muskie history remembered: Festival kicks off Friday

The 68th annual Nevis Muskie Days kicks off Friday, and area residents Susan Kozel and Wendy Holsapple are proud of the role their family played in creating the giant muskie statue in the center of town.

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Warren P. Ballard and his son, Benjamin Ballard, started building the Nevis muskie in 1932 outside Warren's taxidermy shop. The statue is now at Muskie Park and a popular spot for photos. This weekend Nevis will host the Muskie Days celebration and Music Festival. Submitted photo.

The 68th annual Nevis Muskie Days kicks off Friday, and area residents Susan Kozel and Wendy Holsapple are proud of the role their family played in creating the giant muskie statue in the center of town.

"Great-grandpa Warren P. Ballard and my uncle Ben Ballard started building the Nevis Muskie in 1932," Holsapple said. "Ben was his only son, and his only daughter was my mother, Marie Ballard-Kelsey."

Kozel was born in 1949. "I remember him building the muskie outside the garage where he did his taxidermy. He was a very accomplished nature artist. I also remember how the muskie looked when he first painted it - like a real muskie that came out of Lake Belle Taine. It had the more subdued colors and had wooden teeth."

Kozel said she believes the muskie was repainted when the shelter was put over the statue due to concerns it might deteriorate from the weather.

She said the idea to create a muskie in Nevis came from history of the fish in Lake Belle Taine. "His mother was a full-blood Kickapoo Native woman from Indiana," she said. "Her name was Ella Bouscher-Ballard after she married Samuel P. Ballard. She was Native American and a very earthy woman who inspired him. My grandfather worked with the White Earth tribe and helped the state of Minnesota plant muskie in Belle Taine."

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Kozel, who said she "practically lived with her grandfather," learned how to draw and paint at his side. "He never used acrylics," she said. "It was always oils. He had been sketching since he was a child and painted scenery, like the lone mountain near Yellowstone and was also a wood carver. He and Uncle Ben worked side by side creating the muskie."

Muskie Days favorites

While the town has changed a lot over the past 68 years, the tradition of celebrating together with an annual Muskie Days continues.

"Back when I was growing up, there were a ton of things for the kids to do at Muskie Days," Kozel said. "They had old-fashioned games, softball games, and at the beach they had a spot where you could make a boat from paper mache and float it across the lake. There were arts and crafts, croquet and a square dance. There were a ton of kids then. The carnival had a merry go 'round ride with a motor a half a block off Main and it was ridiculously cheap. You could get 20 tickets to ride and stay all day long practically. Kids had lemonade stands and there was always popcorn. It was lots of fun and tons of families came out."

She said Grandpa Warren always went to Muskie Days, even in later years when he walked with a cane.

"He used to roll steel at a big factory in Indiana and the rolls were two or three times bigger than a tire on a big semi," she said. "The steel was used for building cars and structures. I that's why he needed a cane. "I can only imagine how hard that work was."

After moving to the Nevis area, she said her grandfather also built five log cabins by hand for a resort he ran.

Kozel has attended many Muskie Days, only missing the years when she was living in the Seattle area. "I've been back here in the area almost 20 years now and have gone ever since," she said. "I still think it's one of the better celebrations around."

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Her favorite part of Muskie Days now is going to the park and sitting on the curb by Cookie's Daycare to watch the parades. "They've always had really good parades," she said. "When I was growing up they had many schools march in the parades. Bands came from all over, even Staples, Grand Rapids and Bemidji. It was really enjoyable to listen to them play."

Muskie Days memories

Holsapple, who graduated from high school in 1983, also has happy memories of Muskie Days when she was growing up and Nevis had a population of 308, three gas stations, a grocery store, the newspaper office, the Hobby House that was open in the summer to sell crafts, a Gamble store that sold tools, mowers and small appliances and a hotel.

"Muskie Days used to be held the second Tuesday and Wednesday of July," she said. "They had all kinds of games, horseshoe tournaments, a big parade with many marching bands from all the schools on Tuesday night and a kiddie parade Wednesday afternoon. They always had sloppy joes at the muskie food stand and there were ice cream eating and fishing contests."

Music was part of the festival with bands playing for teen and adult dances, but on a much smaller scale than with the Muskie Days Music Festival that has been held in recent years.

She said Muskie Days used to focus on the history of the muskie statue and the founders.

"My great-grandpa was a guide for the area lakes and used to write for the Akeley-Nevis paper," she said. "He wrote stories of the fishing times and what lakes they were biting in. I was 3 when he died in 1968. He was a taxidermist and had the Standard gas station in Nevis."

While she has happy memories of Muskie Days gone by and is proud of her family's history in creating the famous Muskie statue, Holsapple no longer makes it a two-day event. "Now I mainly go for the parade and that's about it," she said.

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One of the newspapers her dad saved, now yellowed with age, featured an article about the 28th annual Muskie Days. The story told how the Nevis park was built on land donated by the railroad, complete with Victorian-style bandstand.

The article credited the Minneapolis Tribune with dubbing Nevis "the home of the Tiger Muskie," adding that the head of the Muskie pointed toward Nevis and the tail towards the numerous resorts. The article also referred to a 1933 map copyrighted by Fuller's Tackle Shops, Inc. of Park Rapids that listed 13 resorts with a Nevis address and advertised the Nevis Ice and Fuel Company where fish packing was a specialty.

According to the article, inaugural Muskie Days events on Aug. 22, 1950 were a speech by Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl, a concert by the Hubbard Junior Band, a horseshoe contest between Park Rapids, Hubbard, Akeley and Nevis with a 25-cent entry fee, a concert by the Park Rapids band, a carnival and a flag raising ceremony. The event concluded with a street dance and a drawing for a Philco FM-AM radio valued at $60.

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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