Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Friday, December 30, 2016

Becker, Minn: Strawberry Capital

Becker, Minnesota once claimed the title of “Strawberry Capital” of the Midwest.  All thanks to the work of Becker farmer Carroll “Strawberry” Johnson. 

Born in December 1918, Carroll Johnson’s work in agriculture led to significant developments in farming, particularly for strawberry farms.  His work in marketing and promotion helped make Becker famous for its strawberries.

Starting in 1936, the summer after his High School graduation Carroll Johnson planted a few strawberry plants and sold the produce door-to-door.  In the fall he attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in horticulture.  Each summer he would return to his family farm and increase acreage devoted to strawberry plants.   

Overtime, Johnson continued selling to the local markets, eventually expanding as far as Fargo, North Dakota.  He also increased the size of his farm.  At its peak in the 1970s, the Johnson Berry Farm extended to over 150 acres.  Agriculturalists described the farm as the largest strawberry farm in the Midwest.  Johnson also adopted a “pick your own” strategy for marketing.   Allowing individuals access to parts of his farm to allow them to pick their own berries.  News reports suggested families would travel from throughout the state to visit the Johnson Berry Farm.  A report from WCCO radio claimed two women hired a taxi to bring them from the Twin Cities to the Johnson farm.  The cab driver then had to wait while the ladies picked berries.  
Above:1966 pin promoting first Becker Strawberry Festival.
below: 1971 pin from the final year of the brief Becker
Strawberry Festival
Artifacts from the collections of
Sherburne History Center 

Throughout his career, Johnson continued to experiment with plant varieties and planting methods.  Johnson and Marion Hagerstrom hold the patent on the “Crimson King” strawberry.  Johnson was quoted as describing the berry as, “a bigger, brighter berry that holds up.”   Johnson also helped develop the “Luscious Red” and the “Red Rich” varieties of strawberries. 

His planting experiments included alternate plantings of four rows of berries to two rows of corn.  At the end of the season, the corn stalks remained in place to catch and hold the snow as an insulator to protect the strawberry plants.  “It also stops the wind,” he explained. 

Johnson also played a key role in promoting Becker as a destination point for strawberry lovers.  In the mid-1960s, The Becker Strawberry Festival played a significant role for promotion and entertainment in each growing season.   

Johnson worked and developed strawberry farming for more than 50 years.  His efforts made Becker, Minnesota the “Strawberry Capital” of the Midwest.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Greetings

Christmas greetings from another time convey a different message than greetings from today.  In the past, a wish for peace and serenity seemed more prevalent.  A comfortable chair near a soothing fire, or a calming scent of pine from a bouquet of evergreens, presented wishes of peace and joy.  The absence of Santa Claus jumps outs as an interesting feature of early Christmas postcards.  The message is similar, yet the images and symbols changed dramatically.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Fruit Cakes Are Forever

A brief report in the Sherburne County Star News illustrates the durability of fruit cake through the ages.  “Mrs. Elizabeth Dyson who died 17 years ago, for several years before her death suspended a fruit cake upon the Christmas tree for Rev. And Mrs. Shepardson, and though dead, the Christmas cake continues to appear annually.  Her works do follow her.” 


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Electricity Comes To Elk River

Exactly 100 years ago, electricity was a novelty in Elk River.  In the year 1916, a new company, Elk River Electric built a power plant and installed lighting throughout the village. Until the work of F. D. Waterman in 1915, the only buildings to have electricity were the Blanchett Hotel and the Opera House.  These were powered by gas fueled generators.  Elk River developed very quickly into “a most modern” community. 

Beginning in 1912, Fred Waterman opened negotiations with the village to build a dam and power plant for the city.  The city itself agreed to maintain power lines and serve as the go between for customers and Waterman’s Elk River Electric Company.  After three years of struggle to find financial backing, the plant was built and power sent through the city in January of 1916.  Immediately, the streets of Elk River lit up.  The Sherburne County Star News explained, “for lighting the streets 40 sixty candle power and 10 one hundred candle power lamps are being used.”   

Advertising electrical appliances for Christmas
 in the Sherburne County Star News
With construction complete, the company advertising campaign moved forward.  Newspaper advertising announced, “We have spared no pains or money to have Elk River retain its present envious reputation of being the best town of it size in the state by giving it the best lighting system.”   

With Christmas 1916 approaching, the company took a new direction in advertising.  “Electrical gifts have charm, beauty, and utility,” the company urged customers to buy the latest in new electrical appliances.   

Although it would take another 40 years before electricity would reach every corner of the county, Elk River took a big step forward in lighting the city in 1916.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Charles Babcock: Father of Minnesota's Highways

Mercantile of W. L Babcock and Sons, circa 1900. 
SHC photo collection 1995.017.004
Highways, roads, streets and avenues play pivotal roles in daily life.  Smooth, comfortable transportation proved important to development of business and commerce in the state.  For Sherburne County, one individual stands out as vital to the growth and development of the county and the highway system running through the state: Charles Babcock.   

