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Early Times

The County Is Organized*

When Minnesota became a state in 1858, the vast area above Pokegama Lake was an untraveled wilderness of dismal swamps, sparkling lakes, and towering pine, known for almost two centuries only to a few explorers, fur traders and missionaries.

When W. W. Winthrop came up the Mississippi to Pokegama Falls in 1857 he reported the nearest lumber camp was forty miles south along the river. The only buildings in sight were the log cabins built for the men guarding the rights of the Dayton brothers and the Minnesota and Dakota Land Company, both of whom claimed land around the falls for a future townsite. Neither ever won title to the land. Moreover, their claims lay above the Falls, somewhat west of where Grand Rapids now lies. At least their ideas were sound.

No homes had been established. But Winthrop claimed, "Leech River and the Mississippi above Pokegama flow through immense fields of wild rice, abounding at this season in ducks and geese, which afford capital shooting and the best eating." This was certainly attractive, then as now. But, below the falls, Winthrop noted that the pine forests "edge to the river on both sides." And it was the pine that was to lure the first sizable numbers of men into Itasca County.

Just a few years before that, when Minnesota Territory was formed in 1849, the land still belonged to the Indians. No one could buy it. The United States census in 1850 nevertheless recorded 97 people living in Itasca County. That must have been a rather rough estimate, a mere guess. If there were that many, they were primarily trappers living in isolated cabins, in the peace and quiet. far from nowhere. Perhaps others, who came for the health-restoring atmosphere, or for the ducks and geese, or the fish, or the deer, were listed as inhabitants.

Those 97 people lived in a county about five times the size of Rhode Island, a county totaling 5,800 square miles, according to the "vague estimate" of a commissioner of statistics who had never been near the place and had no surveyor's statistics whatever to go by. Something like 20,000 square miles and 17 times the size of Rhode Island would have been closer to the truth.

Itasca County was one of the original nine counties into which the new territory was divided in 1849. Its boundaries then extended from the Lake of the Woods down to the headwaters of the Mississippi on the west, then down along the Mississippi River to a more or less east-west line just below Rice Lake but above Mille Lacs. The eastern boundary was the shoreline of Lake Superior as far north as the mouth of the Pigeon River. The north boundary was the Rainy River - what is now the line between Canada and the United States. Enclosed within these boundaries was all the land that now forms Cook, Lake, St. Louis, Carlton, Koochiching and Itasca counties, as well as much of the land that now forms Aitkin and Beltrami counties.


Minnesota's original nine counties.

During the succeeding nine years, it seemed that every time the territorial legislature met, new counties were formed and boundaries of the old counties changed. Map makers could never keep track of things; only legislators could move so swiftly. By 1858 the new state of Minnesota had 61 organized and seven unorganized counties. A number of counties organized by legislative act or by the appointment of commissioners did not really function as counties for several years.

During these years before statehood quite a bit of land was lopped off Itasca County to form other counties. Lake County to the east, including what is now Cook County, was cut out in 1856. A large square to the east around Duluth was removed to form St. Louis County in 1857. Lake Vermilion and the Vermilion Range were still within Itasca's borders. Aitkin and Carlton counties were both formed May 25, 1857; that brought Itasca's southern boundary up to about 47 degrees latitude-between townships 52 and 53, where it is now.

The western boundary still ran through the middle of the two Red lakes. Itasca County itself was organized "with all immunities" in 1857 also. Somehow, although the legislative act for organization had been passed, no commissioners were appointed, and when the state was officially recognized the following year, Itasca County was lost in the shuffle. It was, in 1858, attached to Morrison County; anyone living in Itasca was under the jurisdiction of courts and officials in Morrison County. No records indicate that anyone in Itasca took advantage of such opportunities offered in Morrison.


In 1890 Pokegama Falls did roar and rumble over a ten foot drop. The big drop came just below the present Pokegama Dam, three miles above the paper mill dam. Rapids over the rocks by the present Blandin mill and below discouraged steamboats from going farther up the Mississippi; the first buildings were constructed just below the rapids. The first Pokegama Dam, made entirely of wood, was erected at the narrows above the falls in 1884. The present concrete dam was constructed in 1902; work on the paper mill dam began May 16, 1901. Today the river looks placidly different.


