A History of RED LAKE COUNTY, Minnesota

The Pioneer Days of Red Lake Falls

by Charles E. Boughton, Sr.

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The stranger who, seeking a new home, enters a sleeper at St. Paul in the evening and awakening next morning finds himself rolling along between the fertile fields and well-built farm houses, and to the stirring towns of Red Lake County, can scarcely realize the difficulties that confronted those other pioneer home seekers, who, not so many years ago, first settled in this land of milk and honey. Where now are railways, telegraph and telephone lines, graded highways, drainage ditches and live towns, then stared them in the face only lonely, grass grown prairies, without even a wagon track where the old ''Pembina Trail" wound its way to the northwest.

The first settler's in Red Lake, then a part of Polk County, came here in May, 1876, just twenty-six years ago. No railroad train whirled along and deposited them and their household goods at a convenient station, with waiting friends ready to welcome them to their new homes. They left St. Paul with their families and the few things they could carry loaded into wagons and the clumsy old Red River carts drawn by horses or oxen - sometimes a horse and cow, or cow and ox. For days they wended their way just past little outlying settlements, through a wilderness of forests, swamp camping out nights, the silence unbroken save by their own merry laughter and shouting, or the howl of wolves, or drumming of partridges in the woods. Coming at length to Crookston, the county seat of Polk, they found it an assemblage of eight or ten rude log houses and three stores girt 'round by stumps and woods. Walsh and Ross kept the best store there, and that was not a department store you may be sure. The territory east and northeast of Crookston was as yet unsettled. No townsite boomer had discovered Red Lake Falls, St. Hilaire or Thief River Falls, and land in their present vicinity was at a discount. There were homesteads "to burn," and of the best kind, too.

Leaving Crookston, the home seekers followed up the Red Lake River, until, seventeen days after leaving St. Paul, arriving near the present site of Red Lake Falls, they decided that no better land could be found, and settled down.

The first colonists were French from Hennepin and Ramsey counties. These were Pierre Bottineau, then famous as guide, trapper and scout, with his sons: Isaiah Gervais, Joseph Belair, Thomas Belair, John B. Demarais, N. Pouliot, Pierre Audette, Benj. Gervais, Eli Lasha, Edward LaBree, Joe Beaudrow, and a few others. J. B. Bottineau had located about seven thousand acres of land here on Indian script, including the present site of Red Lake Falls, but his title proving defective, the land was homesteaded by the incoming settlers who set to work at once, built log cabins and prepared to farm with the limited means at their command. Food was scarce then and tales are still told of living all winter on a barrel of flour and jack rabbits.

To the east the settlement extended only as far as Badger Creek where a man named Heroux held forth as an outpost of civilization. To the west in what is now Louisville, a few settlers made their homes. Those were Michael Brouilette, Louis Huot, Simeon Patnode, Lizene Patnode, David Corbin, John Gaylord and others. North of the Red Lake River was a wilderness of tangled bush and grassy prairie, peopled only by deer, bears, wolves and Indians.

The following year a few more settlers came. Conditions were not yet such as to invite other than the hardiest of pioneers. There was no mill at Crookston and to get their grist ground, farmers were obliged to travel with horse or ox teams way down to Caledonia, near Fargo, the trip taking six laid from Glyndon up to Fisher's Landing, but trains only ran on it in the fall, business during the rest of the year not warranting train service. Several times during the winters the settlers rigged up flat cars with sails, loaded on their grists, and ran them down the line to the mill by wind.

In 1878 quite a colony of French settlers came from Upper Canada including the Brunelles, Perraults, LaBissonieres, Marchildons, Marchands, Robillards, Latendresse, Ducharmes, Lizees, Legacys, and others. These settled south of the rivers. The Patnodes, Allards, Legacys, and others came from Fall River, Mass., and took homes east of Red Lake Falls between the Red Lake and Clearwater Rivers.

This year Ernest Buse, then as now, a great worker, and one who has left his mark upon the world wherever he has been, came to Red Lake Falls, discovered the waterpower, realized the benefits to be derived from them and from the junction of the two rivers, and with Xavier Sohler took up the townsite and as soon as possible afterwards platted it.

Here in the same year, at the foot of what is now Main Street, Mr. Buse with Otto Kankel, built a grist mill and sawmill, erecting a dam a short distance up the river, the remains of which can still be seen in times of low water. The turbine wheel used to run the mill was brought from St. Anthony, having seen good service before as it was the first wheel used to generate power in Minnesota, dating back to 1849. The old wheel still lies in our courthouse yard - a relic of bygone days.

