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News from the week of December 27, 2006


Sun sets on Willow Lake

Ideas sought to preserve church

By Seth Schmidt

The graceful country spire of Willow Lake Lutheran has beckoned worshipers from a hilltop east of Lake Shetek since 1899.

But on Christmas Eve 2006, no church bell pealed at Willow Lake. No shoes stomped up the church’s front steps. Rosy-cheeked neighbors did not shout “Merry Christmas.” No candles flickered in the sanctuary, and no Yule carols were sung. The pulpit remained silent, the pews empty, and no coffee aromas wafted from the church basement.

“It was a tough thing to do,” said Willow Lake president Swede Campbell, of the decision this fall to disband the congregation. An Oct. 22 service, which officially dissolved Willow Lake as an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America congregation, was an especially emotional time.

“It was hard on us,” said Campbell, who has family members from both sides of his family at the Willow Lake Cemetery. “For some of us, this has been the only church we’ve ever known.”

Willow Lake didn’t have enough people to keep going, he said.

“We knew this day was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier when it happened,” Campbell said. “We were a small, but very active church.”

The white-steepled building is the last country church in the immediate Tracy area.


132-year history

Willow Lake was among the area’s oldest churches. The congregation was founded in 1874, a year before a post office was established in the future town of Tracy, and two years before Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was wiped out at the Little Big Horn. Willow Lake’s first members were mostly Norwegian immigrant farmers who met in one another’s simple homes. Traveling ministers served the fledgling group. It was not until 1899 that the congregation built a church on two acres of land in Section 26 of Shetek Township. The 50x28-foot structure, erected with the craftsmanship and sweat of its members, cost $2,000 to build. Another $246 outfitted the church’s interior with pews, an altar and Baptismal font.

Willow Lake Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran was the congregation’s official name at the 1899 church dedication. The name stuck until 1934, when the congregation became Shetek Lutheran. Nine years later, the name reverted to Willow Lake Lutheran.

The church developed a bustling Ladies Aid, Luther League and Sunday school. But the church remained small. A 1952 church report showed two Baptisms and one marriage for the year. Members took turns dong custodial work at the church.

In 1962, Willow Lake became a two-point parish, sharing a pastor with Our Savior’s Lutheran in Dovray.

A major remodeling project in 1974 put a under the structure with rest rooms and a kitchen. Lake Sarah Lutheran joined Willow Lake and Our Savior in a three-point parish in 1998, sharing pastoral services and rotating services.

The three-point arrangement with Lake Sarah Lutheran and Our Savior’s continued until 2005. Discussions were held in 2005 with Lake Sarah and Our Savior’s Lutheran sharing pastoral services with Tracy Lutheran, which was then served by two pastors. That possibility fell through when Tracy Lutheran members voted against the proposal and reduced its own staff to one pastor.


Fond memories

Longtime Willow Lake members have fond memories of the church.

Marvel Erbes, 90, has been a Willow Lake member all her life. She still lives in the farmhouse not far from the church where she and her late husband, Gerald, raised ten children. One of their sons, Paul, became a pastor.

“I can remember services in Norwegian, but I couldn’t understand it,” she recalled. Both of her parents, Henry and Mabel Haugen, emigrated from Norway as children in the late 1800s.

Mrs. Erbes vividly remembers many other Willow Lake church activities, ranging from Ladies Aid and Luther League meetings, to church suppers, Sunday School and summer Bible School.

She and her husband got married at her home, but she was Baptized and confirmed at Willow Lake Lutheran, as were all of her children.

“Yes, it has special meaning,” Mrs. Erbes reflects. “It would be grand,” she adds, if the church building could be preserved.

• • •

Carol Dahl says that until this year, Willow Lake has been the only church she and her husband, Ron had known in 38 years of marriage.

“The church is so dear to us. We’ve had so many good years worshiping there.”

It was with great reluctance that the Dahls transferred to Tracy Lutheran Church earlier this year. They felt that Willow Lake had become too small to be viable congregation.

“We had no Easter Services, no Christmas service, no Ladies Aid. The attendance was getting smaller and smaller. We just thought it was time to move on,” Carol said.