As a matter of fact, no one seems to have taken advantage of any of the many fine opportunities offered in Itasca County. According to federal census figures the population by 1860 had dwindled to little more than half of what it had been ten years before. Itascans totaled only 51. Surveyors had not yet pushed their lines quite that far into the northern wilds. The county in 1860 was attached to St. Louis County, perhaps because Morrisonites no longer felt they needed the business.

In the next few years legislators continued to whittle Itasca down to size, and still nobody came. By 1863 the eastern boundary had been moved west to 93 degrees longitude where it is today-and St. Louis County had been extended to the Canadian border. The state census of 1865 recorded nobody living in Itasca. The western boundary was moved east to where it is now when Beltrami County was put on the map, though not really organized, in 1866. Things seemed to be getting worse all the time.

The pine that W. W. Winthrop had noticed in 1857 running down to the river's banks was still there. But nobody seemed to bother much about it. And they didn't bother about it because they had all the pine they could cut and sell farther south.

Logging had begun in Minnesota in 1829 when downriver men from St. Louis built the first commercial saw mill on Minnesota soil at Marine, twenty miles below St. Croix Falls. Another mill was built in Stillwater in 1844. Within the next ten years five other mills began operating in Stillwater, and for many years Stillwater remained the center of the logging industry.

As the logs began to give out in the St. Croix Delta, the lumbermen moved north along the Mississippi and cut pine as they went. When the lumbermen got as far north as Pokegama Lake and began cutting there, things really began to boom in Itasca County.

Timber cruisers must have begun tramping through the woods in the early sixties. No doubt many, by canoe and afoot, with packsack and rifle and notepad and pencil, had rambled through the woods around Pokegama and farther north to bring back quite accurate estimates of the lumber to be cut from the many huge stands of beautiful white and red pine.

After the timber cruisers came the lumberjacks. They threw up their shacks, and their log bunkhouses, and soon the cookee's beller rang through the woods at dawn, or before, every morning.

The first cut of logs from Pokegama Lake came down the Mississippi in the spring of 1868. That year Joe Knowlton had been cutting timber for T. B. Walker on Black's Arm on Pokegama. This projection of land was known for many years as Knowlton's Arm before it received its present name. That first year, as often happened because of bad weather, low water, poor business conditions or crude skulduggery, the lumberjacks were not paid. But the cutting continued. Although the U.S. census only recorded 96 people in the county in 1870, by 1872 seventeen lumber camps were operating within a few miles of Pokegama Falls. Close to 40C lumberjacks were at work in the woods. Lumbering was under way.

Timber was cut along the Prairie River almost as soon as on Pokegama. Wes Day had a camp at Hill Lake near where Hill City now is located and was probably cutting timber in Itasca in 1870, or even earlier. In the spring of 1872 he and his crew drove the first logs down the Prairie River. Wages on that drive were probably about one dollar for a day of 16 hours. With Gil Hanson, Andy Gibson and John Gilmore, Wes Day spotted a tote road along the Prairie up to the mouth of Clearwater Brook in the fall of 1872. By that time Con Dineen had finished building the dam at the foot of Wabana Lake - while the Indians were camped on Balgillow Island and along Upper Buckman Cove. That winter Wes Day had four camps operating on Clearwater Brook, and Hill Lawrence, who had also had a camp on southern Pokegama a year or two before, had two camps over on the lake later named after him.

As more and more timber was cut, more and more lumber camps and lumberjacks spread through the woods. Tidd's camp was operating over on the northwest side of Deer Lake in 1873. Old "Skif" Bonus with a Catholic missionary had in 1872 made the trip up to Trout Lake where Coleraine now stands. He reported lots of white pine in the neighborhood. But he thought Wabana was prettier; he had no notions about iron; two years later he took out a timber claim on the north shore of Wabana Lake.

When Mike McAlpine came up to Itasca County in 1875 he knew of no white women living there, and only about 35 men stayed through the summer. These men kept watch over the camps, raised vegetables, made hay, and tended the oxen. But when winter came, six or seven hundred men must have moved into the woods, most of them the best of lumberjacks from Maine and Michigan. Many were Scots from Nova Scotia or New Brunswick, and a few were tough Irishmen and Yankees from the East.

Surveyors were coming in, too. They had come into the Prairie Lake-Wabana Lake area in 1869; by 1873 they had surveyed the two townships just north of Deer Lake.