Born in Orrock in 1871 to Willard and Serepeta Babcock, Charles Babcock grew up on a farm, later worked in his father’s mercantile store and still later became President on the Bank of Elk River.  In his early life no hint was made of his eventual success, or his importance, as Highway Commissioner of Minnesota.   

After childhood years in public education, Charlie Babcock attended the University of Minnesota.  The economic crisis of 1893 caused him to drop out and return to work in the father’s store in Elk River.  According to his biography, while at the store he realized the way to improve business and build relationships with county farmers was to provide easy transportation and access to the market.  With this in mind, he began a political career, running for county Commissioner in 1908.  After two years of service he realized the state government and the state highway commission would better serve his mission.   

Babcock was appointed to the Minnesota State Highway Commission in 1910.  He served until 1917 when the commission was abolished and replaced by a Department of transportation under the governor’s direction.  Charles Babcock was appointed the first of the Minnesota State Highway Commissioners.   

Charles Babcock as State Highway
Commissioner.  SHC photo
collection 1995.017.008
In the 16 years he served as the Commissioner, his primary achievements included an amendment to the State Constitution that called for the use of tax dollars to fund the building and maintenance of the state roads.  Known as the Babcock Amendment, taxes were levied first on automobile registration and later as a gasoline tax to fund roads.   

Locally, Babcock was influential in directing the Jefferson Highway through Sherburne County to St cloud.  Still later, with his influence, the road was paved from the Anoka County line north through Elk River and eventually through the entire county. 

After his death in 1936, the highways in Sherburne County were expanded and improved.  By the 1950s, the Jefferson Highway had been rerouted and renamed Highway 10.  It became a major state road and expanded to a four-lane highway.  The impact of Charles Babcock with his understanding of the importance of good roads cannot be understated.  It seems appropriate that Charles Babcock be known as the Father of the Minnesota Highway System.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Armistice Day Blizzard Revisited

In an earlier time Veteran’s Day was known as Armistice Day.  And on November 11, each year the holiday commemorated the service from veterans and peace marking the end of World War One.  For a generation of Minnesotans, the day also sparks memories of one of the worst snowstorms to ever hit Minnesota: The Armistice Day Blizzard.
Snow began to fall on November 11, and continues into the next day.  In total, 27 inches fell.  Winds blew up to 80 miles per hour.  In some areas of the state 20 foot snow drifts were records.   The snow impeded transportation and threatened lives.  In one report, two locomotives collided in the blowing and blinding snow.  In total, throughout the upper Midwest, 145 people died in the snowstorm. 

Locally, in Sherburne County, the memories are fresh.  In the memoirs of Virginia Johnson, she recalls the challenges of getting home from school during the storm.  She wrote, “Two fathers brought me home.  The road to our home was blocked.  That one fourth mile was hard going following in the far apart tracks of the men.”  

Although not from the Armistice Day Blizzard,
this 1965 photo gives an indication of the
snow buildup in Sherburne County.
From SHC photograph collections 2007.040.058
To further challenge transportation, temperatures dropped fifty degrees in that 24 hour period.  An oral history from Jesse Hibbard recalls, “I was home alone that day. My wife was down to her folks and one daughter was going to school in Minneapolis and the other daughter was up town and the boy, he used to catch a ride to go to high school. I think he just started high school, and he stayed with the girls then two-three days. One daughter and another girl had a little apartment in St. Cloud and he stayed with them until Wednesday and then he came walking up. That was the problem that time - it got cold. Wednesday morning it was 8 below, the storm was Monday, Wednesday morning was 8 below and that kid came walking home, wading through the snow.”   

The snow challenged everyone throughout the state.  It threatened lives and isolated the country.  And the Armistice Day Blizzard was a significant memory to a generation of Sherburne County residents.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Logging and Lumber Industry in Sherburne County

Logging on the Mississippi River
near the confluence of the Elk River
Logging and lumber industry seem to be overlooked as a factor in the growth of Sherburne County.  Scanning newspaper columns and searching the local histories of Elk River suggest an importance of logging and lumber to the county in the 19th century.  The lumber mill, one of the first buildings in Elk River reinforces the important role of logging.  Equally significant to the lumber industry and the Elk River history was the boom company working in the Mississippi River. 

Lumber industry has long been recognized as significant to the settlement Elk River.  Some of the first structure built in the community included a dam and sawmill along the Elk River.  For several decades the mill in the community chopped up huge amounts of wood to be sold locally or transported to markets in the twin cities.  As early as 1878 the Orono sawmill reported processing 15,000 feet of lumber each day.  

In addition to the mills, the boom companies played a significant role in the county economy.  Boom companies were paid to sort and raft logs in the many rivers of Minnesota.  The mills and the logging companies paid the boom companies to sort logs by the brands attached to each log, and create rafts to float the logs to the appropriate mills.  The boom companies received upwards of 50 cents per 1000 feet of lumber.  Each year the boom companies around Elk River employed over 150 men.  

The Mississippi and Rum River Boom Company grew into a large boom company that controlled a significant amount of the river traffic around Elk River.  The company first organized in 1853 and through a series of legislative actions, the company controlled a major share of lumber rafting on the Mississippi River between Sauk Rapids and St. Anthony Falls.  

