Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Orphan Trains and Adoptions in Sherburne County

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was a recent topic of the Sherburne History Center Book Club.  As the conversation evolved several questions came up: Were there many orphan train children in Sherburne County?  Were there other sources in Minnesota for families wanting to adopt or bring children into their families?  (Yes, I know, if you read the book, I am phrasing this very delicately).

Well, I can’t answer the first question.  But an announcement in the Sherburne County Star News from March 1, 1900 helps answer the second question.  The announcement read:

Mr Lewis of the state school, Owatonna, came into town last week, bringing with him a school girl for Mrs. Colbeck. 

As we peruse the columns of the county newspapers, we are finding similar announcements.  It appears the state school in Owatonna served as a source for children.  The official name for the orphanage was: The Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children.  The webpage for the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum counts 10,635 children in the school for the date of opening in 1886 to its closing in 1945.  And, as we see from the newspaper announcements, some of these children found their way into the homes of Sherburne County citizens.

Now, we all understand that the fictional writing and stories of the Orphan Trains and the adoption process in the early 1900s are filled with drama.  If the drama didn’t exist, there would be no story.  Yet, not every child in the orphan train experienced some trauma after being taken in by families in the Midwest.  A great deal of happiness and joy, now doubt, resulted from the orphan train program.  So, we are not filled with sadness or sorrow when we explore these stories of the orphan train and adoptions in middle Minnesota

The adoption process and the impact on people and communities are parts of a greater history that remain uncertain yet need to be explored.  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

John Earl Putnam—Pioneer and Public Servant

John Putnam deserves sainthood.  

Okay, that may be an overstatement, yet, here is a man that devoted his entire life to the development and improvement of Sherburne County.  His contributions to Sherburne County need to be recognized.  Born 10 November 1826, he moved to Big Lake, Sherburne County in 1855 where he lived until his death on 3 October 1899.  

Putnam was one of the first settlers around Humboldt, the community known today as Big Lake.  

In the forty four years he lived in Big Lake he held just about every possible elected office and public servant station in the county.  He was county clerk, Register of Deeds, County Auditor, first Clerk of the Court, Probate Judge, and County Commissioner.  He also served in a variety of offices in the City of Big Lake and for the local School District.  As a staunch supporter of the Republican Party, he was appointed Postmaster in 1861 and held the job almost continuously until 1898.  The one gap in his service of Postmaster was during a small portion of the Grover Cleveland presidency.  

Education was an important consideration for Putnam.  He provided the land and housing for the first school in Big Lake Township.  

Putnam retired from public service because of his failing health in 1898, one year before his death.  

His death brought out a huge group of mourners.  And recognizing the beauty of Sherburne County, he requested his funeral be held in the front yard of his home.  Nestled under a canopy of trees, Reverend Williams from the Union church conducted service in what Putnam described as “God’s first Temple.”   After the services, John Earl Putnam was buried in the community that he loved, in Big Lake City Cemetery. 
Although sainthood may be a bit of a stretch, John Earl Putnam was significant to the growth and development of Sherburne County.  His contributions need to be recognized.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Fire Prevention 1899 Style

We recently wrote about the devastating fire in Elk River in 1898.  We also mentioned the efforts towards fire prevention with brick construction in the business district.  The Star News on August 3, 1899 reported a new, advanced, method of fire suppression: The Houlton Block building installed a “system water works” running through the building with the help of a “hydraulic ram.” 

Added benefits to this new system, the Riverside Hotel connected to the system to provide water to the rooms, and “free watering trough” in front of the hotel would also be fed by this system.
The Elk River fire of 1898 devastated the city.  Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, Elk River in the post fire days emerged greater and stronger than ever.  Just a few years later, another fire in the city inspired the creation of public utilities and construction of the first Elk River water tower. 

Lessons learned from these tragedies were quickly applied to the growth of a great city in Sherburne County. 

Elk River circa 1898 prior to the fire

Friday, October 30, 2015

An Interesting Paragraph In The Newspaper

An interesting statement published in the Sherburne County Star News on 3 December 1896:

Cheap tooth brushes are responsible for many obscure throat, stomach and intestinal ailments. The bristles are only glued o and come off by the half dozens when wet and come into contact with the teeth.  

Yet, another healthful tip from the industrious reporters and editors in Sherburne County.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Searching For the William Marsh Family

We have written about the William Marsh family in the past.  Longtime residents of Blue Hill Township, they lived in the township from 1877 until about 1903.  Overtime the Marsh family suffered a number of misfortunes.  Mrs. Marsh, Elizabeth Ann Hull, gave birth to twelve children, one survived to adulthood.  Of those children, five of them died during a diphtheria crisis in October and November of 1880.  A few years later, another child was killed in a horse riding accident.  Still later, another died from pneumonia and another died from appendicitis.  

During these horrific episodes in the Marsh family, William Marsh served the roll of sexton for the Blue Mound, also known known as the Blue Hill, Cemetery.  Given his proximity to the cemetery, it seems logical his family would be buried there.  The obituary for Elizabeth Marsh notes that she is buried at Blue Hill.

