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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


The settlement grows

As the 20th century was about to dawn, the small logging supply center that was the nucleus of LaPrairie suddenly mushroomed, thrusting it well ahead of other settlements in Itasca County. So LaPrairie claims many county "firsts," including the first newspaper, the first bank, the first hospital, the first church and, perhaps, the first post office and jail. It was also the first town to incorporate as a village.
LaPrairie had at this time several hotels, restaurants and saloons, big general stores, clothing stores for men and women, a milliner's shop, jewelry store, photographer's studio, meat market, sawmills, building contractors, liquor distributors, stables, blacksmiths and harnessmakers, insurance and real estate offices, barbers, a dentist, doctors and lawyers.

Big Fat Checks

Log drivers got paid off with "big fat bank checks" at the Fraser Hotel in mid-November, 1893, according to a report in the LaPrairie News. The recipients listed were Ben Myers, Hartley Bunken, George Edwards, F. Burby, Ed Rafter, C.H. Dudley, James Hovey, John Hovey, Tom McGuire, Al Carr, George Simons, William Hall, Charles Hodge, Henry Emery, John Fraser, Sam Graves, John Murphy, George Phillips, Peter Holts, Theodore Betts, Tom Kannade and Tim Kannade.


A big surge in LaPrairie's development came with the arrival of the railroad, in 1889. Built by a crew of 2,000 men, it took only a summer and fall to lay the 100 miles of track that ran from Cloquet up the St. Louis River and then northwesterly to LaPrairie. The last spike in the Duluth and Winnipeg railroad line was driven in LaPrairie in November; that marked the end of the construction season, but train service started immediately. LaPrairie was now linked with Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul and, for the time being, was the D&W's western end.

The importance of the railroad and LaPrairie as the terminus was not lost on the local citizenry. As James Smith, the leading LaPrairie realtor, noted in a full-page advertisement in the local paper, LaPrairie would become the site of a roundhouse and machine shops and the company's regional headquarters. Passenger use increased steadily, as did freight shipments, which hit 2,500 tons during the month of March, 1891. Accounting for some of that month's tonnage was machinery for the Diamond Mine nearby. The leg to the minesite being a rough road, the D&W envisioned a spur into the area from LaPrairie.

In town, a sidetrack came up alongside the Wells Stone Mercantile Co. and, in 1892, the village council vacated Fisher, Swan and River streets for more railroad yard space. News reports in 1893 refer to D&W maintenance work under the supervision of Master Mechanic Ward. Another shop employee was Joe Braden, and R.H. Baily was section boss.

No really serious accidents appear to have happened. But the D&W had a close call when an eastbound freight rammed another at Swan River during a blinding snowstorm. In another incident, a brakeman by the name of Gilbert slipped and fell between the cars on a train to Cloquet. He grabbed the brake beam and held tight while the lower half of his body dragged beyond the rail on one side. Eventually he was able to push himself clear and get to his feet and catch the last car, reportedly not too bad for the wear.

But it wasn't all work and danger. The local paper regularly reported local citizens on pleasure trips to Duluth and Minneapolis and other parts of the country. A big event was taking a special train to Swan River for a dance, which started in the mid-evening and ran to the wee hours of the morning before the group steamed back home.

Would the man 'stick' in LaPrairie?

When M.J. Baker was hired to manage the Wells Stone Mercantile store in LaPrairie his employers felt they were taking a gamble. According to an interview with Baker that's reported in an unpublished portion of Logging Town, The Story of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the Wells Stone people wondered if Baker wasn't a little too well-dressed for a position in the backwoods store in LaPrairie. They had sent a couple candidates out just before that, only to have them come racing back as soon as they could get a ticket out. Baker, who had come from Greensville, Pennsylvania, thought he would like it and promised not to desert. As it turned out, he stayed eight years as the store manager, until the place was permanently closed. After that, he went to work for John Beckfelt, a Grand Rapids storeman, after which he opened a store of his own in Deer River. He was interviewed for Logging Town in 1941, when he was 77 and still very active.


