BEMIDJI-The Bemidji area welcomes thousands of tourists every year, but few visits could be more meaningful than the one that occurred earlier this week when a couple from Ireland located the grave of a relative who died 111 years ago.
Edward Oakes, 30, who left his Irish homeland only six months earlier, was killed on Feb. 5, 1907, as he was clearing trees for the electric company in Blackduck. He was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in Bemidji the next day, with no family or friends present.
On Tuesday, Sept. 4, his grand nephew, Sean Oakes knelt at the gravesite with a package of shamrock seeds, an Irish flag and a plaque dedicated to Edward. Sean and his wife, Celine, came to the area this week in search of information about Edward, and they departed on Wednesday with smiles on their faces and gratitude in their hearts.
"It's just unbelievable that I could stand on the same ground that my grand uncle was buried and in my own mind visualize his remains arriving there in February 1907," Sean said. "There was nobody there to grieve for him."
The search was made a lot easier because of a chance meeting on Monday with Donna Beattie, who was working for Visit Bemidji surveying visitors as part of a year-long tourism study. Beattie met the couple at their hotel and asked them to take the survey. Afterward, Sean related the story about his late relative. Intrigued by the story, Beattie offered to help in the search. Her grandson, Ethan Lund, a BSU student, joined in as well.
"I just fell in love with these two," Beattie said. "They said they were going to take a taxi or a bus to Blackduck. I said, 'We don't have a bus that goes to Blackduck, but I have a grandson, and he will take you.'"
On that trip, they stopped at the Visitor Information Center at Wayside Rest and found some information about Edward Oakes in Blackduck's 100-year history book. They also got a tour of a lumber camp in the area.
"It was fortuitous that we should meet someone like Donna," Sean said. "You couldn't meet a nicer person, and so helpful."
Added Celine, "We talk about the friendly Irish, but here everybody we've met has been just fantastic."
Edward and his brother, Richard, left their home in Belfast, Ireland, in August 1906 and headed for Canada. Richard remained in Canada and was killed in France in 1918 during World War I fighting for the Canadian forces. Edward stayed in Canada a very short time, moving to Minnesota and taking a job with the Blackduck Electric Light & Telephone Co.
According to a story in the Feb. 6, 1907, Bemidji Pioneer, Edward was clearing a tract of land within the Blackduck city limits when a large tree fell on him, killing him instantly. A day later, his remains were taken by train to Bemidji, where Father O'Dwyer from St. Ann Catholic Church in Blackduck presided over the burial.
A day before his death, Edward sent a souvenir postcard to his family in Ireland. In it, he asked them to send shamrocks in time for St. Patrick's Day.
That wish for shamrocks was finally fulfilled this week. Sean beamed as he talked about making that connection.
"We are the first of the family to ever visit this area and to locate his grave," Sean said. "It was very special."