Unfortunately, there are no grave markers for the Marsh family.  Outside of brief news announcements and short lines of burial records, nothing exists to document the pain and misery of this family. Dedicated Sherburne History Center volunteers Phyllis Scroggins and Diana Schansberg searched the small cemetery for evidence of the Marsh Family.  There are not many markers in the cemetery.  And yet, we haven’t found anything.  But we will continue to search.

Phyllis Scroggins and Diana Schansberg at the Blue Hill Cemetery, 
26 October 2015.

                                         A view of Blue Mound Cemetery, 2015

Monday, October 19, 2015

Fire and Reconstruction in Elk River--1898

Fire swept through Elk River in April 1898.  Although great news, more important than the fire was the rebuilding of the business district. 

Newspapers reported half of the district destroyed. The event that “everybody in Elk River has been momentarily expecting for the past twenty years” devastated the community.  The town and most of its buildings consisted of wood.  When the fire started in the back of S. C. Brown dry goods store, it swept through the town causing $50,000 in damages. 

Originally, railroad tracks split through the middle of the business center of Elk River. Immediately after the fire many merchants expressed regret over the division of the Elk River business district.  In the days after the fire, plans were developed to move downtown center of Elk River to the south side of the railroad tracks.  The businessmen also determined the entire downtown would be built of brick.  

The results of the plans to move Elk River were dramatic.  Building the Houlton Block and the adjoining opera house, the Merchants Hotel, and other brick and stone buildings temporarily generated a shortage of brick and other building materials.  In spite of the challenges, by December the local newspapers reported the rejuvenation of downtown Elk River.  “Today we can point with pride to as compact and substantial a business center as can be found,” the Sherburne County Star News reported. 

Although the fire destroyed much of Elk River, the community rebuilt.  This reconstruction effort illustrates the resilience of Elk River and its citizens.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Highway 10—When Was It Built?

I received this challenging question several times while discussing post World War Two Sherburne County.  Answering the question is important because Highway 10 provides perspective on events around the county.  The Highway also remains an emotional scar on the psyche of Sherburne County.

The direct answer about construction of Highway 10:  the project began in 1929 and expanded in 1952.  At first glance the road seemed a great gift, connecting two major cities with small Sherburne County towns.  Yet, expansion in 1950 caused major upset. 

Charles Babcock promoted Highway 10 during his tenure as Highway Commissioner.  The two lane highway through Sherburne County opened in 1929.  Some of the road was paved, other sections were dirt or gravel.  It stretched from Anoka through Sherburne County to North Dakota.  

The greatest impact to Sherburne County and the road came in 1950.  The Highway Department announced the widening of Highway 10 to a four lane, divided highway.  Buildings that blocked the road, such as those in Becker and Clear Lake, would be moved or demolished.  

The construction continued through 1952.  The destruction of so many homes and businesses proved traumatic to Sherburne County residents.  The events left indelible memories for long term residents.  In two years, 1950 and 51, 42 structures were destroyed in West Sherburne County.  Buildings in Becker, Clear Lake, and Cable were moved or torn down.  Moving businesses, relocating the Catholic Church, and tearing down homes still resides like a bitter pill in the minds of West Sherburne residents. 

Highway 10 to this day remains an important geographic feature in Sherburne County.  The trauma of the creation and expansion of Highway 10 also remains an important character consideration for Sherburne County.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Salute To Newspaper Correspondents

As a former newspaper reporter, I know firsthand the long hours and challenges demanded by the job of collecting news.  Local news columns from the Sherburne County Star News reveal the difficulties and dangers of the occupation of newspaper correspondent.

Early in 1897 the newspaper published appeals for news and reports from around the county.  “We would be glad to have anyone residing in town or county send in news items,” the editors wrote.  “It is not necessary that the items be startling ones, for instance a murder, or a house burning up with all its inmates,” the paper published.  “Any little pleasant social occurrence is always interesting: an entertainment you may have given; a trip you are taking; a friend who is visiting you; … as well as the stand-bys; births, deaths, and marriages.” 

Both the editors and the correspondents often found news detecting difficult.  In a local news column from Becker published on January 1, 1897, the Star News reported, “A lady seemed quite ruffled because she did not see a notice of her wedding last week.  Well, we didn’t get a slice of cake.” 

The art of gathering news was also dangerous.  As the Star News reported in May of 1897, “Our reporter came near having his head knocked to a peak for not having any items in the Star News last week.  Then there would have been something to write about.” 

Reporting news demanded long hours, an ability to dig out gossip, and accept dangerous assignments.  Not much has changed in the past 120 years.  As you encounter the publishers, editors and reporters of the Sherburne County Citizen, the West Sherburne Tribune, and the Star News somehow acknowledge their efforts.  Reporting the news in entertaining yet informative language remains a challenge and their efforts are appreciated.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Bad Day For Becker

June 25 and June 26 were not good days in the history of Becker, Minnesota.  In only 12 hours, disaster stacked up on disaster for the small community.  Near catastrophe set the entire town on edge like an over caffeinated speed freak. 

