The folklore regarding the settlement of Elk River and Sherburne County carries with it an image of industrious farmers taming the land and creating a home for their families. Yet, at least one early resident of Sherburne County arrived to invest in community development, sell his investment and leave for more opportunity. Ard Godfrey was not a farmer, nor a settler in Sherburne County. He arrived in the area as an investor and quickly left after his investments returned a profit. An overview of his life might help explain a new interpretation into the settlement or Elk River and Sherburne County.
Early in the 1850’s, probably 1851, Ard Godfrey and James Jameson arrived in Sherburne County, at the convergence of the Elk and Mississippi Rivers. An experienced millwright from Maine, Godfrey recognized the particular course of the Elk River offered a potential mill site. Godfrey set about obtaining the land and building a mill. His efforts marked the creation of Elk River as an industrial site and settlement.
Godfrey, born in 1813, grew up in Maine and following his father, he worked in the mills and gained some experience in the industry. Although he married in 1838, he resisted settling in a community and wandered the United States seeking business opportunities. Ard Godfrey left Maine, landing in Savannah, Georgia and then later, reversed course and traveled to St. Anthony Falls (later known as Minneapolis). With each excursion, he left his wife to raise children. He arrived in St. Anthony Falls in 1848, liquidated all of his assets around the country to build a family home in what became Minneapolis. Three years later, Godfrey left his family to explore the Elk River for opportunity.
Godfrey and Jameson purchased land from Silas Lane on the mouth of the Elk River. Lane, in 1851, was reportedly the only farmer in the area, although several trading posts had been established along the Elk and Mississippi rivers. After the transfer of ownership, Godfrey began construction of a dam on the Elk River with plans for a mill.
For at least the next four years, Godfrey worked to improve his property in Elk River. He built a small sawmill, and later added a grist mill to his industrial plant. He also built a store, and a bridge across the Elk River to provide easy access to his operation. He also owned a farm, north of his mill operation.
In spite of his hard work, Godfrey felt the urge to wander and seek his fortune elsewhere. By 1855, he owned a fully operational mill on the river. He helped plat the community of Orono, later known as Upper Town when it merged with the community of Elk River. Yet, he sold it all. By 1862, Godfrey left the mill town of Orono, apparently seeking investments in the Montana gold fields, exploring the potential for quartz mills to process the gold ore.
His work to develop mills in Montana proved less than profitable. After his wandering, Godfrey returned to Minneapolis. He continued to work in the mills around the community. He remained in the city, where he died in 1894.
After seeking his fortune throughout the country, Ard Godfrey finally settled in Minneapolis. Years of seeking his fortune led him through Sherburne County and elsewhere through the United States. His investment in Elk River set the stage for a strong industrial base in the community. Although he does not typify the image of Sherburne County settlers, his few years in the area significantly impacted the economy and the character of the community.