Before Matt Reed became a traveling preacher, father of 13 and a secret sugar source for bootleggers, he worked as a logger, miner, railroad man, hotel owner and lumber town storekeeper/postmaster/constable in tiny Automba, Minn.
But before all that, he was just a Finnish teenager who was busy doing two things: milking and wrestling.
Born Matti Riitijoki in Finland in 1892, he wrestled in local halls as a farm boy when he wasn't milking cows. He grew to be a big guy; his World War I draft card just called him "Stout," while his World War II draft card 25 years later listed him at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds.
One day in 1909 while Matti was milking, his cousin Walter came to the barn and said he'd accidentally killed a boy in the wrestling ring. "The sheriff had told him that the victim's family was sharpening their knives" and that Walter's safety couldn't be guaranteed, recounts Automba historian and Matt's grandson Daniel Reed in a just-completed, unpublished family history, "We Spoke of Many Things."
At the sheriff's suggestion — "Go to America … now!" — Matti and revenge-eluding cousin Walter bolted for New York, sailing from Liverpool in spring 1909. Matti, who took a ship called the Cedric, was 17 but lied and said he was 19, probably because he was going without a parent. He spoke no English.
When he was processed through Ellis Island, a registrar changed his name to Matt Anshelm Reed. Next stop was Hibbing, Minn., where older brother Emil had made an earlier trek and also taken Reed as his last name.
Matt scrambled for work from the Iron Range to northern Minnesota sawmills. He once harvested Mississippi River marsh grass used to make the Panama hats that Teddy Roosevelt popularized in the early 1900s; to work in the marsh, he ran a team of horses with oak boards tied to their feet to keep them from sinking.
Reed juggled fun with danger. On a bet, he once outraced a team of horses for 8 miles from Menahga to Sebeka, Minn. When a barroom fight spilled over to a logging operation, a rival nearly drowned him between millpond logs. He kept wrestling, once getting disqualified for tossing an opponent out of the ring.
After a flap with a foreman over smoking cigarettes, he quit the ore mines and went to Automba, a town near Moose Lake that boomed with logging and 1,000 people. With a Finnish-to-English dictionary in his back pocket, Matt mastered the new language and built a small hotel in 1917.
He wound up with a 6-inch scar on his shoulder blade — ambushed by a knife-wielding jealous guy while escorting a teacher home from a dance — before marrying Edna Järvenpää in Crosby in 1915. They had 13 children, all of whom grew to adulthood save William, their third son, who died just before the deadly fire of Oct. 12, 1918 — the worst natural disaster in Minnesota history, leveling Automba, Cloquet and Moose Lake and killing more than 400 people.
The Reeds narrowly escaped, but Edna lost eight cousins and an aunt, while Matt was ready to hide under water-soaked blankets and rugs before the flames miraculously parted. Other blazes, in 1924 and 1934, would burn down his stores.
Intolerance also flared up, saddening Matt in 1937 when some Finnish families refused to send their kids to the same school as Polish children. He sold sugar to bootleggers to get through Prohibition and the Great Depression.
Matt and Edna Reed were also active members of the Automba Apostolic Lutheran Church. He began preaching at Sunday services in the 1930s but had no qualms helping hobos and illegal distillers. When a church member asked how he could mingle with nonbelievers, Matt said: "I have more faith in an honest atheist than I do in a hypocritical Christian."
Once officiating at the wedding of an obviously pregnant bride, Matt smiled about growing his flock: "The first one comes any old time — the rest of them come every nine months."
For more than 30 years, up until his death in 1971 at 79, he barnstormed across the country as a lay preacher. His wanderlust took him even farther; he and Edna drove to Alaska in 1958 and they returned to Finland in 1967 — 58 years after he left as a teenager.
Matt got to Finland just as his sister, Selma, was dying in a local hospital. She had joined him on foot at the start of his emigration journey in 1909, and now he was speaking at her funeral. When Matt himself died four years later, 1,000 mourners attended his funeral at Eagle Lake Church before his burial at West Branch Cemetery in Kettle River.
"Lots of believers were there and also many of the regular folk throughout the region," writes grandson Dan, 72, in what he calls his "lifetime's work." Matt Reed is just one of the characters in his sprawling 281-page, photo-filled family history.
"Grandpa Matt thought no man was more important than another," he writes, "and he took an interest in anyone he ran across in life."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.