In midafternoon, June 25, 3 pm to be exact, fire alarms rang out throughout the town.  The landmark potato warehouse, the storage facility of the Knutson and Gongoll store, began to burn. Becker did not have any type of firefighting equipment at the time.  Men fought the conflagration as a bucket brigade until responders from Big Lake and Clear Lake arrived.  While the neighboring firefighters fought the flames on the warehouse, the bucket brigade turned their attention to nearby homes and other buildings.  The gas pumps at the Hy-Way Inn were drenched with water to prevent explosion.  The shingles of the A. G. Stevens building smoldered and extinguished four separate times.  And, the flames reached the Merton Dyson home before being drenched out. More than four hours after the initial alarms rang, the fire was finally a smoldering heap of defeated destruction. 

To insure the fire was completely extinguished, George Short and Ronald Cox were appointed fire watchers.  Their job was to sit by the smoldering wreckage of the warehouse and sound alarms if the fire erupted once again.  A straightforward task, stay awake and sound alarms if the fire re-erupted.   

Early in the morning, at 1:30 am, Cox and Short witnessed a second disaster to strike Becker.  The second event came so unexpectedly, neither man moved out of the car until the crisis had passed.  A train, headed towards St. Cloud, pulling 80 cars, jumped the tracks.  The last 16 cars of the train, carrying cement, grain and dynamite lurched off the track and slid towards the smoldering warehouse and two watchmen.  The railcars came to a halt six feet in front of the car the two men were sitting in. 

New alarms blared and the entire community responded to the new disaster.  After the initial shock, Becker residents began the clean-up of a second disaster that had threatened the town.  Luckily, the train stopped short of the burning warehouse, and no lives were lost in either mishap.  Yet, in less than 12 hours, the life of the entire community Becker had twice been threatened.  Stress and excitement jumped to a new level for the residents.  Clean up of the fire and train wreck would take several weeks.  It all began on June 25 and June 26, challenging days Becker, Minnesota.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Klondike Gold Rush Impacts Sherburne County

The Klondike strain of Gold Fever infected Sherburne County in 1897.  The Sherburne County Star News noted the particular disease in August and began offering best advice for those afflicted with the virus and those contemplating an adventure into the Alaska gold fields. 
            In the summer months of 1897, the newspaper advised it was already too late to begin the trek to the Klondike.  Adventurous Sherburnites might reach Alaska when the goldfields would be snowed covered.  The paper calculated eight months to reach Juneau, the jumping off point for the Klondike goldfields.  The newspaper suggested adventurers time their journey so that they reach Alaska in the summer months and make the final trek to the interior during the easier summer months. 

            “Those who penetrate into the ice and snow must be rugged and hardy,” the paper warned.  “They must have money and courage, and even then they will take their lives in their hands.”  Overall, an estimated 100,000 prospectors set out for Alaska.  Historian Pierre Berton and official records from the North-West Mounted Police estimate 40 percent actually reached the gold fields.  The other 60,000 either died in the effort or surrendered and returned home

            In spite of the warnings from the press, several county citizens set out for the northern gold fields.  The newspapers noted the plans of J. A. Wagner’s journey.  The editor hoped Wagner might change his mind and stay in Becker.  “We can’t spare him,” the paper concluded.  In other columns, the newspaper reported former resident Brad Trask was rumored to have gold sufficient “to keep the wolf from his door the rest of his life.” 

             With the arrival of spring 1898, gold discoveries in the easier to access areas of Nome, Alaska altered the particular strain of gold fever.  The Klondike Gold rush faded from the attention of Sherburne County newspaper readers.  News of the Spanish American War completely eliminated the infectious gold fever and visions of valor on the battle field dominated the brains of adventure seeking men in the United States.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Commemorating National Underwear Day

August 5 is National Underwear Day.  It seemed like a good time to expose a portion of the Sherburne History Center collection.  We all have seen them. Most of us wear them.  Yet, undergarments rarely occupy exhibit space. Undergarments don't receive much attention in the fashion magazines much less the ivory tower journals of history.  Yet, here they are: the garments that keep you warm and keep you dry.  Garments that serve a very important function in our daily lives.  Here are two examples of underwear from the SHC collection.
Happy National Underwear Day!!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Obituaries and Death Notices: Making the Distinction

On the SHC website we offer “look ups” for both obituaries and death notices.   Requests for these look ups arrived in the past few weeks.  Concerned that researchers do not make the distinction between obits and death notices, maybe we need to note the difference.  When you search for death information, you know the difference and anticipate results.
Content provides a distinction between obits and death notices.  A death notice is a straight forward announcement of death.  Printed details include the name, date of death, and possibly some distinguishing feature of the individual.  In the early newspapers of Sherburne County, death notices can be found anywhere in the pages.  Often, small paragraphs are printed in the local news columns.
In contrast to the death notice, surviving family members help write obituaries.  They are longer than death notes, and they are much more personalized.  Date of birth; date of death; cause of death; names of survivors; and a brief biography all may be included in an obituary.

