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La Prairie Minnesota History

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From LaPrairie - The Road Back
By Dick Cain
1990 by the City of LaPrairie


I
Meadow by the Mississippi

On a winter's day in 1890, the voters of LaPrairie trudged along a maze of paths to their school, a small log building near the confluence of the Mississippi and Prairie Rivers, to vote on the question of whether LaPrairie should become a full-fledged village. Their routes took them past hotels, restaurants, merchandise stores, blacksmith shops, stables, sawmill, saloons, post office, newspaper office and bank. Many of them crossed the gleaming tracks of a railroad line that were laid just the year before. As they made their way they discussed, perhaps, the killing the previous week of Chief Sitting Bull or the revolt against the McKinley Tariff Act, which produced a Democratic landslide in the November Congressional election. Certainly they discussed the weather and the outlook for snow, a plentiful supply of which was so essential to a successful logging season.

All told, the LaPrairie population numbered nearly 250 and was growing rapidly. The town's future was bright indeed and, as far as the rivalry with their neighbors upriver was concerned, well, Grand Rapids just wasn't "in it," as LaPrairieites liked to say. As to the vote, they knew what to do. They approved incorporation
overwhelmingly, securing for themselves the enhanced political power they needed to shape the golden days ahead. Even though the outcome was never in doubt, the final tally was celebrated throughout the community, quietly at home by some, more boisterously at the town's plentiful bars by others. One hundred years later, LaPrairieites celebrated again the official beginning of the village, now designated a city. But LaPrairie's history, a tale of rapid growth and area pre-eminence, followed by decline and rebirth, begins many years before the date of incorporation.

The inseparable connection of historical events and landscape takes us back in LaPrairie's case 10,000 to 12,000 years, to the end of the Ice Age. It was then that the last glacier cut the troughs for Minnesota's rivers and the pockets for its lakes. It was then that the groundwork was laid for northern Minnesota's stands of pine, and the ground scraped to within feet of iron ore. And it was then that the rising annual temperature melted the ice, creating torrential rivers of water that put the finishing touches to the shape of the land, and made the environment habitable for man and other animals. Where the Great River starts bending south, after a generally eastward journey from its source, the Prairie River joins it. And not far above the confluence of the two rivers lies the LaPrairie site, a small meadow on the Mississippi's eastern bank.

Not long after the last glacier receded, the first people came -hunters of the wooly mammoth, mastodon, musk ox, giant ox and giant bison that roamed the area for awhile. Next came the ancestors of the Indian people we know today, the Dakota or Sioux and then the Ojibwe or Chippewa. The Ojibwe lived to the east and migrated to the Upper Mississippi Region in the 17th century, at about the same time the first Europeans came - the French explorers and fur traders. Driven by the displacement of other Indians to the east of them and by the demands of the fur trade, in which they were involved with the French, the Ojibwe penetrated Sioux territory, which set off one hundred years of war between them.

The French came to find a northwest passage to the Orient, convert the Indians to Christianity and trade in furs. British and Americans came shortly after, essentially for the same reasons. Although these early travelers skirted LaPrairie for the most part, the flags of all three countries at one time or another flew over the territory that included the LaPrairie site. And, for awhile, the land across the Mississippi, on the western side, showed up on the maps as part of the Spanish empire.

The Prairie River beckoned men long before loggers came to cut the trees on its banks.
The Prairie River beckoned men long before loggers came to cut the trees on its banks.
Photo by the author.

Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Luth, after whom the City of Duluth is named, led the first recorded European expedition into the Upper Mississippi, in 1679. He sought a northwest passage to the Orient, but also wanted to promote peace between the Dakota and Ojibwe, because fighting between them interfered with the fur trade. One of the great episodes in Greysolon's exploration was the rescue of Father Hennepin, a Belgian army chaplain and explorer, who the Dakota held at Lake Mille Lacs. The Greysolon mission followed the St. Louis River, the Savannah Portage and Big Sandy Lake before entering the Mississippi, not far below the LaPrairie site. The return trip may have taken the expedition past the mouth of the Prairie River.

