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West End News

Clare Shirley

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Clare Shirley

Clare Shirley owns and runs Sawbill Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Sawbill Trail in Tofte with her husband Dan. Clare was born in Grand Marais and grew up in Tofte. Clare is a third-generation Outfitter, and third-generation West End News writer. Clare follows in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, Bill and Frank Hansen, long time West End News columnists.

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.

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West End News: December 29

Here's Clare Shirley -- the new voice of West End News.

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Bill and his daughter Clare found this freshly shed moose antler while out grooming the ski trail at Sawbill

West End News: An interview with Bill Hansen and Clare Shirley

Bill Hansen has been the voice of the West End News for the past 5 years. Bill’s daughter, Clare, will be taking over this weekly report, and Jay Andersen recently spoke with both Bill and Clare about this transition.

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The new West End News commentator, Clare Shirley

West End News: December 15

I was very happy to hear the news that the effort to build rental housing in Lutsen that is targeted toward people who live and work in the West End took a big step forward this week. A $325,000 grant was awarded by the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development to the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority. This is a key piece of financing for a 2.7 million dollar plan to build 16 market-rate rental apartments in Lutsen.

The housing shortage in all of Cook County is severe, so this project, along with one planned for Grand Marais and one for Tofte, will be a big step toward easing the shortage. One Roof Community Housing, based in Duluth, is bringing their vast experience as a key partner, hopefully to all three projects. This is not the complete solution to the problem, but is a giant step in the right direction. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many people who have been working on this for so long.

Speaking of good news, I recently saw a report from Visit Cook County, the group that markets Cook County as a tourist destination, that tourism dollars county-wide are up 25% in the last five years. This is significant because it was a little over five years ago that the four parts of Cook County -- Grand Portage, Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail and the West End -- decided to pool their marketing budgets and promote the county as a whole. Elaborate financial safeguards were put in place to make sure that each area was treated fairly, but even so, it was hard to build trust among the parts of the county that had been in competition with each other for so many years.

In the ten years before Visit Cook County was created, tourism was declining each year, leading up to the recession, which really took a toll. It is now crystal clear that the decision to work together has paid off handsomely for all. In fact, in the last year, Grand Marais has shown the most growth, which is obvious if you spend any time at all in town.

Our local marketing expertise is getting better all the time and the tools available for targeted marketing are also improving fast, so barring any unforeseen disaster, we should see robust growth for at least a few more years, especially in the slow seasons. Congratulations to the hard working staff of Visit Cook County for their success.

Word is out that ice skating has begun on inland lakes. It's not ideal, as there is some snow on the ice, but if you're willing to skate through the snow or do a little shoveling, there is good lake skating to be had.

Be careful - and I speak from personal experience - to always check the ice depth before you skate. Never skate alone and always carry ice picks to pull yourself out if you do fall through. You should also have dry clothing in a waterproof backpack or at least have access to dry clothing and a warm car nearby.

With some wistfulness, I would like to announce that this will be the last time you will hear me as the regular voice of the West End News. I am delighted to report that my very capable daughter, Clare Shirley, will be taking over this commentary, just as I took it over from my dad many years ago. I may be substituting occasionally for Clare when she is busy or out of town, so I may get a chance again to talk about the bloodmobile or the Birch Grove Carnival in the future, which makes me happy.

Even though I'm now officially a "townie," my heart will always be in the warm and wonderful West End.

For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

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 Onion River Road Ski Trail, now open for early season skiing

West End News: December 8

Congratulations to the Silver Bay Police Department on reaching the august old age of 60 years. Most institutions in Silver Bay are in or near their 60th year because the town was created out of whole cloth when Reserve Mining built the taconite plant and power plant there in the late 1950s.

The current police officers and staff held an open house last week where they recognized all the former officers and administrators who have served in the last six decades. In a perfect world, we wouldn't need police forces, but in the real world it is crucial that communities have a method of enforcing behaviors that are agreed upon by civil society. The Silver Bay Police Department has always had a good reputation - both for their police work and for their strong connection to the community. If you see Chief Doug Frericks, or any of the current officers, be sure to thank them for their service.

