Our Neighbors...Paul FahlstromPaul Fahlstrom, a 1947 Cloquet graduate, shares a life story that includes working on the first United States human spaceflight program and writing several books about Cloquet history.
By: Dana Sanders, Pine Journal
A lot of people know about the Great Fire of 1918 that almost destroyed Cloquet. However, many people probably know very little about the history of rebuilding the city. Only about 3,000 people returned after the fire, half the population.
“After the fire, Cloquet was almost going to be gone,” said Paul Fahlstrom, author of a new book “Burnished by Fire: The Rebuilding of Cloquet, Minnesota.” The book tells of the strong spirit and determination of those who rebuilt the city and their journey through the next three decades to 1950.
“I found out there are a lot of crazy things that have happened that I never really knew myself,” said Fahlstrom, a 1947 Cloquet graduate. This is surprising because anybody who spends a little time with Fahlstrom learns quickly that when it comes to local history, he knows it well and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Fahlstrom also wrote “Old Cloquet, Minnesota: White Pine Capital of the World,” published in 1997, which covers Cloquet’s history prior to 1918. “Burnished by Fire” became available in August and is sold at the Carlton County Historical Society and Bergquist Imports in Cloquet.
“I wanted to get kids and people interested in Cloquet history,” he said when asked what inspired him to write the books.
A passion for flight
Fahlstrom has a very interesting life history himself. He learned to fly when he was 16 and his life revolved around flying from then on. This interest also tied in with his service in the military.
While in high school, he served in the Minnesota State Guard until it disbanded at the end of World War II and then with the National Guard that formed a month later. After graduating from high school, he was preparing to go into pilot training with the Air Force, but the age requirement changed. World War II was over and they didn’t need as many pilots so they changed the minimum age to be a pilot in the Air Force from 18 years old to 20 years, 6 months.
Fahlstrom’s dad told him he should go the University of Minnesota Duluth because his pilot friend Butch Larson from Cloquet had always told him: “To be a good pilot, you should have a couple years of college.”
“I went to UMD when it first started. I was a plank owner,” said Fahlstrom, using a Navy term referring to a crew member present at a ship’s commissioning, because in 1947 it changed from the Duluth State Teachers College to the University of Minnesota Duluth. He studied aeronautical engineering for five years, finishing up at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, which was required at the time for his degree.
While at UMD, Fahlstrom joined the Marine Corps officers training program and joined Duluth’s Marine Reserve “B” Company.
“I followed all their stuff when I was a little kid during the war,” he said of the United States Marine Corps. The “B” Company was called up to serve in the Korean War in 1950, but Fahlstrom’s captain told him he could not come with them because he was going to be an officer and needed to finish school. According to the website www.bcompanymarines.org, of the 227 men from Duluth “B” Company who served in the Korean War, 10 were killed in action, 80 percent were wounded or injured, and one was a POW for 33 months.
After finishing college and getting married in 1952, Fahlstrom became an officer in the Marine Corps, went to flight training and then flew jets on active duty for four years, including nine months in Japan. Afterwards, he was in the reserves for 29 years while working as a civilian, serving as an officer a total of 33 years, including his time in active duty.
During his years as a civilian engineer, Fahlstrom worked in flight control systems, nuclear weapons effects, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
“His whole life he loved to fly and enjoyed anything to do with flight,” said his wife, Beverly.
Fahlstrom said one of his most memorable projects was working on Project Mercury, the first United States human spaceflight program , at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., in the late 1950s. As an engineer in flight control systems, he worked with the first seven astronauts known as the Mercury 7, including John Glenn and Gus Grissom.
“It was a glamorous thing,” he said, because the astronauts were famous.
It was also intense. Every time the astronauts did a test launch, orbiting the earth in the Mercury capsule, Fahlstrom and the other engineers listened to the radio communication between the astronauts and the controllers on the ground.
“There was always an amount of adventurous fear,” Fahlstrom said, explaining that things would malfunction as the astronauts tested instruments, and they had to fire retro-rockets at a specific time in order to land the capsule safely in the ocean. “Everybody had their heart in their throat as we listened to the discussion of the astronauts with the controllers.”
When the Mercury Project relocated to Texas, Fahlstrom began working as a flight control systems engineer on NASA’s Supersonic Transport project at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He helped design the supersonic jet that Boeing was building for commercial use that flew at Mach 3, three times the speed of sound and faster than the French Concorde supersonic passenger jet.
