Returning to familiar surroundings of Milaca

A recent college graduate from Eau Claire, Wis., his young waitress wife and their two boys, ages five and three, drove up Central Avenue from the Highway 169 exit with no idea about the world that waited them.
The young couple had been to Milaca just once before. It was a few weeks earlier.
The college grad was a budding journalist and had come to town to interview with the Mille Lacs County Times. The young mother and her boys went two blocks north to Trimble Park to play on the Army Tank and pass the time.
During the next week, Times editor Gary Larson offered me the reporter’s job at the paper.
That was 20 years ago come the Fourth of July weekend and the start of more than four years of memorable years for myself, my wife Kathy and our young family.
Like any young family preparing for the first big job out of college, we were short on money. For the previous couple years I went to school by day and contributed what I could to the family with leftover financial aid dollars. It was really Kathy who supported her three guys, working nights for tips at the local Perkins restaurant.
I had the Mille Lacs County Times job in hand,but money was tight. We couldn’t afford another trip from Eau Claire to Milaca to go apartment hunting, so Kathy did it by telephone. She cut a deal on a lease by phone, too.
Come moving day we headed for Milaca. I was behind the wheel of a U-Haul with Kathy following in our baby blue Mercury Sable.
We knew one thing about our final destination. It was on Second Avenue. Now Kathy may have known if we were headed for Second Ave. NE, Second Ave. NW, Second Ave. SW or Second Ave. SW. But I sure didn’t.
There weren’t GPS units back in those days, or cellular telephones for that matter.
So when I hit the Central Avenue exit off of Highway 169 I took that U-Haul and barrelled toward downtown. I took a left at the first and only stoplight. A few blocks later I came across Second Ave. SW and took a big left turn down the quiet little street.
I had a 25 percent chance of picking the right Second Avenue, but I never had been a good gambling man. There were no apartment buildings there.  so I turned that big U-Haul around — or should I say I tried to turn it around.
I put that big ol’ truck right into the ditch.
Welcome to Milaca!
Harold Thorsbakken became the first Milaca resident I would meet. He called a tow truck that pulled me out of the ditch.
Kathy, who had been traveling behind me, wasn’t too happy. As a matter of fact, when we have made subsequent moves, I don’t think I have yet been allowed behind the wheel of a U-Haul!
Kathy plays the odds far better than me. She found the apartment and we unloaded. Later that day I met another man with whom I would become good friends — Paul Reiman. It was at his business that I returned my U-Haul and learned that I would spend the first four years of my newspaper career covering Paul on the Mille Lacs County Board.
Milaca became the location of many important life events for the young Hage family.
Kathy was about five months pregnant when me moved to town. The birth of my youngest son Joshua was the most important life event to occur while we lived in Milaca.
Joshua had part of his finger severed when my middle boy Jason closed a door on it. After a rush trip by ambulance from our apartment to Fairview Northland Regional Hospital, it was current Milaca mayor Pete Pedersen who comforted little Joshua and rocked him to sleep. Joshua still uses that accident as leverage 19 years later when he wants something from Jason!
My oldest son Christopher and Jason both started kindergarten in Milaca when Ann Kern was still principal. Christopher is proof that teacher Randy Zimmer has been dropping eggs off the roof of Milaca Elementary School for a real long time.
My boys still talk about the day they got to ride in the Gateway to the Northland Parade in the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Department hovercraft!
More often than not during my Milaca days, I was being raised by Lois Ploeger, the general manager at the Times. She was my second mom. Her husband Ron was my second dad.  I still cherish that relationship today. All these years later when it’s raining, its normal for one of my boys to say “Don’t get your hair wet,” a saying they came up with to say to Lois because she always wore a plastic rain bonnet on her head when it rained. They thought that was pretty funny!
Lois taught me the importantance of shopping local and supporting our advertisers. I shopped at two local grocery stores, Olson’s Super Valu and the IGA. Kathy and I loved Becky and Arlis’ Milaca Floral on Main Street next to the bank. I still own a watch purchased from Dick and Judy Stewart at Stewart Jewelers. Another friend I see frequently in Princeton is Denise Frank. We date back to the old Milaca days when she ran Frank Pharmacy.
Kathy worked for Etta Hobbick at Hobnettis, and waitressed at MJs out at Milaca Junction, too. She even filled in at the Times as a typesetter for some time.
People don’t know it, but Joshua became kind of famous during his years in Milaca. Somehow Lois talked us into allowing Joshua to model clothes for Paul Olson in the ads he purchased from Lois for Olson’s Department Store.
That worked so well that Joshua then starred in ads as a little baby on our weekly church page. That Lois could not only sell ads, but she could sell me on lots of crazy ideas and endeavors. Ron had to endure a lot of laughs between Lois and I.
It was July 6, 1993 that I punched the proverbial time clock for the first time at the Mille Lacs County Times.
It was evident right away that Milaca and I were going to be a great fit because I wasn’t even on the job a day and I was chasing fire trucks.  (I think I was chasing fire trucks when I was three years old and will be doing it until the day I die. It’s the favorite part of my job!)
A three-year-old boy named Justin Bedow was home on the family farm and rode his bike near a automated chicken feeder that his dad was operating.
Justin stood on the seat of his bike to get a closer look. He slipped and fell into the feeder. He severely injured his arm.
That was my first story published in the Mille Lacs County Times on July 7, 2003. That’s also the day I met Steve Burklund, the first firefighter to arrive on the scene of that horrible farm accident.
My first three weeks on the job were filled with memorable events. I attended my first Gateway to the Northland Parade the following Thursday night and a demo derby that Saturday in a man-made mud bog in the Milaca Industrial Park.
On July 21 I met a new friend in Richard Herbst when we set out to prove that corn had been knee-high that previous Fourth of July. I was on hand for the consolidation of St, Mary’s Catholic Church the following week, and the 100-year anniversary of the Milaca Free Church.
July 1993 ended with former mayor Randy Furman running across the Golden Gate Bridge where he met newly elected President Bill Clinton. The old Middle School was put up for sale. The injured Justin Bedow came home from the hospital. Rick and Paul Olson celebrated the 90th anniversary of Olson’s Department Store. And last but not least, Denise Frank met Burt Reynolds.
I loved all those stories and am excited and enthusiastic to return to Milaca this week as the next editor of the Mille Lacs County Times.
I’m a little older, my hair is turning a little more gray, and I carry a little more weight than I did in my early 30s when I first arrived in Milaca.
I’m not arriving in a U-Haul on this trip back to Milaca (I still don’t think Kathy would let me.) but I’m as excited to be returning to Milaca as I was on my first day on the job in the summer of 1993.
In the next few weeks you will get to know a “new” Mille Lacs County Times as we transition the production of the paper to the ECM Publishers, Inc. office in Princeton.
Know that I am just a phone call or email message away if you want to share a story idea or thought about the paper.
You’re going to see some changes on these pages in the next few weeks. If you like them, I’d like to hear about it. If you don’t like them, I’d like to hear about that, too.
You can reach me by phone at 763-389-1222 or by email at [email protected]. I’ll stop by to see you, too. Just give me a call and we can set up a visit.
Jeff Hage is the editor of the Princeton Union-Eagle, Mille Lacs County Times, Town & Country and My Generation. He is also a member of the ECM Publishers, Inc. Editorial Board. Reach him by email at  [email protected] or by phone at (763) 389-1222.