A date of death will distinguish between an obituary and a death notice.  Sherburne County newspapers did not generally publish obituaries until the mid-1910s or early 1920s.  I think the earliest obituary I have found was published in 1910.  Researching an individual, dead in 1894 in Becker, may have a death notice printed in the Sherburne County Star News in Elk River, but certainly not an obituary.

Another feature that distinguishes an obituary from a death notice: surviving family members pay for obituaries.  As you research Sherburne County, consider the financial state of the family.  Would a bachelor uncle, living on rented land and dying alone have an obituary published in the local news pages?  Probably not.
A notable exception to the obit versus death notice discussion: prominent residents may receive a news column announcing their death; an honor reserved for the most prominent of community residents.  The news story is a significant exception to death announcements of any kind in the local newspapers.  

As you conduct your research make a note of the differences between death notices and obituaries.  These distinctions may save you time, money, and confusion as your research progresses.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ray Clement, Ella Kringland and Sand Dunes State Forest

A conservationist described the Sand Dunes State Forest as “A green dream come true.”  An area recovered from desolate, sandy soil to “a nature lover’s dream.”  An area in Orrock Township, at one time regarded as decent farmland.  With the coming drought in the 1930s the land became a farmer’s nightmare.  By 1940, farmers and Sherburne County residents described the land in Orrock Township as a wasteland, the epicenter of the poison ivy capital of the world, and the home of Zimmerman sand.  The land was so bad “the jack rabbits carried lunch bags as they hopped over the area.”

Beginning in 1943, a transformation took hold and the resurrection of tillable land came about.  In no small part, this dramatic change resulted from efforts by Ray Clement, the Minnesota Forest Service and County conservationist Ella Kringland.    Farmers abandoned land or surrendered to tax forfeiture.   Clement petitioned the state legislature to set aside part of this Orrock Township land and plant trees as part of a restoration plan.
Ella Kringland, from SHC photo collections:

Legislative action in 1943 resulted in the creation of Sand Dunes State Forest.   4-H members, the Issac Walton League, sportsmans’ clubs, the county commission, and a number of other volunteers helped plant trees in the new state space.  Slowly, the Sand Dune State Forest was changed from wasteland to forest.  After Clement’s lobbying work, volunteers organized by Ella Kringland planted trees.  Ella is credited with organizing groups to plant 3 million trees in the Sand Dunes State Forest.

In a brief autobiography, Ella explained the dramatic planting as a result of automation.  “A tree planting machine can easily plant more than 1,000 seedlings per hour,” she wrote.  “In 1945, 25,000 evergreen seedlings were planted by machine on thirteen acres.” 

Each year Ella organized planting projects for the state forest.  Until her retirement in 1967, Ella Kringland led the charge to plant Norway Pine, Jack Pine, White Pine and Red and White Cedar in the sandy soil.  Before the efforts of Kringland and her army of volunteers, the area around Orrock Township was described as “Mother Nature’s game of real estate transfer.”  The planted trees slowly established themselves and held the sandy soil.  Clement’s, Kringland’s, and other conservationists’ efforts made Sand Dunes State Forest the “green dream come true.”


Monday, July 6, 2015

Davis Brothers Promotional Materia

Working in the Archival collections this morning, I came across this postcard from the Davis Brothers store in Elk River.  From the collection, it appears Davis Brothers issued a series of postcards for each month in 1911 and 1912.  No doubt mass produced, the post cards highlight the efforts of local businesses to promote themselves. 

Unfortunately, we do not have a great deal of information about Davis Brothers in Elk River.  Andrew Davis created the mercantile.  He first worked with H. H. Wheaton.  Later he joined partnership with H. J. Heebner.  The fire of 1902 destroyed the company.  Out of the ashes, Davis built the mercantile that became Davis Bros.  He led the company until his death in 1922.

In addition to the promotional cards, two undated photos in the collection illustrate business growth for Davis Bros.  The first is the actual store, the photo most likely is dated around 1910.  The second photo shows Davis Bros. delivery truck, dated in the late 1920s.


Like so many small businesses, scattered, unrelated materials document the existence of the business.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fire Threatened Everyone

Fire is always a frightening threat in Minnesota.   The Hinckley Fire in 1894 and the Cloquet Fire in 1918 devastated land and destroyed lives in North Central Minnesota.  Just these two fires killed nearly 1000 people and caused property losses in the millions of dollars. 

Fire also threatened small, isolated farms throughout Minnesota.  The newspaper columns carried numbers of reports on devastating farm fires.  April 1895, Sherburne County newspapers reported a significant fire at the farm of Chris Leider, Livonia Township.  “His house and nearly all of its contents,” were destroyed by fire.  “A granary and about 300 bushels of wheat which was kept over from the crop of three years ago were also destroyed.  The insurance had just run out, and as a consequence the loss is total.”  A few months later fire destroyed a second Livonia farm site.  The newspapers printed the terrible final news “no insurance.”

