A History of RED LAKE COUNTY, Minnesota

A Brief History of Red Lake County

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by Charles E. Boughton Jr. 1941, from "A History of Red Lake County", 1976


The contributions made by the Charles E. Boughtons (both Senior and Junior) are acknowledged with gratitude. Because of their talents as writers, much of the history of Red Lake Falls and Red Lake County has been set down for posterity in words that are clear, concise, eloquent, and often delightfully humorous. Herewith, the stories are published as written, some seventy-five years ago.

Red Lake County, tho not one of the greatest in the State, either in square miles, or population, has had an eventful and interesting existence. Born in strife through a long county division fight with the parent county of Polk, it has since lived through a county seat fight lasting five years, and a later county division fight which left it full of fighting determination, but somewhat reduced in territory.

Prior to its organization, the territory now comprising Red Lake was a part of its present neighbor, Polk County. Polk, organized about 1858, originally spread over 7,000 square miles of the Red River and adjacent valleys, but the legislature chipped off pieces here and there to form other counties, until in 1882, Polk was left with the territory now contained in Polk, Red Lake and Pennington Counties - still 3,160 miles, equaling the States of Delaware and Rhode Island.

In the latter part of the '80's the good people of Red Lake Falls, ambitious to have their village become a county seat, organized a committee to effect that purpose through the creation of a new county of Red Lake, proposed to be carved out of the central portion of Polk County. This was strenuously opposed by the citizens of Crookston, county seat of Polk, and a series of battles ensued in legislature, courts and elections, lasting ten years, finally terminating with the general election of 1896, at which time not merely one, but five propositions to create new counties out of Polk County, were submitted to the voters, and as if this were not enough to create confusion, these proposed new counties overlapped each other, and each voter could vote only for or against one county.

At the election, three of the new counties - Red Lake, Mills and Columbia, each received a majority of the votes for its creation. But the territory of these three counties overlapped, and each provided for a different county seat, and different county commissioners. They were all winners, but which one was the real winner?

The puzzle Was solved by Governor Clough, who refused to issue a proclamation recognizing Mills and Columbia Counties, and instead, on Christmas Eve, 1896, did issue his proclamation declaring Red Lake County as a duly organized and existing county seat of the State. His decision was subsequently upheld by the courts. And to the good people of Red Lake were given the unique and exclusive distinction of having received their county as a Christmas present.

At the time of its organization, two railroads traversed the county - the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. A few years later the Soo Line built in from south and east, cutting through the east end of that ambitious city to more than double its population, and inspired its inhabitants with the desire for a county seat of their very own. A petition was circulated and liberally signed, asking the calling of an election to change the county seat from Red Lake Falls to Thief River Falls. A hot fight ensued which lasted five years, and although Thief River Falls had the greater support, and undoubtedly the most voters, Red Lake Falls had the greater fighting experience attained through its previous battling, and managed to stall off an election, until finally just before it was to be submitted to a vote, the county seat petition itself, mysteriously disappeared from the files, and has never since been heard of. Then the Supreme Court decided it was lost and could not be acted on.

Discouraged with their failure to move the county seat, the partisans of Thief River Falls decided to take their town out of Red Lake County, and to that end instituted proceedings to divide Red Lake County, leaving the southern half with Red Lake . Falls, and organizing the north half as Pennington County, with Thief River Falls as its county seat. After a long and bitter fight, this plan succeeded, and in 1910, Red Lake was cut in two and attained its present size and proportions.

Located in the heart of the famous Red River Valley the County has fertile soil, level prairie lands varied with wooden streams. Two principal rivers cross it, the Red Lake River, flowing down from the great Red Lakes to its junction with the Red River of the North, and the Clearwater River which joins the other at Red Lake Falls. Both streams are well stocked with fish; and in past years deer, prairie chickens, grouse and pheasants were plentiful in woods and prairies.

When the Soo Line built into the County about 1905, two more villages were established on its course; Oklee in the eastern end, and Plummer, near the center. Both are growing, thriving communities, surrounded by fertile lands and enterprising farmers.

Oklee was named after O. K. Lee, a townsite promoter who donated his name. Prominent among its pioneer citizens who have helped build up the town are A. P. Toupin, Dr. W. B. Torgerson, Melby Brothers, Peter Bergeron, Emil R. Sandeen, Frank Cyr, and J. O. Melby who has served many terms in the State Legislature. It is interesting to note that members of two families who occupied nearby farms, Pat Short, and one of the Sail brothers, joined the great "Gold Rush," in Alaska in 1898, endured its hardships, and made lucky strikes. The gold they dug from the frozen earth, was subsequently brought back to help build up Red Lake County, but young Sail died in Alaska.

Plummer, located on the Soo Line, and on Trunk Highway 59, is also traversed by the Clearwater River. Indeed it received its name from Plummer Dam, a dam built many years ago on the river, by a man named Plummer, who has since disappeared, leaving only his namesake dam, and that too, has now disintegrated. The village, built at the junction of the eastbound and southbound Soo Lines, is enterprising and up-to-date. Prominent among its pioneers are J. W. Pahlen, E. B. Andrew Gunderson and James Ford.

The territory now within the county lines was originally settled in the '60's and '70"s, mostly by French Canadians from eastern Ontario. Following the old Pembina Trail, then practically the only line of communication between the fur buyers of St. Paul and the trappers of the Hudson Bay county in Canada, these hardy pioneers, with their families and scant household goods loaded on creaking slow moving wooden wheeled Red River Carts, generally drawn by oxen, wended their way through hostile Indian country to the free lands of the great northwest. No hardship was too great for them to endure. Dropping off the trail here and there as they found land suitable to their needs, many of them settled in what is now Red Lake County, and took up Government Homesteads. Some of these parties were guided to this locality by Pierre Bottineau, a famous scout of French and Indian blood, well known over the whole northwest territory. He had been the original owner of Nicollet Island, in the Mississippi River at Minneapolis, (now worth a king's ransom) but he loved the wild life and the open trail too well to settle down there, tho it is told of him that in his palmy days of scouting he frequently lit his pipe with ten dollar bills. Many times he followed the Pembina trails into Canada, but when old age slowed his activities he settled with his family at Red Lake Falls, and became, and remained, until his death there, one of its most honored citizens.

The west end of the county was originally settled largely by French Canadians, and the east end by both Scandinavians and French, but as the county developed, other nationalities came in, and many of the old settlers moved further west, where more primitive conditions appealed to these natural pioneers, so that at the present time, the French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, English and plain American nationalities are well represented.

Noted early settlers in the territory of Red Lake County, who contributed bountifully to its future, were Carl Kretzschmar, Otto Kankel and Ernest Buse, who built the first mills on the rivers, and laid out the town-sites; Father Champagne whose clerical-business mind, not only built up the Church, but was actively engaged in planning the townsite; Pierre Bottineau, the scout mentioned elsewhere herein; Pierre Emard, who came here with earliest settlers, bringing his family and nothing else, settled down in a wilderness of brush and timber, and with only his hands and determination, turned it into a beautiful homestead; Dr. I. Lemieux, pioneer doctor in a wilderness without roads or means of transportation, who for fifty years administered aid to his people, through rain, shine or deep snow, under conditions which would appall the modern practitioner. And many others, faithfully in their way and day, who did their bit, and yet whose names are now forgotten, and whose praises are unsung.

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