How history can flow through one man
February 2, 2024
Over the years, Cloquet resident Clarence Badger has told stories of playing basketball at the old Civic Center where the fire station now sits. He shared photos of his uncles returning from World War II and partying in the Cromwell bars with happy friends.
Of Pinehurst Park in the 1940s and '50s, he wrote: "The building that I used most was the large one where we would roller skate one or two days a week in a huge building that sat near what the tennis courts are today. The Wilsons would come from Moose Lake with skates to rent. They had music playing and we could dance (on skates). We would have hundreds of kids roller skating during the summer."
He's also a doer, an engaged citizen, serving on boards and commissions including Knife Falls Township long ago and the county jail committee more recently. He is a familiar face to many local politicians, because he's not afraid to attend meetings and make suggestions or ask questions - always very politely.
Badger's working life was long and varied. He created the first school-run computer system in the state (in Winona) before coming home to Cloquet to make the second. He taught business classes at Cloquet High School for decades. In his summers off, he also built close to 160 prebuilt homes around the county with his father-in-law, Oliver Wydra, many of them using ideas from a design Clarence sent the company early on.
On top of the local family connections, he recently discovered his dad's side of the family goes back almost to the Mayflower. They were shipbuilders and an island between Maine and New Hampshire still bears their name: Badger Island.
"It was settled by the Badger family in 1635," Clarence said, noting that they cut down tall virgin oak trees for ship masts. "They had the island so they could launch the ships in the 1600s and 1700s, including the Revolutionary War."
He'd like to visit.
"With my last name Badger, I'd probably get to eat for free all over the place," he said, laughing.
The Badger Island discovery came courtesy of his daughter, Christine, and years of research. That's because Clarence's father didn't stick around to tell his kids many stories. Rather, he left Minnesota to build ships in California during World War II and never returned.
That meant Clarence and his three siblings were raised by their mother for much of their childhood in Cloquet.
Clarence was 3 years old, his sister Mary Ann still a baby when their father left. Adrian and Quentin were a little older. Life was a struggle.
It helped that his mother was part of the Beseman family outside of Wright. Grandma and Grandpa Beseman still farmed and the Badger family visited them frequently, taking the bus from Scanlon to Cromwell before they had a car.
"If it wasn't for them, we would have starved to death," Clarence said. "So, we always had food. We butcher beef, butcher chickens, butcher beef, butcher pigs. We always had food."
Luckily, they had bought a little house on Larch Street with an outdoor privy before her husband deserted her and their four children. Mae cleaned houses, and did laundry, ironing and other household chores to cover the $8 monthly mortgage.
She wasn't afraid of hard work. Neither were her children.
"Us kids worked at the golf course and caddied, did anything we could to make money. Babysit for 50 cents a night," Badger said. "And we survived until, I think it was 1952, when we moved to the other house."
Mae married Bill White (they had a son, Phillip) after her first husband had been gone seven years. They divorced after a few years. Mae and the kids still at home moved back to her house on Larch Street, which she'd rented out during the second marriage.
Soon, Mae got a job (through neighbor Roy Millen) at Northwest Paper Company. He talked to a relative, and within a couple days Mae was working at the mill.
"That was so nice to have something coming in on a regular basis," Badger said.
Clarence and his siblings (Marianne, Adrian and Quentin) attended the Catholic school in Cloquet through eighth grade, getting there on foot or by bicycle. He played on the championship basketball team there, and for Cloquet High School until his job at the Setterquists' Public Market store got too time consuming his senior year.
But he made enough money there to buy a 1954 Mercury for $650 from his uncle Jasper Beseman. That car got him through college at University of Minnesota Duluth.
Clarence and his future wife, Patty Wydra, met at the Catholic Church in Wright.
"We [the Badger boys] spent our summers working at the farm and chasing girls around," he said. "I would help whenever I got a chance to go out to the farm and Patty would be in the church ... and then she became the Dairy Princess for Carlton County."
Patty figures that was 1960. She remembers handing out little glasses of milk at First National Bank during dairy week. That ultimately led to a job at the bank.
Then Patty started taking classes at UMD, so they would see each other there sometimes. She was studying home economics and wanted to work in nutrition.
"But then he kept showing up and we started really dating, so I figured I should go back to work at the bank," she said.
Clarence graduated in 1961 and got a job with a large accounting firm in the Twin Cities. Eventually, after dating seriously for a year or two, they decided to get married.
That's when they discovered a family connection they didn't know about.
"When we were gonna get married, my mother and I went over there, to the Larch Street house, for a bridal shower," she said. "When we drove up to the house, my mother told me: 'I've been here. I was brought up here.'"
It was fate, Patty said, smiling.
"Apparently, her [mother's] dad sold the house to my mom and dad for a couple hundred dollars," Clarence said. "It had one bedroom, and they had six children, so it was tight for them, too."
Badger didn't plan his computer career. He was in the ROTC at UMD, where he majored in accounting. His ROTC advisor recommended he join the 148th Air Guard in Duluth. He got accepted and he learned to run the computers.
