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Carlton County loses two of its finest

Wendy Johnson

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Memorial tributes poured in this week for two of the county’s long-standing mayors.

Former Cromwell mayor Richard “Dickie” Louis Huhta, 73, died Wednesday, Dec. 11, and Moose Lake’s longest-running mayor, Clayton Hartman, 88, passed away Saturday, Dec. 14.

Huhta was born in Palisade and graduated from Cromwell High School in 1958, going on to study forestry at Itasca Junior College. He was a military veteran and worked at Camden State Park in southern Minnesota for a short time before moving to Alaska to rebuild roads and buildings after the Great Alaskan Earthquake. He returned home to the Cromwell area after 10 years and was employed with Ulland Brothers Construction of Duluth until 1976. 

“Dick and his wife, Elaine, have been our friends for as long as we have known them (30 -40 years),” related former teacher and current Wright-Cromwell news columnist Jennie K. Hanson. “Dick was always quick to thank me for all the things that I do for the community, too. He was a very generous man and wore his heart on his sleeve.”

Huhta then worked at Cromwell-Wright School as head of maintenance until his retirement in 1993 due to health reasons.

“I worked with Dick for years at the old Wright School,” said Hanson. “He was the custodian then and we loved him. He would do anything for us.”

Huhta served on many committees in Cromwell and the surrounding area, including Evergreen PAC Club, Cromwell Y.O.T. and Cromwell City Council for 12 years, becoming mayor of Cromwell and serving for 21 years. 

“Dick was one of a kind and the whole community will deeply miss him,” said Hanson.

Automba Township board member Dan Reed said Huhta was “one of our spark plugs in western Carlton County.”

“He went after everything from water quality to the sanitary district, and he was always interested in anything that was going on,” Reed added. “Everyone was deeply saddened by his loss, despite the fact he had a long struggle with ill health. He really made a difference, because he was always pushing, always trying, always dreaming. Sadly, one of his biggest dreams — to see Highway 73 south of Cromwell fixed — never came about during his lifetime.”

Lois Johnson, long-time resident of Moose Lake and reporter for the Star-Gazette, said Mayor Hartman’s leadership likewise left a legacy that will be long remembered.

Hartman graduated from St. Cloud Technical High School and was a World War II veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He went on to attend St. Cloud State University and earned a degree in secondary education with a major in physical science, chemistry and biological sciences. He then attended the University of Minnesota and Wisconsin graduate program in secondary school administration, and he and his wife, Bunny, moved to Moose Lake, where Clayton began his teaching career at Moose Lake High School in the Science Department. He became high school principal and later served as assistant superintendent, serving in many community organizations as well.

Hartman was elected mayor of Moose Lake in 1982 and became its longest-serving mayor, staying on until 2004.

“Clayton Hartman was mayor at the time when the state was rumored to be closing the Moose Lake State Hospital,” related Johnson. “People were up in arms. That meant the loss of jobs and possibly the death of the community. Governor Rudy Perpich told a group at the state hospital gym that the hospital would not be closed as long as he was governor. And it wasn’t. But, as these things go, he was not governor after a few years, and the state hospital was closed and the patients moved into group homes and elsewhere for treatment. It was the state’s mission to de-institutionalize people.”

Johnson went on to explain that Mayor Hartman and others, such as City Councilor Jon Brown, made many trips to St. Paul to meet with legislators and were successful in securing a medium security prison on the state hospital campus, as well as a totally new campus for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. 

“Both are major employers in Moose Lake, and the community has prospered,” said Johnson. “I saw many changes within the city itself during the 22 years of Mayor Hartman’s leadership,” she continued. “The former Northern Pacific Railroad removed its railroad line from Duluth to the Twin Cities, and the city secured a HUD grant to purchase the railroad property in Moose Lake and sell it to interested businesses. Now businesses are located on a portion of the former railroad property, and a trailhead for the Munger trail is located on another portion of the former railroad property. The Soo Line also removed its tracks, and Mayor Hartman was instrumental in saving the depot and turning it into the 1918 Fire Museum.”

Johnson recalled that the city garage was also replaced with a new facility, and the hockey arena, which had been located in a used air-filled “bubble,” was replaced with a new building under Hartman’s watch. The city hall itself, which had been located in the former hospital building, moved to new remodeled quarters downtown in former stores. The old and inadequate fire hall and police department were also replaced with a new facility that houses both departments, yet another legacy that Hartman left behind.

Funeral services for Huhta were held on Tuesday, and private services were scheduled for Hartman.