Food, clothing and implements had to be supplied for all these men. By one means or another tons of materials had to be hauled in.

In 1871, when state legislators changed their minds again and attached Itasca to Crow Wing County, a road may have existed between Aitkin and Grand Rapids, but it was probably rather thick with stumps and bumps -a typical "stump-straddler." At least there were tote roads, one branching due north to Lawrence's lumber camp on the south side of Pokegama, and another veering around the east end of Pokegama, through the present site of Grand Rapids and on up around the west end of Prairie Lake. Gradually this latter road became more traveled. Other roads spread out to the east and west of Grand Rapids; one came up from the Swan River section. The tote road along the Prairie River was for a time considered a thoroughfare. The trail wound in and out among the trees along the banks of the river from one logging camp to the next.

For several years Wes Day and his crews had little competition around Wabana and farther north; they logged off only the clearest and the straightest pine; they made the most use of the Prairie River road.

But in 1878 McAlpine and Kirkpatrick came in to cut timber. They began the trail that left the Prairie River road at Piper's farm and eventually, after touching the shores of almost every lake in the vicinity, reached Bigfork. It was known later as the Bigfork Road. This and the Prairie River road were the only roads leading north from Grand Rapids for many years. Many parts of the roads were all corduroy. Some sections could not be traveled during rainy or muddy seasons.

Such roads, however well-traveled and however easy pioneers might have thought the going, were never very smooth. Even years later, when wagons hauled freight from one community to the next, the drivers sat in special seats built high on long hardwood poles. Leather straps held the driver in so he wouldn't be thrown out when the wagon bounced over a boulder or jounced over the corduroy.

Such roads carried tons and tons of supplies in heavy wagons pulled by straining horses or placid oxen. But, whenever and wherever possible, supplies for the lumberjacks were hauled by water, first on flatboats and then on steamers. On the smaller streams, the big canoe or batteaux was used.

The steamer North Star, re-christened the Anson Northup after it negotiated Sauk Rapids, under the command of Captain Young did in 1858 carry an excursion party from Fort Ripley on up to the foot of the rapids below Pokegama Falls. That was the first steamboat to ascend the river that far. But small steamboats were not available for hauling supplies. In the early seventies flatboats were laboriously pushed upstream to carry food, clothing and equipment to the lumber camps.

Pushing a flatboat up the river was a man-sized task. Planks lined the edges of a flatboat from stem to stern. A hefty man at the bow pushed a long pole against rocks or sand on the river bottom, leaned on it heavily, and then "walked" along the plank to the stern of the boat where he yanked out his pole and hurried forward to repeat the process. Half a dozen men could make a few miles an hour that way-unless they hung the unwieldy scow on a rock or a sandbar. Even so, it was less bumpy traveling than over the roads.

It was not until 1878 that the steamer White Swan began hauling passengers and freight regularly between Aitkin and Grand Rapids. It wasn't too long before the Fawn, the Andy Gibson, and the Oriole were also hauling freight and passengers up the river. The trip upstream took 18 or 20 hours if no log jams were encountered. The fare in 1889 was $3.50, including meals as well as a bunk for the night. All the boats were sternwheelers; the Andy Gibson measured 150'x25', could haul 150 tons of freight and perhaps 50 passengers.


The steamer Irene was one of the later boats running between Aitkin and Grand Rapids on the Mississippi. The water was shallow; logs, towheads, rocks and sand bars caused no end of trouble. Here the men are loading firewood, perhaps from a farmer's pile along the shore, or perhaps some they cut themselves. Boats stopped often along the way to deliver groceries and what-not to the settlers.


Boats also began to operate on the lakes. The Comet began operating on Pokegama Lake in the early 80's. In 1890 Charles Seeley brought the Little Eagle from Lake Pepin up to Pokegama. Tony De Wire early operated a steamboat on Lake Wabana for several years.

