Sayonara 2021: Here's a look at some of the Pioneer Journals top stories of 2021

It's easy to focus on the negative of 2021, perhaps that's why we're eager to bid it farewell. But not without remembering the significant happenings that made it one to remember.

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Charlie Brauckmann soaks in the fun of the rain at the Bluffton baseball field home plate on Aug. 20, 2021. Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

A pandemic continued to sicken our community, drought struck the land, fires were all too common and we spent weeks breathing smoke from forest fires. Despite these things, we’re glad for growth and positivity that existed in the community this last year. The library, Wadena County Humane Society and Tri-County Health Care are among those building and growing into the new year. Each eager to improve lives in the community.

We lost too many good people in 2021 due to fires, illness, accidents and natural causes. The census showed us we actually increased our population locally.

Read on to take a second look at the news from 2021. (You can read the pandemic-focused recap of the year in a separate article.)


  • Wadena firefighter and previous fire chief Dean Uselman officially retired after serving for 36 years. He said the friendships he made while on the department will always be cherished.


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After 36 years with the Wadena Fire Department, Dean Uselman marked his last day as a firefighter on Thursday, Jan. 7. Uselman also served as the Fire Chief from 2010-2020. Photo courtesy of Wadena Fire Department

  • Ottertail teenager Dion Bush passed away in a shocking incident involving the family dog. With many overwhelming unknowns, Bush died due to a punctured femoral artery.

  • Wadena and Verndale police departments added body cameras to their equipment. Local law enforcement leaders believe the cameras will ultimately help them do their job.

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While taking her saliva test, Wadena County Human Services social worker Kirstin Roberts checks if she has the needed amount of saliva. People are asked to not eat, drink, chew anything or smoke for 30 minutes prior to the test. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal


  • We busted out more layers with a 10-day long cold snap that hit the region with temperatures below zero degrees for over 250 hours. The coldest day in the Wadena area was -33 degrees, not including windchill, around Valentine’s Day.

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Smoke pours out of the trailer home as firefighters continue to put out the fire. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal


  • A series of structure fires brought the Wadena Fire Department to various towns, including the total loss of a trailer home in Sebeka.

Emma Bushinger belts out the National Anthem at the Wadena-Deer Creek boys basketball game Thursday, Feb. 4, in Wadena. She made the appearance after making a trip to the Twin Cities earlier in the day to sing the anthem and be recorded for use at a future Timberwolves game. Photo courtesy Doug Dutke

  • Emma Bushinger belted her dreams, and beautiful voice, out in a recording of the National Anthem for the Timberwolves.

  • Some super moms from the Wadena and Clarissa areas raised sons in Super Bowl 55 who played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

  • Ryan Paul Petro, who escaped from custody in October 2019, was sentenced to about six years in prison with a list of charges since 2018 that included stealing women's underwear and breaking into a historic school house.

  • Daniel Martin Kaufman, of Wadena, who set a December 2020 fire at World’s RV Sales in Detroit Lakes, was charged with felony second-degree arson and theft.

  • David and Shannon Savela of Sebeka were been named by the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office as the two men killed in a shootout also involving a Wadena County deputy and Sebeka police officer Saturday, Feb. 27.


  • Elliot Jares , 3 years old, was tragically lost in a farming accident near Aldrich. He loved singing “Jesus Loves Me,” playing in the dirt with his trucks and riding tractor.
  • Gladys Kanis and Miriam Miller brought some brilliantly bright colors, smells and tastes of Colombia to downtown Wadena with the opening of Taste of Colombia .

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Miriam Miller and other staff at Taste of Colombia in Wadena took their parade entry to another level, dancing through the whole parade with temperatures in the mid 90s at the June Jubilee parade Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Wadena. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

  • Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative shared their newly improved headquarters as people slowly adjusted to returning to in-person activities.



  • After waves of fundraising, the Wadena City Library turned the page on their next chapter with the announcement of a $2.7 million renovation of the old First National Bank.

Verndale firefighters Jamie Line (left), Nate Witthuhn and Tyler Fisher were recently honored with Certificates of Valor for their role in saving the life of Alaina Schultz in an April 7, 2021, house fire in Verndale. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

  • Both mother and daughter, Liberty and Alaina Schultz , suffered critical burns after a house fire in Verndale.

  • Steve Techam earned his place in the Minnesota chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a long-time wrestling coach in Verndale and Bertha-Hewitt.

  • Wadena City Administrator Janette Bower started the process of her move to the even colder Alaska for another city manager position to be closer to her grandkids. Utilities Superintendent Dave Evans stepped into the role temporarily.

