Heartland Band and country music in the Northland, 1982

March 4, 1982

The Heartland Band, a Northland country music group, as seen in February 1982 – clockwise from lower left: Mark Russell, Steve Johnson, Al Oikari, Greg Brown, Jack Purcell and Craig Erickson. (News Tribune file photo)

Heartland Band lifts area’s country music profile

By Bob Ashenmacher, News-Tribune staff writer

Maybe it’s just that its audiences are so polite. Why else would country music’s profile be so low in this area?

After all, it may well be the most popular kind of music between Pine City and the Canadian border. Consider: It’s big news when a rock act like Loverboy sells out Duluth Arena, but routine when the Staler Brothers do it (or Kenny Rogers, although these days he’s about as genuinely country as Ralph Lauren).

Country radio stations like Hibbing’s WKKQ-AM and Duluth’s WDSM-AM have been enjoying very healthy ratings in the local market for a good while now, with no signs of slipping.

Finally, there’s the recent experience of Jim Nostrant at WKLK, Cloquet’s country radio. His station and half a dozen others around the state recently sponsored a country talent search. Each region’s winner has been chosen and the state finals will be in Cloquet’s middle school gymnasium at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

“We for sure had the most entries of any region in the state,” Nostrant said.

“Some of the other contests had like 13 entrants. We had 42, and after the cutoff time something like another 50 wanted to sign up.”

The contest had to be conducted over two Sunday afternoons, rather than the orginally planned one. Its site, the Register bar in Scanlon, was filled with upwards of 400 people each day, Nostrant said. The would-be stars wanted a shot at $50,000, a televised performance in Nashville and a recording and bookings contract. That’s the top prize in the national competition, sponsored by Wrangler Jeans.

The local entrants ranged from a 7-year-old singer to a 67-year-old former logger who played the harmonica and guitar. The winner was the Heartland Band, a sextet formed specifically for the contest.

“We’d been talking about getting together anyway,” said organizer Greg Brown of Carlton. “This seemed like the perfect opportunity. I’d worked with a lot of these guys before.”

Brown supplies vocals and plays guitar and fiddle. The rest of the lineup is Steve Johnson or Grand Marais, guitar and vocals; Al Oikari of Grand Marais, piano, guitar and vocals; Craig Erickson of Cloquet, bass and vocals; Mark Russell of Duluth, steel guitar; and Jack Purcell of Cloquet on drums.

The band’s sound is highlighted by its harmonies and instrumental variety, according to Brown. It won its chance at the state championship by doing an old Cajun tune, “Diggy Liggy Lo,” as a warmup, and Rusty Weir’s “Don’t it Make You Wanna Dance” as its to-be-judged song.

The winner of Friday night’s state finals gets $1,000, a trip to Nashville, an appearance on a televised show with Ray Price and a chance at the top prize, performing on the show and the above-mentioned 50 grand and recording and booking contracts. Tickets to the state finals will cost $6.50. “But some of the other states, I know, are charging eight bucks,” Nostrant said.

And all the talent won’t be homegrown. Nashville’s Legarde Twins will perform and emcee, and Texan swing band Texas Tradition will play backup to solo acts who want accompaniment.

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Do you remember the Heartland Band? Does anyone know if they advanced to the national competition? What other long-ago local bands should we search for in the News Tribune archives? Share your memories and suggestions by posting a comment.

Betty’s Pies, 1978

August 6, 1978

Betty Lessard holds one of her famous lemon angel pies at her cafe north of Two Harbors in August 1978. (News-Tribune file photo)

Before planned road construction forced a move to modern digs uphill from Highway 61, the famed Betty’s Pies was housed in a more humble home much closer to the road, near the Stewart River bridge. It’s known around the region for its pies, but the restaurant – known back then as Betty’s Cafe – also holds the distinction of being a pioneer in smoke-free dining, as shown in this 1978 article:

Betty specializes in clean air and homemade pies

By Susan Willoughby, Duluth News-Tribune

TWO HARBORS – There’s something about knowing that Betty Lessard is in the kitchen baking that makes everything taste better at Betty’s Cafe.

When you walk in you’ll see Betty emerge from the kitchen, her hands and apron covered with flour and her cheeks flushed from the heat of the oven. That’s all part of what makes her famous homemade pies famous.

The cafe has a warm, homey atmosphere, much like going home for Sunday dinner. That atmosphere and Betty’s cooking mean standing-room-only crowds every weekend.

Those crowds make Betty confident to enforce a state law some might consider bad for a restaurant business: If you attempt to light a cigarette over that second cup of coffee, you’ll be firmly but politely directed to the smoking area – two picnic tables just outside the cafe.