When stacks of supplies were unloaded from steamboats and flatboats along the banks of the river at the foot of the rapids below Pokegama Falls they had to be stored somewhere. Lumbermen were responsible for getting their materials to their camps, but they still needed storage space. More people were passing through Grand Rapids; they often needed someplace to sleep. And more people were living in the little town; they needed groceries and supplies, too. Moreover, the lumberjacks in camp usually worked up a thirst that even the sparkling clear waters of Itasca's lakes and streams couldn't quench. Consequently, "stopping places" were soon built in Grand Rapids and at intervals along the main-traveled tote roads. Stopping places at intervals of a day's travel apart were built along the Prairie River road. Billy Meyers' Ranch, built in 1875, was one of the first of these. Such stopping places were usually some sort of a combination warehouse, hotel, general store and saloon.

Such places served their purpose, although they were not exactly glistening-bright super-markets or commodious hotels. Whiskey might be served from one barrel, vinegar from the next, and kerosene from the third. Boots, axe handles, shovels and chains might be piled in one corner; wool plaid shirts, soda crackers, chewing tobacco and sugar might be stacked in the next. Fresh meat, usually shot in the woods, hung frozen in the rear. When beds weren't available in the upstairs rooms, travelers curled up for the night on the hard floor under horse blankets. A shed attached to the rear, or a log outbuilding, was used for storage.

Whether Warren Potter or Lowe Seavey opened the first stopping place in Grand Rapids is open to debate. About 1872 Warren Potter erected the "first permanent building" in Grand Rapids. It wasn't too permanent-a canvas roof over four log walls during the first winter-but it didn't blow away, and a real roof was added the next year. And about 1872 Lowe Seavey erected the "first bona fide hotel" in Grand Rapids. This, too, was a log building.

At any rate stopping places were built in the early seventies. Lowe Seavey, according to Federal records, was appointed Grand Rapids' first postmaster July 23, 1874. About that time Lowe Seavey's daughter was born. She later became Mrs. J. R. O'Malley and lived to be, in 1959, the oldest resident born in the county. Lowe Seavey ran his hotel until 1879 when he sold out to the Wakefield brothers and moved to Aitkin. Jim Sherry later bought the building.

Lafayette Knox was another pioneer merchant in Grand Rapids. He managed Potter's business from 1873 to 1879 when he built his own building for his own business. August 4, 1879, he was appointed the second postmaster in the village. A year or two later he formed a partnership with William and Joe Wakefield.

By 1881, when Captain Willard Glazier reached the rapids below Pokegama Falls on his famous trip from the mouth to the source of the Mississippi, Grand Rapids had become a thriving pioneer village. The town Glazier saw consisted of a hotel, two stores, a saloon and three or four private homes, "all built of logs." At the Potter House he had an "ample" meal of beefsteak, potatoes, raspberries and tea and coffee. .

And by that time, although the U. S. census reported only 124 residents in Itasca County in 1880, the woods around Grand Rapids was full of loggers. For two or three years ox-teams had hauled heavily-laden wagons over the stump-strewn tote roads to camps on the north end of Trout Lake where Coleraine now is. About the same time a few settlers had moved into the Nashwauk area; they began small-scale logging of the huge stands of white and Norway pine which thickly covered the land there.

About 1882 the surveyors pushed north beyond the Bigfork River into township 150, range 25. Loggers had not yet traveled that far north. But they had begun to go north of Wabana. Most of the outfits here were bigger. McAllister and Hasty brought in their crews about 1880; Lorence and Colwell came in 1882. Six years later still bigger companies moved in; both the Price Brothers and the Itasca Lumber Company began operations in 1888. Price Brothers had built the Balsam timber dam at Balsam rapids the year before; in 1888 they established headquarters on the east shore of Third Hanson Lake and began the construction of the long series of Hanson Lakes dams which they maintained for seventeen years. They took most of the logs on Balsam Lake also. The Itasca Lumber Company built permanent dams at Clearwater, Wabana, Bluewater and Trout lakes and continued operations until 1903.

In 1890 the Blake Brothers also began cutting timber in this area. When the big company of Sutton and Mackey began their operations some years later, something new was added. At first logs had been cut only along the streams, close enough to the streams so they could easily be dumped into the water. If any hauling had to be done, it was done on a Y-shaped go-devil with a team of horses or oxen. The oxen and horses were next used to pull sleds, sleighs and wagons. But Sutton and Mackey brought in steam haulers. They had five in a camp on Wolf Lake and operated them there for two years. Each of these haulers on caterpillar tracks could tow upgrade, in one long train, 12 or 14 sleighs loaded with more than 50,000 feet of logs. Most of these logs went down the Prairie River and the Mississippi to the C. A. Smith mills in Minneapolis.