I'm glad to hear that the Cook County Economic Development Authority is moving ahead quickly to help solve the severe housing shortage in Cook County. It looks like projects on the front burner include new housing in Grand Marais, Lutsen and Tofte, targeted toward the working person market. Tofte is already a ways down the road on their housing, but it makes sense for them to throw in with the EDA to finish the project. The EDA has the staff, resources, connections and expertise to make all three projects a success.

Once the current efforts are done, it will be time to see if more housing needs to be developed in other parts of the county. The need is so critical that now is not the time for parochial jealousies. Obviously, the problem can't be solved all at once, so let's get the get the baby walking and then move on to getting it running.

Although it came close, Sawbill Lake did not thaw out last week, so the official ice-in date for 2016 is November 23. This is late by historical standards, but pretty normal in recent years. The older snow didn't completely melt at Sawbill either, so with the recent additions, it really looks like Christmas back up in the woods.

Word has it that the Onion River Road Ski Trail in Lutsen is open for business. This is always the first trail to open in the West End and the avid early season skiers have become quite expert in providing a quality skiing experience with the bare minimum of snow.

Lutsen Mountains is also expert at getting the downhill skiing going as early as possible in the season. Between the natural snow and the snow-making made possible by colder weather, they should have most runs ready for schussing soon.

Mrs. Claus, who was featured on the front page of last week's Cook County News Herald, is a former Tofte resident who has recently moved to Grand Marais. Contrary to popular belief, Mrs. Claus is not actually married to Santa Claus, but is married to me. Seeing as how she has moved to Grand Marais, I decided to do it too, mainly so she will have someone to wash the windows and take out the recycling.

Obviously, it is difficult to be the author of the West End News when I no longer live in the West End. I have notified WTIP of my pending retirement from radio commentary - probably no later than Christmas time. Stay tuned for an announcement of a new commentator soon. Extra points if you can guess who it is. You have three guesses and the first two don't count.

For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

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Sawbill Lake, on a windy day, looking deceptively like open water, but it is actually ice - flooded by rain.

West End News: December 1

Congratulations to Craig Horak who has stepped up to fill the Tofte Township Supervisor position recently vacated by Paul James. Craig is a natural for the job. He was born and raised in Tofte at his parents' resort, Cobblestone Cabins. Craig and his wife Ellen have chosen to make Tofte their home and plan to raise their daughter there.

I'm glad to see younger people taking leadership roles in the West End. A regular infusion of new thinking in the community, combined with the wisdom of the elders, is a healthy thing. Speaking of elders, Craig's father, Jan Horak, served as the Tofte Township Treasurer shortly after the township was formed, back in the old, old days, so township government seems to run in the family.

As I've said before, township government is sometimes fun - and sometimes not so fun - and almost always a bit tedious. It is, however, the level of government that most directly impacts our lives and is vitally important, so I applaud those who serve.

If you're looking for fun with very little tedium, mark your calendar for the annual meeting of the Superior Timberwolves Sportsman's Club on Tuesday, December 6. Although this is the annual business meeting for the West End snowmobile club, it is more importantly a social hour, starting at 5:00, followed by potluck dinner from 6 to 7:00. A short business meeting will follow, but it beats washing the dishes any day. It all happens at the Tofte Town Hall.

Tofte native, Danielle Hansen, will be singing in the St. Olaf Christmas Festival this year. You may think, "what's the big deal about someone singing in their college Christmas program?" Well, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival is not your typical college musical event. It is truly a world class concert and you have to be a singer of the absolute highest quality to be allowed to participate. The training and rehearsal are a serious commitment and not easy. This is a very big deal for Danielle and for her parents, Paul Hansen and Diane Blanchette, who I'm sure are proud of their talented daughter. Danielle, it should be pointed out, is a 2015 graduate of Cook County High School.

