In Pine River, as in any small town, there are individuals who are well-known by most everyone. Thanks to 38 years of owning a local department store and 20 years behind the desk at the Pine River Information Center, John Wetrosky is definitely one of those individuals.
Wetrosky will soon retire from his role as executive director of the Pine River Chamber.
As anyone who has read his longtime column - The Last Windrow - in this newspaper knows, Wetrosky is Iowa born and raised on a farm in Le Mars in the northwest part of the state.
“We did all the things small family farms do - milked cows and raised hogs and all those types of things," Wetrosky said.
His life could easily have kept him in Iowa. But when he was a 22-year-old college graduate, Wetrosky's parents noted how difficult family farms were to keep open, and they decided to buy a resort on Pelican Lake in Crow Wing County. He had to choose if he would follow.
“I had a job, one that I wasn't too happy with,” Wetrosky said. “I said, 'Heck, I'm going to go to Minnesota and see what I can find up there,' so that's how I ended up here.”
The resort was Jones Resort (they renamed it Hawkeye Resort) on Jones Bay that had run since the 1920s and continues to operate on a seasonal basis with Wetrosky and his five younger siblings at the wheel.
The resort helped to guide Wetrosky to his first local job outside of the resort in 1971.
“I always loved to fish. As a part of the resort we started stopping into this little bait shop, Marv Koep's,” Wetrosky said. “One day I was there and looking around picking up a few items for the resort. Marv came up to me and wanted to know if I'd be interested in working there because he and Judy had been running it by themselves. They'd been running 23 days without sleep and were basically wore out right before fishing opener.”
The bait shop connected Wetrosky even more to the area and helped propel him in other directions. The shop was the original location of the Nisswa Guides League with locally famous guides Gary Roach and Al Lindner. Wetrosky not only got to know the customers there, but also the guides. So much so that when one of the guides was overbooked, Wetrosky would guide trips.
He managed the shop for several years. During his down time he did what most anyone else would do, spending time with friends and family. One such occasion likely changed the direction of his life once more. Waiting in line for the restroom at Red's Pizza in Nisswa, Wetrosky met his future wife, Jackie Silbaugh.
“We were standing in line for Red's one restroom,” Wetrosky said. “We got to talking a bit.”
Wetrosky learned that she was the daughter of Walt and Jeanette Silbaugh, of Pine River. She worked in the Cities as a social worker, but she let slip that she sometimes spent time in Crosslake.
“A week or so later I went to Crosslake and there she was,” Wetrosky said.
They married in 1975. Three years later, Wetrosky left the bait shop and together they purchased her parents' department store in Pine River, Silbaugh's Department Store. As store owners they were part of a thriving business community in Pine River with three hardware stores, two pharmacies, several cafes and car dealerships.
He was a member of that community not only as a business owner, but also as a member of the chamber of commerce, a very involved and active chamber of commerce.
Wetrosky was part of the chamber in 1992 when the local bowling alley burned down. The chamber mustered the community together and sold shares in the alley until it could be rebuilt. They also worked to get the once-popular Pine River Country Club running.
“I've been inspired by this community,” Wetrosky said upon looking back.
He was also witness to the formation of the Paul Bunyan Trail, and was part of the creation of the Cass County Economic Development Corporation and the Pine River Economic Development group. When the chamber of commerce decided to build a new information center and hire a new executive director in 2000, of course Wetrosky threw his hat in the ring.
Wetrosky has been a prominent face of the community as chamber director and business owner, but he also became known through his newspaper column, The Last Windrow, which he began to write for the Pine River Journal when the newspaper was owned by Keith and Martha Anderson. That column has drawn a following from those who like his creative nonfiction style of writing about farm living and his days in that life. He has such a following that he writes his column for a South Dakota newspaper as well.
But life is always changing and nothing lasts forever.
The Wetroskys sold their business in 2016 and now Wetrosky's time as executive director with the chamber is also coming to an end as the chamber board is in the process of hiring a new director. Just as his wife started a part-time job upon retiring, Wetrosky has no plan of completely settling down.
“I'd like to find something part time to occupy me,” Wetrosky said. “I'm not very good if I don't have anything to do. I'm excited to see the new director coming in. He's a local kid that grew up here. He knows a lot about the area, which is important in this position.”
Those who like to keep tabs on Wetrosky will likely appreciate learning that he plans to continue his column for as long as he physically can.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.