Columns in the Sherburne County Star News suggest the importance of the industry in the county.  The newspaper regularly tracked the boom company and its passage down the Mississippi River.  May 16, 1895, the newspaper reported “the boom company’s steamboat came up the Mississippi Tuesday on the first trip of the season.”  In August the paper tracked the flow of the boom company down the river.  The newspaper reported the first sighting in Monticello, and five days later passing Elk River.  “The boom company drive of about a hundred million feet of logs will be along here today or tomorrow.  There are 125 men on it, 50 of whom will be taken off at this place and sent back up river for the next drive.”  Eight days later, the boom company drive was reported between Dayton and Anoka.  Still later in the month, on August 29, the paper reported “another big drive of the boom company is passing here today.”    
The company continued to operate on the river for at least another twenty years.  In 1914, the Mississippi and Rum River Boom Company announced the construction of a new steamer.  The “steamer will be worth from $13,000 and $15,000 when she starts on her maiden trip upriver next spring.”  
Overtime, with improved transportation and shipping methods, the boom industry became obsolete.  Yet for a significant length of time the Mississippi and Rum River Boom Company served an important role in the history and economy of Sherburne County.  Although the industry receives little attention in the continuing history of Elk River, logging and lumber were clearly important to Sherburne County.   

Friday, October 28, 2016

Mail Call!

Postage and mail delivery gained attention in the newspapers of Sherburne County, 1915.  Based on the news coverage by the Sherburne County Star News, the postal service was very busy.
Harold Keayes on his Harley Davidson motorcycle
ready for deliveries

Beginning in January, local news reporters became curious about the mail delivery in Sherburne County.  Harold Keayes, a carrier around Elk River and east Sherburne County, estimated he delivered over 11,000 pieces of mail in the month.  The weight of all of this delivery amounted to more than 6200 pounds. 

Clearly the postal service diligently delivered in 1915. 
Later in the year, the post office issued new stamps.  A picture of Benjamin Franklin would soon appear on 11 cent stamps.  As the developer of the first postal delivery service in the United States, Franklin’s profile commonly appeared on postage stamps.  With these news stamps, the Postal Service signaled an anticipated increase in letters and packages. 

The weight of mail deliveries would no doubt grow and intrepid delivery men, such as Mr. Keayes, would feel a greater burden on their shoulders.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Elections 100 Years Ago: How The Times Have Changed

With the coming elections, we thought it might be interesting to compare voting from 100 years ago.  Oh, the times have changed! 

These photographs illustrate the sample ballot published in the Sherburne County Star News for the election of 1916.  A feature of the ballots for 100 years ago in Minnesota in 1916 there were no direct votes for the President.  When voters cast their ballots, they voted for “Presidential Electors.”  In other words, they voted for members of the Electoral College.
It would appear, in the election of 1916, a more literal interpretation of the Constitution directed voting in Minnesota.  At that time, the state legislature was appointed to set the rules for balloting and selection of members of the Electoral College.  And so you see the different ballot of 1916. 

Also, remember voting for federal offices was a privilege reserved for men.  The women’s ballot consisted of selections to the local school board. 

Yes, voting practices have definitely changed in 100 years!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Regulating Automobiles in the Early Days

In the world of legislating transportation, in 1909, the State of Minnesota took the lead.  The Sherburne County Star News reported “road rules are many and explicit.  Cars are required to carry brakes, horns, lamps, etc., and speed is limited to 25 miles an hour, or 10 miles an hour at crossings, curves and other dangerous places.” 

With the article in the May 6, 1909 issue, the newspaper emphasized enforcement would begin immediately.  The laws become “operative May 15,” the paper reported.
At the time, the regulations and licensing came from the Secretary of State.
Previous research suggests the laws had minimal impact on Sherburne County as there were very few automobiles in the area.  In a few short years, however, the transportation departments in the state would led by Elk River native, Charles Babcock.  And the rules for operating the "horseless carriage" would become more important.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Yet Another Party in Elk River

Previously we explored a variety of different parties and celebrations around Elk River.  The lemon party, an event for ladies with admission being one lemon.  The lemons are used in various games.  The highlight of the evening arrived when the ladies made lemonade out of the admission fees. 

The Sherburne County Star News documented a variety of similar celebrations.  On October 17, 1912, a particularly unique party invitation graced the pages of the newspaper: “The Christian Endeavor will give a necktie social this evening.” 

The newspaper announced, “Ladies are requested to wear aprons and bring a necktie to match, sealed in an envelope.  These will be distributed to the gentlemen and the wearer of your necktie eats supper with you.”  The brief announcement guaranteed a “big supper” and fun for all.  “Everybody is invited, the older people as well as the young folks.”    

There are no reports for the success of the party, hosted at the home of Fred Nickerson.  Yet, the unique nature of the event suggests the creativity of party planners flourished in Elk River.  

1917 Concert Celebration at the bandstand in Elk River.  
Photo part of SHC collections 1990.200.645

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dane Town: Once a Community in Sherburne County

Dane Town “is a Danish settlement that tells about the well known Danish ability as farmers.”  This translation of the 1903 pamphlet Norwegian Settlements and Congregations, fails in modesty to describe a community now marked by only a cemetery.  

