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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


IV
'Naught but the county fight'

To begin with, the rivalry between LaPrairie and Grand Rapids was good-natured. Jibes focused on which community was the other's suburb, and contests were limited to boxing matches and baseball games. But that all changed into a political slugfest during the countdown to the election which pitted the two communities against each other for the site of the county seat.

Before the voters put an "x" after LaPrairie or Grand Rapids for the honor, and all the economic benefits that went with it, Grand Rapids had been operating as the temporary seat of Itasca government. The story begins in 1887 when the Minnesota Legislature detached Itasca from Crow Wing and joined it with Aitkin, for purposes of records, taxation and judicial proceedings. At the same time, the legislature authorized a local board for unincorporated Itasca and empowered the governor to appoint its members. On March 3, 1887, Gov. A.R. McGill named Allen T. Nason, William Wakefield and Patrick Case to the board. Others who were to serve on this board were Lafayette Knox and Courtney C. Buell. Meeting at the Fraser House in LaPrairie and Lafayette Knox's store in Grand Rapids, the board kept itself busy for awhile building bridges and roads in the Grand Rapids-LaPrairie area.

The LaPrairie Feud

The early newspapers make mention of a destructive feud in LaPrairie but no details are provided. One explanation appears in an unpublished portion of Logging Town, The Story of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. According to a Logging Town interview with M.J. Baker, one of the managers of the Wells, Stone Mercantile store in LaPrairie, the principals in the feud were J.P. Sims, who was connected with the Wells Stone store and the Duluth and Winnipeg Railway, and Courtney A. Buell, who was a large LaPrairie landowner, community leader and justice of the peace. As Logging Town relates it, Wells Stone, having acquired title to some timber claims in the LaPrairie area as settlement for debts, made arrangements to get the timber out. Sims was in charge of the logging effort, which was big. Baker claimed that Sims had a least three-fourths of the area loggers working for him. When Sims wanted to acquire a block of land to store timber, lay tracks and load logs, he had to deal with Buell. Sims thought Buell wanted an exorbitant price for the land, so rather than pay it, he arranged to extend the railroad to Grand Rapids and established his operation there. When the location of the county seat came up, Sims favored Grand Rapids, while Buell was fighting for the LaPrairie site. Sims, said Baker, voted all his lumberjacks for the Grand Rapids site, which was the victor.

On March 10, 1891, the legislature made another change in the situation. It authorized the organization of Itasca as a separate county with a three-man board that had the power to designate a temporary county seat. The new board was also empowered to draw the lines for the three county commissioner districts, arrange for construction of a courthouse and appoint county officers, except for sheriff, to serve until the election, in November 1892.

Gov. William Merriam, who was heavily lobbied on the county commissioner appointments, selected Lafayette Knox, B.C. Finnegan and James Sims. The new commissioners went on to designate Grand Rapids the temporary county seat, draw the county commissioner district lines and arrange for construction of a county office and jail, in Grand Rapids. L.L. Jensen received the building contract (after an initial award to F.A.B. King), at $570, and a St. Paul company got the order for a $170 vault to go in the new building.

Appointed county officials were H.R. King, auditor; John Beckfelt, treasurer; Charles Kearney, register of deeds; Henry W. Canfield, attorney; Wade Blaker, clerk of court; E.R. Lewis, surveyor; M.A. Woods, assessor; T.R. Pravitz, superintendent of schools; and Melville Manson, coroner.

Meanwhile, Publisher Bernard had been telling his LaPrairie readers he went to St. Paul with one reason in mind - to secure the temporary county seat designation for LaPrairie. But, he said, Grand Rapids had some highly influential friends from Aitkin, Brainerd and Minneapolis lobbying for it, and that he, Bernard, had been double-crossed by Sen. William P. Allen, who was a key figure in making the appointment recommendations to Gov. Merriam. For his efforts, Bernard added, he had earned only the "... enmity of the people of Grand Rapids ... but that's too bad. I never sought their friendship, never went to the town for a dollar's worth of business, nor do I ever intend to. Nevertheless, I have been repeatedly importuned to move up there." Within weeks Bernard moved to Grand Rapids.

The move was quick, some saying it came in the dark of night. On June 11, 1891, the LaPrairie Magnet became the Grand Rapids Magnet. Only one issue was missed in the switch. "In leaving LaPrairie," Bernard said in the first issue of his Rapids sheet, "we have figuratively burned the bridges behind us ... and shall do all in our power to upbuild a town on this magnificent site that will be a credit to the inhabitants and an honor to the state."

But it wasn't long before LaPrairie had its own newspaper again and, with it, a spokesman for its county seat aspirations. In January 1892, with the county election only 11 months away, W.A. Thomas came to town and started the LaPrairie News. Thomas and Bernard exchanged a few pleasantries in the news columns of their papers then, but soon the pleasantries turned to acrimony and worse. Some of it may have been horseplay, but some of it got truly rough. In July of 1892, Thomas made comments about Bernard's religious affiliation, said he was the "most odious wart upon humanity that ever disgraced this or any other county," and accused Bernard of siphoning off LaPrairie funds when he was the village's treasurer. Bernard responded with a libel suit. Thomas was fined $50 in Judge Kearney's court in Grand Rapids and, as he filed an appeal, promised that Bernard would be shown "... as black as he had been painted." The result of the appeal doesn't appear to have been reported. As the election approached, the publishers toned down their rhetoric, but not their competition for legal advertising and the county seat designation.