Powers and Simpson, another big firm, worked in the woods between Hibbing and Crooked Lake. They built a railroad out from Crooked Lake; their logs were hauled to the lake and then floated down the Prairie River and the Mississippi to Minneapolis.

At the same time that operations were getting bigger and bigger farther north the big companies were beginning to buy timber rights around Bigfork-smaller operations were beginning in the southeastern part of the county. F. A. McVicar, later a prominent citizen of Grand Rapids, had contracted to cut timber for a logging concern around Floodwood and Wawina in 1888. Two years later settlers had begun to move into Wawina Township. Their first occupation was logging. They cut all the timber along the Wawina River, floated it down the Floodwood River and into the St. Louis River. When the timber was cut, many of these men remained to grub out stumps and farm the land. The women who occasionally came to cook in these small lumber camps often married and began to raise families.

A few settlers as well as bigger companies began cutting the heavy growth of white and Norway pine around Keewatin in 1890. The cedar in the swamps was also cut. Timber was being cut around Calumet. More and more logs were driven down the Swan River to Jacobson and the Mississippi.

These days of the 1880's were rather wild and raucous days, days for strong and hardy men. These were the days when Sam Christy, six-foot, 220 pounds of bone and gristle, was operating in the woods, and in the saloons, in and around Grand Rapids. Sam had quite a reputation. His face and neck under both ears were covered with scars as a result of someone in Maine having thrown vitriol in his face. Sam often, as the stories go, began one of his sprees with a quart of whiskey, at one gulp, "just for a starter."

Being a rather uproarious and perhaps a somewhat obnoxious sort, Sam was often in trouble. Once, after a slight altercation, Pigeye Kelly, the bartender in Sherry's Saloon, put a bullet clear through Sam just above the heart. Someone whittled an oak stick to size and put it through the wound from front to back. Two days later Sam was taken to the hospital in Aitkin. Two weeks later he was as strong and as thirsty as ever.

On another occasion at Hay's Landing upriver from Pokegama Sam got into another slight altercation and had his throat slashed from ear to ear by another Kelly, a cook in a lumber camp where Sam was working. That time they thought Sam was done for. They put him in a canoe to take him to LaPrairie for help. Half way down the river he suddenly sat up and cut loose with an ear-splitting yell. Sam was bloody but not dead. The two men paddling the canoe jumped into the river and swam for their lives. Sam paddled on to LaPrairie where a doctor sewed him up as good as new. Not too long after that Al Blackman at Bigfork slashed Sam's throat again and he was sewed up a second time.

Finally, however, Sam got into a quarrel with Steve Hicks. Steve picked up a barn scraper and smashed in Sam's head. That was the end of Sam-1889. That was, too, about the time the lawless days of Itasca County ended.

It was just about time for a little law and order in Itasca. A one-room log schoolhouse had been built in 1887 in Grand Rapids. Two little white girls and three Chippewa attended the first classes taught there by Miss Martha Maddy. Two years later a two-story frame building was completed.


This first frame school in Grand Rapids, built in 1889 where Central School now stands, was later used in Cohasset as a school and church. Mrs. B. C. Finnegan was the first teacher here.


More people were coming to Itasca, even women and children, and babies. In 1880 Mrs. Katherine Lent, a milliner, became the first white woman to take up a permanent residence in Itasca County. In 1883, when Grand Rapids was threatened with an Indian uprising because of the shooting of a Chippewa by an employee from Wakefield's store, two women, Mrs. L. F. Knox and Mrs. Mike McAlpine, were expecting babies. Because of the Indian scare Mrs. McAlpine went to Minneapolis and Mrs. Knox to Aitkin. Their children were not born in Grand Rapids. But, a year later, in November of 1884, Mary Ann ("Mamie") Sherry was born in Grand Rapids. She is considered the first white child born and baptized in Itasca County; Father Buh, a traveling missionary, baptized her. And other babies came on. The Federal census for 1890 reported 743 residents exclusive of Indians. Moreover, business in Grand Rapids was growing. Like John Beckfelt, several pioneer merchants were doing quite well.