The project was cancelled due to environmental noise concerns with the sonic boom, but Fahlstrom said it was exciting and his favorite place to work.
“The most challenging and intellectually challenging work was at Goddard,” he said. While working there, he also received his Masters in Engineering Science degree from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
In the ’70s, Fahlstrom began working for the Army as a civilian and was a specialist in unmanned aerial vehicles. After he retired, he co-authored and self-published a book in 1997 on UAVs. An updated version of that textbook, “Introduction to UAV Systems, 4th Edition” was just published by Wiley, a publishing company, this fall. Fahlstrom recommends the entry-level textbook for a freshman aeronautical engineering student who’s studying UAVs or as a useful overview for an engineer working in the UAV systems field.
Digging into history
While there are history books that focus on certain periods or subjects of Cloquet’s history, Fahlstrom’s two books are the most comprehensive according to Rachael Martin, director of the Carlton County Historical Society.
“He gives a broad history of Cloquet and the region’s history,” said Martin.
“I didn’t write on the fire,” explained Fahlstrom, “because there’s a real good book on the fire that Francis Carroll wrote called “The Fires of Autumn: The Cloquet-Moose Lake Disaster of 1918.”
Fahlstrom drew on many resources for his research for both books, but he relied a lot on past issues of the Pine Knot, the Pine Journal’s predecessor. He purchased copies of past issues on microfilm from the Minnesota Historical Society.
“I’m interested in unknown, little idiosyncrasies that happened that nobody knows about,” said Fahlstrom.
“Burnished by Fire” includes a chapter on the Northwest Paper Company, which had a huge impact on the rebirth of the city after the fire. The chapter highlights the paper company’s problems and successes over the years. Fahlstrom was excited to finally have access to a new research source for this chapter, “History of the Northwest Paper Company,” a book authored by past employees of the company and only recently available at the Minnesota Historical Society. For a time, the existence of the book was just a rumor.
In addition to Fahlstrom’s interest in Cloquet history, he is interested in military history. The thing that surprised him while doing research for his most recent book was how anti-war Cloquet was leading up to WWII. He said it was almost like the Vietnam War in the ’60s.
“They were not enthused about the beginning of the war when all the signs of the danger of the war were there,” he said. “They thought they were going to avoid it. Once Pearl Harbor was bombed, then everybody was gung ho, and all the guys joined up.”
In addition to a chapter on WWII’s impact on Cloquet, Fahlstrom provides further Cloquet military history dating back to the 1898 Spanish American War in an appendix of the book. Another appendix includes the names of people from the 1920 census, all of them Cloquet residents who returned after the fire to rebuild, which may help those researching family history.
Martin said the book is a great resource for teachers, elementary through high school, to use when talking with students about local history.
Fahlstrom also wants to pass on to students a passion for history.
“I’m very concerned that students are not getting history anymore,” he said.
As a result, he set up the Gerin Fahlstrom Fund, named after his grandfather Louis Gerin and the Fahlstrom family. The fund provides money for the Carlton County Historical Society to hire a Carlton County student to do historical research during the summer.
“The idea was if you hire these kids to do it, then they’re going to get interested in history. That’s my thing,” Fahlstrom said.
When Fahlstrom’s books are sold by the Carlton County Historical Society, $10 goes into the Gerin Fahlstrom Fund and the rest goes to the Society. Fahlstrom envisioned that as the fund grew, there would be enough money to also hire Carlton County college students and retirees to do research.
Although Fahlstrom grew up in Cloquet and attended the University of Minnesota Duluth, it may be a surprise that he has spent most of his life living out East. He and his wife, Beverly (Evans), also from Cloquet, live on a 100-acre farm in Tracy’s Landing, Md., and spend two months each summer at their cabin on Big Lake. Although Fahlstrom has lived in Maryland a long time, he’s more interested in Cloquet’s history and in military history.
“Cloquet was home, naturally he was very interested in its history,” said Martin.
Whether history or science or a combination of the two, Fahlstrom enjoys passing along his passion and knowledge on both subjects. He does not plan to write another book on Cloquet’s history, but he will continue to write about his life and his family history for his three daughters and grandchildren.
“We can never go back to the place of our memories,” writes Fahlstrom in his most recent book. “It doesn’t exist. But savoring our memories is a happy part of our lives.”
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