By: Charles Boughton Sr.
Red Lake County, the mecca of home seekers, the brightest star in that terrestrial milky way known as the Red River Valley, though the youngest county in the state in point of years, is old in its battle, not for existence, but for their right to exist.
On Christmas Eve, 1896, Governor Clough, assuming for the moment, the part of a beneficient Santa Claus, issued his proclamation declaring Red Lake a duly established and existing county of the State of Minnesota, and thereby conferred upon its citizens the most material and lasting benefits they had received for many a long year.
But this result was not attained until after a long, hard struggle, which did not end even with the victory gained, and the final culmination of which reflects credit upon the little circle of men who bore the brunt of it; who spent their time, money and ability, year after year, in a seemingly vain endeavor to plant Red Lake county upon the face of the map, and to whom defeat had become so common that when victory came they were scarcely able to realize the astounding fact that they had at last won out.
Prior to its organization the territory now comprising Red Lake was a part of its present neighbor, Polk County. Polk was created away back in 1858, and in its early days sprawled its great mass like an enormous jelly fish over nearly the whole northwestern corner of Minnesota, including all the present counties of Polk, Norman, and Red Lake, over half of Beltrami, and parts of Clay, Becker, and Hubbard. Its area was over 7,000 square miles. The states of Connecticut and Delaware and the District of Columbia, capital and all, might have been placed within its limits and room left for an army to march around the borders. It could have included fourteen of the oldworld kingdoms of Europe without squeezing, with a dukedom or two thrown in to fill the cracks. Gradually the legislature chipped off a slice here and a slice there until in 1882 Polk was left with the territory now comprising Polk and Red Lake counties. It was still large and unwieldy, the fourth county in the state in size, containing 3160 square miles, larger than the states of Delaware, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia combined. Crookston, its county seat, drew all the strength of the county to itself, with but poor returns on its part. The outlying towns and farming districts were scarcely recognized except for the payment of taxes.
She had men of energy whose business interests coincided with their wishes, that Red Lake Falls and the county adjacent to it should prosper. In the winter of 1886-87 Ernest Buse, W. A. Schreiter, F. E. Hunt, Chas. Langevin, J. T. Knight, H. J. Kaufer, Zaiser Bros., and a few others initiated a movement to form the eastern part of Polk into a new county, with Red Lake Falls as the county seat. A bill was to be put through the legislature, and funds were raised, and Ernest Buse and J. T. Knight spent the winter in St. Paul lobbying in the interests of county division. The bill was introduced, favorably reported by the senate committee, and the world began to look brighter in the future Red Lake County. But Crookston appeared in the field with a lobbying committee, and more money and more influence than Red Lake Falls could command. Lumber and railroad interests were drawn into the fight in favor of Polk. The local members of the legislature favored Crookston. Red Lake stock went down out of sight, and when the battle ended the county division bill was buried beneath one hundred and sixty others that failed to pass. Thus ended the first chapter.
In 1890 a few of the businessmen of Red Lake Falls, notably J. T. Knight, L. A. Kaufer and J. A. Duffy, resurrected the county division corpse, aided by Jos. 1. Wyer, Theo Garceau, F. E. Hunt, W.A. Schreiter, Joseph Smith and others. New life was injected into the enterprise. It was decided that Polk County was several times too large, anyway. Red Lake Falls would call to her aid other towns, which had experienced the "frozen heart," and instead of being delivered of one unruly child, Polk should have triplets. Fosston, East Grand Forks and Red Lake Falls should each be the county seat of a new county, and by combining their strength and money would defeat the Crookston schemers. A mass meeting was called of all outside towns, to be held at Red Lake Falls, to which only Fosston and East Grand Forks responded. Committees were appointed and the outcome was that Joseph Smith was sent to St. Paul to have drafted and introduced in the legislature, a bill to submit to a vote of the people the question of dividing Polk into four counties. But Crookston was on the alert and through her senator, E. E. Lommen, and other influences at her command so discouraged the divisionists that the bill still peacefully slumbers in a pigeon hole at St. Paul, having never seen the light of day. Fosston's enthusiasm too, died away, and about this time the constitution of Minnesota was so amended as to do away with all special legislation. The mercurial hopes of the Red Lakers dropped to forty-two below zero and froze up. But a characteristic of Red Lake Falls' citizens has ever been stick-to-it-iveness and a faculty of not knowing when they're beaten.
