Brainerd dad plants trees, leaves lifetime of memories

Steve Brandt of Brainerd died in May from cancer at the age of 65, but his legacy lives on in his three children ... and in the young pine trees the family planted decades ago at their former residence near Jackson and Northwest Third streets he humorously dubbed “Steve Brandt National Forest.”

Heather Johnson (left) of Minneapolis, Krissy Nelson of Brainerd and Tom Brandt of Brainerd hold on Father's Day 2020 a homemade sign at the site of their former childhood home at Jackson and Northwest Third streets in Brainerd that they presented to their dad. Steve Brandt, their father, died in May at the age of 65, but the family planted young pine trees earlier on the property of their now-demolished home, which he jokingly called the "Steve Brandt National Forest." Submitted photo

Krissy Nelson openly admits to trespassing, but it was for a good reason, she said.

A year before her father died, the 34-year-old and her siblings walked onto land in Brainerd their family no longer owned with a sign proclaiming “Steve Brandt National Forest” for Father’s Day. When they were kids, their dad insisted they help plant young pine trees there in 1992.

“Not that we had a good excuse to be there,” Nelson said with a chuckle about trespassing and their father, Steve Brandt. “But if someone came up to us, we would have gladly said, ‘Hey, we used to live here. We planted these trees. We just want to take a picture.’”

A clearing remains after the Brandt family home at 711 Northwest Third St. was torn down in this photo from February 2016 and behind the pine trees the family planted that still remain are Riverside Drive and the Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd. Submitted photo


Their family home east of the pine trees on Northwest Third and Jackson streets near the Essentia Health Sports Center was previously demolished. Now a new roundabout is currently taking shape there by the trees Brandt nurtured.

Brandt planted the pine trees on the corner lot because there were just weeds and burrs, according to his widow, and their children made the sign and gave it to him to remember his “forest” because they thought the trees would be gone when the roundabout was constructed.

“When he told the kids to water the foot-high trees, they whined and moaned and groaned every time. And every time Steve would say, ‘Someday this will be Steve Brandt National Forest. Now, go water the trees!’” Cheri Brandt wrote in an email about the 50 or so trees.

Father knows best

Steve Brandt died on May 23 at the age of 65 after a four-year battle with renal cancer. The Onamia native worked for Brainerd Ambulance and North Ambulance Brainerd for 21 years. He also joined the Brainerd Fire Department, where he worked for over 15 years.

“He was wonderful. I can’t remember anybody meeting him and not liking him,” said Nelson, who is the secretary at St. Andrew’s and St. Mathias Catholic churches in Crow Wing County. “He had so many friends. And he was a very helping person. … And he was joyful.”

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He enjoyed time with family camping, hunting and fishing up north on the Gunflint Trail, according to his obituary, and was a storyteller and jack-of-all-trades, building two entire houses with assistance from family and friends. But he never forgot about his “forest.”


“Every time we drove by it, he would comment on how tall the trees are and how good they look. He would be proud that they didn’t cut all of them down and that they’re still standing there,” Nelson said.

Pine trees edging the new roundabout on Northwest Fourth Street between Washington and Jackson streets across from Essentia Health Sports Center shown here Thursday, June 17, 2021, are trees planted by Steve Brandt and his family in 1992. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Later in life, he started his own painting business and a trucking company that specialized in hauling honeybees, but he could not have the painting business at his home on Northwest Third Street because the area was not zoned commercial. The Brandts lived there from 1985 to 2001.

“We planted the trees because we thought we’d stay there forever, and the trees would block the house from the highway, from the noise and stuff,” said Cheri Brandt, a 66-year-old retired hospital worker.

She said the property was a great place to live because of its mix of country charm and city amenities. For example, their children could walk to Westgate Mall but have animals within their fenced-in yard. But the family relocated to the country because of the zoning.

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“After we sold the place, the state declared it to be a flood plain, so had we stayed there we could have never sold the house or it would be worth nothing,” Cheri Brandt said.

The house was demolished because it was in the floodplain.


“It was the best because it was in town, but we still had wildlife in the river right behind our house ... And that’s where my childhood took place,” Nelson said.

Family trees

The Brandt family includes two other children: 36-year-old Heather Johnson, who lives in Minneapolis, and 32-year-old Tom Brandt, who remained in Brainerd just like Nelson, who, with her husband, co-owns Green Barn Veggie Farm, a 53-acre farm in rural Brainerd.

“My mom always said you marry somebody that’s like your father. And my husband and my dad, they are both, like, workaholics. They have to be doing something, they have to be fixing, they have to be providing for the family,” Nelson said.

Nelson said she was just 6 years old when she and her siblings helped their father plant the pine trees almost three decades ago.

Krissy Nelson holds a photo of her late father, Steve Brandt, while standing outside her Brainerd home Thursday, June 17, 2021. She also holds a photo of her family from around the time they planted pine trees in 1992 at the family's former home near Northwest Third and Jackson streets where there is now a new roundabout. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“I remember having to water them in the middle of August when it was so hot outside,” Nelson said. “Dad would always comment, ‘All the trees are being cut down everywhere around Brainerd’ … and he’s like ‘These are going to be the only trees left in Brainerd.’”

This year alone, 171,000 pine seedlings were planted on 183 acres in the cities of Crosslake and Fifty Lakes, and the townships of Fort Ripley, Mission and Nokay Lake, according to Crow Wing County officials, something that would probably have made Brandt happy to know.


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Nelson recalled it was hard work watering all those young pine trees when she was a child, but maybe that work ethic instilled in her and her siblings paid off; her Green Barn Veggie Farm was named 2019 Farm Family of the Year.

“They were our children and they needed to learn how to work. Hard work isn’t gonna kill them,” Cheri Brandt said.

Nelson said of watering, “I’m sure I would have said to them at the time, ‘Why can’t Heather do it?’ because she’s older than me. Or ‘Why can’t my brother do it?’ because he’s the boy. .... And I’m sure all three of us put up a fight.”

Circle of life

The big tall pine trees the family planted long ago are located across from the entrance of the Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd where workers are finishing the construction of the new roundabout.

“I was heartbroken when I heard they were going to put a roundabout there because I was like ‘They’re gonna cut down all of my dad’s trees that we worked summers on to grow,’” Nelson said.

Pine trees edging the new roundabout on Northwest Fourth Street between Washington and Jackson streets across from Essentia Health Sports Center shown here at sunset Thursday, June 17, 2021, are trees planted by Steve Brandt and his family in 1992. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch


The new roundabout at Northwest Fourth and Jackson Street partially opened June 10, and its impact wasn’t what Nelson feared.

“But they haven’t cut down many of the trees at all, so I’m actually really happy because that’s a fond memory I have of my dad now — those trees and that’s his ‘forest’ even though we don’t live there anymore,” Nelson said.

Cheri Brandt said, “He was a great dad. … He taught them how to work. He showed them a lot of love. He wasn’t so strict — that was kind of like my job. … But he was like all fathers — loved his kids more than anything.”

History of Father’s Day

The idea of Father’s Day was conceived more than a century ago by Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Washington. Dodd wanted a special day to honor her father, William Smart, a widowed Civil War veteran who was left to raise his six children on a farm.

June 19 was chosen for the first Father’s Day celebration in 1910. Father’s Day has been celebrated annually since 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed the public law that made it permanent.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .


I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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