John Beckfelt had bought out Lafayette Knox in 1884. He became postmaster in 1885 and a year or two later bought out the Wakefields. He often had 25 deer in his warehouse, and he occasionally ordered tobacco “by the solid carload"-Spearhead and Climax for chewing and Peerless for smoking. He could sell kerosene wholesale for 8Y4 cents a gallon, ten-penny nails for $1.85 a keg, soda crackers for 3 1/2 cents a pound and still make money. In 1890 he was able to erect a new two-story frame store building. The same year that John Beckfelt built his new store the Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad reached Grand Rapids. The year before a bridge had been built across the Mississippi and some roads were improved. With better transportation facilities, the future county seat began to bustle and grow.

Grand Rapids was not the only bustling community in the county. The little town of LaPrairie, at the juncture of the Prairie and Mississippi rivers and at the end of the rails for a year or two, had been bustling even more for several years, the people there said. LaPrairie was officially organized in 1891, the same year that Grand Rapids was organized. By that time LaPrairie already had a bank, a general retail store, a Wells-Stone warehouse, a hardware store, a tin smith's shop, a restaurant, barber shop, harness shop, milliner's shop, pool room, livery stable, saw and planing mill, lumber yard, a village hall, a jail, the first hospital in the county, a volunteer fire department, two newspapers, and nine saloons. About 300 people lived there and two or three hundred more went through the town on a busy day.

By comparison Grand Rapids presented a "primitive appearance" to John P. Phillips, who arrived there in September of 1890. Only three homes, he said, and one log trading post had been built north of the railroad tracks; a few stores were located between the tracks and the river; Knox and Beckfelt had their general stores. In addition, Phillips added, there were several lodging houses and several saloons.

However, after the rails were extended west in 1890 and after Grand Rapids became the county seat in 1891, the business came its way. Within five years LaPrairie had begun to disappear. A number of its buildings were brought to Grand Rapids. Businesses were moved; homes were moved. The county seat became the center of business and LaPrairie became relatively unimportant.

Perhaps the real reason Grand Rapids became the county seat was because the county leaders, the men who were strong enough and stubborn enough to insist that the county be run by people of the county, happened to live in Grand Rapids.

When the state legislature early in 1887 set up a two-county board of commissioners to have jurisdiction over Itasca and Aitkin counties but to operate from Aitkin, quite a number of people in Grand Rapids were quite displeased. Allen T. Nason, Patrick Casey and William Wakefield, with no authority whatsoever, and with no legal power whatsoever, appointed themselves the commissioners of Itasca County. They held their first meeting in July, 1887, and appointed Wakefield chairman. In August they levied a tax of $2809.22 "for road and bridge purposes." In September they let a contract with Sidney McDonald for road work amounting to $250. They had no trouble collecting the taxes, and the road work was finished. In October, after receiving a petition from the citizens of the community, they organized a school district and began paying out county funds for its operation. The next year C. A. Buell replaced Patrick Casey, and the following year L. F. Knox replaced Wakefield. But this board of commissioners continued to function, efficiently and honestly, until Itasca County was separately organized.

Finally, March 7, 1891, Itasca County was organized, by official act of the state legislature, with "all the privileges, rights and powers of organized counties." At the time, Itasca County covered the area now included in both Itasca and Koochiching counties. A Board of Commissioners, consisting of L. F. Knox, B. C. Finnegan and J. P. Sims was appointed by the state and met for the first time March 24. The first act of the Board of Commissioners was to declare Grand Rapids the temporary county seat.

At an election held June 9, 1891, the voters decided to incorporate the village of Grand Rapids. But for over a year controversy waged as to whether Grand Rapids or LaPrairie should become the county seat. Finally, at an election held November 8, 1892, the voters decided Grand Rapids was to be the permanent county seat. The commissioners formally approved the results of the election at their meeting December 30.


This is Grand Rapids in the early 1900's taken at about the location of the present paper mill dam. At the extreme left is the Howe sawmill which housed the first electric generator. In the foreground, work is starting on construction of the dam. The two-story building in the upper right is still standing.


Thereafter, the county really grew; within five years over 3000 people settled in the county, more and more pine were felled, roads were improved, business boomed.


The information listed above comes from Chapter Three of: Rottsolk, James E. 1960. Pines, Mines, and Lakes - The Story of Itasca County Minnesota. Itasca County Historical Society. p. 10-19.












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