The roads over the hill were virtually undriveable for a few days last week. I hasten to say that the bad roads were a victim of circumstances, not a lack of care by the county highway department. When the snow arrived last week the road surfaces were not yet frozen. This requires the plow drivers to keep their blades a few inches about the gravel to keep from plowing a thick layer of saturated gravel into the ditches. The ensuing rain turned the snow on the roads into dense slush - the kind that grabs control of the car from the driver and pulls it inexorably toward the ditch - even at slow speeds. Actually, normal speeds weren't even an option with the slush literally slowing even four wheel drive vehicles to a crawl. Now that is been driven on for a few days it is much better.

Many of the lakes in the back country were also weirdly affected by the rain. The lakes had already frozen over and received a few inches of snow. The rain melted the snow, but not the ice, leaving an inch or two of standing water on top of the ice from shore to shore. The ice is black, so it was an optical illusion with the lake looking like it would on a dead calm day even when the wind was blowing briskly. Overall, it was an eerie and unsettling effect. If only we would have received a quick cold snap at that moment - the ice skating would have been spectacular. Fingers crossed for some good skating eventually, but you never really know what mother nature has in store for us here in the beautiful West End.

For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

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Henry Wehseler, 1921-2016

West End News: November 24

I was saddened to hear, somewhat belatedly, that Henry Wehseler, long-time Tofte resident and the former owner of the North Shore Market in Tofte, had passed away more than a month ago.

Henry was born in St. Martin, Minnesota, in 1921, the son of German immigrant parents. He spoke German at home as a child and retained a soft German accent his whole life.

Henry served in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He and Florence, his wife of nearly 72 years, moved to Sawbill Landing after the war. Sawbill Landing was a temporary town that existed to house the loggers who worked the giant Tomahawk timber sale in the country east of Isabella.

Henry told me that he brought one of the very first chainsaws with him when he came to start logging. In those days, loggers were paid by piece-work and he figured the chainsaw would give him an advantage over the other loggers who were still using 40" bow saws to cut pulp. The early chainsaws were huge, heavy and unreliable. Henry, who was always firm in his opinions, stuck with the chainsaw for a few weeks before reluctantly setting it aside in favor of the bow saw, which was still the fastest tool for the job.

The timber company would set up a skid road through the sale, just passable enough for a tractor to drag a dray of logs, and then would assign each logger a 40 acre plot on one side of the trail. Each logger was responsible for felling the trees, cutting them to 100 inch lengths and piling them on the side of the skid road for loading. When I asked Henry how he moved the logs from the woods to the skid road, I was astonished to hear him say that he did it by hand. He would fell the tree, always in the direction of the road to save distance, buck it to length and then end-for-end each log to the landing. It would be no exaggeration to say that this was among the most physically demanding jobs in the history of the world. Also, being that it was piece-work, Henry worked incredibly long days. I'll never forget that when I incredulously asked Henry how he withstood this unimaginable hard labor, he shrugged and said with simple understatement, "oh, you toughen up after a few weeks."

When the Tomahawk timber sale wound down in the mid-1960s, Henry, Florence and their three boys moved to Tofte. While Henry continued to log and work construction, Florence went to work for Albin and Edith Nelson at the Long Lake Lumber Company store in Tofte. The store mostly provided groceries for the many transient lumber camps that were deep in the woods during that era. The foreman would drop off a grocery list from each lumberjack and then swing by to pick them up the next day. Florence would pack the groceries in a cardboard box for each lumberjack, so the groceries would stay safe during the rough ride back to camp in the foreman's pickup.

Around the time it became more of grocery store for the general public, Henry and Florence bought the store and operated it for more than 30 years. They continued to supply the camps and also served as a informal social service agency for the lumberjacks. For the whole time that he owned the store, Henry continued to pack groceries in cardboard boxes, much to the puzzlement of his tourist customers. At Sawbill, for many years, we saved all our cardboard boxes and brought them to Henry. We always called them "Henry boxes."

Henry didn't believe in borrowing money, so he expanded the store a few times over the years as he was able to save the money. After the store was fully built out, Henry and Florence saved up and built a beautiful home for themselves on a large piece of property across the Sawbill Trail from the store.

