Forrest Villier’s four children are all in their 80s now. Most of them were still teenagers when their dad went to work at a box factory Up North on a winter morning 68 years ago.
It was Dec. 14, 1948. Their dad was 57, working as an assistant millwright in Cass Lake, a northern Minnesota town with a 1940s population of nearly 2,000, or more than double today’s head count. Eighty of those people worked at the Rathborne, Hair and Ridgeway Co. plant — assembling wooden boxes and crates from lumber hewed from nearby forests.
“When machinery would get gummed up, workers would use kerosene to clean it,” 88-year-old Nadine “Sue” Wolf, the oldest Villier child, said from her home in Northern California. “There was sawdust all over the place, and all that kerosene, so when a spark flew, the place went up like tinder — right above my father.”
Forrest was trapped in a basement. There was only one way out, and it was blocked by the blaze. “OSHA never, ever would allow that today,” she said. “But times were different, and there was only limited employment.”
People reported seeing the factory fire 50 miles away in Grand Rapids. The youngest sibling, Patricia, had a closer view. She was a 13-year-old at school, along with her brother, Kenneth, then 17.
“All the kids in school were looking out the window at the fire,” said Pat Ryan, now 81. “I’ll never forget it because my brother, Kenny, came in and grabbed me and said: ‘Get away from the window; our Dad will never get out of there.’ ”
Forrest had only one lung. Doctors in the pre-penicillin era removed one after he contracted pneumonia in the military during the First World War. As Kenny pulled Pat from the window, they had more to worry about than their father.
Vernon Villier, the second oldest of the kids, had finished his Army stint in early 1948 and his dad got him a job at the box factory — unloading green lumber from boxcars for 45 cents an hour.
“I was 19 and, they tell me, I climbed out a bathroom window during the fire,” Vern, 87, recalled from McKinleyville, Calif. “I went to my dad’s door but the men there wouldn’t let me in to help get him out.”
Forrest Villier never got out. He was the only person killed in the fire. Vern wound up in the hospital for two weeks with burns and blood poisoning.
Newspaper accounts said the factory and “several thousand feet of lumber went up in smoke in 40 minutes.” Railroad tracks at the plant melted. Damage was estimated at $100,000, or nearly $1 million in 2016 dollars.
“Searching parties were forced to wait several hours until the debris cooled before digging into the ruins,” the Associated Press reported.
The tragedy was eventually forgotten — by just about everyone but the Villier children. “It never goes away,” said Sue Wolf.
Forrest’s remains were extricated from the charred wreckage and a closed-coffin funeral was delayed when a blizzard held up Sue’s train. She was 21 and had already moved to California.
“We never really got to say goodbye,” she said. “But we had a funeral, and we had memories.”
Last year, the four siblings gathered in Cass Lake to celebrate Pat’s 80th birthday. Pat came from Superior, Wis., where she worked as a nurse for years. Sue and Vern came from their homes 70 miles apart in Northern California. Their brother, Kenny, 86, still lives in the Cass Lake area and is fighting health problems at a rehabilitation facility in nearby Bemidji.
At their reunion, they noticed the city of Cass Lake had been cleaning up the site of the burned box factory along Pike Bay. Blown-down trees were removed. Picnic tables went in, along with grass seed.
“They had never really thought about it, but they saw what we were doing to make a usable park where their dad died,” said Sue Uhrinak, Cass Lake’s city clerk.
Sue says it was Pat’s idea. Pat says it was Sue’s. Either way, letters were written to the editor of the local newspaper. And, this summer, the Cass Lake City Council agreed to name the little bayside park after Forrest E. Villier.
The family is paying about $2,000 for a plaque and sign, designed by one of Forrest’s granddaughters, commemorating the fire’s lone fatality. The four siblings gathered again on Saturday for the park’s memorial dedication to their father.
“You have no idea how much this means to us,” Sue said. “We can finally say goodbye.”
Originally from Winterset, Iowa, Forrest Villier moved to the Windom, Minn., area by 1920 and then north to Guthrie — 15 miles southwest of Cass Lake. Family lore says he rode a colt named Spot from Iowa. In the late 1920s, he married Ruth Jondahl, who was 17 years younger and lived near Guthrie. Their oldest daughter jokes about being born there on their “40-acre rock farm.”
Military records say Forrest was gray-eyed, short and stout with light brown hair. His kids heard stories of his wrestling prowess in Iowa and remember his strong singing voice — especially the way he belted out Kate Smith’s “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.”
Pat remembers how he’d pay a nickel for movies and a penny for popcorn for her friends who couldn’t afford it. “We were as poor as everyone, but my dad really liked to help people,” Vern said. “If someone needed a ride, he’d give ’em one.”
Come payday, Forrest always brought Ruth gifts — “candy or an apron or a new dress,” Pat said.
She said her father never got mad, not even when he was holding the football while Kenny tried placekicking.
“Kenny missed the ball but loosened two of dad’s front teeth,” she said. “All he said was: ‘That was a good kick, anyway.’ ”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.