It’s now time for part two of the Aitkin Independent Age 2020 year in review.

Part one ran in the Jan. 6, 2021 edition of the Age.


Local artists found a way to give back to the community, donating artwork and crafts for the “Art for Others” auction being held through Green Owl Gallery each month. Money raised from the auctions was donated to a different charity each month.

Riverwood Healthcare officially opened its new pharmacy at Paulbeck’s County Market and area law enforcement were in the Twin Cities area to help protect the area following the protests of George Floyd’s death.

Most Fourth of July celebrations in the area were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though fireworks still took place at Ruttgers Bay Lake Lodge.

Public health officials continued to stress the importance of masking and social distancing as the state began opening back up for in-person service at restaurants and bars.

A number of severe storms moved through the area, including one July 8 that resulted in tornadoes on the ground.

The NEOWISE comet was visible in the night sky throughout much of the month, exciting skywatchers and astronomy enthusiasts.

James Ardito was arrested July 28 after robbing the Garrison Deerwood Bank branch four days earlier. According to a release from the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Department, Ardito was previously convicted for armed robbery of the same bank in 2007.

Rich Liljenquist was honored at the Aitkin County Fairgrounds with the grandstands now named for him. A long-time fair enthusiast, Liljenquist helped the annual event become what it is now.

A local show of support for Black Lives Matters was held at the only stoplight in Aitkin County July 31, gathering supporters for the cause and also counterprotesters.


The annual Riverboat Days in Aitkin was among festivals that were canceled, as was Wild Rice Days in McGregor. The Aitkin Chamber still held its “Ripplesippi” paddle along the Mississippi and the Ripple Rivers, though, using social distancing.

The annual Dawson Strong Ride was held, raising funds for the Hennepin County Medical Center’s Extraordinary Kids. Dawson VanPortfliet was a patient there in 2015 and died unexpectedly.

The Aitkin School Board approved going out for a Capital Projects Levy, which was placed on the Nov. 3 general election ballot. The district would later hire Widseth to help communicate the goals of the project, which would be an added $500,000 each year for 10 years.

Meanwhile, the McGregor School District passed one of two referendum questions on the Aug. 11 primary ballot. McGregor’s school district approved $13.2 million for upgrading and renovating school buildings but turned down a new community fitness center.

Schools were told by the state they had a say in how they could reopen in the fall and were provided guidance numbers that indicated full in-person or distance learning – or a hybrid model of the two.

Aitkin County registered its first official COVID-19 death Aug. 5.

In another cancellation, Ruttger’s decided to not hold its annual Oktoberfest event due to the pandemic. It was announced in early September that the resort had been sold to new owners, 1898 Investments LLC.


Among the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Long Lake Conservation Center, which lost the majority of its business due to canceled trips and visits by schools.

McGregor, meanwhile, moved forward with construction on a new fire hall – needed due to a lack of space.

The story of the car crash that nearly claimed the lives of Jason and Kris Long was told, as was that of their recovery.

Area business owners and politicians gathered to brainstorm retail possibilities at the former Shopko building.

Aitkin County presented its preliminary budget, expecting a levy increase of more than 8%. By the time the budget was approved in December, that increase was less than 2%.


The month started with the Minnesota State High School League approving the start of fall sports. However, as it would turn out, there would be no state tournaments and postseason was cut short by another COVID-19 surge in November.

The annual Taste of Aitkin went off with two sessions and limited seating due to the pandemic, but the result was the same – Block North winning the People’s Choice Award.

Area schools asked parents to take precautions with their students as cases began to rise in Aitkin County. McGregor would end up closing its elementary school for distance learning for two weeks due to a staffing shortage.

The city of Aitkin offices were officially closed and the staff moved to a different site after mold was discovered in the building.

With rising cases in COVID-19 around the area, the virus did make its way into two area long-term care facilities, resulting in resident deaths.


The presidential election and local elections dominated the news. Among the noteworthy area election results:

• County chair Bill Pratt lost to Brian Napstad for the District 4 seat. Napstad had been defeated by Pratt in 2018.

• The Aitkin School Capital Project Levy was defeated, though the district later made plans to put the CPL on the ballot again in 2021 with better public education about its need.

• Aitkin Mayor Gary Tibbitts was defeated by Megan Workman.

In the state and federal elections, the area leaned heavily Republican.

Even as Enbridge began pre-construction work on its Line 3 Replacement Project, it was taken back to court. While all the permits for the project were approved and construction began, a court case was filed that the project violated Native American treaty rights – and that the permit approval process was faulty.


Many of the headlines in the month tied to the Enbridge Line 3 Replacement Project. Work began Dec. 4, and protestors and activists became commonplace at the site. There were also concerns about the incoming workers, and whether they would contribute to the COVID-19 case surge.

Aitkin County awarded the final round of the federal CARES Act dollars.

Aitkin Police Chief Tim Catlin resigned and retired mid-month, ending an investigation that had begun earlier in the month.

The Aitkin School Board began contemplating options on school funding because of the failure of the CPL. The district is facing about a $1.1 million shortfall.

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