Brainerd Dispatch/ File photo
IRONTON -- Carol Bartels, 87, a former five-term mayor of Ironton and a mainstay in the Crow Wing County DFL Party, died Tuesday morning in a fire at her home.
The fire, which was reported at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, appears to be accidental, Mark Germain, deputy state fire marshal, said Wednesday. He said the fire originated in Bartels' sitting room.
"At this point all accidental causes of the fire have been eliminated except for careless cigarette materials," Germain said.
Germain, the Ironton Fire Department and the Crosby Police Department are investigating the fire. The Anoka County medical examiner's office reported the preliminary cause of death as an accidental, smoking-related death.
"It's possible she fell asleep and started herself on fire," said Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin. "She tried to get it out and was not able to."
Coughlin said the fire was reported by neighbors Tim Vestal and Michelle Olson, who live directly across the street. She said Olson used a fire extinguisher to put out the fire while Vestal carried Bartels out of the house, suffering burns to his hands. Olson and Vestal wrapped Bartels in a blanket and protected her until emergency personnel arrived.
"They should be honored," said Coughlin of Vestal and Olson. "They were true heroes in that situation."
Germain said there was fire damage in several rooms in the house but the house was not a total loss.
Fire Chief Brian Blom said Wednesday this was the first fire fatality he could remember the city having in the past 15 years. He said there were 13 Ironton Fire Department members working at the scene for about an hour to extinguish the fire.
Bartels, who knew most of Minnesota's prominent DFL politicians dating back to then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, was remembered as a tireless worker for her party.
"If you were a DFL politician or a wannabe politician you showed up at her house party on the Fourth of July," former DFL legislator Don Samuelson of Brainerd said. "She just lived for it. She had a good time. She made fun out of politics."
Her annual July Fourth parties drew neighbors and friends as well as some of the state's top DFLers, Samuelson said. Among the politicians who coordinated a Fourth of July parade appearance with a stop at Bartels' house were former Gov. Orville Freeman, former Gov. and Sen. Wendy Anderson and former Vice President and U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.
A stop at Bartels' home, just off Highway 210, was mandatory for any candidate stumping or just passing through Ironton, Samuelson said. The last two major DFLers to visit Bartels were Anderson and Attorney General Mike Hatch. They had been at a DFL spaghetti dinner at a nearby American Legion and Bartels had been too ill to attend. Anderson signed and presented her with a book about World War II and Bataan in which he had written an introduction.
"She was just thrilled," Samuelson said.
During his last campaign, the Brainerd DFLer said Bartels was too weak to campaign but did make phone calls from home for Samuelson.
Ken Hasskamp, staff assistant for Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Minn., for more than 20 years, said Bartels was a real force in the Democratic Party and had served in just about every party position.
"She loved people," Hasskamp said. "She cooked these gourmet meals for all the volunteers. So much fun and so much energy."
The pro-life Democrat's loyalty to her party never flagged, Samuelson said, and even though she had strong opinions she wasn't a one-issue person.
Her DFL colleagues elected her to the post of elector in 2000 and she cast one of Minnesota's 10 electoral votes for Vice President Al Gore. That year she also marked the 50th anniversary of first being elected a delegate to her Democratic precinct, county, district and state convention. At that point she had been elected to those political gatherings every two years for the last half-century.
In an interview that year, Bartels said she had met former presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Yet, she said, it was her mentor, Humphrey, who inspired her to be a lifelong Democrat.
Greg Wilding, of Crosby, a retired Crow Wing County sheriff's deputy, described her as a den mother for Democrats. He recalled visiting her home for informal party meetings or to watch election results.
"Despite the seriousness of the moment, she always put out a great dinner and you never knew who you were going to bump into," Wilding said.
Bartels was the first woman elected to the top county DFL post in McLeod County in 1952, the first woman finance chair for the Second Congressional District, the first woman mayor in Ironton, DFL chair for Crow Wing County from 1966-72 and associate Crow Wing chair from 1974-80.
"She was an icon," Samuelson said. "Every Democrat in the state knew Carol."
MIKE O'ROURKE can be reached at email@example.com. or 855-5860.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.