"Nobody had computers back then, in the early 1960s," Badger said, adding that he got his training at Lackland Air Force Base. "I could run the computer systems and keep track of payroll."
Patty and Clarence were married Nov. 30, 1963 at Sacred Heart (now Queen of Peace) in Cloquet. They then moved to the Twin Cities, where Patty worked for a bank and Clarence worked auditing companies in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They didn't like being apart, so Clarence decided to go back to school to get a teaching degree. He reached out to a previous accounting professor.
It was another lucky connection.
"He said, 'Clarence, if you come back here, you're going to work in the business department ... and be a sub teacher,'" Badger said. He was hired as a substitute teacher for the business department while he got his teaching degree and a master's degree.
"So I got a free education - didn't cost me a penny," he said.
After graduation, Badger wanted to work in Cloquet. But they wouldn't hire anyone with less than two years experience. So, he interviewed in Winona, where his military computer work made him the one for the job.
"They wanted me to set up the first computer system in the state of Minnesota," he said. "No school had a computer or computer system to do work."
But the school district couldn't afford the big computers, he said.
"We could do the other work at school, but not the printouts. For that, they used the massive IBM computers at Watkins Company and Winona State University," he recalled.
After that school year, the Winona superintendent went to a conference and talked about setting up a computer system, naming Clarence. Badger said his phone blew up.
He got his Cloquet job.
At first they used Northwest Paper's big computers to get the printouts. Then, once again, Badger's connections paid off. The Air Guard base in Duluth was getting new computer equipment and they agreed to give the school all the old IBM equipment.
"Then we didn't have to leave the school to print out our cards and other things," he said. "And it didn't cost the school anything except shipping."
Patty's folks had a beautiful farm on Woodbury Lake, and her dad had a construction business. He and Clarence would build roads and other projects in the summer.
They started Lin-Mar Homes, first selling trailer homes with a partner, then just the two of them, building prefabricated homes for people. The first prefab homes were basically trailers that Lin-Mar would finish.
Then a customer wanted one that was basically a doublewide trailer. The wheels and axle would have to be cut off to put the home over a basement. The company they were working with, Stratford Homes, agreed to try it.
"I designed a total of four homes that Stratford made special that year," Badger said. "The next year they started two lines: one for trailer houses and one for prebuilds. And the year after that they went out of the mobile home business and only did prebuilds."
Over the years, Lin-Mar built more than 160 homes, including a number of homes in his Valley View development in Cloquet and Windemere development near the Moose Lake golf course. His father-in-law would do the excavating, landscaping, sewer and water. Badger would sell the home, hire all the electricians, plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters to make the two parts a whole.
It was an interesting process, he said, and helped a lot of folks get an affordable home.
"There aren't too many things I haven't done, I guess," Badger said.
Family myths and stories
The young Clarence Badger grew up thinking Beseman Township was named after his grandfather and uncle because they put a bridge across the Tamarack River. It turns out - according to a family history written down by his mother, Mae Beseman - that the state would not fund a bridge for a nameless township.
"So ... since there were two Besemans on the board, they named it Beseman Township," Mae wrote.
Ernest Beseman moved to Wright in 1902. He and his first wife, Laura Bandomer, had three boys (Peter, Albert and Fritz), and two daughters (Elsie and Louise). Albert and Laura had a bar in Chaska, where Albert had been mayor and also played in the city band.
After Laura died, Albert decided living above a bar in Chaska wasn't a good place to raise children, and moved north to Carlton County. He also sent away to Germany for another wife, Emeilia Krueger, a woman he "used to go with before he married Laura."
After a few letters, she decided to come. Wright, Minnesota, was a bit of a culture shock.
"His wife had just come from Germany where they had schools, high schools and colleges. There were not even stores in Wright. If you wanted grocers, you had to take the train to Carlton, 30 miles away," Mae wrote.
Badger's grandfather was Albert Beseman, the first person in Wright to have a car, where he sold real estate and insurance.
According to Badger, his Uncle Fritz was a fancy bricklayer who did some of the work on the Carlton Courthouse. He was arrested during World War II on a trip south because he was German and had a carful of blueprints from previous building projects.
"They thought he was a spy, so they had a heck of a time getting him out," Badger said.
Peter Beseman became a mailman. In the beginning, he delivered mail up Center Road to Prairie Lake using two teams of horses: one team in Wright, one in Prairie Lake. He'd switch teams there.
Peter finally bought a car for deliveries. Quentin got the car when he died in 1952.
"We started cleaning it out and you could not believe the mail that was in that car ... in the backseat and under the seat, in between the seats," Badger said. "We didn't know what to do with it."
He's pretty sure they put it in a mailbox somewhere.
Clarence's mother, Mae, played basketball while she was a student at Cromwell High School. Badger shared a photo of the team dated 1931. The girls traveled to play other teams in Floodwood, Carlton and even farther afield.
"They beat the pants off of everybody," Badger said. "Years later, they said we don't want women playing basketball anymore. And girls basketball didn't come back into the picture until the 1960s, I think."
Editor's note: Minor personal history details were clarified in this story after it went to press.