Jonathan Carver, an American colonial, arrived in the Upper Mississippi in 1767, on a mission to the Indians and to look for a northwest passage to the Far East. He may have passed the LaPrairie site; and so may have David Thompson, the British explorer-cartographer, who was on assignment by the North West fur trade company, in 1798.

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In the wake of explorers and traders and the claims of nations came fur trade posts and forts. The French claimed ownership of the Upper Mississippi until the conclusion of the French and Indian War, after which the British held legal claim. When the Americans beat the British in the Revolutionary War, the U.S. was sovereign in the region. Legal claims there were, but control was always tenuous. For example, in 1805-06, Lt. Zebulon Pike headed the first mission of the new United States government into the region, only to find there a significant British presence. At a British trading post at Leech Lake, Pike had his men shoot down the Union Jack and put up the Stars and Stripes, a gesture that was undone as soon as the American expedition left. During the Pike trip back, it's fairly likely the group passed the site of LaPrairie.

Significant settlement in the Upper Mississippi region did not begin, however, until after the Ojibwe drove out the Dakota and treaties were made between the Ojibwe and the United States. Aided by French guns, the Ojibwe fought numerous skirmishes with the Dakota before the big battle at Lake Mille Lacs in 1750. The defeated Dakota withdrew then to the south and west of the Mississippi. But there were still some battles in the north. Another major battle was fought at Big Sandy Lake, with the Ojibwe victory opening up to them the lakes of Winnibigoshish, Cass and Leech. Dakota still held islands in Leech and they weren't driven from there until 1760 when Ojibwe war parties converged on the islands from the north, east and west. Except for the Dakota making an occasional raid in the Seventies to try and regain their lands, the battles between the two tribes had come to an end in the north.

The Ojibwe then went about their lives, moving with the seasons and the availability of food. They picked berries, fished summer and winter (their summer efforts being aided by the famous birchbark canoe) hunted deer, bear and ducks, harvested wild rice and made maple syrup and sugar.

Meanwhile, pressure was growing for the exploitation of the region's minerals and timber, and for white settlement. The door was opened with the 1854 and 1855 treaties between the United States and the Ojibwe.

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II
Only a matter of time

It was only a matter of time before the nation's demand for lumber would drive logging entrepreneurs and their crews up the Mississippi to the timber-rich Prairie River and the place that would become LaPrairie. The first significant logging in Minnesota began in the St. Croix Valley in the 1830s, to supply the lumber needs of the people downriver, in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri where settlement was ahead of Minnesota's. Clearing the way for large-scale logging operations was a treaty with the Ojibwe, in 1838, which supplanted the slow, tract-by-tract arrangements that had been made with the Indians. Marine-on-the-St. Croix and then Stillwater became the focal point of the lumber business. Between 1840 and 1874, Stillwater recorded the passage of 3.5 billion feet of logs -a yield that figured significantly in the rise of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to leadership in U.S. lumber production.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota market for lumber was growing. Spurring settlement were the extension of railroads into the Minnesota Territory and the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862. More and more, logging attention was shifting to the Mississippi, and St. Anthony (Minneapolis) saw a rapid multiplication of mills that were processing logs sent down the Great River. Besides boards, shingles, doors and window sash for home construction, these mills were turning out churns, chairs, boxes, buckets, boats, bedsteads, carriages and plows.

Logging on the Prairie River began in the 1870s.
Logging on the Prairie River began in the 1870s.
Photo courtesy of the Itasca County Historical Society.

Upriver from St. Anthony, loggers fanned out on the tributaries and sent down their huge loads. Mills began at Anoka, St. Cloud and Brainerd. Then the farthest reaches of the Upper Mississippi were opened up with the 1854 and 1855 treaties with the Ojibwe. It was time for logging the Prairie River.

As Agnes Larsen states in her book, The White Pine Industry in Minnesota, "The early loggers cut the timber where it was largest and best, and where it was easiest to handle. Naturally, they followed the Mississippi River and its tributaries upstream. Far north the Mississippi had tributaries where the white pine was almost equal to that of the Rum River.