Dane Town dates around 1872.  Bernard Nelson noted his grandparents purchased 40 acres in Becker Township.  This marks the beginning of Dane Town.  

Although never incorporated in Sherburne County, Dane Town briefly maintained many of the institutions that hint towards permanence.  A church had not been built, but a congregation of Danish Lutherans were well established.  In the early history the congregation was led by a Pastor Ingebrigtsen.   

In addition to the religious congregation, a school had been established and a Danish newspaper published.  A newspaper, The Daylight was edited and printed at the Rasmus Jensen farm.  Virginia Johnson, in a four page essay remembering her life in Dane Town described “school days like a little family.  Our school was heated by wood.  The wood shed was a favorite place to act out plays during recess.  The bleachers were piled up wood.”   

In all likelihood, transportation led to the demise of Dane Town.  With improving roads, more farmers began to move into Becker, Palmer and Santiago.  In the end, only the cemetery remained to mark Dane Town.   

In her essay, Virginia Johnson summed it up, “I remember Dane Town as a safe place to live with neighbors who were honest and helpful.”  

A few residents of Dane Town.  Photos from the SHC collections 2007.040 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Fire Prevention in Elk River

The Sherburne County Star News published an article on 30 January 1913 illustrating the challenges faced by Elk River in efforts to avoid and combat fire. 

The newspaper reported the village council voted to purchase 250 additional feet of fire hose to enhance the “ancient and leaky hose” used by the city fire fighters.  The council and newspaper acknowledged the purchase fell short of needs.  The expense of 75 cents per foot for the hose limited the purchase. 

“It is believed that some of the old hose can be used with the new,” the paper reported.  “At the last fire, it will be remembered, so much difficulty was experienced in coupling the old host together and preventing leaks that the fire nearly burned itself out before any water was turned on.”    

Previous discussions concerning fire protection included: building a centralized fire station and training to maintain and use the available equipment.  The fire of 1915 pushed the issue of fire protection to the forefront of town council discussions.  This culminated with the construction of the Elk River water tower in 1920.    

The high point in fire prevention was the water tower.  Yet, combating fire in Elk River continued to challenge city leaders for years to come.

Elk River Fire Dept., circa 1920.  From SHC collections 2006.015.005

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Under the Heading: Unusual News

… the Sherburne County Star News reported on 7 March 1912: “Mrs. John E. Putnam, age 83 years, is now cutting her third set of teeth, having been without teeth for 16 years and having been baldheaded for nearly 40 years, is now the proud possessor of a fine head of hair.”  

 The gossip columns from 100 years ago makes reading the newspaper an adventure.

Friday, August 26, 2016

More About Hotels in Elk River

In recent weeks the history of hotels and hospitality in Elk River has been area of study.  The primary focus centered around the Blanchett Hotel, also known as the Merchants Hotel, and the Riverside Hotel, also known as the Elk River Hotel.  Now we are giving attention to a lesser known boardinghouse/hotel in Elk River.  
As late as the 1950s, the hotel above Kemper Drugs was the Hamlet Hotel.  Originally known as the Princeton Hotel, the space served more as a boardinghouse for long term residences, in contrast to the short stay hospitality of the Blanchett and the Riverside.  

To locate each of the different hotels, this 1894 map has been brought out from the collections to help us visualize the area.  The Riverside Hotel is located on the corner of King and Main.  The Blanchett is located on the east side of Jackson (Princeton) and on the north west corner of Jackson (Princeton) is the Hamlet Hotel.  The Great Northern Railway station was located across the street, directly north of the Merchants (aka Blanchett) Hotel. 

An important detail to note: this map documented Elk River before the many devastating fires that encouraged business owners to relocate south of the railroad tracks.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Elk River's Claim to Fame

Becker’s claim to fame includes strawberries.  Big Lake gained fame for the purity of the ice.  Another truth handed down through time: Elk River’s claim to fame is the potato. 

The Sherburne County Star News reported on March 28, 1912 “that Elk River has been famous as a great potato market.”  As proof a front page news article reported two men in an unnamed, yet famous, Minneapolis restaurant heard the demand for Elk River potatoes.  “The Elk River potato is known and called for as an especial relish of big Minneapolis restaurants,” the paper reported.  The paper went on to suggest that although some believed the men “had taken a wee bit too much of some sparkling fluid from bottles,” it was common knowledge around the Sherburne county town, “Elk River potatoes are famous and will be more so in a few years."  
The Star News felt this claim to fame warranted some action by the county to adopt a specific type of spud to market it as the true Elk River potato.  “In this way Elk River and its product would be advertised broadside and it would add much to the town as a potato market.”  In spite of the good ideas to market the potato and Elk River, no action was taken to create an Elk River potato.  

In spite of inaction, more than 100 years passed since the tuber so abundant in Sherburne County brought fame to Elk River.  Just as Big Lake has its ice; Becker gained fame through strawberries; so, Elk River remains famous for the potato.  