The North Shore Market, which is now the Tofte General Store, was the social hub of the West End while the Wehselers owned it. They worked there all day, every day, except for Sunday afternoons. Henry knew everyone in the community, as long as they shopped at the store. It was his work life, social life and personal life, all rolled into one. I can only remember Henry taking one vacation in all the years that he ran the store. It was to attend a reunion of his navel outfit and he was gone for two days. He did love to pick blueberries and could always be found in the berry patch during the few Sunday afternoons that came around during berry season.

Henry and Florence allowed people to charge groceries at the store and pay one bill at the end of the month. I know for a fact that if a family was having a particularly hard time, especially if they had children, their grocery charge would be forgiven. Henry and Florence treated everyone the same and assumed you were a good person until you proved them wrong.

Henry had a particular friendship with Cook County's famous Sheriff, John Lyght. John liked to tease Henry about breaking the law because he knew that Henry would rather die than break a law.

Henry also had a warm friendship with Senator Paul Wellstone, who frequently vacationed in Tofte. When he was in town, Senator Wellstone would walk to the store each morning to buy the daily newspapers. He and Henry would discuss the issues of the day while the Senator drank a few cups of coffee and skimmed the news. Henry was honest and forthright in his opinions with everyone, including the Senator, and was not shy if he disagreed. Senator Wellstone told me numerous times that he held Henry in very high regard and valued his friendship, precisely because he was so honest and unfazed with the Senator's high office.

Henry and Florence eventually sold the store and started splitting their time between Tofte and Florida. A few years ago, they sold their house and moved to Little Falls to be near Florence's relatives. Henry died on October 16th at the age of 95. He is survived by his wife, Florence, sons Richard, Gary and Bill, along with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He played a big role in the lives of so many people in the West End and was instrumental in making it the lovely community that is is today. Rest in peace, my friend.

For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

 

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The town hall, fire department, and rescue squad buildings, reflecting the 17 years of outstanding leadership from Paul James

West End News: November 17

Leadership is on everyone's mind these days, as it usually is after a presidential election. If you're looking for an example of dedicated leadership, look no further than former Tofte Township Supervisor, Paul James.

Paul was a Supervisor for 17 years and for many of those years served as the Chair. Year after year, he was selected from among all the township residents at the annual community meeting to lead the discussion about the upcoming priorities for Tofte.

Paul's contributions are too numerous to list in full, but just a short list would be his important role in upgrading and professionalizing the fire department and rescue squad. He led the charge for the town to acquire ownership of the Birch Grove School building that now houses the Birch Grove Community School and the Birch Grove Community Center. He negotiated with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to design a highway reconstruction plan that best met the needs of the town. He guided the town through a comprehensive planning process and led the charge for affordable housing.

In addition to all of this, Paul has been active in Zoar Lutheran Church, served as a volunteer fireman and led the Timberwolves snowmobile club forever.

Paul also led by example and could often be found doing some of the many unglamorous chores that keep a community looking good and functioning smoothly.

In my mind, Paul represents the second generation of leadership since Tofte re-incorporated as a township in the late 1970s. When the older generation started to age out, there was some question about who would step up. Paul stepped into the gap and never missed a beat.

I know that Paul will be an inspiration for a new generation of township leaders and the entire West End joins me in offering our sincere thanks for the thousands of selfless hours that he has put in on our behalf.

Congratulations to Deb and Nan at Lockport Store in Lutsen for their glowing review on the national website, onlyinyourstate.com. The popular online magazine said, "…this little cafe is a can't-miss-it stop on any trip up north." It's nice to see the rest of the world discover the good food and cordial atmosphere that every West Ender has known about for years.

If you're looking for a place to celebrate Thanksgiving, remember the community Thanksgiving at the Clair Nelson Community Center in Finland on Thursday, November 24, from 2-5 pm. This dinner is open to everyone and is very much in the cooperative Finnish spirit that abounds in this neck of the woods. If you are located closer to Grand Marais, the Congregational Church up there offers the same deal - good food, good company, no sermon and absolutely everyone is welcome.

