Minnesota County Histories
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The History of Renville County
Nels O. Berge, a Pioneer, Tells the Story of the Progress of County, with Particular Reference to the Pioneers of the Southeastern Townships - Looking Over the Land - Decision to Settle in Camp - The Colony Arrives - Names of the Pioneers - Early Discomforts - Storms - Stores and Mills - Thrilling Incidents - Wonderful Changes - Retrospection.
To properly relate for future generations the story of the early settlement of the southeastern part of Renville county, the names of the early settlers, the routes they took to get here, the conditions they found upon their arrival, the terrible hardships some had to endure, the privations of the early days, the blizzards, the hurricanes, the floods, the grasshopper ravages and the prairie fires; the influence the coming of the settlers had on the country, and the wonderful development and prosperity that has followed; it is necessary that I should start at my old boyhood home in the township of Ettrick, Trempealeau county, Wisconsin.
Nearly all the able bodied men in that township enlisted in the Civil war. In 1866 they were again at their homes. Much talk was at that time heard of the wonderful possiblities of the country further northwest. The great conflict being over there was every opportunity for agricultural development, the Indians having been subdued there was no longer any danger of barbarous massacres. The time was ripe for a great westward hegira. Two colonies were therefore projected in Ettrick township, one colony desiring to investigate the advantages of settling in Pope, Stearns and Kandiyohi counties, while the other colony favored Renville, Yellow Medicine and Nicollet counties.
Accordingly, in the fall of 1867, Louis Hanson and Ole E. Berge set out for the land office at St. Peter, going by way of Trempealeau, Red Wing and Kenyon. Between Kenyon and Faribault, however, they were overtaken by a heavy snowstorm and the trip was abandoned.
In the spring of 1868 another party was formed, consisting of Louis Hanson, Sylvester Olson, Iver K. Sysee, Ole I. Dale, with Nels O. Berge (myself) going in place of his father, Ole E. Berge, who was too busy. Hanson, Olson and Sysee, all soldiers, and splendid looking men, were dressed in their uniforms, and this insured us good treatment everywhere. From Winona we went by rail to Waseca, and from there by stage to St. Peter, where at the land office we obtained much valuable information, and plats to several townships in Yellow Medicine county.
Then we set out on foot along the old military road, via Swan Lake and Lafayette, and found the route well settled. We slept the first night at a farmhouse and reached Fort Ridgely, forty-five miles from St. Peter, about 1 o'clock the next noon. The buildings of the fort were still standing, though pierced with countless bullets. A Mr. Clark kept a hotel there. Henry Simmons was postmaster and merchant. The government officer, Sergeant Howard, was for the time being, absent.
At 4 o'clock in the afternoon we started out to the northeast, walked about a mile along the old government road, and then turned east and crossed Ford creek, a name which, owing to the nearness of the fort was gradually changed to Fort creek. Now we were in Cairo township. South we could still see the trees east of the fort, but everywhere else rolling prairie stretched as far as the eye could reach. On the southeast quarter, section 8, we found William Height, with whom we spent the night. He was anxious for neighbors and showed us some vacant claims where Fairfax is now located. But the land was low and poorly drained and the ponds and sloughs discouraged us.
Here Iver K. Sysee left us, and started alone toward St. John (Willmar), near where he had some relatives. Over and through sloughs and marshes he went and found a claim near Norway Lake in Kandiyohi county, onto which he moved his family in June.
The other four of us kept on, reached Camp township and came to the cabin of Charles Monney, who was married to an Indian woman. Continuing on our way we walked to the top of a hill which is the highest point in Camp. There as we looked back toward Fort Ridgely, and our eyes swept the Minnesota bluffs with their timbers, we found the location to our liking. But we passed on, and toward evening reached the place where Magnus Johnson was building a shack. We spent the night at Iver Iverson's, two miles further west, on the north side of Purgatory creek, southwest quarter section 2, south Birch Cooley. Mr. Iverson was at Beaver Falls buying provisions, but he returned that evening. He encouraged us to locate in Camp, saying the land was just as rich as it was in Iowa.
However, we had maps of Yellow Medicine county, and we were still inclined to locate there, though we were told that we had yet more than fifty miles to travel, and that as Minnesota Falls and Granite Falls had no steamboats or railroads the nearest market would be at New Ulm, sixty or seventy miles away. So in the morning we continued along the government trail. The country we passed was splendid and there seemed no end to the great prairie, the bluffs hid the timbers and settlers' cabins of the Minnesota bottoms, and a fringe of brush along the creek was all that could be seen except grass and flowers. At Birch Cooley creek we held a council, and acting on the suggestion of Ole I. Dale turned back toward Fort Ridgely. He said we could not find a better looking country than that we had examined in Camp, timber was near and the mills at New Ulm were said to be good.
Following the road on our way back, we came to a hotel kept by Mrs. Elisabeth Graff, northeast quarter section 17, Camp, and there met Mrs. Graff as well as a young man named Thomas Smith.