Elk River potato market, circa 1900
SHC collections 1995.017.012

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Diary of Eben H. Davis

A small diary in the collections of the Sherburne History Center provides fascinating detail about the early settlement of Elk River.  Eben H. Davis, at one time the Sheriff of early Sherburne County kept a travel diary in 1882.  In the autumn of 1882 he was part of a group surveying and “cruising” timber from Grand Portage to Hunter’s Island, Canada.  The final pages of this diary he provides background information about Elk River at the time of his settling in the area.  He gives two different dates for his arrival in Elk River: 1850 and 1851.   The date of his arrival matters very little.  The details of the settlement make this a valuable document. 

            In Sept. 1850 the writer hereof first came to Elk River.  Peter Bouttino was then building the Riverside Hotel.  His brother Chas. was living in and keeping Saloon in a log building about 4 or 5 rods west of the Hotel. 
            Silas Lane then lived in a house on the hill near where Harry Mills house now stands.  Chas. Donnely Donley lived about 80 rods N.E. of Robert Browns place and a man named Carver lived near Edd Kegans place.
            E. H Davis born in Town of Lowell, Maine August 29th 1835.  Emigrated to Illinois in fall of 1849 and to St. Anthony Minnesota in Spring of 1850 and to Elk River in Spring of 1851.  Was Married to Louisa M Ingersoll July 4th 1857 who died Sept. 19th 1888.  

Riverside Hotel and Bottineau cabin.  Photo from the collections of the Sherburne History Center. 1990.200.563


Friday, August 5, 2016

The Dream of An Industrialized Sherburne County

Sherburne County’s early settlers dreamed of creating a county based on industrial strength.  The economic crisis and 1857 Depression killed the dream.  Instead, Sherburne County became a farming center.  Several industrial towns and plat sites planned for Sherburne County hints at a potentially different character of the county.  If only dreams had come true.

Elk River originated as an industrial settlement by first building a saw mill and grist mill.  The Elk and Mississippi Rivers’ steady water supply guaranteed success to the mills.  The Great Northern Railroad railhead stopped in Elk River until 1866.  The community was destined to grow into an industrial giant. 

At least four communities in Sherburne County failed to develop like Elk River.  Developers platted and planned sites around the county.  All failed to develop.  The failures included: Liberty, a site planned for industrial growth in Big Lake Township; Marseilles existed on paper near Becker; Groton was platted along the St. Francis River in Blue Hill Township; and plans for the community of Wheeler developed in Haven Township.  All the sites planned construction of sawmills and grist mills.  Dreams collapsed with the economic downturn in 1857.  
Before financial ruin Sherburne County seemed destined to industrial greatness.  With the increasing crisis of the economy and Civil War, the dream of industry faded and agriculture expanded the county. 

Imagine the potential character of Sherburne County if only dreams had come true.

Elk River flour mill, circa 1887.  from the SHC collections 1990.200.551

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Blanchett Hotel: The Finest in Elk River

The Brown Hotel, the Riverside Inn, the Sherburne House, these are just a few hotels once operating in Sherburne County.  A hotel often overlooked, yet important to the history of Sherburne County is the Blanchett Hotel of Elk River.  Although the hotel served only a short time in Elk River, the forward thinking owner set high expectations for competitors and future area hotels.  

Moses C. Blanchett, born in St. George, Illinois in 1863, moved to Minnesota in 1883, and began mastering the hotel business. In 1901 he took over the Merchants Hotel and renamed it the Blanchett Hotel.  Immediately he improved the inn and built a reputation of forward thinking and luxury for his guests.  

Newspaper reports suggest Moses Blanchett enjoyed immediate success.  Regarded as a wealthy, Elk River business owner, the newspapers reported he owned the second automobile in Sherburne County.  The first was owned by transportation commissioner Charles Babcock.   

Part of his strategy to enhance his wealth, Blanchett developed plans to expand and increase his hotel ownership.  In 1903 construction on the Hotel Blanchett in Zimmerman began.  The new hotel was opened and managed by Moses and his brother George Blanchett.  
Although he attained some success in Elk River, Moses chose to challenge himself in different surroundings.  In February 1910, he announced the sale of the Blanchett Hotel for $30,000.  Apparently the sale was never finalized.  Property taxes into the mid-1910s list ownership of the hotel as Blanchett Investment Co.  The same company owned the property in Zimmerman.   

The fire of 1917 destroyed the Elk River Blanchett Hotel.  Shortly after the fire, Moses Blanchett became manager of the Angus Hotel in St. Paul.  He worked at the Angus Hotel for 19 years.  He died in 1937, still managing the Angus Hotel.  

In the 16 years the Blanchett Hotel entertained guests in Elk River, Moses Blanchett and his family excelled in providing a high level of hospitality in Elk River. The Sherburne County Star News called the Blanchett “one of the best public hostelries in the country.”   

Photo from the Sherburne History Center collections: 1990.201.601

Friday, July 22, 2016

1906 Zimmerman Fire

Fire destroyed the business district of Zimmerman on 4 May 1906, causing more than $30,000 in damages.  The Sherburne County Star News reported although the community would rebuild, the fire recovery presented significant challenges.  

