Volunteers, fellow business owners help Russ Kendall's rise from ashes

By KBJR News 1

May 17, 2014 Updated May 17, 2014 at 10:53 PM CDT

Knife River, MN (NNCNOW.com) - For 3rd generation Russ Kendall's Smokehouse co–owner Gordon Olson, last Sunday's early morning phone call that his century–old business was burning was like getting a call that there had been a death in the family.

"It's traumatizing to have your life just stripped out from underneath you."

Olson says the Smokehouse is the embodiment of a North Shore way of life that he and his wife have already passed on to their children, who in turn are passing it down to the 5th generation.

Living quarters for family members are among the ashes of the charred remains of the building's meat processing room where the fire started.

Olson says Two Harbors and Cliffton fire crews responded immediately and worked quickly last week, but the damage was already done.

"...all of our processing equipment, our new freezers, all of our smoke ovens," listed a very tired Olson, standing in front of piles of burnt wood, "everything is gone, but they saved the store up here."

While the store front was spared from the fire, Olson says smoke damage left nothing untouched.

"...all of our products, basically," said Olson, "we're starting from scratch."

Olson says the family is working with insurance to figure out a path forward, with full intention to re–open as quickly as possible.

"In the meantime with the volunteers, and the donations, I've been able to put food on the table," said an emotional Olson.

For the volunteers who gathered Saturday to lend a helping hand, that path forward means focusing on one area at a time.

Randy Ellestad owns the Knife River Campground just a few hundred yards up Scenic Highway 61.

"Everything needs to be washed off and cleaned," said a soot-covered Ellestad, still smiling underneath a face mask, "the floors need to be cleaned; the walls need to be washed just to get the bare necessities of an operation going."

For him, pitching in on the clean up goes beyond being a good neighbor.

"My customers kind of rely on having him here, because that's part of the experience of coming to Knife River," said Ellestad, "between the candy shoppe, and Kendall's fish, and Emily's."

For Olson, the volunteer efforts are restoring more than he and his wife's legacy.

"I really didn't think there were people in this world who cared, and I was so wrong," said Olson, "when people do need help, I'm going to reach out more. And sometimes, it's just a matter of giving a hug."

Olson says other area smokehouses have already offered their space to help Russ Kendall's get back on their feet, selling their sought–after smoked goods for the summer tourism season.

As of now, Olson says the goal is to salvage the smokehouse store front, and rebuild the processing room.

The fire has been determined to be an electrical accident.

Billy Wagness
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