Raised in Itasca State Park
Betty Hagen of Bagley claims that growing up in Itasca State Park was "just like growing up anywhere else." But Betty's knowledge of the park and its history runs so deep that it could only have been accumulated after a lifetime spent just steps ...
Betty Hagen of Bagley claims that growing up in Itasca State Park was “just like growing up anywhere else.” But Betty’s knowledge of the park and its history runs so deep that it could only have been accumulated after a lifetime spent just steps away from the start of the mighty Mississippi itself.
Betty’s parents, Frank and Elizabeth Pugh, moved to the park in 1920 when Frank was offered a job trapping wolves. At first they lived in what is now called the hostel.
“Dad got out of the army in late 1919,” Betty said. “That spring he went smoke chasing at Blackduck, then that winter they sent him to the park to trap wolves and he never left.”
That is, not until his health started failing him and he retired to Bagley in 1957.
The Minnesota Department of Conservation was founded in 1931 by the Minnesota Legislature, bringing together five separate state entities which were Forestry, Game and Fish, Drainage and Waters, Lands and Timber and State Parks Tourist Bureau. In 1971, the agency name was changed to the Department of Natural Resources. More sections were added and many of the divisions were changed.
Frank was the head of forest service in the area, according to Betty, and all but one of his guys were WWII veterans. At that time if vets applied for a job with the state of Minnesota they had priority with federal unemployment programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which provided labor for the veterans.
When her parents first moved to the park they lived in what is now called the hostel. Betty and her two sisters, Armilla and Lucy were raised on what was called the ranger station at that time, which was not built until after Betty was four years old.
Their home, which was called “the bunkhouse,” had an office, a pumphouse and a warehouse. The warehouse and the pumphouse are still there as well as the house, but the kitchen was converted into a garage and now, according to Betty, it is currently occupied by another staff of the park.
Betty and her sisters attended first through eighth grade in an old country school outside of the park, which is no longer standing.
“Dad paid to have a gentlemen haul us kids in the park to school,” she recalled.
She attended high school in Bagley and lived at Itasca until she got married.
Even though Betty grew up in a very rural setting, life was far from dull in Itasca.
“I can remember we use to go to movies in the fire hall in Lake George to watch the old Ma and Pa Kettle shows,” she said. The naturalist at the time, Don Lewis, would also host movie nights in the park at the museum and Forest Inn that were about nature, wildlife, birds, forest fires and such.
Betty can also recall the buffalo enclosure with was part of the Itasca Zoo, located up the road from her childhood home and remembers seeing pictures of her mother feeding the elk that were moved in the late 1930s, too early for her to remember seeing them herself.
“We’d go swimming in the morning, Dad didn’t allow us to go swimming without Mom. We’d go back to the house and have lunch,” Betty said in recollection of how she spent her childhood days. “Of course we’d have to wash the dishes and then we were back at the beach by 12:30. And then Mom, bless her heart, she’d sit there until four o’clock and then we had to get home because supper had to be on the table by five, then dad would go fishing and we’d go swimming again.”
“When I was a kid we never left Itasca Park,” Betty said in reference to how different things are now. “With WWII you didn’t have gas to go anywhere and Wegmann’s Store set down by the lake; we walked to the store maybe once a week.”
According to Betty’s observations, there have been a lot of changes. There were resorts surrounding the park on what was then privately owned land. When the state bought the land extending the park the buildings were removed. There were four houses that belonged to the park that housed other families working in the park; those have since been removed. There have been new additions such as the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center and the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center as well as many updates to the bike trails, parking lots, boat docks, the picnic shelters and so much more.
Travelers useD to have to drive through the park in order to get to Bagley, but another road was put in to help alleviate the traffic, which is now called Wilderness Drive. The old road ran past Wegmann’s Store which provided groceries, gas and beer to people living in the park.
“There were booths and a dining area where people sat and drank beer,” Betty recalled.
The road also used to run through the picnic grounds. Betty can remember when the picnic grounds were “always full to the max.” She explained that the whole area was “all picnic tables” and according to Betty most days there wasn’t a single table available.
“We’d come shooting through on bicycles everyday,” she said about checking out the scene on a daily basis during her childhood.
Bear Paw Campground was the only public campground in the park when she was a kid. What is now called Pine Ridge Campground, used to be the vets camp in the late 1930s, where the veterans lived while they worked at the park.
Aiton Heights Fire Tower was originally shipped to Betty’s dad, Frank. Of all the fire towers that use to stand in the area she can only think of two that still remain; one by Laporte and the one in Itasca. It was put up at the ranger’s station but it was only there a few years before it was moved to its current location.
All of the towers had cabins for people to live in during the fire season. According to Betty, the cabin that sat below the Aiton Heights tower was moved down by the boat docks.
The ranger station had all the equipment for fighting fire which was nothing more than pump tanks, shovels and manpower back then.
“I can remember when they put the tanks on the pickups,” Betty said.
“Dad said ‘our first problem is fire; our second problem is educated foresters. You can’t fight fire by the books, you can’t cruise timber by the books,’” Betty recalled of her dad’s fondness for the timber he was charged with looking after. “His area ran all the way to Roy Lake, Elbow Lake past Mantrap and across from here to Bemidji up into Bagley. All of that timber was his responsibility.”
While Betty reminisced about all of the things that used to be, the park and the area that surrounds it has all changed so much from her recollections and she describes it in such detail it is easy to imagine what she must have seen as a child.
Betty and her husband, Lowell, met when he was a patient in the hospital in Bagley; at the time she was working as a nurse’s aid.
“I had pneumonia, she trapped me when I was sick,” Lowell said with a laugh. “Best thing I ever did.”
Next March will mark their 60th wedding anniversary.
The couple moved away from the area and lived in many different places including San Francisco, San Diego and Guam while Lowell served in the United States Navy from 1952 to 1972.
Even though Betty has not lived in the park since she was 18 years old, it is clear to anyone who has the opportunity to sit and listen to her reminisce about her childhood that Betty is fond of Itasca. Her and Lowell traveled far from Minnesota while Lowell was on active duty but now they spend nearly every weekend within sight of the park in their camper at Camp Itasca.