No matter where you are on Thanksgiving, remember to take a moment to be thankful that you live in the wonderful West End.

For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

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Brady Lillie and Birch Grove alum, Josh Schmidt, are performing for the Birch Grove Community School dinner at Papa Charlie's

West End News: November 10

I'm feeling proud to be from Cook County this week. Our local election season was civil, sane and focused on the desire to make life better for all of us. The voters stepped up for the schools, making a strong statement about the importance great local education. Most of our local and state representatives were re-elected by wide margins, reflecting the fact that they're doing a pretty good job of working for us.

I thank everyone who serves in local elected office. It's a hard job and often a thankless job, but every single office holder in this neck of the woods is dedicated, hard-working and effective. Disagreements, when they occur, are about the issues and not the people.

On the national level, my feelings are just the opposite. I won't bore you with a litany of election ugliness, as others are doing that a-plenty. But, regular listeners will recall hearing me say that I personally believe that Donald Trump is a con-man. In spite of his being the winner of this awful election, I've seen nothing to change my opinion. The only thing I can say is that time will tell.

Another great example of good local leadership is the upcoming "Free Day at the Dentist" for all Cook County Youth on Monday, November 28. This wonderful program is under the umbrella of the North Shore Health Care Foundation and sponsored by the Oral Health Task Force and Grand Marais Family Dentistry.

Here's how it works: Just call Grand Marais Family Dentistry at 387-2774 and schedule an appointment for any child between the ages of 18 months and 26 years. The free visit will include an exam, cleaning, x-rays, fluoride and/or sealants. This offer applies to everyone, so to be eligible, you just have to be a kid.

This program has been going for a number of years now. A long list of generous people and organizations, too many to mention here, pony up money to make this happen. I'll just say thanks and you know who you are.

Before you take your kids to the dentist, take them - and yourself - to the annual Birch Grove Community School Dinner at Papa Charlie's from 5 to 8 pm on Saturday, November 19.

Not only is a delicious dinner served to you by Birch Grove staff and parents, there is also a big silent auction and some really good live music. The auction is famous for its scope and variety, but the music this year is something special.

Mysterious Ways is the band performing. The leader is Josh Schmidt, Lutsen boy born and bred, along with his talented musical partner, Brady Lillie. Josh and Brady will be freshly returned from an ambitious and successful national tour with their full band, Step Rockets. A heavy touring schedule will have sharpened the skills of these master musicians, so don't miss it, whatever you do.

Several canoes were rented at Sawbill last week and there were campers in most of the local campgrounds. It's the latest canoe and boating season that I can remember and the visitors were rewarded with stunningly beautiful weather.

Several people have commented on seeing white snowshoe hares recently. The white rabbits in the brown woods really stand out, defeating their clever camouflage plan. They probably have the right idea in the long run though. After all all, they've been West End residents for a long time.

For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

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West End News: November 3

The Bloodmobile is returning to Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte on Monday, November 14. It's surprising, in this day and age, that blood donation remains such a critical part of medical treatment. Having a good supply of blood on hand quite literally saves lives every day. The donation process is easy, fun, and leaves you with the good feeling of having done your part for your community. Jane Johnson is handling the scheduling this time around, so call her at 663-7254 to make your appointment.

Schroeder residents should all plan to attend the public hearing at 6:30 on Wednesday, November 9. Schroeder's Comprehensive Land Use Plan is being revised and this public hearing is your chance to weigh in on those changes before they become set in stone. Land use plans are just the kind of thing that people often say, "when did this happen?" and "why didn't I hear about this?" Well, this is happening now and you are hearing about it now. The more community members weigh in on the plan, the better it will be in the long run.

Schroeder Township Supervisor Bruce Martinson commented that Schroeder has more private land that can be developed than any other part of the Cook County. That fact surprised me until I thought about it for a minute.

Schroeder is in a job creating state of mind since Minnesota Power closed the power plant there last month. Hopefully, the new land use plan will get that process started.

A fun project is happening at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte. The church has two old bells. One is the longtime church bell and the other is the original bell from the old Tofte School, which was a classic white schoolhouse located in what now is the middle of the Bluefin Bay complex.