Charles Iliff discovered the fire and sounded the alarm at three in the morning.  Smoke coming from the warehouse of English & Co. signaled the beginning of the coming disaster.  The newspaper reported the fire destroyed English & Co’s building, “probably the largest stock of good in the county.”  An estimate from just this store put losses at over $20,000. The fire also destroyed J.W. Mode’s General Store, the Zimmerman Post Office, and the G.N. Stendahl building.  Firefighters saved the A.O.U.W. Hall and the Zimmerman creamery.  

The lack of insurance coverage proved equally difficult to several businesses.  The newspaper reported that although English was covered for $19,000 of insurance, Mode carried only $1500 of insurance and the Stendahl Building was insured for only $500.  In spite of this, the Star News concluded, “the prospects now seem to be the burned buildings will be rebuilt … of brick or cement.” 

Although the businesses did rebuild, as these post fire photos show, not all of them rebuilt in brick or cement.  G. N. Stendahl and the Post Office built frame structures and opened for business.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Elk River and The New Bridge

“Hurrah for the Beef
Hurrah for the Liver
Hurrah for the bridge
That Spans the River.”

This is just one of several jingles heard on the streets of Elk River celebrating the new bridge completion in 1906.  Crossing the Mississippi River and connecting Elk River with Otsego, the bridge was celebrated as a “mutual benefit” with “commercial, social and financial rewards.”  Although the benefits seemed obvious, obtaining financial support and construction of this new transportation artery were never easily obtainable goals.  With the completion, though, the old ferry crossing the river closed and citizens from two counties celebrated. 

The fifty years before the bridge, consistently crossing the River at Elk River was possible only through the ferry operating since 1856.  The only other options included crossing at a ford south of town when the water was low, or cross on winter ice when the river might be frozen.  None of these options guaranteed a set schedule, nor a certainty of crossing. 

The Sherburne County Star News reported the need for a bridge became evident early in Elk River history.  As the population grew access to Wright County and regions closer to the Twin Cities also grew.  Expensive train routes, or inconsistent ferry runs, reinforced the need for a bridge as early as 1885.   

Elk River and Otsego both began campaigning for a bridge in the 1880s.  Yet, a plan that satisfied the demands of the Federal government, the State of Minnesota, as well as Wright County and Sherburne County proved daunting.  The federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers required the bridge must rise high enough to allow steamboats uninterrupted passage up the River.  Meanwhile the span must be adequate to allow boom companies free access to send rafts of timber down the river.  In time, Minneapolis engineer C. A. P. Turner designed a bridge span 226 feet long and 35 feet above the river.  After years of negotiations and politicking, appropriations of $24,000 and construction contracts with W. F. Chadbourne finally led to a completed bridge.   
“The running logs and ice and the dark nights will no longer annoy or terrify those who have occasion to cross from one town to the other,” the Star News predicted. 

After four months of operation, stories in the Star News provide evidence of the success of the new bridge.  “G. B. Pepin took his father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Pepin for their first drive across the new bridge las Sunday,” the paper reported.  This was “Mrs. Pepin’s first visit to Elk River in thirteen years.”    

The newspaper summarized the general views of the bridge in an editorial after the opening of the bridge.  “The Star News rejoices with the balance of the good people of Elk river and Otsego over the completion of the splendid steel bridge,” they wrote.  “It exceeds the general expectation in appearance and substance.”   

In spite of the challenges and decades of negotiations, the completion of the bridge proved a benefit to the growth and happiness of Sherburne County.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Amazing Young Men In Their Driving Machines

In contrast to the recent blog about Charles Babcock and the first automobile in the county, we have reports of the second and third automobiles in the county. 

The Sherburne County Star News reported on August 29, 1907: “M. C. Blanchett wasn’t satisfied with the horseless carriage that was sent him and refused to keep it.  He now has a “Buick,” like Charlie Babcock’s machine.”  

The citizens of Sherburne County waited another three months to discover the extent of Blanchett’s satisfaction.  November 28, 1907 the Star News reported: “M. C. Blanchett made the run to St. Cloud and back with his auto last Saturday afternoon in three and a half hours.  The home run was made in 85 minutes.  This shows what an expert driver “Mose” is getting to be.”   

Citizens of Sherburne County are moving rapidly into the 20th century.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Charley Babcock's New Car

An interesting bit of local detail: Charles Babcock, native resident of Elk River and Minnesota’s first State Commissioner of Highways, can claim yet another first in Sherburne County.  The Sherburne County Star News reported on 18 April 1907: “Charley Babcock is the first to invest in an automobile in this village.  His is a fine ‘Buick’ car, propelled by a 22 horse power engine.” 

A brief search indicated the car’s speed topped out around 40 miles-per-hour. 

The newspaper reported the novel contraption entertained local friends and neighbors.  “His longest run since bringing the machine home was to Princeton and back last Sunday.  His wife, mother and Cora Babcock accompanied him.” 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

John Ormsbee Haven A Pioneer in Sherburne County

An early example of the dedicated and adventurous settlers of Sherburne County is the namesake of Haven Township, John Ormsbee Haven.  A local public servant, John O. Haven established himself as an early leader in Sherburne County. Although his life history is sparse in detail, it is worth noting and acknowledging.   