The smoking ban at Betty’s began three years ago because her tiny cafe is too small to designate a smoking area under state law.

But Betty enforces the ban, unlike many restaurant owners, because she believes her homemade pies, rolls, bread and cookies will taste a little better without the smell of "second-hand smoke."

"Most people who own eating places are afraid if they don’t allow smoking they’ll lose customers," she said. "But I have my standards. Besides, they can take their coffee outside, and it’s not that much to ask."

Betty has an edge over even the most determined smoker – she makes pies so delicious you want no distractions from eating them. Her crusts are flaky, her fillings creamy and delicious, her recipes a closely guarded secret.

"If they don’t want to obey the rules they can go somewhere else," Betty grinned. "There’ll be 12 more in line behind them when they leave."

The cafe is very small – it seats about 35 people – and cigarette smoke will drift all through the building in minutes, Betty said. "Even if I could, I wouldn’t go back to having smoking," said Betty, who up to 12 years ago smoked two packs a day. "I found out how nice it could be. And everyone comment on it. Even smokers comment on how they enjoyed their food without inhaling someone’s second-hand smoke."

Betty’s Cafe overlooks Lake Superior. Its outdoor smoking area is to the left, under the sign. (News-Tribune file photo)

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Betty figures she runs one of the only no-smoking restaurants in the state – and that has brought her some additional customers.

But Betty’s doesn’t really need much help. Word of mouth alone has brought customers from as far as Sweden to taste those famous pies.

One bite of that fresh strawberry, blueberry, peach and raspberry, that banana and coconut cream, that lemon meringue and lemon angel or that four-layer chocolate pie – well it just makes you forget about all the calories and ugly fat.

It’s what sold 3,800 pies last year to a faithful following during Betty’s six-month business season from smelt season to deer season. And it’s what Betty estimates will sell 5,000 pies this year.

"I know a worker at the Duluth Thompson Hill [tourist information] center, and she tells me people come in and just ask for ‘that pie place,’" Betty said. "She knows right off what they’re talking about."

Betty starts her day at 4:45 a.m., making pies and getting ready to open the cafe at 11 a.m. Most days she doesn’t leave until an hour after the 8 p.m. closing.

Weekdays – except Tuesdays, when she’s closed – Betty sells whole pies. But she couldn’t begin to keep up with the weekend demand, so pie is sold only by the slice.

"A big seller is strawberry," she said. "But my favorite is that fresh peach."

Betty’s Cafe – on Highway 61 three miles north of Two Harbors – started out as a smoked fish stand 22 years ago. And Betty, who was once a professional photographer in Duluth, began baking "just to find something to do."

She branched out to trout and chicken dinners and finally became famous for her cookies, bread and pies.

Her voice is soft and her eyes are warm, but she doesn’t fool around when it comes to enforcing her no-smoking policy.

"I had only one problem with a customer," she said. "A woman came in with her husband, and wouldn’t put out her cigarette for anything. I said I would call the sheriff, and he would fine her $100.

"Well, she just sat there and kept smoking," Betty laughed. "And her husband finally just walked out on her, he got so mad."

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Betty Lessard sold the cafe to Janine Bjerklie in 1984, who in turn sold it to Carl Ehlenz and Martha Sieber in 1997.The new building opened in 2000; the old cafe structure was torn down in 2002, as seen in this photo:

A wrecking machine takes a bite out of the old Betty’s Pies building on April 24, 2002, as it is brought to the ground by MNDOT workers. (Renee Knoeber / News Tribune)

Here are a few more Betty’s Pies photos from the News Tribune files:

Although no longer the owner, Betty Lessard still makes a presence at her namesake restaurant, Betty’s Pies – including on this day, July 14, 2001. "People just get excited, they flip out because Betty is here," said assistant manager Roma Clarin. Now Betty, who still serves as hostess on regular basis, has a new pie cookbook coming out. (Rick Scibelli / News Tribune)

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Carl Ehlenz, co-owner of Betty’s Pies, is covered in silly string by his employees just before the old building is torn down on April 24, 2002. Ehlenz worked for two years out of the old building before moving into the new one behind it. (Renee Knoeber / News Tribune)

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This 1956 photo shows the original, first building where smoked fish was sold at the site of what is now Betty’s Pies. The building was added onto over the years and bakery items were sold. (Submitted photo / News Tribune file)

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Janine Bjerklie, owner of Betty’s Pies, hold a pair of famous pies inside the restaurant on Oct. 3, 1997 – when the business was up for sale. (Chuck Frederick / News-Tribune)

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Feel free to share your Betty’s Pies memories by posting a comment.

- Andrew Krueger