Unfortunately, the reports around the county reveal fire as the enemy of communities as well as the farmers.  1895 fire destroyed three buildings in Clearwater.  The post office occupied one of the buildings consumed.  Not as devastating as the Cloquet or the Hinckley fires, Elk River business district was incinerated in the summer of 1915.

Until the 1920s, reports of fire take up pages of news print. Fire threatened every individual in Minnesota, during the early days of settlement.  Up until the installation of modern equipment, no community felt safe from the devastation that enveloped Hinckley and Cloquet, and very nearly destroyed Elk River. 

This photo is the burned out skeleton of the Elk River Ice House, dated around 1910.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No News--Blame It On The Reporter

Commentary on the news coverage in Becker, published in the Sherburne County Star News, 6 August 1896:
Miss Grace, looking over our shoulder, remarked, “I know why all your items don’t appear.  The editor can’t read your writing.”
An interesting explanation in the columns of the Sherburne County Times 23 March, 1899.  I am not sure if this is the writing of a frustrated editor, or a need to fill space.
Newspaper men are blamed for a lot of things they can’t help, such as partiality in mentioning visitors, giving news about some folks and leaving others out, etc.  The newspaper man cannot help this.  He simple prints the news he can find.  Some people inform him about such things and others do not.—Ed. 
An interesting perspective to contemplate as we search for news of our ancestors in the newspapers.  Maybe our kin are simply not that informative.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Memoirs: We All Need to Write Them

Memoirs and Biographies from Sherburne County provide fascinating reading.  If we all took pen and paper to record our memoirs, imagine the excitement we would generate.   Imagine the information and knowledge we could share with the world.  Two books, a memoir and edited letters provide examples of the great value of written, personal history.  Rod Hunt’s book A Boy’s Guide to Big Lake, Minnesota and Other Stuff and Herb and Corinne Murphy’s They Called Her Maria make the history come alive. 
Rod Hunt describes fishing at the confluence of the Elk and St. Francis Rivers, you understand his hopes, desires, and prayers to catch a Northern Pike.  And, you dread reeling in the Rock Bass.  The nasty, gritty taste of a Rock Bass permeates your mouth as Hunt remembers “they are called Rock Bass because they taste like the bottom of a rock.”
Straight forward, serious history comes alive in the pages of Herb and Corinne Murphy’s book They Called Her Maria.  These are the edited letters and diaries of Hannah Maria Nutting Benham Knapp a woman whose circumstances forced her to travel the world.  She finally settled with her children in Sherburne County.  You feel her pain when she writes of life as a widow and single mother.  “When I look back to that dark period of my life, I wonder I was even carried through it.  Wonder how I ever came to be where I am now.”   
A recent memoir to cross my desk is Robert Bystrom’s Savanna Sunsets Growing Up in Sand Country.  Like Rod Hunt’s memoir, Bystrom paints pictures that create for everyone a sense of life in the past.  As he wrote in his introduction, “Life on the farm was grueling.  It was mostly work and the work was dirty, smelly, sweaty and interminable.”  In spite of the pessimistic introduction, the memories seem special.  Chapters entitled “In the Outhouse” and “The Barn” provide even this urban refugee with a nostalgic sense of farm life in the 1930s and1940s.  When he describes battling bees in the barn, as every young boy will do, we all realize poking the hive and tormenting the bees will not end well.  Yet, we can all imagine the ensuing battle. 
Writing memories and putting family life onto a page present some challenges.  Yet, these memoirs provide important details for future generations.  Recording memories and (to use the cliché) putting ink to paper is rewarding.  I would urge everyone to write their memories.  Whatever you write on the page, future generations will find value.  Record those memories and save history for the future.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Grasshopper Plague in the 1870s

The sky was black, dark, almost like a coming storm.  But as the clouds moved closer a shrill hum seemed to accompany the storm.  Only when the cloud finally arrived was it apparent: this was no rainfall, no simple burst of water from the sky.  Instead, the heavens dropped an invading horde of grasshoppers, more specifically Rocky Mountain Locusts, upon the farm lands of Minnesota.  Arriving first in 1873, and for the next five years, in a seeming random pattern a plague of locusts returned to devour the crops of farmers throughout the state.

Various descriptions of this five year plague contain consistent themes.  The grasshoppers came, devouring everything in their path.  First chewing and destroying the grain crops, then any green plants that might remain.  In an effort to fight the destruction, some farmers tried covering plants with blankets and other cloth.  The grasshoppers ate the fabric.  Other reports describe the grasshoppers eating leather harnesses of plow horses.  The horde even fed on fence posts and ax handles.  Nothing was safe from the ravenous insects

In the five years of the Minnesota grasshopper plague, the losses were devastating.  An estimated $2,000,000 was lost by farmers.  By 1877, the state was so frustrated by the inability to combat the locusts, Governor John Pillsbury declared a day prayer for April 26, 1877.  In Cold Springs, Stearns County Catholics built the Assumption Chapel as an outward sign of their devotion and prayer so that God might remove this plague.