With the meeting of the legislature of '92 and '93 the old war horses of former battles bobbed up serenely and "got into the game." Meetings were held in Red Lake Falls, committees appointed, the aid and funds of the village council invoked and pledged, and J. T. Knight was sent to St. Paul to have drafted and passed, if possible, a bill providing a mode of procedure for dividing any county in the state. Mr. Knight devoted his energies to the matter and spent the winter in St. Paul in its interests. The bill was drafted by a constitutional lawyer, introduced, and though Crookston lobbied hard against it, affe, many defays and references to committees, it passed and became a law. McIntosh having been taken into the division plan in place of Fosston gave some aid in this fight. The home committee in charge of division matters at this time was composed of L. A. Kaufer, J. A. Duffy, Fred Gesswein and J. T. Knight. The new law required a petition for each proposed new county signed by fifteen percent of the voters of the old county to be filed with the secretary of state. The governor, secretary of state and state auditor constituted a board to pass on the petition and if found conformable to the faw, the governor was to issue his proclamation submitting the question to a vote. In July, 1893, three petitions were circulated in Polk County, one calling for the formation of Red Lake County, with the county seat at Red Lake Falls; one for Nash County with the county seat at East Grand Forks; and one for Columbia County, with the county seat at McIntosh. The requisite number of signatures to each petition was quickly obtained, and though Crookston again interfered by invoking the aids of the courts to prevent the issuing of the governor's proclamation, fortune favored the right, and the three new counties were ordered to be voted on.
The subtle minds of Crookston again set to work and evolved a curious scheme. They induced the people of Fosston to petition for the formation of Nelson County, to overlap the territory of both Columbia and Red Lake, with Fosston as the county seat. This picture was largely signed in Crookston, and the support of the voters of that city and vicinity pledged to carry the Nelson County proposition, provided that the Nelson County people would help down all the others. All were to be submitted to a vote at the 1894 general election. A hot campaign ensued. Plotting, planning, lying, selling, promises easily made and more easily broken, town against town, neighbor against neighbor. Laughable incidents occurred. One prominent farmer agreed, for a consideration to deliver the vote of his entire town, and when the ballots were counted he had not even controlled his own vote. Everyone in the town had voted on the other side. The old Red Lake Falls committee had secured reinforcements of new men, among them J. D. Marshall, Dr. N. M. Watson, Theo Garceau, A. P. Toupin, C. N. Bourdon, J. M. Bray, Wm. Findeisen, Mike Jeffers, A. D. Berry, J. B. Hebert, Swan Anderson, and the writer took more or less active parts in the campaign. Political issues were lost sight of and the only influences brought to bear on voters was for or against county division. Election day dawned, cold and bitter, snow falling to the depth of two feet. Red Lake Falls, like the hub of a great wheel, sent spokes (no pun intended) out in every direction, men to every polling place, to influence votes.
We lost, Crookston won. Every proposition went down to defeat, Fosston and East Grand Forks defeating the others and Crookston playing traitor to Fosston.
Hope long deferred maketh the heart sick.
County division was again a corpse. As if to drive another nail in the coffin, at the next meeting of the legislature, Crookston, with but faint opposition on our part caused the division law to be so amended that a voter might vote for or against only one proposition, no matter how many were in the field. With this amendment the Crookstonites considered their armor complete and invulnerable, and lo, there was great rejoicing in their camp, for they thought the county division question was settled forever. But this very amendment proved their undoing and they fell in the pit they themselves dug.
The ghost of Red Lake County wouldn't stay dead, but persisted in coming to life and clothing itself in another attempt to beat the master minds of Crookston city down the river - and fate.
As the general election of 1896 drew near. the battle-scarred veterans of former county division fights, not a doubter or laggard among them, gathered together at the center of gravity, Red Lake Falls, and decided to make another attempt to throw off the tyrant's yoke. It was determined that since old Polk would have neither triplets nor quadruplets, we'd go her one better, and try for quintuplets; Red Lake, with the county seat at Red Lake Falls; Hill, with the county seat at East Grand Forks; Garfield, with the county seat at Fertile; Nelson, with county seat at Fosston, and leave Crookston with just enough of old Polk to make a pleasant driveway around the city limits, so that her citizens might drive out evenings and gaze over the lines at the prosperity which was not of their making. Indeed, it was proposed that we should all turn in first and move the county seat from Crookston to Fisher and divide afterwards, but we lacked the time, so that part of the plan did not materialize. Petitions for the four new counties were rapidly circulated and signed. It was feared that as the law now stood only one proposition could be voted on at any election, so a friendly suit was brought to determine this. The Supreme Court decided that any number of propositions could be submitted to the people, but each voter could vote for or against only one.
Then the subtle Crookstonites evolved a plan that was indeed a credit to them. They inoculated Thief River Falls with the county seat germ, induced its citizens to circulate a petition for the formation of Mills County, with county seat at Thief River Falls, and then with soft words and endearing promises led McIntosh to circulate a petition for the formation of Columbia County. Now Mills County was to overlap the proposed territory of both Red Lake and Hill, and Columbia was to overlap Red Lake, Nelson and Gargield, so if all carried, there would be several counties piled one on top of the other, and the idea was that the courts would declare all illegal, and Polk, one and indivisible. And this very thing nearly happened. Votes were at a premium. The fact that a man could vote only for or against one county made his vote all the more valuable. Workers were sent from every town to corral the farmer vote. Canvassers from Crookston met canvassers from Red Lake Falls at country homes and wrangled over a vote as dogs over a bone. Committees met every night and discussed the situation. Lots of voters in every town were procured and that particular man was sent to each voter who would be most likely to influence him. Speakers were hired and schoolhouse meetings held. The committee of each proposed county was suspicious of the committee of every other county. Amateur secret service men were sent out to learn the intentions of "our friends, the enemy." The writer was sent incognito to McIntosh and Fosston and was present at committee meetings in each town learning the secret intention of the committees as to the disposition of the votes at their command, without being otherwise known than as an innocent commercial traveler.