Mrs. Graff's first husband, Max Haack, had been killed by the Indians, though she and her children were saved. Mr. Graff had been killed by accident the year before we arrived. Later she married Andrew Schott. She outlived him several years and died two years ago, leaving three sons, Otto Haack, Olivia, and Oscar and Andrew Schott, farmers in Camp township.
When we met Thomas Smith he was preparing to go to New Ulm, with his horse team, after some material for Mrs. Graff. He told us he was the son of a man killed by the Indians. He had a homestead three miles southeast of Mrs. Graff's, and he stated that he knew of a half section of land with timber and running water, that we could buy of Werner Baesch, of New Ulm, who had lived in Camp before the massacre. So with Mr. Smith we started out in his wagon.
On the way we passed a number of dugouts, houses dug partly in the earth and built up with logs, with neat hay roofs, and usually with a door and two windows in front. The first place about a mile or so from the hotel was that of John Zahn, the next was that of Henry Knoff; they had moved onto their claims the year before.
Not far away were the homes of Thomas Tweet and Thomas Hill. Tweet had been there about two years; Hill had been there about three years and owned a half section. Later he sold out to Anders Korsmo and Jens Skarnes and took a homestead in Birch Cooley township. Further down the road we met the brothers, Andrew and Siver Nelson, countrymen of ours, who had claims in sections 12 and 22.
Soon we approached Three Mile creek, called by some histories the Little Rock creek, though the real Little Rock creek was many miles further down the Minnesota. The Baesch half section which Mr. Smith showed us consisted of prairie and some sixty acres of timber. The creek ran through each of the forties, and there was also a fine spring there. Where the flat crosses to the river bluffs we found lines of trenches and breastworks, and were told that after the massacre a number of French and half-breed soldiers had been entrenched here. First the place was called French Camp, and from this the name Camp was given to the township. A little further east we found a log building, 36 by 20, badly wrecked, in which the soldiers had lived. We also passed just west of the old crossing on Three Mile creek, the ruins which were all that the Indians had left of Werner Baesch's hotel, store, big barns and outbuildings, which before the massacre had almost made a small village. On this land we decided to locate, Sylvester Olson and myself to purchase Mr. Baesch's half section, and Lewis Hanson to locate on a quarter section in section 23, adjoining.
It is interesting to note that the original owners of this piece of land were William R. La Framboise and Thomas A. Robertson. These two gentlemen, George Quinn and others, had Indian family connections, and secured land by the laying of half-breed script. Thus in the land office records there appear many names of French and half-bloods who secured the original title from the government, but who never actually lived on the land.
Of course we heard many interesting stories of the massacre. Of the people in this vicinity, Halleck Peterson and his family, John Halvorson and family, John Anderson and Hans Jorgen Halvorson were saved. Werner Braesch and family and several others in the vicinity escaped to New Ulm. The father of Thomas Smith was killed at the mouth of Three Mile creek, section 27, and several more people were killed further up the creek. Ole Sampson and several children were killed, but his wife and infant escaped.
As we continued our journey we came to more breastworks on the little hills, half a mile northwest of the fort. We also saw the heaps of earth where the Indians were buried.
Reaching the fort, our soldier comrades made friends with Sergeant Howard, and secured his permission, which he did not give in many cases, to "squat" on the land we had chosen, which was within the fort reservation.
In due time we reached New Ulm, made arrangements with Mr. Baesch, purchased his land, attended to the legal aspects of the case, and before many days were safe back home in Ettrick.
Iver K. Sysee brought back favorable reports of Kandiyohi county, so two colonies were formed, one bound for Kandiyohi county and one for Renville county. Ole I. Dale, of the original Renville colony, joined the Kandiyohi colony because his son, Iver Dale, had purchased land for him there, but later he came to Renville county and purchased a quarter section in Camp township.
Our Renville colony started out about June 5, 1868, with prairie schooners, oxen, cattle, goods and ample provisions. By way of Winona, Rochester, Kenyon, St. Peter and Ft. Snelling we reached our destination. Upon settling in Camp we started constructing dugouts. Sylvester Olsen and myself tore down the big log house before mentioned, and my uncle, Louis Hanson, and I, managed to build two comfortable underground cabins.
Having five yoke of oxen, by using two yoke on each breaker, we managed to break 70 acres (35 acres on each of our claims), and also to help break for others. Then we built shelter for our stock, cut plenty of grass with our scythes, and made ready for the winter. This done, I went back to Wisconsin to help my father with the harvesting, this ending my second trip to Renville county.
About the time I arrived home my father, Ole E. Berge, sold his farm, and we spent the winter in making preparations to move to Renville county. The spring was late, the green grass on which it was necessary for the cattle to feed along the way was slow in growing, and it was June 7, 1869, before we got started. In the meantime I had married.
This third trip was not so arduous as the others for I was now well informed and experienced. We traveled with a span of horses, four yoke of oxen, a lot of live stock, and three well-loaded prairie schooners. Crossing the Mississippi at Winona we followed our old route, reached the Camp settlement, and found all our friends busy at work. Soon after our arrival I deeded to my father who had furnished me with the money for my original trips, the 160 acres I had purchased from Werner Baesch, and then I located a claim on the northeast quarter of section 23.