Reports of the grasshopper plague describe devastation throughout Minnesota.  Anecdotal evidence in Sherburne County reinforces these views.  Jeanette Knapp, living in Orrock Township remembered the locusts destroying the family crop.  “Father noticed how nicely the grain had come up and how strong it looked—that was when he was on his way to church one Sunday morning.  On his return he could see no evidence of his crops.  Even the leaves were eaten off the trees,” she said.  “At times the grasshoppers were so thick you couldn’t see the sun.” 

Sherburne County does not show up in the greater Minnesota literature of the grasshopper plague.  The county avoided significant damage from the locusts until 1876 when the grasshoppers invaded like a marauding horde and did significant damage to the county farms.  In addition, the county was relatively under populated.  The population in mid 1870s was in the neighborhood of 3000 people.   

Yet, the grasshoppers hit Sherburne County and left an indelible mark on the history of the area.

This particular essay may benefit from a list of references.  If you would like to obtain a copy of this essay with the endnotes, fell free to contact me.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Research Resources To Consider

As you research the history of Sherburne County, or Minnesota for that matter, a collection of documents you might want to consider viewing are the Public Safety Commission Alien Registration and Declaration of Holdings Forms, from 1918.  The records are held by the Minnesota Historical Society.  Microfilm copies of the Sherburne County records are available at SHC

These records, the alien registration forms, contain a wealth of information.  They were collected in the early days of World War I.  The Public Safety Commission set out to identify and document the individuals and the property holdings of every alien living in Minnesota.

The Commission was created by the State of Minnesota, a board of seven members: including the Governor, the State Attorney General and five members appointed by the Governor.  Early in 1918, the Commission issued “Proclamation and Order No. 25” designating the week of February 25 to March 1 as Alien Registration Days.  Every resident alien, anyone not native born or naturalized citizens, over the age of 14 was required to register and give declarations of property.

The registration forms collected information on a broad range of topics, from name and date of birth, to immigration date, to citizenship status and why the individual has not become a naturalized citizen.  The questions and answers provide great information about individuals living in the state.  The registration of aliens was vigorously carried out.  In Sherburne County, the registration commission employees went so far as to document nuns living in the Sherburne County area of Saint Cloud (a portion of the form you see here).

The information on these forms offer some great information.  For family historians or local historians, the Minnesota Public Safety Commission records provide an opportunity to gain greater insight into our families, into our county, and the State of Minnesota.   The collection has been arranged by county and subdivided by community.  The microfilm collection at SHC opens a new window into the lifestyles of residents in Sherburne County.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

What’s In A Name?  Actually, quite a bit.  I want you to meet Andrew A. Dahl, from Danetown, Santiago Township, Sherburne County, Minnesota.  He was born in Denmark, in 1857.  His father was Anders Jorgenson Dahl.  As was the custom in Denmark, Andrew’s last name then became Anderson.  Andrew immigrated to the United States in 1879 and quickly settled in Sherburne County.
All of this back story is important because Andrew and his wife Mary settled in Danetown.  There was an abundance of Andersons living in the area.  So much so, that produce checks from the Minneapolis markets to the farmers often got mixed up and delivery became very confused.
The story goes: Andrew, in an effort to simplify his life and insure that he received his produce checks, legally changed his name to Dahl.  This name change occurred sometime after 1900.  The court record continues for a generation when at least one of his four surviving children had to again visit the court and petition for a name change on the birth certificate.  Frank Dahl, born in 1901 under the name Frank Anderson, received a court order to change his name on all documents, beginning with a birth certificate and continuing forward.
This is an interesting story for a variety of different reasons.  For the benefit of family historians and local historians, keep in mind that name changes are an important consideration in the research.  It also puts an end to the assumption that every Anderson, Olson, Peterson, and every other common name individual is related.  Names are vital to historic study, but we can’t accept, or reject, every name based on a first read glance.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Planned Tourism

            An article published in the Big Lake Herald and reprinted in the Sherburne County Star News reinforces what we have been documenting for some time: tourism was intended as a major industry in Sherburne County going back to the original settlement of the county.  The article printed in 1907 reports:
Henry Ferguson, a resident of Wright county over forty years, at present of Big Lake, Sherburne County, dined at Brown’s Hotel in Big Lake May 7, 1855, and at the same hotel May 7, 1907, 52 years after only.  Mr. Ferguson is in the eighty-second year and enjoying good health for which he is thankful.  Brown’s hotel was located by Joseph Brown in June, 1847, and continued by his son, N. D. Brown, up to the present time, 60 years only.  
            Advertisement for Brown’s Hotel, as a place for fine fishing and a nice spot to get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, were published as early as 1855.  Still later, the railroads advertised excursion trains to Sherburne County to move passengers out of the city for a weekend of relaxation.