When Ron’s father, Herb, became ill, she said, it was difficult not having a resident pastor close by.

“During hard times, you do need your own pastor.”

The daughter of the late Ole and Joyce Grinde, Dahl grew up at Tracy Lutheran. The Dahl family has deep roots at Willow Lake. Ron’s grandfather’s was one of the congregation’s founder’s. His uncle, Oscar, was the first baby baptized in the 1899 Willow Lake Church.

• • •

Hollie Campbell, 97, became a Willow Lake Lutheran member at the age of 3. He belonged to the church for 93 years until joining Tracy Lutheran this fall.

His new church home is fine, he said, but “you don’t have the closeness we had in a small church.”

Willow Lake members, he said, had to roll up their sleeves and help because there weren’t many members. Men took turns cleaning out snow in the winter, mowing the lawn in the summer, and maintaining the church. In the old days, when the church was heated with a coal-burning store, someone had to come to the church early to start a fire Campbell remembered. Before electric service was brought to the church in 1948, kerosene lamps were used to light the church.

Campbell also recalled an era when church services were held at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, rather than the morning.

“All the farmers had a lot of chores to do then. We wouldn’t have been able to get all that done before church,” he said.

In “the olden days,” Campbell said, Willow Lake’s country people traveled to the church by horse-powered wagons and buggies. As many as 15 teams of horses would be tied up outside the church, he said. In winter, men tried to keep the horses warm by throwing blankets on their backs.

Betty Foster used to be called “the cookie lady” at Willow Lake Lutheran. For years, she baked cooked for Willow Lake’s Sunday School children.

“It was such a lovely church and the people were so friendly. It was just like a family. I felt so bad when it closed up.”

She left Willow Lake only after the church had to discontinue its Sunday school program in the 1990s.

“I just wasn’t as comfortable there without children,” she said.


Looking for ideas

What does the future hold for the Willow Lake Church?

Swede Campbell says that the Willow Lake Church building now belongs to the Willow Lake Cemetery Association. The cemetery association, formed in 1970, has about $30,000 set aside for the perpetual care of the cemetery near the church.

Ideally, Campbell said, most Willow Lake members would like to see the church building preserved, and are open to ideas. One idea, he said, is to see whether the church could qualify for some state historical preservation funds. There have been occasions, he said, where outside people have wanted t use the church for weddings. Perhaps the church could host weddings and other special events periodically to generate revenue to preserve the church, Campbell said.

“We’re checking into a number of different things, but so far haven’t decided upon anything. We’re open to ideas,” Campbell said.

Most everyone he has talked with, Campbell said, wants to find some way to preserve the church.

“I farm 1,100 acres of land and I can see the church spire from every direction. It’s a beautiful sight.” Campbell said.


Grant application process continues


By Seth Schmidt

It may be several months before its known whether Tracy has secured a second Small Cities grant.

Lisa Graphenteen of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership says she doesn’t look for state officials to make any Small Cities grant announcements until March or April. Tracy has hired the Slayton-based housing partnership to prepare its grant application.

The Tracy application has been combined with grant requests from the City of Currie, and Holly and Des Moines townships. The combined application is expected to improve each entity’s chances of qualifying for grant funding.

“Tracy is the lead application,” Graphenteen said.

The combined application seeks $435,000 in grant money to rehabilitate 22 owner-occupied houses and eight rental units. The grant money on the 30 housing projects would be matched by owner investments of about $289,000.

The Tracy-Currie-township grant application also seeks $27,600 to demolish up to four buildings that are beyond repair.

In 2003, the City of Tracy qualified for a $934,000 Small Cities grant. Over a three-year period, the grant money helped rehabilitate 25 owner occupied houses in Tracy, 13 commercial buildings, and 15 apartments. With owner contributions, the construction activity in Tracy totaled nearly $1.5 million.

Because applications for the 2003-05 program far exceeded the money available, Tracy leaders decided to apply for Small Cities grant money again this year. New program guidelines resulted in the elimination of the commercial portion of the grant. Tracy leaders also agreed to combine their application with Currie and the Murray County townships, after being told the group effort would improve the city’s chances.

The Small Cities Community Block Grant program is administered by the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development.


