Douglas Birk came to Pine River with his parents in 1950 and immediately gained recognition for a passion that eventually became a career. The area historian died Wednesday, March 8, at age 73.
His parents sold antiques and ran the Camp-Show-Me resort on Norway Lake, where Birk immediately began unearthing Pine River's past. Many fellow Heritage Group North members remember Birk's finds.
"My earliest memory as a small child was remembering he and his brother, even then outside digging up things," said Alison Amy Stephens. "One of my first memories of him was wanting to show us some artifacts or something he had dug up. We were little kids and we would be out there when our parents were visiting. I remember he and Reggie Silbaugh would swim in Norway Lake looking for shells and things. He always had that spirit of adventure, which later became his career."
"He did have artifacts on display," said Alan Johnson, of Pine River. "That was the start of his archaeology career."
"I think that really was a stepping stone or impetus to move into archaeology," said Reggie Silbaugh, Birk's next door neighbor and best friend.
Birk found an early interest in the local history. As a young man he did interviews with some of the city's early residents and documented the stories of people who helped to build the Pine River community.
It was with Silbaugh, friends and family that Birk researched Zebulon Pike at the Itasca headwaters, retraced the routes of the local railroad spurs in the Foothills State Forest near Backus and visited the locations of logging dams that were once used to control waterways for logging transport.
"We talked to some of the old-timers that were still alive and realized some of the logging roads had been rail lines," Silbaugh said. "We realized there had actually been railroad engines going up and down the line and picking up logs at landings. We started looking as we walked them."
Later, Birk mapped and documented those same spurs and documented other spurs throughout the lakes area, though this accounted for only a fraction of the work he did to document the local history.
Birk wrote large sections of "Log Sleds to Snowmobiles," the Pine River centennial book, and was an integral part to having the Pine River railroad depot restored and preserved.
"I didn't really know too much of him or see too much of him until he called me about 12 years ago," Johnson said. "He said, 'Alan, I hear you and your wife are interested in saving the depot. We have to save it. Would you be interested in helping me?' Of course, we were flattered. Pat and I both knew of Doug and his reputation. He was a renowned historian."
"That all started at the table in our house, meeting at the table," Stephens said. "I wouldn't have necessarily imagined that later in life we would be working together on a project like that. He was so instrumental because he was the research arm, the historical arm and the one who knew the history. He was the perfectionist on that and he wanted it done well and done right. It's just a huge loss for the area. It's a huge loss of intellectual property for our area."
"He did all the research on the depot to document its history and historical value," Johnson said. "There were about six of us that helped, but it could have been done without any of us but it could not have been done without Doug due to the research he did and the knowledge and everything."
Birk's list of archaeological merits is long. As a Minnesota state archaeologist he visited or consulted on most of the state's documented historical sites. Grand Portage displays Birk's scuba gear in honor of his work to uncover underwater artifacts as part of the first underwater use of the grid system for archaeological discovery.
He was a co-founder and co-president of the Minnesota Institute of Archaeology and he helped establish the Little Elk Heritage Preserve in Little Falls. He was also the 1986 Minnesota Independent Scholar of the Year.
"(He was) my first and best friend," Silbaugh said. "Later in life he was somewhat of an institution in the state to other professionals, but to me he was my best friend and the one that having a common childhood and growing up in the same circumstances made for a special bond. We knew each other extremely well. It was probably 10 years of our lives that we lived next door to one another and he became like a brother."