Russell’s roots

Editor’s note: This is the first of a periodic 3-part series on cities celebrating quasquicentennials this summer

RUSSELL – When Gary Erdmann came to the Russell area more than 35 years ago, he noted the peace and quiet of the town.

He also got involved, serving on the school board for a good number of years and pitching in wherever he can.

This year, he’s heading up a milestone anniversary celebration for Russell.

“I told them I would make my last effort for the 125th,” Erdmann said. “Someone had to spearhead it to get it going.”

This weekend, the community of Russell is looking back at its 125 years of history with a variety of activities – from a model train display in the school cafeteria by the Dakota Southeast Division of the National Model Railroad Association to a vintage clothing program to displays of the town, school history and businesses.

Back in 1888, the Willmar and Sioux Falls railroad track was laid through Russell. The town of Russell was founded in May 1888 and platted on Jan. 19, 1889. It was incorporated on Sept. 2, 1898. It was named for Russell Spicer, the son of a promoter of the building of the branch railway. In the fall of 1888, the Northwestern elevator and a section house were built, and Ephraim Skyhawk put up a two-story building. The ground floor was a little store, and his family lived on the second floor. The post office came in February 1889.

In the first few years of Russell’s existence, a blacksmith shop was built, a harness shop opened, a pool hall was started – which was replaced by a hardware store – a hotel was built, a lumber yard was started, along with residences, a church and other businesses.

In 1890, a one-room school building was constructed on a hill south of the main business section. It started with 19 students and teacher Addie Pierce of Marshall. As enrollment grew, a new two-story, four-room school was built in 1897. With even more growth and a three-year high school course offering, a new school was opened in the fall of 1920. The Class of 1921 was Russell’s first graduating class.

On March 3, 1921, a fire was started by the furnace in the basement of Bundlie Mercantile Store and nearly half of the businesses on Russell’s main street were affected. Six buildings were completely burned, and the bank and drug store were badly damaged.

Bev (Kramer) Evans was one of Russell School’s longest-serving teachers. She grew up east of Marshall, and her first time in Russell was when she was the first Lyon County Dairy princess in 1956.

“That used to be a big celebration here because of all the dairy,” Evans said about Lyon County Dairy Days.

Evans said her father was on the county committee to get Dairy Days started. It was mentioned that Russell was a nice little spot to have the event.

“Ted Stark, the mayor (said) ‘why, we’d be happy to have Dairy Days here,'” Evans said.

Evans remembered it was extremely hot on the day of the parade.

“It was so hot, it was 98 degrees,” Evans said. She said there was supposed to be animals in the parade, but the heat made their owners keep them at home.

“But it was probably the most friendly bunch of people I have ever worked with,” Evans added. “Little did I know I would come back to teach.”

In 1960, Evans started teaching home economics at the Russell School after she graduated from the University of Minnesota. Her tenure with the school lasted for 50 years when she retired in 2010. She remembered how Russell was back in 1960 with three grocery stores, three restaurants, a drug store and a hardware store.

“This was such an active little town,” she said.

Evans said that a lot of her life has surrounded the Russell community.

Erdmann came to Russell in 1977 to work at the Southwest Minnesota Dairyman’s Association. He took over Dairy Days in 1978 and was elected chairman until 1995. He also worked with regional Dairy Days for three to four years. He said that Russell was probably going to be a stepping stone.

“I fell in love with the community and people,” he said. There were natural resources and wildlife, and it was a good place to raise a family.

Lyon County Dairy Days ran in Russell through 1995. Then the town’s annual celebration became known as Bandwagon Days. Russell’s first band was organized in 1900 with 25 members. After the band was reorganized a third time in 1922, a screened-in bandwagon was constructed by the village. Then in 1972, the Coon Creek 4-H club restored the bandwagon.

“There was no way we would get rid of that bandwagon,” Evans said.

The bandwagon was destroyed by the July 1, 2011, storm. The wheels and frame were intact, and a new wagon was constructed. Erdmann said the new one will be introduced at today’s parade.

“The bandwagon is back in business,” Erdmann said. He said that Cassie Goodmund created the logo for the bandwagon from photos he sent her.

Today’s festivities also include a “then and now” program, fireworks, the rodeo, a kids’ fishing contest, an Elvis impersonator, tractor, lawnmower and ATV pulls, rolle bolle, the parade and other activities. A school tour was added. Being on the school board, Erdmann said, “this would be a chance to show it off.”