Adult basic education fills needs

By Valerie Scherbart Quist

An immigrant who moves to the area lacks the language skills he needs to get a job. A veteran worker loses her job after 25 years and lacks the computer skills she needs to get a new job. Where can these people turn for help?

Southwest ABE provides help in many different areas for those seeking adult basic education. Marshall Region Director Pat Thomas said the goals of adult education are very simple.

“In my opinion, adult education is all about giving people the skills they need to get a job,” she said. This includes refugees with limited skills or young adults who dropped out of school and want to correct their past mistakes. “We’re all about helping people maximize their potential.”

The Marshall consortium is one of 53 throughout the state of Minnesota. In 2004, the Marshall consortium joined with consortiums from Granite Falls, Jackson, Marshall, and Worthington into Southwest ABE. Southwest ABE covers 18 counties in Southwest Minnesota. Last year, the Marshall Region served 743 adult learners totaling 26,269 contact hours.

Thomas said a major reason for combining the consortiums was to garner greater funding. The consortiums can still operate separately, but money and resources can be shifted to where they are most needed.

There are several types of adult basic education offered by Southwest ABE, including GED and English as a Second Language classes.

Thomas said earlier in the decade, English as a Second Language drew a lot of interest in Tracy. However, when those people got jobs, interest in the class declined as people focused on work and family. Now, a class is still offered in Walnut Grove and transportation is offered for those from Tracy who want to attend.

Southwest ABE also offers many other tools for people in the area.

Earlier this year a swearing-in ceremony was held in Marshall for immigrants who had taken their citizenship test. Thomas said it took about a year of planning to get a swearing-in ceremony in Marshall. Area students were invited to the ceremony as an educational opportunity and around 300 attended, said Thomas.

Another major area where Southwest ABE is branching out is over the Internet. At, there are many tools available to help people with technology tips, reading skills, financial empowerment, and more.

Those who need to improve their reading skills may access a program on the website that has them read along with a recording.

“This curriculum is getting national recognition,” said Thomas.

Another program on the site that helps with reading and comprehension skills uses a voice recording along with visuals. Thomas said this program was developed for ESL students, but also works well for small who are learning to read and write.

The goal of the financial empowerment program is to link financial institutions to local communities. The program was created with a $1,500 grant through Minnesota Extension. Thomas said after the grant was received it was realized that there were tremendous resources for financial empowerment but no link to the community.

Thomas said the website has been tremendously successful.

“We get hits internationally and from coast to coast,” she said.

In addition to the technology tips offered on the website, Southwest ABE also offers computer classes. Last year, computer classes were offered in Lamberton, Wabasso, Redwood Falls, and Comfrey. Several other communities, including Tracy, are considering offering classes.

The classes are offered in an open lab format, and each individual can receive up to 30 hours of free computer training every year. Thomas said the open lab format allows people to work at their own speed while still receiving help. The goal, she added, is to help people gain the computer skills they need to get a job or to get a better job.

Another area where Southwest ABE reaches out to communities is through collaboration with public schools.

Thomas said she works with school counselors to reach out to high school students in danger of dropping out of school. In many cases, she said, a student does not have enough credits to graduate due to a variety of circumstances. If a student is at risk of dropping out, he or she is given practice GED test. That way, areas where a student needs improvement can be identified and extra help can be given to ensure that the student passes.

Thomas said a very important aspect of adult basic education is that the state chooses to invest in the program. In some states, adult basic education programs only receive funding on the federal level. Earlier this year, Thomas addressed committees in both the state Senate and House to promote legislation to increase ABE funding. The legislature has agreed to appropriate an additional $1.25 million for ESL services for each of the next two years.

For more information on Southwest ABE-Marshall Region and the programs that are offered, visit or call (507) 537-7046.


National Guard hands out school supplies to kids in Iraq


Editor’s note—A local campaign was held earlier this year to collect school supplies for children in Iraq. A military newspaper published by the Minnesota National Guard 134th Brigade Support Battalion reported on the distribution of the supplies. The article was written by Capt. Andrew Peterson. A photo of Jasmine Handevidt, daughter of Brenda Ness of Tracy, accompanied the article.

