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Five Questions with Rhonda Fochs, author of 'Minnesota’s Lost Towns'

Rhonda Fochs

Rhonda Fochs is a retired history teacher and author of “Minnesota’s Lost Towns,” which focuses on “used-to-be” places in the Northland. Fochs, who grew up in Delano, Minn., and taught at the Staples Area Learning Center, is planning a similar book on former towns in the central part of the state. Fochs will discuss her work at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Carlton County Historical Society in Cloquet, 406 Cloquet Ave. We asked Fochs five questions regarding her writing and her life.

Q: You love to travel around the state. What inspired you to start writing about its lost towns?

A: I’ve always had a connection to lost towns. My grandparents homesteaded in eastern Montana in the 1910s in a now lost town, Purewater. My aunt owned property on which the lost town of Emerson, Wis., once sat. Emerson was a turn-of-the-century logging town that was destroyed by tornado and fire and then was abandoned. Throughout my life, I kept coming across lost towns and eventually I began personal research. As I learned more and more, I decided the stories of those places and the people of these lost towns should be shared. I think we all have connections to these places of the past, and they are great stories.

Q:Is there a particular story of a lost town in the Northland that resonates with you or would surprise readers?

A:So many of the towns and people in those towns touched my heart. One town that did resonate with me was Taconite Harbor on the North Shore. I had thought the towns all disappeared long ago, but Taconite Harbor was created, lived and died within my lifetime.

Q:You became a teacher by going back to school at age 42. What was the motivation?

A:June, July and August.

Seriously, I have been lucky enough to have been influenced by some remarkable teachers. Two of them were my aunts. Those teachers were passionate about their subject areas, passionate about teaching and they truly cared about their students. I bet every one of us has a teacher who touched our lives. We remember their names, what they looked like but, most of all, how they made us feel. I wanted to share my love of history and perhaps touch lives in a positive way.

Q:One of the unusual jobs you had before teaching was working at a Tonka Toys plant. What was that like?

A:Tonka Toys was my first real job. I remember how large the factory was and how hot it was in the summer. I can still see the assembly lines and all the workers (mostly women) each doing one part of the assembly. At that time, we were working on little dune buggies. When I got my first paycheck, I thought I was rich — I made all of 70 cents an hour. Most of all, I remember the people I worked with, including my mom. I look back and think of Tonka as an American icon. Quality-made toys, quality materials, made in America by American workers. It was a mainstay of the American economy.

Q:If you could have any three people, alive or dead, famous or not famous, over for dinner, who would they be?

A:My great-grandmother Josephine Holbrook. She died 10 years before I was born, so I never got to meet her. As I researched our family history, I learned what a truly remarkable woman she was. Born in 1867 of little money, she was twice a young widow with small children to raise. Times were hard, but she raised those children into responsible adults. She met life’s challenges head-on and with dignity. I’d love to meet her, hear her stories of the times, plus I’d like to learn more of my family and tell her she is my hero.

Ginny Simms is another. Ginny was a big band singer and movie actress during the infancy of the entertainment industry. She also entertained the troops during World War II. The times she saw and lived, the people she met. In her later years, she was into real estate development, having properties in many states, including Minnesota. I’d love to hear the tales of that as well.

Patsy Cline, in my opinion, is the greatest singer of all time. Patsy was and is the iconic country singer, she had the voice of an angel and no one comes close. Patsy also lived in hard times, was a tough woman, and lived life on her own terms.

Do you know someone we could pose Five Questions to? Let us know at features@duluth