I was now settled in Renville county, ready to take my share in its development.
Before proceeding with the general story of the development of the county, it is fitting that I should here give the names of some of the early settlers whom I remember in the townships in the southeastern part of the county.
In the summer of 1868 the people already living in Camp were: Mathias Johnson, Peter Lahti, Mathias Bogema, John Tweet, Thomas Hill; Thomas Tweet, southeast quarter section 17; Hans Peterson, southwest quarter section 10; Emmanuel Otto, northeast quarter section 8; John Zahn, southeast quarter section 8; Henry Knuff, southwest quarter section 9; Elizabeth Graff (hotel), northeast quarter section 17; _____ Jones, northwest quarter section 14 (sold to K. Elefson); Thomas Smith, southwest quarter section 14 (sold to Jens Olson); Peter Nelson, who bought land from Christ Slumberger and Dennis O'Shea in section 27; and the early pioneers, A. J. Anderson, Helleck Peterson and John Halvorson.
Those who came to Camp township during the summer of 1868 were: Mathias O. Lee and his father-in-law, Nels O. Orre; Hans O. Boyum, Andrew Nesseth, Siver Nelson, Andrew Nelson, Ole O. Nesburg, William Foley, Daniel O'Neil, Jr., Dennis O'Niel, Hagen Elstad, Ole Hogstad, Eric Lokken, James Maxwell, James Cannon; Louis Hanson (my uncle), east one-half of southwest quarter and south one-half of southeast quarter section 23; Patrick Jordan, southwest quarter section 2; James Smith, southeast quarter section 2; John Galleher, northwest quarter section 12; Pat. Devaney, northeast quarter section 12; John M. Lunde, northeast quarter section 4; Andrew Elden, southeast quarter section 4; Ole Klingenberg, southwest quarter section 25; John Halin, south one-half southeast quarter section 27; Thomas Horen; Sylvester Olson.
In the summer of 1869 the colony in Camp grew very rapidly. I deeded to my father, who had furnished me the money, the 160 acres I had purchased from Werner Baesch, and then I located a claim on the northeast quarter section 23. Others who located claims about this time were: H. S. Johnson, southwest quarter section 24; L. Anderson, northwest quarter section 24; John Sampson, northwest quarter section 25; Halvor Hanson, northeast quarter section 25; Hans C. Jenson, southeast quarter section 25; John Lee, southeast quarter section 26; Peter Isaacson, northeast quarter section 34; Albert Wiehr, northwest quarter section 13; Robert Wiehr later bought out the claim of James Cannon, southwest quarter section 13. Further west in the township there came that summer John Sather, Christ Lyness, Elef Olson, Ole Dybedahl and G. A. Anderson.
Other who came in 1869 or 1870 were: Hans Peterson, John Mundahl, Peter Henry, Swan Gilbertson, Engebret Thompson, Magnus Johnson, Gergen Gilbertson and Ole Peterson. Helleck Anderson settled in sections 1 and 12, south Birch Cooley township, and on a part of his farm the village of Franklin was afterward located.
Among the settlers in Camp in 1870-1873 were: John Thompson and brothers, Mons and Christ Thompson; Daniel O'Neil, Sr., E. G. Melvold, L. H. Ruud, A. A. Bergly, Amon A. Berger, Gilbert Olson, Ole Jacobson, Lewis J. Enger, John J. Enger, Jr., John Enger, Sr., A. Hattlestad, I. A. Mathison, John A. Gleason, Ole Melvold, E. Eidswold and others. Most of these men brought claims from others who did not find the Minnesota winters to their liking and who sold out and left for warmer climates.
Among other early settlers of Camp may be mentioned: Hagen Nelson (first settled in section 34, in the Minnesota valley, on a tract mostly covered with timber, and then sold out and bought prairie land, southwest quarter section 3); Ole Nelson, southeast quarter section 9; Engbric Larson, southeast quarter section 15; Thomas Campbell, northeast quarter section 2; Ole Steffenson, section 3; A. Kallou, southwest quarter section 4; Carl Nelson, northwest quarter section 6; Abraham Johnson, northeast quarter section 5 (later sold to John Sallow); Victor Rieke, southwest quarter section 6; C. Graff, northwest quarter section 7; Herman Bethke, northeast quarter section 7; Otto Haack, northeast quarter section 17; Peter Trucke, east one-half southwest quarter section 15; O. J. Boyum and M. C. Nordby, northeast quarter section 15; M. Schones, northeast quarter section 13 (later sold to John Severine).
In Cairo township the Riekies were settled on Mud Lake before the massacre. The Dickmyers and others came not long afterward. Among the early settlers in the western part may be mentioned Mason Phelps, Jay Phelps, _____ Lampher, William Height, Amos Root, _____ Pierce, Nelson Reed, Hugh Carson, _____ Winson, Ed. Kanedy, Henry Behrens, Ditus Rector and others. Some of them sold out during the grasshopper ravages of the middle seventies and moved to other localities.