LaPrairieites began reading their first LaPrairie newspaper in September, 1890. The LaPrairie Magnet was the first newspaper in Itasca County and the only one for many miles around; the closest ones were the Aitkin Age and the Carlton County Vidette at Cloquet. The publisher was A.G. Bernard, an aggressive, opportunistic businessman who came to LaPrairie from South Dakota. A speechmaker and politician, he had gained wide notice as a delegate to the South Dakota and Minnesota constitutional conventions. Like other newspaper publishers of that time, he made no bones about his party preference, which was Republican. He found political comfort not long after his arrival among neighbors who formed the LaPrairie Republican League, which was some 55 members strong at the start. Heading the League was James Smith, the town's leading realtor; Moses Manston was vice president, and the man who would be the village mayor for many years; and Courtney A. Buell was secretary, later the village's justice of the peace.

The Magnet, a full, journal-size newpaper, came out weekly and usually ran eight pages. It carried local "happenings," written by Bernard and his associate, C.L. Pratt, a lawyer, plus state, national and international news from the Associated Press wire service. The shop foreman was D.C. Anderson.

Health remedies accounted for many of the national advertisements: Hood's Sasaparilla would "tone up" the system, Cuticura would clear the skin and Carter's Little Liver pills would fix just about anything. Local merchants advertised their wares, too, but there were never enough of them doing it to please Bernard, who frequently reminded folks of the need to support the local sheet. Meanwhile, Bernard's favorite advertisers received plugs in the news columns, for example, W.H. Chapman, who Bernard would note had a "fine line of silk shirts just in" or "the latest in German socks."

This drawing, which appeared in the Jan. 17, 1894 issue of the LaPrairie News, is the only surviving depiction of the Wells Stone Mercantile Co.

"Guarding Against Mutiny - How an East Indian Prince was Outwitted by the British Prime Minister" received strong play in one issue and on the lighter side was a piece about why "a mustache grows faster on one side than the other." Serialized fiction always had a place, with "The Devoted Wife" being one of the steamy ones that Bernard ran during the winter.

Staying only nine months in LaPrairie, Bernard moved to Grand Rapids where he remade the Magnet into the Grand Rapids Magnet. Following Bernard's LaPrairie sheet was the LaPrairie News, which was started in January 1892 by W.A. Thomas, who also came from South Dakota. He had been with the Edmund County Democrat, Ipswich, S.D., and before that the Orient (S.D.) Eagle. In a tongue-in-cheek advertisement for an editor, Thomas said he was looking for a person "...who can read, write and argue politics, and at the same time be religious, funny, scientific and historic at will, write to please everybody without being told, always have something good to say about somebody else, live on wind and make no enemies." Like Bernard, he was fiercely partisan in his politics, but a Democrat, however. He boosted Grover Cleveland for president in '92, as well as Democrats at county and state levels.

On Thomas's arrival, Bernard said from Grand Rapids that Thomas had the reputation for putting out an interesting sheet and wished the new publisher success. But Thomas and Bernard were soon to be at odds, as were the towns they boosted.

The Name 'LaPrairie'

Before the name "LaPrairie" was finally settled on for the little town at the junction of the Mississippi and Prairie rivers, it had at least three other names. First it was Neal's Landing, then Nealsville, both after Neal Carr, one of the early logging camp suppliers and lumbermen. "Saginaw" was another name. As the story goes, some of the early residents gave to the Duluth and Winnipeg Railway the Saginaw name, which is what the company printed on its tickets for the destination, rather than LaPrairie. That, of course, confused some travelers. According to Logging Town: The Story of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the ticket seller's response to the confused traveler may have gone something like this. "That'll take you to LaPrairie. Them guys up there are crazy! We ain't going to print a new batch o' tickets every time they change their minds about what they want to call their town!" Logging Town fails to offer any explanation of the origin of Saginaw. It could have had its genesis among the Wells Stone Mercantile store people, who had a store in Saginaw, Mich., (as well as LaPrairie) and a financial interest in the Duluth and Winnipeg.