            Clearly, entrepreneurs in Sherburne County saw the area as potentially significant to the tourism industry.  The potential continues to this day with the development of the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and the Sand Dunes State Forest.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

It Really Works

Every discussion regarding cemetery markers and gravestones, inevitably evolves into the question: how do you extract information from those old stones?  How do you decipher the worn ones; the stones with almost no visible engraving left on the surface.  Some people suggest cleaning the stones, take some shaving cream or mild soap and scrap off the moss and lichen that has attached to the stone.  Unfortunately, THIS IS BAD.  I can guarantee that you will damage the stone beyond repair if you try to clean it.
Leave the cleaning to the professionals.

Probably the best alternative I have found to extract information from a worn stone is through the use of aluminum foil   Wrap the surface of the stone with aluminum foil.  Then take a soft sponge and gently press against the surface of the stone.  DO NOT RUB THE STONE.  Gently press the aluminum foil into every tiny crevice of the stone surface.   Gradually the original information may become apparent.  Take a photograph and transcribe all of the information on the stone. 

When you remove the aluminum foil, it will flatten back out, so you lose the information.  Be sure to write down every line on the stone.

With this technique you have done minimal damage to the stone and have retrieved the information you wanted and needed. 

A final tip for this process, use wide aluminum foil.  This way you can wrap the stone vertically, and hopefully need only one sheet of foil.  In the photograph below, you can see that 18 inch aluminum foil would have better served the purpose than the 12 inch foil that we have.

And, thanks to Phyllis Scroggins and Diana Schansberg for help with this experiment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Electricity Offers An Easier Life

I was reviewing the oral history collection at SHC.  This particular passage from the Carl Aubol Oral History reminded me of how far society has come.  In just 80 years, electricity has given the United States an abundance of luxury items and made life so much simpler.  I wanted to share some of that with you.

Aubol TV and Appliance has been operating in Big Lake, MN since the 1930s.   Even before the opening of the store, dating back to the early 1920s, Harold Aubol was working on radios in his home to give isolated farmers greater access to news and information. 

The entire oral history is fascinating.

“My dad started a store in 1934.  Dad started out building radios because people didn't have access to the news and things in their homes at that time except with battery pack radios.  As electricity come in, then they replaced the battery type radios with electric.  That made quite a change.  Then also with the appliances, they used to have, like, the gasoline engine wringer washers.  As electricity come in, it replaced gasoline motors with electric motors so the ladies could do their wash in the home.  A lot of them, when they'd run those gas engines, they'd take them outside on the porch and run them.  So, the electricity made it much better for the lady of the house to do her washing.  Of course, after the wringer washers were out with electric motors, then they started to get dryers in; so, that the ladies didn't have to hang their clothes outside.  They could put them in a dryer and dry them electrically.  Then, it kind of made the transformation from, basically, the wood stove for cooking to electric for cooking also.  Therefore, the ranges changed considerably from the big old cast iron ones to the more modern ranges that we see today of porcelain and electric burners.”

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Help Identify This Photo

Recently, this photograph was donated to the Sherburne History Center.  We have very little information to go with it.  We know that it was given to the Becker VFW many years ago.  That is about all!  We think this might be the Minnesota National Guard unit posing in front of a barracks at Camp Ripley.  But that is a guess.  Anyone with any skill at identifying photographs, your help or suggestions to identify this photo or the men in it would be appreciated.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why Family History Can Be So Challenging

The following two announcements reinforce the idea of “trust but verify” in family history. They also suggest why family history research can be so much fun yet so challenging.

The two announcements were published in the Sherburne County Star News on 6 February and 13 February 1896 in the “Becker News” column on page 5.  Even the most intrepid of news reporters and correspondents can get the facts wrong.  So, in family history we have the responsibility to “trust but verify.”

6 February 1896

 13 February 1896

And special thanks to my colleague, Phyllis Scroggins, who found these two announcements and brought them to my attention.  While reading the microfilm newspapers, Phyllis manages to find the most interesting information.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Edward and Lillian Cox and Their Young Family

Here, in about 1909, is a young, supposedly happy family.  You really can’t tell because there are very few smiles on these five people.  But, the lack of smiles may be a result of sitting for the camera.  In 1909, photos were somewhat pricey and you wanted to get the image as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.  So, “don’t smile and ruin the picture.”  This is Edward Cox, Jr, his wife Lillian and three of their children.  We can pretty closely date the photo because baby Edward was born in 1908 and died in a fire in 1911.