Three West End craftsmen are combining their talents to restore the bells and make them more interesting. Randy Nelson of Tofte cleaned and repainted them, Dave Rude of Tofte is making an interval control system that will allow them to be programmed to ring according to a pre-set schedule. Dave Gustafson of Schroeder is building a new enclosure to house the bells. Soon, we'll all be enjoying the fruits of their considerable skills.

We were working in the office at Sawbill this morning, when Cindy suddenly started saying, "moose, moose, moose!" Sure enough, a big, healthy-looking cow moose was strolling up the driveway. Just as she disappeared behind a building, Cindy started chanting again, "another one, another one, another one!" Here came a two-year-old calf, calmly stepping around the parked cars and following her mom into the back yard. They arranged themselves in the yard in front of the picture window, where they obligingly posed for pictures and video before wandering off down the ski trail.

Moose in the yard is a rare event these days, but it is a big part of the joy of living in the good old West End.

For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

(Photo courtesy of Veronika Ronkos on Wikimedia Commons)
 

   
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Buttered Lutefisk (Jonathunder / Wikimedia Commons)

West End News: October 27

The 2016 summer tourism season in the West End is in the records books and it may well be a record breaking year.  It was an unusually busy season for all, and especially busy through the fall, right up to and including the recently concluded MEA weekend. The traditional Minnesota school holiday was the latest possible this year, which extended the season beyond its usual boundaries. 
 
Back in the old days, many resorts in the West End would close on Labor Day.  The decision to promote the fall color season, back in the 1960s, quickly made September and half of October one of the busiest parts of the year.  Now, even the slow seasons see a fair number of visitors to the Shore.  Linda Jurek, Director of Visit Cook County, told me the other day that her highly effective marketing efforts are now shifting to spring and fall, because the capacity of Cook County to host visitors in the summer is approaching the saturation point.
 
If you need more evidence that the West End has become a "world class" destination, look no further than the venerable "Grey Lady,' the New York Times, that published a glowing travel piece on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last week.  They tagged the beautifully written and photographed article as "relief from the election season" and for a couple of days it was the most read article in the Times. To be fair, the article described a canoe trip hosted by Sue and Paul Schurke in the Ely area, but of course, everyone knows that the best part of the BWCA Wilderness is in Cook County. 
 
Minnesota Public Radio's popular Newscut blog suggested that next year the wilderness will be overrun with people with accents that are not Minnesotan.  In my opinion, the article was designed to build national support for preserving the wilderness on the cusp of a political fight to prevent huge sulfide mining projects from opening on the very edge of the popular wilderness area.  My hunch is that political maneuvering will reach a peak in the time between the election and the end of the Obama Administration. 
 
Speaking of elections, I strongly urge you to exercise your rights and vote in this year's election.  Most West End residents have already received their ballots.  If you are a new resident, you can register at the polls on election day.
 
I've been frightened by the Brexit vote in Britain and the referendum on the peace settlement in Columbia.  Like the presidential election here in the U.S., polling showed strong support for one side and the election ended up narrowly going the other way, due to voter apathy.  It can't be said enough, every vote counts and elections have huge consequences. Please, please, please cast your ballot before or on November 8th.
 
By the way, the recent claims that the presidential election is somehow "rigged" is complete bunk.  Minnesota has a nearly flawless record and reputation for fair elections.  Our system has been rigorously tested by two extremely close statewide elections during the last decade.  The intensely detailed scrutiny that those elections brought to bear clearly showed that voter fraud in a complete non-issue.
 
If you really want relief from this year's campaigns for presidents, I recommend the venerable Lutifisk dinner at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte.  The annual dinner featuring the Scandinavian delicacy of cod fish soaking in lye has anchored the fall season in Tofte for generations.  This years feast is on Saturday, November 5th from 5 to 7 pm.  Of course, the delicious lutefisk is what draws in the crowds, but rest assured, if you follow a lutefisk free diet, there will be plenty of ham, potatoes and bread to fill you up.
 
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.

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