Thomas put his thoughts in verse:

In vain we search for "locals"
Tho' we hustle ev'ry minute
Naught's thought of but the county fight,
Naught asked but who will win it?
But the general impression is
Grand Rapids isn't "in it."

Besides replying that it was LaPrairie that wasn't "in it," Bernard took to calling the neighboring town a "deserted village." The LaPrairie News shot back concerning the Grand Rapids "courthouse" plan, calling it a "$200 shell," and claimed that LaPrairie was offering instead a 300-square foot block of land and $8,000 for the building. Furthermore, Thomas charged that the county board was not building roads needed to benefit the LaPrairie area.

"LaPrairie - the Future County Seat" was the LaPrairie News refrain, but it wasn't to be. When the tally came in, Grand Rapids had won, 895 to 344. In the Nov. 19, 1892 issue, Thomas conceded that "our friends upriver put it all over LaPrairie in the county seat contest." Thomas made additional comment in verse form:

THE NEWS DEVIL'S LAMENT

We have met the Enemy and are His'n
We had the Wind, but were shy on votes.
How did it happen?
'Twas simply a case of felo-de-se.
For the good town - to her interests certainly blind,
Put the woodenest dunderdaunks she could find
Within her borders in charge and, well --
again I won't mention the name of the place,
But a place it is Holy Writ often mentions
Where instead of paving they use good intentions.
As they have gone, let 'em go - there's no use trying
To pick up spilt milk. No amount of crying
Will put it into the pitcher again.
But experiencia docet - let us refrain,
Should we ever have another county seat race
From putting a stick in the leader's place.

While Thomas was calling it a case of "felo-de-se" or suicide, Mayor Manston was pointing the finger at Grand Rapids for having engineered what "...was the most unlawful, fraudulent, corrupt, immoral and worst conducted election that has ever taken place in Itasca or any other county in Minnesota."

Manston brought a contest of election action, naming the Itasca County Commissioners as defendants. He filed it Christmas Eve 1892. He said that people voted twice, that of the 1,239 reported voters some 595 were non-resident loggers, whose votes were bought, and that many of the election judges and clerks received payoffs to overlook the illegal voting.

According to Manston's statement, "Citizens and resident Electors of the City of Minneapolis and elsewhere presided and acted as judges and clerks at said election precincts and entered into unlawful conspiracy with the citizens of Grand Rapids to vote the men who were temporarily in said county working in lumber camps wherein said precincts were established to vote for said Grand Rapids for the county seat and said men were fraudulently voted."

As to the payoffs, the election contest papers state that the "carpetbagger judges, clerks and lumberjacks ... received in consideration for their services ... shares of stock in the Northwestern Benefit Assn. Hospital ... and other considerations."

The county enlisted their attorney C.L. Pratt, plus C.C. McCarthy and J.N. True. After objections were made to the county's hefty defense team, McCarthy and True were dropped.

The county commissioners asserted that there were 1,239 legal votes and went on simply to deny each of the charges. They added that Manston's statements were "... false, fraudulent and seriously detrimental to the public interest and well being of said County of Itasca." They also asked that Manston pay the county's legal fees.

Some procedural problems followed and, according to a LaPrairie News report in January 1893, only one of the commissioners is named in the contest, John Killorin, and added as defendants were Judge of Probate Arnold and County Surveyor Cox. Finally, the case was thrown out of court by Judge Holland because the contestant "had failed to file the notice of appeal within the specified time." The contest of election was dropped then by motion of Manston's lawyer. "And again," said Publisher Thomas, "white winged peace has spread itself over this neighborhood."


VII
Decline

When Publisher Thomas wrote of the "white winged peace that spread over the neighborhood" after LaPrairie's defeat in the county seat election, he penned one of his more broadly ironical lines. White winged peace did not spread over the neighborhood; rather it was disappointment and bitterness that prevailed, touched off even before the election by the moving of the Northwestern Benefit Assn. Hospital to Grand Rapids and the extension upriver, too, of the Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad. As if that weren't enough, the nation was sliding into economic depression. Some LaPrairie businessmen began setting up shop elsewhere, including Grand Rapids, while others lost their businesses in a rash of fires. The town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Prairie Rivers was on the decline.

It was only days before the county seat election that the LaPrairie News reported the removal of the Northwestern Benefit Assn. Hospital. The paper said the hospital had no complaints against LaPrairie. Rather, the story goes, Grand Rapids had offered a bonus to the hospital owners to move so as to "hurt LaPrairie business and attract votes in the county seat election." LaPrairie leaders didn't take the move sitting down. They quickly made contact with the Benedictine Sisters of Mercy, at St. Joseph, Minnesota, to interest them in establishing a LaPrairie branch, as the order had done recently in Duluth. But nothing came of the effort.