As before, politics was lost sight of. The question of the hour was, "What's the prospect for county division?" Some men gave all their time to the work and accomplished a great deal. Others gave all their time and accomplished very little. One man was sent into an unknown territory to canvass votes. He spent several days and announced on his return that the voters there were unanimous for Red Lake. On election day they voted ten to one against Red Lake. New men joined in the battle. All the old fighters were there, and we added to our list many new names, notably Hon. Marcus Johnson, a power in himself, and worth a dozen ordinary men.
The work continued to the closing of the polls election day. Teams were hired to bring voters to the polls. Placards and bills (in violation of election laws) were displayed in every polling place and even hung in the secret booths. Men were detailed to help unlettered voters mark their ballots. These tactics were resorted to by all the opposing parties, so none had cause to complain.
When the votes were counted Red Lake, Mills and Columbia had carried by a majority; Nelson had lost; Garfield was in doubt. Red Lake had received votes as follows: for 922, against 449; Mills, for 334, against 56; Columbia, for 575, against 107; Garfield, for 603, against 608. Here was a situation Crookston had anticipated. Red Lake had carried; but Mills and Columbia also carried, covered its territory. Who was to say which was the right county, since the three were piled upon each other? We had won, and yet lost. It was like eating the Dead Sea apple which looks beautiful to the eye but crumbles to ashes at the touch. But the man of the hour was at hand, and here, more than ever before, we recognized the value of a "pull." Hon. Marcus Johnson by his great political influence at St. Paul induced Governor Clough to issue his proclamation declaring Red Lake a duly created county, and the governor further refused to issue any proclamation for Mills or Columbia.
The governor's proclamation was issued the day before Christmas, 1896, and was kept secret from newspaper reporters or Crookston agents who were then in St. Paul, as it was feared that injunction proceedings would be brought to prevent the organization of our Board of Commissioners. Secretly and swiftly it was brought to Red Lake Falls by Mr. 0. J. Johnson, arriving Christmas Day. A terrific blizzard was blowing, piling the snow drifts eight feet high, but teams were sent to the five quarters of the county to bring in the county commissioners. It was resolved to organize as soon as possible after midnight. As the night wore on the belated commissioners struggled in through the storm, the last one arriving about three o'clock in the morning, and all through the dark hours a wearied, anxious group of men, the leaders of the division movement, sat in the union club rooms and worried lest at the last moment a writ of injunction might arrive from Crookston.
At 3:00 a.m., December 26, the commissioners took their oaths of office and before daylight Frank E. Hunt drove to Crookston to file in the office of the Clerk of Court certified copies of the governor's proclamation with the commissioners' oaths of office endorsed upon the back. Crookston awoke to its first realization that a new county had been born.
At last we had won. Our victory was complete. It is safe to assert that no happier lot of people ever celebrated the holidays than the worthy citizens of Red Lake Falls that Christmas week in 1896. Our county board met, appointed a full set of officers and Red Lake County became a reality.
But it was not in the nature of our opponents to give up even then. They laid all information before the attorney general and caused an action of quo warranto to be brought in his name, on behalf of the state, against our board of commissioners, to determine the legality of Red Lake County. Eminent counsel was employed on both sides. The supreme court decided that of all the counties voted upon Red Lake alone was legal because it had received both a majority of the votes cast on that proposition and a plurality over its competitors, Mills and Columbia. Thus ended the fight, and though there have since been other matters of dispute between Polk and Red Lake, the question of our organization has never been further disputed.
To the men who planned and directed the execution on both sides of this long continued fight, great credit is due. Yet republics, even in miniature, are proverbially ungrateful, and many who did their utmost for their respective sides, both in Crookston and Red Lake Falls, have scarcely received thanks for the work.
Since the formation of our county, Red Lake and her citizens have gotten rapidly ahead. Every city and village in the county has doubted or trebled in wealth and population. Farmlands have increased in value, jumping from $4 and $5 per acre to $18 and $25 per acre. Farmers have paid off their mortgages. Rates of interest have dropped from twenty percent to six. Great saw mills have been built to employ laboring men. Industrial improvements have been made. Drainage ditches are being dug. We have our own representatives in the legislature. Foreign capital has been attracted to our county. Farmers are leaving their old settled communities in Iowa and flocking to our new and fertile lands. We are no longer a distant suburb of Crookston. We are free and independent. Red Lake County has become a bright and shining mark upon the map, and the visions of prosperity which seemed but dreams to the rebels of 1886 have become a glorified reality to the patriots of 1901.
Back to Red Lake County History