“When are you coming to my school?” was the message a school headmaster (principal) had passed through our interpreter. Word is out: the 134th Brigade Support Battalion is passing out school supplies in the area and everybody wants to be part of the effort.

This project was inherited from our predecessors and has developed through input from our Effects Working Group. The Supply the Future Program involves families and friends back home, who have donated numerous school supplies and backpacks, shipping them at their own cost. We have also supplemented these personal donations with some packaged supplies through the Operation Iraqi Children program.

Soldiers who have been working on convoys or patrols, in the motor pool, staff areas or guard towers have been volunteering to participate in the program. This provides soldiers an opportunity to interact with local school kids and their teachers in a positive exchange that provides both soldier and student a different perspective on our mission.

Of course, each school we visit also has requests for furniture, building renovations and other requests. These are things that have to be developed as projects through our project nomination process and are a bit more complicated to provide. However, the Supply the Future program is unique in that every student of the approximately 20 schools in our area will be influenced through the generous donations of folks back home.

We seem to get cheers and smiles from children and staff alike when we explain that these packages were not provided by the U.S. government or military, but were put together by loved ones back home or by a private charity. Each week between now and Christmas, we will be packing up boxes full of backpacks or bags full of school supplies, loading up our trucks with Soldier volunteers and head out to one of the area schools. Thank you so much for your generosity in helping us have a positive impact on the future of Iraq!


Ludeman named state commissioner


Tracy native Cal Ludeman has been appointed commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS).

Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced the appointment last week. Ludeman, a 1969 Tracy High School graduate, had been serving as acting commissioner of the department since July.

The DHS is the state’s largest department with a biennial budget of $17.8 billion. The department has about 7,000 employees. More than one million Minnesotans are served by the department each year. Services provided or administered by the DHS include health care, programs for the elderly and disabled, economic assistance, and child welfare.

Ludeman served three terms in the state legislature from 1979 to 1985, and was the Independent-Republican party’s candidate for governor in 1986.

The son of Sander and Mary Lou Ludeman of Tracy, Ludeman is a partner in Sanmarbo Farms of rural Tracy.

He and his wife, Deb, have three adult children: Ben, Hilary, and Grant.


Lake Maria restoration nears milestone


(Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources)

Conservationists from around the lake and throughout Minnesota have been eagerly waiting for the day when problem fish would be eliminated from southwest Minnesota’s Lake Maria – a 425-acre shallow waterfowl lake of historic significance. The wait is nearly over.

That’s the word from Mark Gulick, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Manager at Talcot Lake.

Waterfowl hunters and clean-water advocates know aquatic plants provide important wildlife habitat and are essential for maintaining clean water. Bottom-feeding fish such as carp, buffalo, and bullheads root up beneficial plants and their rooting activity makes the water too turbid for submergent plants to grow.

Additionally, excessive numbers of small fish like fathead minnows can harm water quality and thereby limit submerged plant growth. These small fish over-consume aquatic invertebrates such as fresh water shrimp (amphipods) that help control algae populations. The end result of an unbalanced system is an over- abundance of minnows, few invertebrates, and excessive algae populations that leads to the murky green water that prevents submergent plant growth.

Such has been the situation for years at Lake Maria in Murray County. In the near future conditions are expected to improve, thanks to the Lake Maria Wetland Enhancement Project. The first phase of this project was completed in 2005 and involved installing a pump and an electric fish barrier. Unfortunately, near-record rain events during September 2005 and April 2006 prevented using the pump, but a return to more normal precipitation patterns this past summer allowed the pump to be used to initiate the drawdown, (temporary dewatering of the lake).

“Except for a few fish-clogging problems, the pump worked well, as nearly three feet of water were removed from the lake in about 40 days of pumping,” Gulick noted. Presently, less than 10” of water remains in the deepest parts of the basin and DNR biologists are confident that the remaining carp and bullheads in Lake Maria will freeze out or die due to low oxygen levels this winter. Over 1,000 large carp have already been removed from the lake in an effort to prevent odor and nutrient-loading problems associated with dead fish.

