If These Walls Could Talk: Northern Surplus supersedes auto stores in downtown building
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If These Walls Could Talk: Northern Surplus supersedes auto stores in downtown building

Jul 02, 2023

Editor's note: This is part of a 15-story series titled "If These Walls Could Talk" completed by Pioneer reporters with help from the Beltrami County Historical Society for our 2023 Annual Report.

Near the edge of Bemidji’s downtown area there is a building that housed a few of the town’s most recognizable businesses. The brick structure on the northeast corner of Third Street and America Avenue currently hosts Northern Surplus, but the corner has been in regular use since shortly after the town was platted.

Several timber companies used the lots before the Bemidji Timber Company occupied the corner at 325 Third Street from 1928 to 1938. Two businesses shared the corner in 1942. Earl Bucklen operated his plumbing business there. Robert and Edward Swenson conducted the Swenson Electric company at the same location.

Bucklen sold the building to Harry Pihl in October 1944. Pihl had been renting part of the building for a machine shop.

Pihl and H.J. Strowbridge had previously partnered in the Bemidji Auto Parts Co. down the block at 305-307 Third Street and secured one of the first defense projects in Bemidji in February 1942.


In the fall of 1945, Pihl replaced the plumbing shop with a new construction which he added to the machine shop at the rear of the lot. The building was all blonde brick construction. Bemidji Auto Parts moved into the new building in June 1946.

Pihl operated the parts business for more than four decades. Pihl’s fingerprints touched many local businesses, including Pihl Manufacturing Co., Bemidji Broadcasting Co., Bemidji Aviation Inc., and the North Central Garage Door Co.

Although Harry Pihl had retired, and died in 1989, and his son Harry “Fred” Pihl had retired, and died in 1994, Bemidji Auto Parts was still listed in 1995 at 325 Third Street as well as an entrance from 310 America Ave. William Bruers had been the manager for some years.

Northern Surplus moved to the location in 2000.

Northern Surplus was started in Bemidji by Donald Thoreson and Alden Kittleson in the Troppman Building. Pete and Alice Dreyer purchased the Northern Surplus Store in Bemidji in the 1970s. Their son, Bruce Dreyer, now operates the business.

“I’ve been selling leather since 1976,” Dreyer explained. “At one time, I had the only leather store in the state of Minnesota. I carry a large selection of (Indigenous) regalia. I think Northern Surplus is very important to the community. I’m locally owned and have had a good rapport with our customers.”

From plumbing to leather, the historic brick building on the corner of Third and America has served as a staple of some of Bemidji’s most prominent ventures.