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Knife River community rallies around smokehouse owners

Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse in Knife River sustained significant damage after a Sunday fire. The Knife River community sprang into action, beginning a benefit fund and donating money to help the small business rebuild. Photo by Jim Erickson.

Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse in Knife River suffered significant fire damage on Sunday.

By Monday, the Knife River community had already rallied around owners Kristi and Gordy Olson, starting a benefit fund for the couple to help rebuild their business and sending cards and letters of support, according to longtime Knife River resident Paul von Goertz.

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“Within three days, the response from the community and the region has been very heart-warming,” von Goertz said on Thursday. “People certainly recognize the value of Kendall’s personally and to the region.”

The North Shore landmark, which has sold its renowned smoked fish to legions of locals and tourists for decades, was severely damaged by a fire that Olson said started near a water heater in the smokehouse. The production area at the back of the business was gutted; the familiar red storefront and attached bar along Scenic Highway 61 remain standing but suffered significant smoke damage. No one was injured.

“My whole family has lost their jobs, their way of making a living — my son, my wife, myself,” Olson said Sunday. “I don’t know where to start. … I’m in shock.”

The smokehouse was started by Kristi Olson’s grandfather, W.T. Kendall in the 1920s. It was run for many years by W.T.’s son — and Kristi’s father — Russ Kendall, and Gordy and Kristi took over after Russ passed away in 2007.

The Two Harbors Volunteer Fire Department received notice of the fire at about 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

“Upon our arrival, the smokehouse and a structure connecting it to the store were fully engulfed,” Two Harbors Fire Chief Mark Schlangen said. “Flames were coming through the roof, and the fire was starting to extend into the store-bar area.”

Within an hour of their arrival, firefighters from Two Harbors and Clifton had contained the fire, but they remained on the scene for several hours.

Schlangen said the smokehouse and connecting structure were a total loss, but the retail space sustained mainly smoke damage. Gordy Olson said the building had just been updated before the fire.

“We just put in all-new floors and installed an additional freezer … last winter,” Gordy Olson said Sunday. The fire destroyed that section of the building.

With insurance money and support from the community, Kendall said on Sunday that he hoped to reopen soon but wasn’t positive before reviewing all the paperwork and other information.

“It’s part of our culture, part of our family,” he said.

The quick and generous support of the small tight-knit community and words of support from smoked fish lovers around the country suggest that the shop is an important part of the Knife River culture and a family tradition for many.

 “I just came from the post office and the initial response from the fund ... people have been generous in their contributions,” von Goertz said. “People have included cards with their contributions praising them for the quality of their product and being a North Shore icon.”

To donate to the benefit fund

Send checks made out to Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse Fund to Two Harbors Federal Credit Union, 626 2nd Ave., Two Harbors, MN, 55616.

News Tribune staffers Andrew Krueger, Mike Creger and Peter Passi contributed to this report.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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