The building of the mill brought other settlers into the vicinity. About the first comers north of the Red Lake River were John Carlson and Ole Christofferson. Others soon followed, the country north of the river being settled mostly, by Scandinavians, while south of the river the French were, as they still are, in the majority. A few Germans and English thrown in haphazard completed the making of a very good community. Around the mill the prospective village of Red Lake Falls soon centered. Frank E. Hunt kept the first store, located near the foot of Main ward, also, Carl Kretzschmar, a man of enterprise and capital, appeared upon the scene, and built the Northside roller mill and the Kretzschmar brick block, by these means drawing the embryo village to an ideal location on the bank of the Clearwater, platted by Mr. Kretzschmar and called Kertzschmar's Addition. Prices of lots in this new and really beautiful location at once soared to the clouds. All adjoining lands, good and bad, and lots sold at speculative prices to parties all over the United States and in Europe. Many persons bought lots at from $200 to $500 each which they had never seen and haven't yet, and wouldn't have taken as a gift had they ever set eyes upon them. The writer remembers a stranger who, coming to the town some ten years later to see the lots he had bought in the "boom" days, was taken by a local real estate man to a hillside overlooking a watery swamp far from the business part of town, and told that his lots lay "out there," but he couldn't get to them except in winter when it froze up.

A massive oak tree, still standing near the residence of J. W. Rodgers on the Northside, was fitted up with a platform in its top and steps leading to it, and all prominent visitors were proudly escorted to this eminence by the mayor, whence they might view the glorious advantages of Red Lake Falls.

The city might still be clustered about the Kretzschmar Block, were it not for the fact that into this Eden crept a serpent, or, rather, two of them, in the shape of a pair of confidence sharpers named Coffin, who inveigled the ambitious but unsuspecting Kretzschmar into a number of schemes for capitalizing a company, secured his signature to important papers and decamped, leaving him financially stranded. Sympathetic citizens attempted to treat the Coffins to a lynching bee, but the birds flew and never returned. To this day they are held in deepest detestation by the old residents.

In the meantime the country south and east of town had become well settled. At one time there was a settler on every quarter section in Lambert and Poplar River Townships - a state of affairs which has never since existed.

with money or necessaries and eagerly welcomed the first opportunity to "prove up" by making loans at high interest on their homesteads. Ten percent loans were rare, the more common rate of interest being two percent per month and a bonus to the agent. The homesteaders could scarcely keep up the interest payments, so that when the principal fell due, the mortgages were foreclosed and their farms taken from them because "company lands." `

Transportation facilities were still very poor. The railroad having reached Crookston, all wheat had to be hauled there for shipment. Distance of the haul varied from twenty to forty miles. A regular wheat road was laid out and traveled, "kittercornering" across sections and this became in the fall and winter a well traveled highway. . Upon it at short distances apart, saloons and stopping places were established whereat the weary traveler might refresh himself. As a consequence, the convivially-inclined wheat haulers often became more heavily loaded than were their sleighs, and their teams soberly traveled home alone, hours or even days ahead of their masters. Despite the roughness of it all., those were jolly days when cares were borne lightly and hardships were endured without complaining.

Relics of those times may still be seen in the square stone fronted buildings along the road. There were saloons at Gentilly, "Roux's Coulie," Looha's place, Badger Creek and other points.

In 1882 St. Hilaire was platted, the railroad reaching there the following year. A train was run only once a week. Thief River Falls was also started about this time.

In 1886 the Northern Pacific built into Red Lake Falls, to be followed six years later by the Great Northern in 1892.

James B. Holmes, a promoter rather than a capitalist, was mainly instrumental in bringing the Northern Pacific into the city, and being desirous of making some money himself, located the depot at some distance from the rest of the town, platted the surrounding territory into "Railroad Addition" built several large store buildings and another mill near the depot and waited for the town to move. Happily he was in a great measure disappointed, and with the coming of the Great Northern the city centralized itself about Main Street and settled down to prepare for the prosperous future that awaited it. The boom times were over. False starts and inflated beginnings have been succeeded by a steady, real and prosperous growth, based upon the true advantages and opportunities offered by the city and its surrounding territory. But one thing was needed to complete the situation, that it become the central point and county seat of a county as prosperous as itself. This happened in December, 1896, and since then Red Lake Falls and Red Lake County have made great strides in progress. Their fame has spread throughout the Northwestern states, and lo! many strangers, lured by no fictitious values but by real worth and golden opportunity, have

by Charles E. Boughton, Sr.


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