In 1869 the following settlers came to Cairo: E. H. Grasmoen, Ole O. Lunder, Martin J. Asak, Jacob Peterson, Torger Moe, Hans Evenson, Torkel Evenson, Andrew Thompson, Col. C. H. Hopkins, Sam. March, Ural Tibbitts, Charles Bird, and Charles H. Nixon. Martin Welsh settled in the northwest quarter section 8, part of the village of Fairfax being platted on his land. John Welsh bought the relinquishment homestead rights of a Mr. Dodge, southeast quarter section 8. N. B. Christman settled in section 33; Seymour Stephens, section 33; James Fullerton, section 16; Charles Dieter, section 12.
Others who settled that year or the next were: M. A. Turner, near Fort Ridgely; Joseph Jullins, a little east of the fort; F. Steinert, section 31; M. A. LaBarron, section 30; F. J. McCanna, section 33; John Sallo, section 30; Henry Craig, section 20; John Buehar, section 21; J. F. Maxwell, section 19; Nels Peterson, section 8; Thomas Crone, section 6; James O'Hara, Sr., section 6; M. Finley, section 10; Feilo Dodge, section 4; Dolphus Smith, section 29; Mike Colman, section 3; William Dodge, section 3; Thomas Greer and Edmond O'Hara. O'Hara was one of the first representatives in the legislature from Renville county. On his homestead, southeast quarter section 5, the village of East Fairfax is located. Most of the men mentioned in this list have sold out, and the German nationality now predominates.
In the early seventies came Seymour Stevens, Ole O. Kinde; Walter Caven, northwest quarter section 6; Peter Gunderson, northwest quarter section 18.
The majority of the early settlers of Cairo township outside of the Rieke settlement were American born, many of them old soldiers. Their neighborhood was called Yankee-town, and was not abandoned until well along in the eighties. Gradually, however, the Germans replaced these early Americans.
Aside from the "Yankees" in Cairo township most of the early settlers in the southeastern part of Renville county were Scandinavians. Later the Germans came in large numbers. Now the German people predominate in Cairo, Wellington and Flora.
Dr. C. S. Knapp was a notable figure of the early days. In 1873 he and his family settled on the northwest quarter section 28, Cairo, coming from Monroe county, Wisconsin. He had three grown-up sons and they attended to the farm toil, while he, an able physician and surgeon, did splendid work in a large field of practice. When Fairfax village was established he opened the first drug store there. In the late eighties he sold out and took up practice in St. Paul. His youngest son, B. W. Knapp, was register of deeds for Renville county for two terms.
In 1869 and 1870 many people settled in Bandon: Peter Sather, John P. Nestande, Peter Hoimyr, Iver Brandjord, Paul Knudtson, Gabriel Nelson, T. Peterson, Martin Hagge, Hans Gompolen, Jacob Volin, Mathias Kelley, Hans Carlson, Gunerus Peterson, Peter Hornseth, Ole Anderson, J. Holley, Sr., Torger Rindahl, Andrew Torgerson, Louis Olson, Gustav Anderson, and Anton Johnson, all Scandinavians. In the west part a number of Irishmen settled: James Hurley, Patrick Farrell, James Leary, Patrick Cronin, Timothy Carline, Jeremiah Shay, Sr., Jeremiah Shay, Jr., Dennis Farrell, Jeremiah Farrell, Erland Kelly1, Cornelius Ryan, Daniel Hamlon and Cornelius Desmond. The Scandinavians who came in 1870-73 were Andrew A. Dahlquist and sons, O. P. Hoimyr, Nels Mork and brothers, E. O. Holley, Andrew Hanson, Iver Weikle; S. Schjee and E. Schjee, section 33; Marcus Iverson, section 33; Ole Stefanson, section 34; Ole Knutson, section 4; E. Nelson, section 35; E. Schwarz, section 1; O. F. Schwarz, section 1; Louis Kaester, section 12; L. K. Knudson, section 12; Ole Lee, section 33.
In 1871-75 Bandon township was well settled up. Among those who came may be mentioned: R. O. Ness, northwest quarter section 25; I. A. Mundahl, south one-half section 25; Hans Mundahl, southwest quarter section 36; Eric Iverson and I. E. Mundahl, northwest quarter section 36; Frick Iverson and S. O. Korsmo, northeast quarter section 36; _____ Murnane, southeast quarter section 36; Ino McGinty, southeast quarter section 24; Peter Lund, southeast quarter section 12; Osolf Olson, southwest quarter section 12; Andrew Dahlquist, southwest quarter section 11; O. O. Andengard, section 10; O. O. Keiergard, section 15; Thom Semingsen, section 3; Eric Elevold, section 3.
Bandon is now divided between four nationalities, Irish, Germans, Finns and Scandinavians, the Scandinavian, possibly predominating.
In 1872-73 quite a few settlers, for the most part Irish, took up their homes in the west part of Wellington township. Among them may be mentioned: M. Igo and his son John, section 19; William Fahey, section 8; Patrick Fahey, section 18; ______ McLane and ______ Donnelly, section 30; Patrick Garrity, section 32; Michael Ruddy, section 20; Patrick Lavalla, section 28; Dennis Cready, section 30; John Fahey, section 8; Michael Fahey, section 20; Edward Hanna, section 6; William Maxwell, section 5. Thomas Maxwell got over the line in sections 31 and 32. A little later William Carson came to Wellington and settled in sections 15 and 22. The east half of Wellington was settled by Germans. At the present time the town is remarkable for the number of families bearing the name of Kiecker.