The second phase of the project is scheduled to begin next spring when the electric fish barrier is activated to prevent fish from re-entering Lake Maria. Eliminating problem fish will help promote the growth of important submerged and floating-leaf waterfowl plants such as sago and other pondweeds, elodea, duck potato, and duckweed.

The lake will then be temporarily de-watered during the growing season to allow for the germination and growth of cattail, bulrush and other emergent plants on exposed mudflats. The mix of emergent, submergent, and floating-leaf plants will provide nesting, feeding, and escape cover for a host of wetland-dependent wildlife species.

“These plants also help maintain the clean-water state in shallow lakes like Maria by protecting shorelines from the erosive impacts of waves, stabilizing bottom sediments, and using up nutrients that would otherwise be available to grow nuisance algae species,” Gulick explained. The final step of the project will be to continue monitoring the lake’s health in future years, using such parameters as water quality, vegetative abundance and diversity, and waterfowl and water bird use.

Although current management activities will improve the condition of Lake Maria, wetland ecology is dynamic and continued management will be needed, Gulick said. Fish, whether illegally reintroduced by man or occurring by more natural means, are likely to reappear in Lake Maria at some point in the future and will need to be controlled again.

Muskrats are natural and beneficial members of the wetland community, but in time they could also overpopulate the marsh and eliminate much of the vegetation through feeding and hut building. Either case would require a temporary drawdown of Lake Maria to replicate the natural dry cycle that wetlands need to maintain health.

The history of the demise of Lake Maria is similar to those of other wetlands and shallow lakes in the upper Midwest, but the story of its recovery is unique and encouraging, according to Gulick.

Prior to European settlement, the landscape of the upper Midwest consisted of a near-endless mosaic of prairie and wetlands. This landscape provided fairly consistent flows of clean water to wetlands, which in turn promoted a diversity of plants and wildlife species. With the conversion of the wetland/prairie ecosystem to row crop production, rural homes and towns, infrastructure, and other development, both the quantity and quality of water entering aquatic systems from surrounding watersheds changed.

“Drainage eliminated nearly all small wetlands and degraded most of the larger ones by providing too much polluted water too fast,” Gulick stated. On many basins, fixed-crest dams exacerbated in-lake problems by holding water levels too high for too long, thus preventing them from going through the natural drying process they need.

Sediment and nutrient-rich runoff from both agricultural and urban watersheds resulted in cloudy and algae-filled waters that contributed to the disappearance of many clean-water dependant plant and wildlife species. The introduction of carp and other exotic plant and animal species further contributed to poor aquatic conditions, as many of these directly impaired water quality and out-competed more desirable native species.

While historical photos and personal accounts depict a clean-water lake filled with a diverse plant community and used by a wide-array of wildlife species, by the 1970’s Lake Maria was reduced to a carp-filled mud hole of little use to wildlife or humans.

The road to recovery for Lake Maria actually began in 1991 when the lake was designated through a process whereby the state receives legal authority to manage shallow lakes for optimum wetland and waterfowl benefits. Concurrent to the designation process DNR biologists completed a temporary drawdown and installed a mechanical fish barrier.

Central to this project, Gulick said, was local landowner and long-time waterfowl hunter Winston Peterson who donated a construction easement as well as Ducks Unlimited, which assisted with project engineering and funding. Although the drawdown was successful in eliminating problem fish and re-vegetating the basin, those positive results were short-lived as flooding during the mid-1990s resulted in the return of fish and loss of vegetation.

In 2002, Lake Maria was again on conservationists’ radar as the Minnesota Waterfowl Association (MWA) and DNR began to discuss more intensive lake management strategies. It was agreed that an electric fish weir (a barrier superior to a mechanical structure as it precludes the movement of all size-classes of fish and is not prone to plugging with debris) would be the most effective tool to prevent fish entry into Maria.

About the time that an electric barrier was being considered, Murray County announced plans to replace the road culvert that contains the stream that separates Lake Maria from her downstream, 1093-acre big sister, Lake Sarah.

“The location of this culvert, plus Murray County’s generous offer to provide in-kind labor to replace the culvert with a specially designed electric barrier culvert, was the catalyst needed to fast track the project” Gulick said.