Warren Upham's book, Minnesota Geographic Names only says LaPrairie was named after the Prairie River which, obviously, only begs the question, "Why was the river named 'Prairie'?" It's an especially intriguing question because the Prairie river ran through woodland.
One area resident recalls the story that a steamboat named "LaPrairie" stopped at the town, but no such boat has turned up in the literature.

Another theory points to a possible link with Alexis LaPrairie, described in legal documents as a Chippewa half-breed. LaPrairie received land in the area in 1870 under terms of the 1854 treaty - land that he later signed over "by mark" to others. But again there is no evidence of a connection with the naming of the town.

Another possibility is that there was a link between the name and the landscape, after all. Surrounded though it was by heavy woods, the LaPrairie site, some early settlers have been recorded as saying, was marked by a grassy area or meadow. That meadow or prairie might have inspired the name for the river which joined the Mississippi there. And to distinguish the town's name from the river some might have added the definite artide "la" as a fancy Frenchification. Such wordplay shows up regularly in the early LaPrairie newspaper columns when, for example, a LaPrairieite was reported as having the grippe he didn't just have the grippe he had "la grippe."


For some years LaPrairie had the only bank in the county. Although it is not clear just when it started, advertisements for the Itasca County Bank appeared in early issues of the Magnet. It was headed by Charles L. White, president; J.A. Bowman, manager; and J.A. Bowman, Jr., cashier. The bank advertised that it issued foreign exchange upon all principal cities of Europe, paid cash on time checks and was interested in real estate transactions.

In 1892, yet another bank opened in LaPrairie. W.C. Gilbert opened the Iron Exchange in September on Second Street, the LaPrairie News reported.


By some accounts, the LaPrairie post office began in 1887, with Joseph McMahon, the postmaster. By early 1891, the newspaper records a Mr. Mather as the postmaster and W.W. Chapman the deputy. Courtney A. Buell and Eugene Arnold are two others who held the post. When Buell was selected postmaster, Democrat Thomas at the News made a good-natured squawk, saying Buell was "okay even though he was an offensive Republican partisan." First assistant to Buell was Dr. H.B. Ehle.

The post office occupied various quarters. When Buell took over he moved the operation from temporary quarters in the Doughty and Johnson store to the building formerly occupied by W.H. Chapman.


By 1891, LaPrairie had a hospital, the Northwestern Benefit Association Hospital, the first in Itasca County. It advertised having a capital stock of $100,000. Board members were from Duluth, with Wilmot Saeger, president. Association manager was W.C. Scott, Minneapolis, while the on-site hospital manager was Dr. M.H. Manson, who came up from Minneapolis.

"Our object," the hospital management said, " is to provide for every man a safeguard against the ills and accidents of life and at a very small cost. We have come to stay."

Supported primarily by those who worked in the woods and on the railroad, the fee for hospital and doctor care was $1 a month. The hospital building was a large frame structure capable of handling a dozen bed patients. On occasion all beds were filled, notably during an influenza epidemic.


The earliest of the hotels were the Fraser House and the Akely House. After its opening, John Fraser passed on proprietorship of the Fraser House to Toole and O'Connell, who advertised the place as first class and having a sample room for accommodation of traveling men, as well as a livery barn and excellent bar.

Caplis and Kennedy owned the Akely House, John M. Caplis being the manager. They noted the place was convenient to the depot and steamboat landing, praised the stabling there and the bar, too. When John Platt leased the hotel in 1891 the local paper said that Platt was experienced and his wife an excellent cook.

A.A. French owned the Hotel LaPrairie, which he plugged as the "Best $1 a Day House in the County." The three Mooney sisters ran a restaurant in conjunction with the hotel and managed the hotel for awhile, too. Other spots for the traveling public were the Zenith Hotel, owned by William F. McFall, and the Scandinavian.