As the years passed people got further back on the prairies. Wellington, Martinsburg and Palmyra began to be settled, mostly by Norwegian and Swedish people. Palmyra was noted for its number of Andersons. In the early times there were no less than twenty Andersons settled in one group. It would be almost impossible to name them all. Besides the Andersons the pioneers in Palmyra in the early seventies were ____ Gerard, O. A. Erickson, Ole Tinnes, Swan L. Tinnes, Anton Christianson, Eric Ericson, _____ Aahl, and J. M. Blad. A feature of Palmyra life in the pioneer times was the sod houses, built of tough prairie sod, plastered with clay mortar inside and out, whitewashed with lime, partitioned, roofed with heavy blue cambric hay, and provided with floors, ceilings and windows. From a distance these structures looked like frame houses. The barns were of the same material. The people in Palmyra were active in starting schools and improving their farms and soon had a splendid community.
C. A. Mork, for several years county register of deeds, was an early settler of Palmyra township. He located in the southwest quarter of section 10. Others who may be mentioned were: O. O. Nordskog, section 16; Carl Daniels, section 31; Ed Olson, section 33 (he established the Eddsville post office); Swein Bergman, section 15; Ole D, Nordskog, section 18; O. Halvorson, section 30; Gilbert Mattson, section 12; E. M. Ericson, section 11; Andrew Anderson, section 13; John Anderson, section 13; Berndt Anderson, section 34; John Anderson, section 34; August Anderson, section 34; C. Landerson, section 34; A. W. Anderson, section 24; Swan Pearson, section 25; J. O. Anderson, section 36; A. Anderson, section 36; J. B. Anderson, section 36; J. B. Johnson, section 26. During the latter part of the seventies the homestead land was taken up, and after the H. & D. railroad came through the railroad land was taken.
While I was away, from August, 1868, to June, 1869, many changes had taken place. The country was settling up. Hundreds of travelers daily were passing along the old government road, some being land-seekers who were going further west to settle, and some being pioneers on their way to and from New Ulm, the trading point. So many travelers, suffering from the cold, had stopped at the home of my uncle, Lewis Hanson, in Camp township, that he decided to erect a hotel. This hotel, the Three Mile Creek Hotel, was nearly finished when I returned. Many pioneers remember the hospitality of my uncle, both at his cabin and at the hotel. Many were the lives saved at his place in severe storms, and many were the noses, toes and fingers thawed out at his genial fire. Later quite a village grew at this point.
In 1872 T. H. Hafsoe arrived and erected a building which he stocked with general merchandise such as groceries, [dry goods] and hardware. A postoffice called Renville postoffice was established with Mr. Hafsoe as postmaster, and a stage line was established between New Ulm and Beaver Falls via West Newton, Fort Ridgely, Renville postoffice and later Franklin postoffice. Hagestad & Lee, with Simon Lee as proprietor, erected a general and hardware store and conducted a restaurant and saloon business in connection. Ole Olson opened a blacksmith shop.
In 1873, William Pless erected a water-power grist mill at the mouth of Three Mile creek, and for several years did a rushing business. Later his son-in-law, Herman Kooke, erected a sawmill at the same place. It is interesting to note that the Pless mill stood on the very site of the old log home of Thomas Smith, who was killed in the Massacre. Mrs. Smith sold the place to Christ Slumberger, who in 1867 sold to Peter Nelson.
The postoffice at Three Mile Creek continued to be called Renville for many years. But after the village of Renville station was established, a Renville postoffice was also established there. To avoid confusion, the Three Mile creek office had its name changed to Camp.
About 1878, T. H. Hafsoe sold his stock of goods to Louis Thiele, who also succeeded him as postmaster. Thiele sold out to S. P. Nelson, who was also appointed postmaster. Finally the store was destroyed by fire and never rebuilt. Only one store was then left on the place, that of H. M. Hagestad, who was appointed postmaster and held the position for several years. Louis Hanson conducted the Three Mile Creek Hotel until 1877, when he sold out to parties who made a failure of it. When the M. & St. L. came through all the small trading posts faded away.
Louis Hanson was born in Granvin, parish of Hardanger, South Bergen bishopry, in 1835, and came to the United States in the spring of 1854, engaging first in agricultural work at Stoughton, Dane county, Wisconsin, and later in lumbering at Stevens Point, in the same state. In 1857 at Cambridge, Wisconsin, he married Aggie O. Drogswald. In the latter part of the same year he moved to Ettrick, Trempealeau county, Wisconsin, and engaged in farming on eighty acres. In 1865 he enlisted as a volunteer and served in the Union army until 1866, when he received his honorable discharge and returned home. Later he sold his farm and he and some of his comrades and friends organized a colony to settle further west. In 1868 he settled on a claim of 160 acres in section 23, Camp township, and engaged in farming. As already related he opened a hotel and enjoyed a flourishing business. His wife died in September, 1877, so he sold his hotel and engaged in farming. He now lives in Greland, Ward county, North Dakota. Mr. Hanson had two sons and four daughters. Henry L. Hanson lives in Fairfax, Minnesota. Julius L. Hanson lives in Greland, North Dakota. The four daughters are happily married and all have comfortable homes.