"Among these streams were the Swan River and the Prairie River, along whose banks hundreds of millions of feet of logs waited to be cut; for nearly a generation these streams were to carry to market an annual springtime load of pine. It was along these streams that men began to cut logs in the early 1870s. In 1874, men were hewing down all the pine north and east of Grand Rapids in Itasca County."

Steamboats made regular stops at LaPrairie. The Oriole (above) was one of the boats that plied the Mississippi between Grand Rapids and Aitkin
Steamboats made regular stops at LaPrairie. The Oriole (above) was one of the boats that plied the Mississippi between Grand Rapids and Aitkin

The logging crews worked out of camps that were at the end of supply lines comprised of warehouses, tote roads, stretches of river and, sometimes, railroad lines. Occasionally, a strategically placed warehouse, plus such allied businesses as a hotel, stable and saloon, became the nucleus of a town. LaPrairie started in this fashion, as did Grand Rapids.

By most accounts, the first warehouse at the confluence of the Mississippi and Prairie Rivers was established by Wes Day, one of three sons of Len Day, who made his mark logging the Pokegama Lake area. Day's place was a "brush warehouse," one constructed of crotched tree limbs that supported a covering of timbers, branches and brush. Also at the little meadow was Neal Carr's Landing, where steamboats from Aitkin stopped. The spot went by the name Nealsville, after Neal Carr, until Carr sold his holdings to the Itasca Lumber Co., in 1887.


The steamboat landing at LaPrairie, 1889. Among the LaPrairieites about to ferry across the Mississippi are Mr. and Mrs. George Lathrop and their sons, Roy, Ralph and Ray, and Mr. and Mrs. John G. Fraser. Photo courtesy of the Itasca County Historical Society.

Among the steamboats stopping at LaPrairie were the Irene, Oriole, White Swan and Andy Gibson. At 140 feet, the Andy Gibson was one of the largest coming to LaPrairie, but still a small boat next to the craft that navigated the Lower Mississippi. The shallow, twisting stretches above Aitkin wouldn't permit the operation of the really big boats. The river's twisting provided Captain Viebahn of the Irene with one of his favorite stories. As related in Donald Boese's Papermakers, the captain liked to tell of the "...greenhorn passenger who wandered in and out of the deckhouse musing that he had never been in a country where the wind changed direction so often."

Steamboat passengers came on business trips to LaPrairie, others to stay and make their lives. Among the early settlers were Mr. & Mrs. David Anderson, Mr. & Mrs. Arthur Ranger, Mr. & Mrs. Courtney Buell, Mr. & Mrs. Andrew Brock, Mr. & Mrs. Edwin French, Mr. & Mrs. Eugene Arnold, Mr. & Mrs. A.M. Sisler, Mr. & Mrs. William Walker, Mr. & Mrs. M.J. Baker, Mr. & Mrs. George Moore, Mr. & Mrs. Neil Mullins, Mr. & Mrs. John G. Fraser.

John Fraser came to Minnesota in 1883, after having worked in forests extending from his birthplace, in Nashwauk, New Brunswick, across Canada and the United States to Grand Rapids, LaPrairie and Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, he met and fell in love with Grace Arbo, whose family ran the boarding house where Fraser stayed (and later gave their name to Arbo Township). When the two were married, Fraser brought his bride to LaPrairie.

Grace Fraser described the event to her granddaughter, Carole Fraser, in a recorded interview as follows: "I came to LaPrairie as a bride in the summer of 1886. My husband and I traveled by train to Aitkin and then by boat up the Mississippi to a place then known as Neal's Landing.

"Upon arriving, the only buildings in sight were a small store, a large barn, where the oxen were kept, and a large ranch house used as a stopping place. To the north and west were only tall trees and more tall trees.

"We stayed at the log ranch house that night and, on the next day, rode for a few miles along a rickety road on a rickety wagon, with the trunks bounding up and down and I holding my hat with one hand and the seat with the other, until we came to my future home. It was a small house on the Mississippi River. I didn't realize then that I was to love that place."

On to LaPrairie History Page 2


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