By Tucker Henderson

Special to the Dispatch

What makes up a community? Is it the buildings? Perhaps it’s the churches in the area? The most important part of a community is surely the businesses, right? Many of you are probably rolling your eyes by now, but of course the most essential part of a community is the people that it’s made of. Otter Tail County is made up of a lot of interesting people and New York Mills has been the home to many of them.

Israel Hagel was an important immigrant to this area. He was born at his Finnish grandparents farm in Sweden in 1846. After traveling to Norway for work, he toiled as a reindeer herder, fisherman, and builder. While living in Norway, he accepted Christ as his savior and soon became a lay preacher. After a few years, he boarded the ship Tasso and sailed to England. From England he made his way to America.

His first job in the States was working in the mines in Calumet, Michigan. He was saved by a mysterious voice calling out for him while working one day. He hurried along to see what was needed only to find out that the shaft collapsed behind him. He decided this was the work of his Guardian Angel. He made a change in employment and went to work in the woods of Michigan, hewing railroad ties. 

In 1877, Israel decided it was time to move along. In hopes of making it to Astoria, Oregon where many other Finns had settled, he set off for the West. He took a train to Duluth and eventually changed his mind and made his way to New York Mills where he had heard that homestead land was plentiful. He was one of the earliest Finnish settlers in the area.

He stayed with the Puupera family while searching for homestead land. He held a church service on the second evening for all of the Finnish families in the neighborhood. Ten people attended this service which was the first Finnish church service held in the New York Mills area and was likely held before the first English one.

Israel was a farmer and with the help of his beloved wife, Greta, raised nine children and fostered another while living near New York Mills. He was a pillar of the Otter Tail County community. He spoke five languages: Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Latvian, and English. When a translator was needed to handle business in Fergus Falls, Israel was often called upon. He would help out anyone that needed it.

This generosity is the reason we have Woodland Cemetery. He helped out one family who only wanted forty acres from an eighty acre plot of land. Israel offered to buy the other half and donated it to the Apostolic Lutheran Church for the use of a cemetery. The Apostolic Church wanted to require membership before burial in the cemetery, but Israel wouldn’t donate it on those terms. Hagel Cemetery (later Woodland) was a cemetery where any community member could be buried.

Israel served as the pastor for the Apostolic Church in the early years. He preached regularly from 1911 to 1932. He taught many confirmation classes during his tenure and performed last rites for countless members of the community. He was the first preacher for the church, having started that first service in 1877 and only stopped after his wife passed on. He also has the unique trait of being the last founding member of the New York Mills Apostolic Lutheran Church to die, only surpassing pioneer Isaac Piippo by three years. 

Tom Salo, board member of the church at the time, took up a collection for Rev. Hagel to pay him for his years of (unpaid) service to the church. A final total of forty dollars was collected and presented to Israel. 

He declined it to Tom’s surprise. “My preaching ability is a gift of God. It is not for sale,” was the answer Israel gave him.

Israel Hagel was a devoted husband, father, preacher, pioneer, friend, and Christian. He helped develop the New York Mills and Otter Tail County communities as we know them today. His efforts are still seen today in the Apostolic Church, Woodland Cemetery, and many other organizations where his descendants carry on his work. 

His great-granddaughter, Louise Amberg-Jokela, recently was named the East Otter Tail County Outstanding Senior Citizen. She volunteers at the local Senior Center as well as the Apostolic Church. If that doesn’t prove his legacy, I don’t know what does.

I want to cite the book Their Journey by Marcella (Kulla) Hagel, who happens to be a 1944 classmate of my great-grandmother, Lorraine (Perala) Olsen. Why would I include that information you ask? I cite Marcy Hagel because her book was a great source for Israel’s life. 

I cite Lorraine Perala because she’s the reason I included the name of Isaac Piippo – I write to inform and I write because I enjoy history. The reason I enjoy history is because of my great-grandmother. She shared her memories and I want to keep them alive. I urge you to do the same with your own memories and don’t be afraid to be proud to share your own Piippos, Peralas, and Olsens.