Victor Rieke in the seventies erected a grist mill which became a famous landmark. It was operated by water from springs in a ravine gathered in a dam, from which extended a water flume or race about 30 rods long from dam to mill, which dropped the water on top of a 36-foot water wheel which developed the power to run one set of burrs or millstones and all other necessary machinery to make flour. The mill was operated for about twelve years and then sold out. The Victor Rieke mill was located on Spring creek on the Minnesota river bottoms, southwest quarter of northwest quarter of section 18, a mile and a half southeast of the present site of Franklin, on the farm of John Anderson, now owned by Engebret Thompson, who has furnished his history with considerable information regarding these early mills. In his milling ventures Mr. Rieke had Charles Fenske as his partner. Mr. Fenske came to Cairo in 1867, and now lives in Fairfax.
A few rods south of the Rieke mill was a carding and spinning factory, also operated by an overshot water wheel measuring about eighteen feet. This was erected by B. Marschner. He operated it a few years and then sold out to Torvald Jenson, who also operated it for a while and then moved it to Benson, in Swift county, this state, where he started a woolen mill. This Mr. Jenson was an inventor of a snow plow. It was not a rotary, but was equiped with a series of elevators. It was deemed an admirable invention, but Mr. Jenson did not have money enough to put it into practical operation.
A few rods east of the Jenson mill was a small store, in which general merchandise was sold. It was started in 1875 by Herman Rucktachel and operated for about six years, after which it was torn down.
School district No. 1, the first in Renville county, was organized in the western part of Camp and the eastern part of Birch Cooley, and school was held about 1871. District 31 was organized in 1872. Each member of the district contributed two nicely hewed logs, and with little money we managed to get a nice school house 18 by 26, with floor, ceiling and roof all complete. Lottie Cliff taught some twenty-three scholars there for three months that fall.
The second annual election in Camp was held in the spring of 1870 at the home of N. Nelson. Hallek Peterson was elected chairman: Henry Knuff, clerk; H. S. Johnson, assessor; N. O. Berge, treasurer; Henry Knuff, justice; Louis Hanson and John Zahn, constables. Forty dollars were raised that year for expenditures and expenses. Andrew Nelson was the road overseer. He built the first bridge across Three Mile creek, the first bridge in town. At that time all streams had to be forded, whether the water was high or low.
The development of the county has been wonderful. No one in those early days could have foreseen the marvelous progress of the present day, and no present day resident, unless he has seen, as I have, the county grow from its early infancy, can realize what this region was when I first came here. The span between the two periods has witnessed so vast a change that one must have lived through it to be able to fully realize it.
I have seen the county when the settlers were living in a few scattered shacks near the Minnesota river. I have seen the vast caravans of immigration passing by my door. I have seen people get further and further back on the prairies. I have seen twigs planted on the treeless prairies and seen them develop into great groves. I have seen the first log school houses and churches erected, and seen them replaced by splendid, modern structures. I have seen the settlers living in sod houses, brush lean-tos and log cabins, and these I have seen give way to the beautiful homes of the present day. I have seen the settlers in blizzards and hurricanes, in drouths and floods, in almost starvation, and in privation and sufferings. I have seen them harrassed by mosquitoes and their fields ravaged by grasshoppers. I have seen the ox replaced by the horse, and have seen the horse giving away to the automobile. I have seen home-made machinery giving place to the complicated machinery of the present day. I have seen the railroads come and towns spring up. And, best of all, I have lived to see the county one of the best and most prosperous in the state.
As I have already stated, I found that during my absence from August, 1868, to June, 1869, the country was already showing the march of progress, and the old government trains presented a busy scene of arriving settlers.
In 1870 nearly all the remaining government land in Camp was taken up. There still remained the land grant of the Winona & St. Peter railroad, but even on quarter sections of this a number of settlers squatted, later buying the land from the railroad. Many dwelling houses were erected in 1870, and the township and vicinity began to show considerable improvement, breaking being seen on every side. Horses were considered a luxury in those days, and to the oxen, who thrived without much attention and picked their own living from the rich grass of the prairies belongs much of the credit of turning the sod of this county.
It should be remembered that though the county was being well settled along the Minnesota river, where fuel, water, timber and shelter could be obtained, the settlements extended only a few miles back on the prairies. It did not then seem possible that any one could until many years later live far inland on the treeless prairies, where they would have to weather the winter storms. Yet it was not so many years before the government land in the county was all taken, and the prairies teeming with human life, dotted with rich farms, beautiful homes and sightly groves.
In 1870, in company with three of my neighbors, I took a trip one Sunday morning in the month of November, across Wellington, then nearly following the town line of Palmyra, and out into Hector, and after leaving Camp we did not see a tree or a house of any kind, yet the land was of the best quality we had yet seen in the state.
