By Michael Mitchell
It was a warm and calm October night in Howard Lake in the late 1950s. It was a Wednesday, it was homecoming week, and the bonfire and pep-rally were to be held the next evening.
The whole football team had just spent the day hauling wood and brush from all over the area to the parking lot at Memorial Park for the next day's homecoming bonfire. The pile of wood was about the size of a house. Many dead and dry pine trees had been cut and hauled from the PGL to add fuel to the fire.
Two of the local high school boys met in front of the drug store in the early evening. The two boys were unwinding from their day at school, and decided to cruise town and look for some of the other guys to hang out with. A quick check at Luhman's Cafe found nobody else around. Another check at Brown's Pool Hall also found nobody around. They wondered where the rest of the local boys were. Several more passes through town were made and still no other guys were found.
It was decided that they must be in Cokato since nobody was around Howard Lake. The two boys headed for the Cokato drive-in. When they got there, it appeared that only Cokato's football players were hanging around. It just happens that some Howard Lake kids had recently cut down the wooden goal posts that were used at the Cokato football field. Three of the perpetrators had been caught, one of which was driving a maroon 1950 Straight 8 Pontiac.
It seems that Stevie Stevenson, the Cokato policeman, had stopped the 1950 Pontiac as it was leaving town. Upon searching its trunk, he observed a hand saw. He let them go at that time. Later upon discovering the vandalism at the football field, Stevie put two and two together and contacted the boys that had the saw in the trunk. The three were each fined $25 to help pay for the damage. It also may be of interest to the readers that one of the kids was struck on top of the head as the cross bar on the goal posts came down, but suffered no visible or permanent injury.
Needless to say, the Cokato team was a little upset with anyone from Howard Lake. Being out-numbered, the two boys from Howard Lake decided not to stop. Racing back to Howard Lake to try and locate their friends, they started thinking that the Cokato group may have been gathering at the drive-in to organize a raid on Howard Lake, possibly to burn the next day's homecoming bonfire.
The two raced into town with no sight of any other Howard Lake guys. They figured they all must be at Memorial Park, guarding the bonfire. A check there revealed that there was nobody else around. The two boys decided that they would have to guard the bonfire until reinforcements showed up.
Parked in the shadows, the two watched for trouble. Several suspicious vehicles drove by but didn't stop. They thought, where are the rest of the guys, this is getting boring. Their minds wandered and they started talking about how much fun it had been being let out of school for the school day to haul wood. What if this pile of wood were to burn tonight? Another day off from school tomorrow to rebuild it before the pep-rally.
Just think of the emotions the team would have if they thought Cokato burned our bonfire. When Howard Lake played Cokato again, there would be fire in the teams' eyes and. boy, they would be out to settle the score during that game.
With nobody else around the park, the two got out of the 1950 Ford, walked up to the pile of dry wood, and struck several matches which were dropped into the pile of brush. The two boys fled back to "Old Yeller" (nickname of the car) and headed north on County Road 6, with no lights on, driving in the dark.
Getting a safe distance from the scene of the crime, Old Yeller's lights were turned back on. The two drove around the lake and parked at the swimming beach and gazed west in the direction of the park. Looking across the lake they could see a flicker of flame and figured it was going out. Suddenly the flames became brighter. As they watched, the whole western sky lit up in a fiery glow.
The driver of "Old Yeller" turned to the passenger with eyes as big as saucers and said, "I think the whole park is on fire." As the two boys watched in astonishment at the raging fire at the park, a pact was made to "keep our mouths shut about starting the fire."
The two watched and listened for fire trucks and police cars at the park, but nothing moved except the tower of flames and sparks. As soon as the fire began to die down, the two headed home to get some rest, for the next day would again be spent rebuilding the bonfire.
When the two arrived at school the next morning, it was abuzz with word that Cokato, or maybe Annandale, had burned down the bonfire. There was fire in the eyes of the football team when they met to start rebuilding the bonfire. At football practice that day, everybody on the team was looking forward to kicking butt when we played Cokato again. Not knowing for sure who had burned the bonfire, they thought that maybe Annandale could have been responsible, too.
Finally, it was Thursday night. The bonfire and pep rally went off without a hitch. The next day was the homecoming parade and football game against Annandale. The final score was Howard Lake 40, Annandale 0. Obviously, the Howard Lake team really had fire in their eyes during that game.
It's been almost 40 years since the two boys swore themselves to secrecy. Having decided that the statute of limitations must have run out on teenage pranks, the identity of the two will soon be revealed.
There are a couple large clues in this article for people who grew up in this area during the 1950's. They may solve the puzzle of who these boys were; others will have to wait for the identity of the two.
If you think you know the names of the boys who burned the bonfire, and can come up with the names of two of the three boys in the Pontiac that cut down the goal posts at Cokato and were fined $25 each, you will win a single season pass to the upcoming Howard Lake Orphans Baseball season.
If you can also name the person who got hit with the cross bar when the goal posts came down, you will win a family season pass to the Howard Lake Orphans Baseball season. In case of a tie, a drawing will be held.
Submit your entry to P.O. Box 542, Howard Lake, MN 55349. Entries must be received by Wednesday, April 15.