The Bon Ton Restaurant was an enterprise of H.B. Knudsen, which offered the "best brand of oysters and fresh-baked bread." They served meals at all hours, they said, and if you chose you could board there by day or week.

The Fraser House, 1892. Photo courtesy of Maureen Petersen.
The Fraser House, 1892. Photo courtesy of Maureen Petersen.

There were many liquor operations: The Turf Exchange, operated by William McKenna; The White Elephant, W.D. Leeman, proprietor, which offered a "big free lunch every night"; The North Star, J.H. McDonough, proprietor; plus places operated by John Hepfel, which had a second hand store and boarding house connected; Smith and O'Connell; Dominick McGuire; S.S. McMahon; Toole and O'Connell; and George Near. In business as a distributor of Miller's, "the celebrated Milwaukee beer," was W. C. Tyndall.

Although the use of liquor was commonplace in LaPrairie, it wasn't condoned by everyone. Some of the locals had in as a speaker Mrs. Fannie L. Ames of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. And A.G. Gillis operated what he called a "temperance pool room."


The biggest of the merchandise stores in LaPrairie, in fact one of the biggest in the whole area, was the Wells Stone Mercantile Co., which outfitted many of the area logging camps. Wells Stone claimed the largest and best line of everything, saying "If others haven't got it, we have." A chain of sorts, the company had a base store in Saginaw, Michigan, and another in Duluth.

In 1891, the company built a new building, with French and Gilliland, local contractors, doing the work. The main building measured 30- by 70-feet and included "well furnished sleeping compartments," plus a 30- by 60-foot cellar. The warehouse, with a spur of the Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad running to it, measured 30- by 72-feet.

Early on, the local manager of Wells Stone was Benjamin Herrig. A.P. White was the bookkeeper, John Taylor, salesman and Richard Nelson, receiving clerk. M.J. Baker was another of the managers. Also an employee was Robert Conklin.

Other merchandise stores included Manston and Co., owned by Moses Manston, W.H. Chapman Co., Simmons Bros., McKeon and Co. and Doughty and Johnson which, according to the local paper, was a successor to "Manston's old stand."
Chapman advertised makinaws, German socks, rubber packs, boots, overshirts for ladies and gents, caps, felt shoes, underwear, hose and mittens, plus boys' clothing, tobacco, confectionaires and coal. After awhile, Chapman took on a partner named Danton.

Drugstores were run by Spencer and Co. (which sold only a few items besides drugs, e.g. oils and paints) and C.L. Newell.

Miss Angie Smith was a milliner and ran a shop selling men's and women's clothing. Mrs. E.A. McClure was a dressmaker and Mr. Ertz ran a meat market.


Livery stables were operated by Fred Churchill, whose business included general blacksmithing and the manufacture of lumbermen's tools. Before coming to LaPrairie, Churchill had 12 year's experience in manufacturing lumbermen's tools and shoeing horses in the lumber districts of Michigan and Wisconsin. He later sold his business to Fuller and Coleman.

G.E. Clark operated a livery stable, plus a dray line. Charles Leeman was in the dray business, too, and delivered ice, among other things.

LaPrairie harnessmakers were Emil Litschke and John H. Heberle.


Dr. M.H. Manson managed the Northwestern Benefit Association Hospital and was occasionally spelled by a Dr. Munger. H.B. Ehle was another medical doctor in town. Dr. James Everton was a veterinarian, operating out of the Buell building.
C.S. Allen, a dentist, came over from Duluth to stay.

Lawyers included Edward Neal, C.L. Pratt and L.H. Hawkins.

Among the building contractors were French and Gilliland and J.S. Lofberg. James Smith was a real estate agent. Selling insurance was Courtney A. "Judge" Buell.
The town's tonsorial artist was E.W. Fuller, who said he treated his patrons carefully and politely and always had on hand a full line of hair dyes, combs, brushes and razors.

On to LaPrairie History Page 3

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