Bandon, however, had received quite a few settlers in 1869-70.
In 1871 the people got a little further back on the prairies. In 1872-73 the great tide came. No one who did not live in those days can imagine the thousands of prairie schooners that constantly passed to the westward. In 1868 the government road was in reality a common trail. In 1872-73 it was widened to a road ten to fifteen rods, worn by the immigrant trains and live stock of all kinds. By 1874 this county was fairly well settled for many miles back from the river, and the people continued to pass on to Yellow Medicine, Chippewa, Swift and Lac qui Parle counties. Still they streamed in, for on these great prairies there were homes for all.
Much grain was hauled to New Ulm, especially after the railroad reached there in 1871. Steamboats also carried wheat on the Minnesota. Two boats I might mention were the "Tiger" and the "Otter," operated by Captain Jacob Hinderman, of New Ulm, as far up the river as Redwood landing. So there was always a ready market for surplus crops. The land had proved its richness and the settlers were well satisfled with their lot. More and more land was put under cultivation, more and better crops were raised, wheat, oats, barley and other small grains were raised in abundance and were of good quality.
Many land deals and changes in ownership were made in the early days. Before legal titles were obtained these deals were called relinquishments. This was especially prevalent on the military and on lands afterward called railroad lands. Sometimes this resulted poorly for the purchaser, but in most cases the squatter was fairly treated and received pay for his improvements.
The large majority of the early settlers were poor. They had little capital to start on and were almost absolutely dependent on their hard work and good will. As a rule, the men with families started with a wagon, a pair of oxen, and a cow or two. Whenever a man needed help the neighbors all loaned a helping hand. That is the way a new country is settled up. Mutual helpfulness was the motto of the early days in this county. Now it is changed and too many think only of themselves and render service only when they expect a greater service in return.
The grasshopper years, 1874-77, were disastrous ones for the settlers. At the beginning of the year 1874 everything was running smoothly. The prairies were being settled, trees were beginning to grow, more and more land was broken. But on July 3 came the grasshoppers, a plague of which the settlers had never heard of outside the Scriptures. The next day, July 4, was a pleasant sunshiny day, but at about 10:30 a. m. the hoppers swarmed like a blizzard, seemingly dropping from the skies, and appearing in such clouds that the skies were darkened. At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon they descended on the earth and ate up everything. A week later they departed, after having laid their eggs. The settlers hoped that the hoppers would be killed by the severe winter and in the spring of 1875 the prospects of good crops were promising. But in the middle of May, the insects began to hatch. In five minutes they started eating, and in the three days there was not a spear of green in sight. Even the fence posts were partly devoured. In 1876 the pests came again. The year 1877 saw the last of them, as, by a miracle, they all disappeared in a single night.
Of course the continued ravages of these creatures for four years greatly retarded the growth of the county. Many people became discouraged and left. But, nevertheless, even during these four years, many improvements were made on the homesteads. Fortunately there were bumper crops in counties not visited by the hoppers, and Renville county men were enabled to earn money in the harvest fields.
One of the greatest drawbacks was the fact that so many of the settlers had bought machinery and implements on credit. When the settlers were unable to pay, the companies demanded a bonus of fifteen per cent for every six months that the debt was renewed. So if a man owed $100 at the beginning of the year, he would owe $142 at the end of the year. So it took the settlers many years to get out of debt.
But after the grasshopper plague was over conditions began to brighten. The hardships and sufferings were soon forgotten. About 1878 came the H. & D. division of the C. M. & St. Paul. Stations were established along the prairies and a new era was inaugurated.
Following close on this, in 1882, came the M. & St. L. through the southern part of the county. The southern part of the county had then long been settled, but the railroad was a great blessing. The struggles and trials were over; we were now in the midst of civilization and were reaping the rewards of the early hardships. Everything changed. Horses, though more expensive than oxen, were needed for modern machinery, and gradually the lighter and swifter animal took the place of the patient ox who had made the settlement of the county possible.
The reason for the establishing of two villages, Morton and Franklin, in Camp township is an interesting one. When the railroad was projected, about 1879, each township was asked to vote bonds of $5,000. This Cairo and Birch Cooley did. Camp did not. So the railroad company established two villages in Birch Cooley and none in Camp. But through a technicality of leaving some few feet unfinished at the end of the line in Morton, the railroad did not receive the $5,000 from the town which it had rewarded with two stations.
Considerable excitement was caused in Camp in the early nineties when the joyful news was spread that a large coal bed had been discovered in the lower bluffs at the mouth of Hawk creek. Luther Nichols and others from Fairfax made a thorough investigation, and their crew found a good showing of lignite. A vein of some ten inches in thickness was believed to be fairly good. Various examinations were made and expert advice received. Finally Herman Van Hamertt, an expert from the Illinois coal fields, rendered a decision that the indications of a large coal field were favorable, but that the coal was lying at a depth of some 150 or 180 feet. He leased the land and spent considerable money drilling. The drills, however, failed to penetrate the hand pan and Mr. Van Hamertt gave it up, though he was firm in his belief that beneath that hard pan was as good coal as that in the coal fields of Illinois. The first discovery of a lignite deposit was made in the early seventies in the side hills of Three Mile creek, in section 27, at the Pless mill dam. But up to this time the dream of black diamonds in paying quantities in Renville county has not been realized, though lignite exists in several places in Camp township.
