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Automba honors past, builds for future

The new Automba picnic pavilion – made from an old railroad bridge – will be dedicated during a historical program at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 16. Jana Peterson/

The new picnic pavilion in the the tiny town of Automba is, appropriately, made out of an old railroad bridge.

Once a timber boomtown with a city population of 350 and surrounding population of close to 1,000, a person can now count the number of residents living in Automba on one hand.

The town 20 miles west of Barnum peaked in the first half of the 20th century, when the Soo Line ran right through town and there were three sawmills running constantly. The railroad tracks are gone, replaced by the Soo Line Trail and its ATVs, bikers, skiers and others. The pace is slower now, the air cleaner.

"This was a railroad town," town historian and writer Dan Reed said. "Then, you know, when that (railroad) heyday was over, well, then the town was over."

Reed is hoping lots of people will turn out for the dedication of the pavilion and a historic program Saturday, June 16, at 1 p.m.

Reed said the bulk of the money — about three-fourths of it — for the pavilion came from "the old families" — those who lived in Automba when it was a busier place. Most have moved on. Other money came from grants and local businesses.

The pavilion building itself will be dedicated to veterans. In addition to providing shelter from the elements and a place to gather, it will also be a place to learn about the history of the area. Reed said 31 panels hanging above the picnic tables will commemorate families and those who have gone before.

In the gables, there will be four panels. One lists all of the entrepreneurs who built businesses there, starting with Weyerhaeuser, who Reed calls "the robber baron of all robber barons," and Sauntry-Cain, who had the rights to run logs down the Kettle River and all of its tributaries. Also listed is August Mason, who came from Chippewa Falls to do log drives from 1888 to 1897 on the Dead Moose River and the West Branch.

It's a comprehensive list and covers many years, filled with familiar yet foreign sounding names like Jokamaki and Karjala, Maki and Vainio, Hekkala and Siltanen.

The men bearing those names built stores, pool halls, hotels, even whiskey palaces, according to Reed. There were sawmills, a cheese factory, banks, diners and more.

The Chmielewski brothers — Florian Chmielewski's uncles — ran the hotel for awhile. William Young planned to mine there before he died in the fires of 1918.

Dan's Grandpa Reed had stores. They burned in 1918, 1924 and 1934. He built the last one out of the remains of four railroad box cars and it still stands, only now it's the Automba Town Hall.

"He came walking into town in 1913," Dan said. His grandfather never left, staying 58 years and raising 12 children with his wife, Edna.

Other panels will list the early, mostly Finnish and Polish settlers, along with the names of the young men from Automba who died in World War I, World War II and Vietnam.

Reed reckons this will be the last big gathering of the old families, following the celebration of the town's centennial in 2014.

Still, he hopes the pavilion and the adjacent playground will bring new life to the old town. Automba is a Fox Indian word for "the meeting place," after all.

If you go

The Automba 1918 Fire Memorial Pavilion dedication and program begins at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 16, in Automba.

To get there from Barnum, take Main Street/County Highway 6 to Highway 73, turn right and drive just over 3 miles, then make a left onto to County Highway 6. Drive 6 miles to Automba.