Born in Addison County, Vermont on October 3, 1824.  He graduated from Middlebury College and began teaching.  In 1854 he migrated to St. Paul, then to Wright County, Minnesota.  During his time in the county to the south, he surveyed both Monticello and Big Lake.  In 1866 he relocated north of the Mississippi River to Big Lake.  There he took up the many duties of public servant.  The next few years he served as: Sherburne County auditor, Register of Deeds, Surveyor, Superintendent of Schools, Clerk of the District Court, and County Commissioner.  In 1872, he also had time to represent Sherburne County in the State Senate.   

In addition to his public service, Haven also had time for family and friends.  He married Vienna McAllister in Vermont in 1852 and had two children.  He belonged to the Union Church of Big Lake.  And after his retirement from public service he owned a general merchandise store in Big Lake. 

He died in 1906 just one month short of his 82nd birthday. 

There is no definitive explanation as to why Haven was recognized with the naming of the township.  Yet, his life history suggests the honor was well earned by his hard work and dedication to his family and his community.    

Photo courtesy of: Middlebury College Special Collections and Archives, Middlebury, Vermont

ed. note:  For many months I have had the opportunity to work with a great research volunteer.  Ms. Phyllis Scroggins has provided me with information, has offered story ideas and advice on how to write articles.  I am sorry I am so late acknowledging her contributions to this blog.  Phyllis, the work wouldn’t get done without your help.  Thank you for so many contributions.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A One Man Crime Spree in Sherburne County

It is tough to keep a good man down—even a thief.  Sherburne County learned this difficult lesson at the hands of W. S. McDonald, a “sneak thief” and robber of local post offices. 

The Sherburne County Star News reported in July of 1906 at least two men removed window panes, gaining access to the Elk River Post Office.  A year earlier the safe in the post office had been blown open and never replaced.  Due to the earlier robbery, few valuables were kept in the office.  The 1906 robbery thieves made away with about $10 and books of stamps.  The police arrested McDonald in St. Cloud.  He had stamp books in his possession at the time.  These books connected him directly to the robbery.  The police had captured this nefarious criminal.

Unfortunately, for the police, McDonald somehow managed to escape from their custody.  Trying to immediately recapture McDonald, bloodhounds from the reformatory were brought in to track his scent.  These efforts failed.  It appeared he had successfully eluded the police.  Almost two months later, police recaptured McDonald in Anoka County.  He was sent back to St. Cloud and held for a grand jury hearing scheduled for November.

The Star News suggested the court immediately turn McDonald over to federal authorities based on the charges of robbing the post office, a federal offense.  “If a grand jury has to be called on account of this man, the cost of keeping and conviction will certainly be somewhere between $400 and $500,” the paper noted.  “All of which will be borne by Sherburne County.”

The newspaper went on to note McDonald had a unique talent for evading the criminal justice system.  The headlines reported McDonald robbed the Big Lake Depot in 1903.  Although there isn’t much detail, the paper reported, “McDonald is the man given a jail sentence a few years ago for breaking into the depot at Big Lake.”  No explanation is offered how or why McDonald was out of jail after his earlier escapades.

About the only details surmised from the reports about the post office robbery and the apparent thief.  W. S. McDonald seemed to favor Sherburne County as he carried out his one man crime spree.  In the end he was convicted and sent to federal prison for his recent crime wave in Sherburne County.  Citizens of Sherburne County could sleep easier knows their streets were now safe from the likes of W. S. McDonald. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bury the Dead: Paupers’ Graves in the United States

How we treat paupers and the less fortunate at the final, most important event of life: death, can tell us a great deal about society.  A recent article in the New York Times gave great detail about Hart Island and the disposal of paupers in New York City.  Unfortunately, many buried in Hart Island are receive little respect for their remains.  Hart Island burials include individuals donating their bodies to science.  When the local university or medical examiner finishes with the remains, they become part of the anonymous population shipped off and interred.  Additional internments at Hart Island include prisoners whose families refused to claim remains. 

Burial at Hart Island translates into a large trench, pine boxes stacked four or five on top of each other and the trenches filled in.  The city keeps a record of the interments.  Individuals can be identified by their trench number, along with several hundred others.  But identification doesn’t really matter because Hart Island is closed to the public. Paupers have been buried like this for centuries

In contrast to this, paupers in small communities were often buried at the County expense.  In Atlanta, GA., before 1900, the county commission, every few years, would negotiate the price for caskets and burial.  In the South, race played a significant role even in death.  Paupers buried in Oakland Cemetery in the 1880s, a white man received a pine box and the grave digger paid $5.  A black man was buried in a cloth sack, and a $1 fee paid. 

Up north race was less important.  Residency, however, was an important consideration.  In Sherburne County, MN, in 1886, resident poor received a pine box for burial, transients were buried in a cloth sack.  Several local residents, in 1886, complained the transients were often Civil War Veterans and should be shown greater respect in death.  This argument did not sway the officials, burials for transients remained $1.  