The long, hard winters, with their severe snow storms and blizzards, were a great drawback to the settlement of the northwestern prairies. The great blizzard of January 7, 8 and 9, 1873, following a warm, pleasant morning, and resulting in the death of so many Renville county people, has never since been equaled. In recent years the trees which the pioneers have planted have modified the storms.
Floods have also done much damage in the Minnesota valley. In fact, though the valley land is very rich, valuable on account of its timber, and especially adapted to growing corn and hay, and raising stock, the river has been an uncertain proposition. The worst flood known in this region was in the spring of 1873. The bottoms were under water up to the sides of the bluffs on both side, and in many places the water was fourteen feet up on the trunks of the trees, leaving a mark in the bark visible for many years thereafter.
In 1879 came a very peculiar storm. That year we managed to get in a good wheat crop from the land we seeded. But as we were doing our fall work, we were interrupted on October 15 and 16 by one of the most violent snow storms the county ever experienced. During the evening it started to rain, but turned into a snow blizzard of the worst kind. More than 24 inches of snow fell. The next morning the temperature was about 30 degrees below zero and the wind was blowing (it is said) some seventy miles an hour. No one was prepared for such a storm. Cattle froze to death and some herds ran away and completely disappeared. All the crops were covered with deep snow. The wheat could not be threshed until the next summer, and then it was of very poor quality. A little of the snow melted, but the winter came on and there was some twenty feet of snow on the ground until late the next spring. The new settlers were not prepared, thinking that they had several more weeks to plan for winter, and the sudden and early storm left many in a most desperate condition.
Another record breaker for deep snow was the winter of 1880-81. The snow came in the latter part of February in 1881 and on the prairies reached a depth of some five or six feet, while the bottoms were drifted full. Buildings and small groves were completely buried. For three or four weeks everything was at a standstill. While, fortunately, the temperature was seldom below zero, nevertheless there was a strong wind and much drifting, so that it was impossible to get out and get roads broken. To gather fuel entailed terrible hardships. To save their lives the settlers had to make fuel of hay, furniture, corn, and anything that might be available. Some of the settlers in the Minnesota bottoms hauled fuel and provisions on hand sleds across the great mountain of snow in order that their [families] and their neighbors might be saved. Finally, in the latter part of February, there came a thaw, followed by cold weather, thus forming a crust hard enough to support even the heaviest teams. But there had been terrible suffering and privation. The settlers learned their lesson that in the future they should prepare for winter as early and as thoroughly as possible.
The summers also had their discomforts. We had dry hot spells, during which terrible northwest hurricanes would sweep over the region with great force and violence, accompanied by severe thunder storms. Many times, especially in the hottest midsummer, these hurricanes would sweep the county several times a year.
But with the cultivation of the land and the planting of trees and groves conditions are different. There are no more terrible blizzards and nothing like the great hurricanes we used to have. The rainfall is normal, the temperature more mild. But whatever the cause, all settlers will agree that weather conditions are now much different from what they were some thirty or forty years ago.
And now we come to the end of the chapter. One could keep on and on, relating stories of the early days, and calling to mind the personality of the early settlers, upon whose lives, worth and work the present prosperity, stability and position of the county is founded. In this brief article it has been the aim of the writer to say something by which the younger generations may catch just a glimpse of what life was in the county when the settlers came to its wild and virgin soil.
It is fitting, before closing and bidding farewell to those pioneer times, to look back over a half century and note the wonderful progress and development that the sturdy settlers have wrested from the passing years. Today one can ride all over the county, into each and every one of the twenty-seven townships, and find hundreds, and possibly thousands, of fine, well-kept farms and beautiful villages, all breathing of prosperity and happiness, the farmers as well as the business men more than satisfied with the county and the surroundings in general. Times have changed from all standpoints, developments have taken place of which the most hopeful pioneers could never have dreamed. Now we have two railroad systems, good roads everywhere, rural telephones, rural mail delivery and quick transportation. Business men and farmers alike ride in automobiles, and this brings possibilities hidden deep from the vision of the people of fifty years ago.
Nevertheless there is a sad side to it all. Few of the pioneers are left, the county is ruled by the second and third generation. But who can ever forget the men who have made all this possible?
What the next half century has in store for the county and its inhabitants only Providence can know, and we here leave the story for future days to tell.
Editor's Note. -- The above story is a greatly condensed version of a manuscript prepared by Mr. Berge, and which, in its entirety, will be presented to the Minnesota State Historical Society. In the original manuscript Mr. Berge portrays in a wonderful manner the story of the progress of the county, step by step. He also includes valuable material about Fort Ridgely. This subject is covered in another chapter in this book.
1 Erland Kelly, my great-great-grandfather, was from Norway rather than Ireland. - Kathryn Kelly
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