Biologists realized that for the project to be successful a pump would need to be installed to periodically de-water Lake Maria, since that lake’s water levels are controlled by the fixed-crest dam on Lake Sarah. Once engineering plans and construction estimates for the fish barrier and pump were obtained, project partners began scrambling for construction funds.

Once again, Peterson played a pivotal role by garnering financial and in-kind labor donations from an array of local sources. Other partners providing important financial and in-kind support were: the People’s Association for Lake Sarah; the Balaton Sportsman’s Club; MWA; – Shetek Prairie Chapter; Murray County; DU; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the 2005 Ducks, Wetlands, and Clean Water Coalition; the state Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) program, and the DNR.

DU deserves special recognition for tackling the time-consuming and sometimes frustrating project, Gulick noted.

“Despite a full workload, the organization realized that Lake Maria had the potential to be a cornerstone project of its recently launched Living Lakes Initiative (LLI) and therefore agreed to oversee project management and provide funding,” Gulick pointed out. LLI is a long-term plan developed by DU to identify, protect, and manage important shallow waterfowl lakes in Minnesota and Iowa.

Fueled by research that shows a precipitous decline of scaup and other important wetland-dependant species may be linked to poor aquatic food resources in the upper Midwest, DU plans to improve key “ stepping stone” shallow lakes such as Maria to provide adequate migration habitat and food through this intensive agricultural region. Management strategies will focus on implementing water control and fish exclusion capabilities within lakes and protecting shorelines from the impacts of agriculture and development with conservation easements.

“Lake Maria is one of several key shallow lakes throughout the state that DU and our partners have identified as being hugely important to improve for both migrating ducks and hunters alike,” said Jon Schneider, DU manager of conservation programs for Minnesota. “In partnership with the Minnesota DNR’s shallow lakes program and area wildlife field staff, DU will continue engineering and installing water control structures and fish barriers and securing conservation easements through our Living Lake Initiative to help the state meet its Duck Plan goal of managing and protecting 1,800 shallow lakes.”

The DNR’s 2006 Long Range Duck Plan will also provide continued benefit to Lake Maria. Among other ambitious goals, this plan lays the groundwork for achieving a Minnesota spring breeding population of one million and a fall flight of 1.4 million ducks. Key to this plan is the Working Lands Initiative (WLI), an innovative strategy developed by the DNR and USFWS to combine local resource mangers knowledge with state-of-the-art computer modeling and Geographical Information System technology to identify and enhance waterfowl production habitat in the duck producing region of western Minnesota.

“Although public land acquisition and development will be a component of the WLI, major emphasis will be exerted on finding and funding socially and economically acceptable ways to maintain large blocks of diverse wetland/grass complexes on the landscape,” Gulick explained.

A discussion group consisting of resource managers from private, county, state, and federal conservation and agricultural agencies recently met and identified the Lake Maria watershed as one of Murray County’s top two WLI focus areas. Group members agreed that in addition to providing landowners with incentives to enroll sensitive lands into perpetual conservation easements like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), RIM, and others, WLI funding would also be used to fund innovative practices, including grazing on public lands, and supporting concepts associated with the development of grass-based biofuels.

Although biologists doubt that the lake will ever return to the pristine condition of the late 1800’s, they are optimistic that the lake will again function as a healthy system and provide quality habitat needed by wildlife species.

Dave Schad, DNR Fish and Wildlife Director, said cooperation between numerous players is critical to the success of projects such as Lake Maria.

”As the DNR Duck Recovery Plan documented, the waterfowl habitat challenges Minnesota faces are daunting, and no one agency or organization can fix them by themselves,” Schad stated. The interest and dedication shown by local landowners such as Winston Peterson, citizens like those who donated to the Ducks, Wetlands, and Clean Water rallies or to organizations such as DU or the MWA, provide hope for Lake Maria and other treasured Minnesota wetlands and lakes.”

Peterson is exuberant about the possibilities for Lake Maria. “I shot my first duck – a hen pintail - on Lake Maria some 60 years ago. I’ve watched the lake change from a tremendous waterfowl lake to a dirty, lifeless, mud hole in those 60 years, and am now overjoyed that the lake may again help the ducks,” he stated.