The styles in clothing also give some hints to dating the photo.  More importantly, it says something that the Cox family gave close attention to style.  They appear to be a young, hardworking family destined to enter the middle class of the United States. Edward is up to date with his style of ties, with the half Windsor knot, or possibly a four-in-hand knot.  Mrs. Cox is also keyed into Edwardian style dress with the high collar blouse with the broach pinned in the middle of the throat.  The large bows in the hair of both girls is also an interesting feature.  Although the debate about chronology is still going on, some would suggest that large bows in young girl’s hair was a feature of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

By looking at the fashions and knowing the history of this family, we have an interesting photo here that gives a fore shadowing of the tragedy to young baby “Eddie.”  It also suggests the fashion consciousness of a young, upwardly mobile family living in Becker, MN in 1909.

This photo is from the Sherburne History Center collection, 1992.030.059 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

On Trial in Becker

In a trial in Becker in 1895, an interesting bit of local law proceedings were reported in the Sherburne County Star News: Thomas Parento accused Fred Specovious of stealing hay valued at eight dollars.  After two hours of testimony and five hours of jury deliberation, no conclusion was reached.  We had a “hung jury.”  The local magistrate, Judge Shephardson suggested that if the two parties could settle on the matter, jury costs would be reduced.  At this point, the court costs amounted to $20.  A cost of more than twice the value of the missing hay.  Parento and Specovious agreed to drop the case and split a $7 fee for court costs.

I am not sure if this reveals the wisdom of the court, or the two farmers saw the economic advantages to a settlement.   Regardless of the underlying “moral of the story,” the report does highlight the pragmatic approach often displayed in the court room in small towns in the Midwest.

Monday, March 2, 2015

An Interesting Bit of Boosterism in Elk Rive

“One trouble with Elk River,” exclaimed one of our citizens, “is that we are too quiet, we don’t blow enough about the town and its advantages.”  The Sherburne County Star News published this comment on 12 September 1895.  It served to introduce a number of columns promoting the value of land and living in Elk River.  The publication in the pages of the local newspaper is an interesting bit of boosterism.

The articles something akin to “preaching to the choir.”  Although, the newspaper will reach areas outside of Elk River, the bulk of the membership already knows about the “value of land” in the area.   Yet, the paper goes on to promote Elk River land and living:

“Many of our business men are possessing themselves of small tracts of land convenient to town, as they are offered for sale,” the paper reported.  “This does not mean, necessarily, that they contemplate abandoning the business they are engaged in and go to farming for a living, but they recognize the fact that land at present prices is an excellent investment and they want some of it.”

In another column, the newspaper asks and answers: “What better place is there on earth to secure a home than right here adjacent to Elk River?” The column goes on to list so many advantages of: “an intelligent community of nice people, goo schools, religious influences, good markets, convenience to large cities, and beautiful surroundings.” 

 Promoting Elk River and efforts to increase the population are not unusual or unique to the city.  Small communities throughout the state of Minnesota are working to attract new settlers.  In 1895, Elk River is a small community with about 1300 people.  The entire county, however, is just beginning a growth spurt.  The county population in 1890 is about 5900, by 1900 the county has grown to 7200, and by 1910 the population is at 8100.  The promotion and boosterism is slowly paying off.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Letters at SHC Document the Alaska Gold Rush

An interesting collection in the Archives of the Sherburne History Center consists, in part, of letters from Clarence McNeil to his wife Laura Keasling, the third daughter of George Keasling. 

Clarence McNeil grew up in Livonia Township in the 1870s and 1880s.  He was born in Lake City, Minnesota.  His family moved to Sherburne County when he was only 15 months.  He was an intelligent young man, after his education in the public schools, he trained to be a civil engineer.  All of this led up to his travel to Alaska in 1898.  McNeil found himself in the midst of the Klondike Gold Rush.  Some of his letters describe the excitement and hard work in Alaska.

On March 7, 1898, he wrote to his wife both exciting news and details of struggle and hard work. 

“…by the way I am no ordinary Engineer anymore.  I am now Chief Eng. Of the Chilcoot Railway and Transportation Co.  What do you think of that(?) …Herb and Lester are hauling freight with the dog teams from the summit down to Lake Lindeman.  They get 3 cents a lbs and haul nearly a ton a day when the weather will admit of it. …I am feeling pretty well but I am rapidly losing flesh.  I am 25 lbs. lighter than I was when I left for Alaska.” 

Lake Lindeman was the headwaters of the Yukon River.  From this point gold rushers would follow the river into the gold fields of the Klondike.

Shortly after this letter was written, Clarence McNeil was killed in an avalanche in the Chilcoot Pass. According to reports, he died April 2, 1898.  His letters in the collection (1996.023) of the Sherburne History Center provide interesting insight into his young life and hazardous work as a civil engineer.  The photo included here is Clarence McNeil in about 1893.

More from these letters will be posted in coming months.  Be sure to check back often.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hello Again

If anyone is out there, I realize it has been almost three years since I last posted.  Well, I have made it a goal to publish more in the coming year, 2015.  So stay tuned.  I hope to post information at least once a week in the coming year.

 In the meantime, here is a photo from our collection.  I am sending it because the baseball season is about to start and that makes life more complete!  This photo of the Big Lake Baseball team is dated around 1915.