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St. Michel receives inaugural Margo J. Helgerson Award

By Sue Sitter - | Oct 17, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Rob St. Michel and granddaughter Harper Michel pose for a photo in St. Michel Furniture’s Rugby showroom.

When Rob St. Michel buys a downtown Rugby building, he likes to get to know it.

“I’ve always loved buildings,” he said recently in his showroom at St. Michel Furniture in Rugby.

St. Michel’s passion for buildings in his community caught the eye of the Souris Basin Planning Council, who awarded him with its inaugural Margo J. Helgerson Award.

St. Michel said he was “honored” to receive the award.

“When they called me, I wasn’t really sure why they would be nominating me,” St. Michel said of the planning council. “I’ve done what everybody would do; build businesses and tried to be successful.”

“I’ve always loved old buildings and the history of buildings. The building we’re sitting in right now used to be the Jacobson Department Store. They had a major fire in 1955 and burned to the ground. This building was built in 1958,” St. Michel said. “The building next door was Gronvold Motors. It’s a very historic building. In 1927 it had an automated garage door, which was almost unheard of between Seattle and Minneapolis. It was one of the finest car dealerships between those areas. So, there’s a lot of history in buildings in Rugby,” he added. “As you work on one, you learn about it and people come in and tell you things.”

“The building known as the Mueller T.V. building was actually the first Johnson Clinic when it began in the 1930s. That building was in very poor shape. I didn’t do the restoration. A young man here in town, Kevin Leier, did a nice job of turning it into a nice building,” St. Michel said. “I just hauled all junk out of it and gutted it and got it ready for that. But before that, the dark brown brick you see at the top (points to layer of brick under the top floor buildings) came from a bank. It was used brick, Tofesrud tore down a bank in Barton to use it in that building.”

“So, you learn about things like that,” St. Michel added. “The building Ashley Berg’s Main Street Boutique is in, that was another one I bought and gutted. It seems like my strong suit is demolition. I’m not very good at pounding nails. I’m better at pulling them out,” he noted with a laugh.

“That building housed the opera house upstairs,” St. Michel said of the Main Street Boutique building. “One of the very early high school graduations in Rugby, somewhere around 1911, was held up there. They did plays and it has a lot of history.”

St. Michel has called Rugby home for 30 years. His St. Michel Furniture stores have locations in Rugby, Bottineau, Devils Lake and Bemidji.

“I love this town,” St. Michel said. “There are other towns just like us. I was talking to a truck driver as he was unloading and he notices what a nice town this is and how nice the people are and most of the towns around here, Harvey, Bottineau, Rugby – they’re great towns to live in and great towns to raise a family and great towns to get as involved in as you want,” he added.

“I have three children and they all work for me in the business. They graduated from Rugby High School,” St. Michel said. “I have two children in Bottineau and one in Bemidji. One manages the store there. My daughter lives in Bottineau and drives down and is my bookkeeper.”

St. Michel attributes his business success to “hiring good people. It’s a matter of hiring good people and having good people work for you and getting involved in community has always been an important thing.”

His daughter, who works on the books for the store, brings her toddler daughter, Harper Michel, to work every day.

A statement from Souris Basin cited former Rugby mayor Dale Niewoehner, who praised St. Michel’s community involvement. “Rob has done a lot, not just in our community, but for the state and the region by restoring buildings and keeping small business alive,” Niewoehner said in the statement.

Berg also described St. Michel’s work in the Souris Basin statement.

“We had shops, events and store owners would gather and dress up during the holidays and I just have very fond memories of downtown,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for Rob.”

The award was named after the late Margo J. Helgerson who, according to Souris Basin, “dedicated her life to serving the communities of North Dakota.”

The award “highlights community members living and working in North Dakota Region 2 with outstanding character and selfless commitment to the improved vibrancy and future of their community,” the statement added.

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