In contrast to the 1880s, in a more recent time, 1917, an unknown woman was found on the banks of the Mississippi River.  The fees for a “burial box, casket wagon, and burial” was $48.  Quite a significant sum at the time.  
The local newspapers reinforced the importance of residency.  In 1906, the Sherburne County Star News told the story of William Nelson who died in Princeton, MN.  The community straddles the county line between Mille Lacs County and Sherburne County.  “There is some question as to whether or not he ever acquired a residence in Princeton, if he did, then Mille Lacs County will have to stand the bill, but if he still held his residence in Sherburne County, they will have to make good.”
Whether in the big city or the small community treatment of the dead reveals a great deal about the community.  Unfortunately, whether in the 1800s or in the twenty-first century, money and expenses remain a serious consideration in caring for the unidentified dead.

ed note: Paupers' grave do not normally have markers of any kind. the photo included in this story is a generic photo of Atlanta's Crestlawn Cemetery.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Some Statistical Insight into Sherburne County

In the year 1903, the Sherburne County Star News published an interesting set of statistics that tell a great deal about the county.  Simply going by the numbers:  in the year 1902 there were over 3500 horses in the county; there were 14,051 cows; and there were 700 dogs.  Sherburne County was growing as an agricultural community.  In contrast, in 1901 there were 100 fewer horses, 700 fewer cows, and 83 fewer dogs.  In a multitude of measurable statistics, Sherburne County was growing at the beginning of the new, twentieth, century.  The numbers can be interpreted different ways, yet they are all fascinating.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Still, More Crime in Sherburne County

The drama of crime reveals itself in the pages of the Sherburne County Star News.  Reporters tell the stories of victims and perpetrators.  They also reveal the patterns of crime and use language to generate greater interest in the events. 

As an example, in 1903 the newspaper noted crime is seasonal in Sherburne County, “parallel with the influx of the tramp a hobo fraternity.”   

The crime reporting also generates creative writing from newspaper correspondents.  In a burglary in Haven Township in August of 1903, “two men, on a tall and ugly looking genius, and a shorter companion with a dark mustache” burglarized a home.  They ransacked a home, “to show how thorough and accomplished there in the work they cut open and ripped every mattress in every bed in the house.”  

Less than two weeks later, “bold burglars” used explosives to rob the Clear Lake bank.  “Sheriff Ward has gone up to do some sleuth work.” 

The string of burglaries in Sherburne County in 1903 were gender specific.  In late October the Sherburne County Star News reported the burglary of Miss Selck’s millinery shop.  “The way some of the things were selected would indicate that a woman was in the deal, and the fact that a strange woman was in the store but a short time before the closing hour to make some inquiries adds weight to the suspicion.” 

The fall of 1903 witnesses significant crime activity.  If we trust the newspapers, “tall and ugly looking geniuses;” and “short companions with a dark mustache;” women, and “bold burglars” were all part of the crime wave.  Meanwhile, police did more than investigate, they were busy doing “sleuth work.” 

The crime wave in Sherburne County in 1903 taxed the energies of the police and the victims of these crimes.  The crime wave also challenged the dramatic flair and linguistic abilities of the newspaper reporters in Sherburne County.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A True Story Better Than Fiction

The cliché tells us that “truth is often stranger than fiction.”  In the case of the Becker Post Office robbery of 1931, the truth reads like fiction.  Here is a story of a woman betrayed and a group of cold hearted men plotting for the promise of easy money.  

The story begins with Mr. Berga Glisson.  A resident of St. Cloud, in 1931 he had been spending time with the post mistress of Becker, Miss Gertrude Dyson.  For two years the couple had been together.  In December 1931, according to the Sherburne County Star News Glisson and three cohorts schemed to rob the safe of the Becker Post Office.  Glisson’s part in the crime was to duplicate a house key to the residential portion of the Post Office and deliver it to another of his co-conspirators.  

The evening of December 6, 1931, using the key provided by Glisson, three men burst into the home of Miss Dyson.  They took Dyson and Glisson hostage and forced the postmistress to open the post office safe.  Inside they helped themselves to $500 cash.  They locked Glisson and Miss Dyson in the basement of the building and made their getaway.   After 90 minutes locked in the basement the two made their way out and notified police of the robbery.   

The next day, Glisson met up with his partners in crime in St. Cloud.  They divided the money evenly and went their separate ways.  Glisson gave himself away when he began spending money around town.  The paper reported Glisson “complained of being hard up” for money only a week earlier.  In the days after the robbery he seemed flush with new found money.   Now under suspicion, police brought him in for questioning and he folded like a cheap rug.  Glisson confessed and implicated three other men: Roger Golden, Earl Carlson, and Jack Yeager. 

Glisson confessed that he had learned from Miss Dyson a large amount of money was being kept in the safe.  He tried to divert his involvement in the crime when he said, “I was told by each of them that if I failed them and did not assist them in this robbery I would be knocked off.”

The other three men were arrested and the four held over for trial in St. Cloud in the Stearns County jail.  All four of the men confessed to their involvement in the robbery and guaranteed themselves prison time.   The newspaper also hinted the four men might be from a larger organized gang in the area.  Although dramatic, no other arrests were made in connection to the robbery.  

The story itself reads like a cliché.  Yet, as is so often the case, the true story is better than fiction.