  • Reps. Pete Stauber and Michelle Fischbach visited Staples to hear about the need for workers right now.

  • With lots of jobs open in the area, Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program shared free resources for guiding people back to work and hosted a drive-thru job fair. The need for workers continued through the entire year.


Autographed shovels and hard hats gave an extra splash of color to the groundbreaking ceremony, Friday, May 21, 2021, as Tri-County Health Care began construction at the site of a new health care facility west of Wadena. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

  • Otter Tail County hosted the Governor's fishing opener. Gov. Tim Walz managed to hang out long enough to hook a perch before hitting the road.

  • After 27 years, Dr. John Pate waved his way out with a parade for his EMS director position. He still cares for patients at Tri-County as a family medicine doctor.

  • A series of Line 3 protests and arrests in northern Wadena County began in February and ramped up to weekly outings for officers in the county and those along the route as construction poured on.


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Winona LaDuke, Honor the Earth executive director, shares about the Shell City Campground on July 15, 2021. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal


  • The Minnesota House of Representatives approved the Omnibus Transportation Finance and Policy bill Wednesday, June 23, on a vote of 112-21. The bill included $30 million in funding for a lane expansion on U.S. Highway 10 to the east and west of Wadena. Four lanes are coming to the last two lane stretch of Hwy 10.

Julie Ellis celebrates after receiving her diploma at a special graduation ceremony at Bertha-Hewitt Schools on June 1, 2021. Rebecca Mitchell/Pioneer Journal

  • After two years, the Elks Lodge sold to local Mexican restaurant El Mariachi. The Elks made their move to the old Cyber Cafe in November, and El Mariachi opened at the Hwy 71 location in December.

Crowds came out despite sweltering temperatures at the June Jubilee parade Thursday, June 10, in Wadena. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal



  • Drought conditions persisted throughout the county. The MN DNR cautioned against any burning and the local fire departments remained busy putting out fires caused largely by people.


  • Multiple fire departments responded to a house fire Sunday, Aug. 1 , and life saving efforts were unsuccessful after two adults were pulled from the home in Wadena Township. The couple, Michael and Paula Black, left behind four children.

  • Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon visited to take in the business climate of the city of Wadena with Mayor George Deiss.

  • Wadena County Attorney Kyra Ladd confirmed that the officer's use of deadly force was justified, no charges were to be filed in the February shooting that left an officer injured and 2 men dead . Investigation shows suspect Shannon Savela shot at and struck officers and his own brother before he himself and his brother were shot and killed in the gunfire.
  • Wadena was blessed with 4 inches of rain following a drought since the spring 2021. Dry weather continued but slowly improved as the summer ended.
  • Joyful Spirit church members began worship in the recently erected building on Hwy 29 outside Wadena. While much work remained, the roof over head was enough to feel like home.
  • Wadena City Councilmen decided to restart their search for the next city administrator during a council meeting Tuesday, Aug. 10. The decision comes after the top two picks among the council both stepped out of the running. While there remained two others out of an early field of 16, the council decided to press pause, and restart the search after the new year.


  • 20th anniversary of 9/11 had the Wadena Pioneer Journal speaking with Wadena County Veterans Service Officer David Anderson about his time serving overseas as the attack occurred.


  • The Canada-based company Enbridge announced Line 3 would be in service starting Friday, Oct. 1. Pipeline proponents and opponents both made statements in response to the news.

Black smoke was pouring out over downtown Wadena as a fire was burning the upper floor apartments above All Around Divas and Brinks Jewelry. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

  • A cigarette container fueled by wind spread a fire into a second floor apartment hallway that caused extensive damage and displaced tenants in Wadena's historic downtown. The cause was deemed accidental following an investigation by the Minnesota State Fire Marshal's Office.


  • The gateway project, adding an improved entry into Wadena's downtown off Hwy 10 gained some steam, but the visible work will not start until spring 2022.

  • Community leaders stepped up to host mental health conversations as the need for mental health help continues to grow in the community.


Volunteer Luther Nervig hands lights to Jake Rude of the City of Wadena as they worked to hang lights Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal


A host of area agencies escorted the body of police Officer Ron Smith through Wadena on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Smith served numerous police and sheriff's offices in the region until his passing from COVID-19 on Wednesday, Dec. 15. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

  • New York Mills police officer Ron Smith died following a battle with COVID-19. He was honored in the community with an escort through town, then a funeral procession days later. Smith was well loved in the region and served as an officer and probation agent for over 20 years.

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