Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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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.