The interview for this story was done in conjunction with the Wadena County Historical Society’s oral history project “Back to the Land: Oral Histories from the Dreamers of the 60s, 70s and 80s.” Wadena resident Kent Scheer conducted the interview.
In 1974, Lina Belar and her husband Ralph Calabria decided it was time to go back to the land—not just back to New Jersey—after planning and saving for years. They had built their houses in New Jersey, mainly by hiring other people, but when they entered their land near Perham the actual building was up to them. And doing things on her own along with a love for the land and people in Minnesota have become another fulfilling experience on her life journey.
But why move from years of living in New York City and New Jersey to Perham? In the 1960s-80s, the Back to the Land movement came in a time of what Belar describes as “great intellectual speculation and metaphysical” as well as people wanting to have change.
“It was a time, even when I was living in New York City, where people were talking about going back to the land. Part of it was a sense of independence, part of it was a frustration with the way things were going, and people sort of wanted to get out of the rat race and go somewhere,” Belar said. “My friends and I, we were very interested in exploring those kinds of ideas.”
The ideas became reality for some, like Belar and Calabria, who didn’t just look through the popular Whole Earth and United Farm catalogs but began forming a plan for this new journey.
“There would be homes, like maybe a little home or even a bigger one, and it’ll say $5,000 with 10 acres or 200 acres $7,000 and we’re just amazed. I mean even at that time in New York you couldn’t buy a closet for $5,000 and so to actually have a place to live that was pretty exciting,” Belar said about the United Farm catalog.
To make Perham home, the family of three, Belar, Calabria and their son Rama Calabria, lived in family members’ homes to save money.
“I did all the cooking and taking care of the housekeeping and things like that, so I had a whole plan of how we were going to save money, and we managed—a family of three—to live on $10 a week for about oh almost a year, I think. $10 a week. And that’s everything,” Belar said.
In the fall of 1973, their research turned to finding Perham. Belar fell in love with the first piece of property they saw and the two didn’t look at a single other property in the state, Nebraska or Idaho, where they had originally planned to visit.
"We drove out in the fall, driving on probably the same roads we were going to drive later when we came out here."
— Lina Belar
At 31 years old, the first stop on their moving trip in March 1974 was discovering that camping on their land wasn’t possible so they stayed in a cabin in Battle Lake for about two months. The weather was quite the surprise, as Belar said.
“We left New Jersey, the daffodils were blooming and grass was green and we kept going further west and the further west we went the colder and bleeker it got, and pretty soon it was all brown then it was all gray and then it was all white,” Belar said.
Besides the weather, the darkness at night and the lessened food variety were the differences Belar noticed.
They built their house on the rise above the Otter Tail River in Otto township. And the mistake of their plan for a drive-in basement garage meant snow and snapping turtles ventured inside.
Belar said she was constantly learning, whether from books or talking to people.
“One of the things that I first loved about Minnesota was how resourceful everybody was. They could always figure it out, and whoever you talked to was happy to help you figure out that problem, whether it was your septic system or the right kind of clothesline to buy,” Belar said.
The physicality of going back to the land is what brought some people back to the cities. Others felt they didn’t fit in. Belar never felt like quitting or going back, even with the challenges.
“It’s always been forward,” Belar said.
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After their divorce, Belar began working a host of jobs outside the home. She did account receivables, construction, piano bar playing, carpentry, plumbing, greenhouse agriculture, writing and tissue control growing for the University of Minnesota. As a single mother for five to 10 years before marrying Jerome Boedighemer in 1984, her son Ralph was watched by neighbors, including friends who had also moved from New Jersey.
Belar has played the piano since 5 years old and began playing the trumpet in high school but mostly she just loves music.
In her greenhouse jobs, she travelled to Alexandria and grew cucumbers and tomatoes. Tom Meinhover and her became known for their greenhouse abilities and began working in Becker and shipping herbs around the country.
“Everytime I drove I thought, ‘I could be on the New Jersey turnpike going five miles an hour, I could be going on the Garden State parkway taking an hour to get from one town to the next, or I could be taking an hour driving this beautiful scenic road from here to Alexandria and back,’” Belar said.
After a freeze that broke the gas lines in her Becker greenhouse, Belar wrote articles about greenhouses to earn at least a month’s income, when she didn’t receive a rejection slip. She still finds growing food “fascinating.”
From there, Belar found herself on a historical journey of trying to preserve the St. James Hospital in Perham, opening and running the History Museum of East Otter Tail County and learning about oral histories to share the stories of veterans at the In Their Own Words museum.
“I learned a lot and so I failed,” Belar said.
After such a transition from city to rural, she’d gladly make the decision again—and in the same way.
“I just do it and I don’t give up doing it,” Belar said.
Have a story you want to share?
If you arrived in the Wadena County area between the 1960-80s with the values of "back-to-the land" contact the Historical Socety to be part of the oral history project. Email or call the Historical Society with your contact information and a bit of information on your personal story at email@example.com or 218-631-9079.