The 1900 census

Married couples numbered 15, and they had an average of 2.5 children. Average age of the husbands was 46, wives 34. The rest of the population included other family relatives and five widowed persons.

Most of the employed residents were laborers (10) while the rest were: farmer, 6; school teacher, 1; logger, 2; railroad section laborer, 5; railroad section foreman, 1; real estate salesman, 1; saloon keeper, 1; cook, 2; and blacksmith,1.

Many of the adults were born in foreign countries: Canada, 15; England, 4; Luxemborg, 2; and Norway, 1. Eighteen were born in the United States, including seven in Minnesota; the rest came from Ohio, Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, Michigan and New York.

Birthplaces of the adults' parents were listed as follows: Canada, 16; Ireland, 10; England, 9; Germany, 7; Scotland, 3; Norway, 5; Luxemborg, 4; Sweden, 1, with the rest being the United States.

As to education, all are shown as being able to read, write and spell English.

Meanwhile, the Duluth and Winnipeg Railroad had been extended from LaPrairie to Grand Rapids and beyond. Although the extension was inevitable - after all, going to Winnipeg had been the goal, and Grand Rapids was only two miles beyond LaPrairie - LaPrairieites had hoped their town would remain the line's terminus, with all the local business benefits of repair shops and offices that go with the turn-around location. The consequences of the extension to Grand Rapids, in late 1890, were soon felt, but the situation became worse with the depression, the worst the nation had suffered since its beginning.

In early 1893, not long after President Grover Cleveland took office, the stock exchange collapsed. Before the year was out, some 500 banks across the country failed, plus 15,000 other sizeable businesses. Included in the failures were large mills, factories, mines, and railroads. The Duluth and Winnipeg, which had announced in October 1892 that it would build a branch immediately from LaPrairie to the Diamond and Buckeye Mines, said it would not proceed with expansion until the "...financial strigency is over and confidence is restored in the money markets." At the same time, the railroad was cutting train service and the LaPrairie shop crew was reduced from 10 to 4. "The effect of these hard times is far-reaching," the News commented. By 1900, there was only a section crew and its foreman working out of LaPrairie.

There is no detailed accounting of the failure or departure of LaPrairie's businesses, only an occasional mention or hint. The LaPrairie News reported that the LaPrairie Sawmill went into receivership in mid-1892. I.E. Leary took it over then, on lease from Wells Stone Mercantile Co., and sawed lumber until a fire closed the place down three years later.

In 1892, Emil Litschke started a harness business in LaPrairie, setting up shop and residence in the building formerly occupied by the Iron Exchange Bank. The bank, meanwhile, announced it was moving to Grand Rapids. Litchke soon moved to Grand Rapids, too, where he built an 18- by 36-foot, two-story building on Kindred Street for his shop and home. He advertised making and selling harness, saddles, bridles, whips and doing leather repair work.

The LaPrairie Cold Storage warehouse, sometimes called the LaPrairie Provision Co., was moved to Grand Rapids, as was C. Frick's livery stable. About the same time, one of LaPrairie's first businessmen, H.B. Knudsen, left with his family for Duluth to seek better fortunes.

Professionals were also departing, among them Lawyer E.E. Neal. His departure in 1893, the News said, was nothing new, "...the 'steventh time he had deserted to the Enemy upriver." Neal did not return this time.

LaPrairie Hook and Ladder goes to Grand Rapids

LaPrairie's Hook and Ladder Company had fires of its own to tend to, but in March 1893 it was called on to help out in Grand Rapids when the Pokegama Hotel caught fire. An account of LaPrairie's participation appears in the newspapers then, but a rather colorful version shows up in the manuscript for Logging Town, The Story of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, only a part of which was published. Information was supplied by Mrs. Jack O'Connell, whose husband was proprietor of LaPrairie's Fraser House then. The story goes like this: "The Pokegama fire started in the cupola which constituted the fourth floor of the building. The LaPrairie Hook and Ladder Company went over to the sister village to help, but had much difficulty in getting the outfit, which was on wheels, through the snow. They did, however, arrive in time to save the Wade Blaker livery stable.

"The Grand Rapids fire engine was frozen up solid, and useless, and the crowd of excited men upon whom (sic) the task of conquering the conflagration consequently devolved appeared fearful that a like disablement would happen to them. To forestall this, a barrel of whiskey was rolled to the middle of the street and the head knocked in. Tin cups were forthcoming, and thanks to diligent application to the preventative thus generously provided, nobody froze. Most of the volunteer firemen scrambled hastily back and forth with a cup in one hand, a bucket in the other, but along toward the last, when it appeared that the hotel was doomed in any event, many of them were seen with a cup in each hand. The hotel was reduced to ashes, but the citizens were aroused to a realization of the need of better fire-fighting equipment than a barrel of bourbon, at any rate.

Fires also figured in LaPrairie's decline. Considering that all the town's buildings were constructed of wood, a conflagration was always a major concern. "Every caution should be taken against fire this season," the News noted in June 1892. LaPrairie folks were proud of their Hook and Ladder No. 1, but in 1893 the department experienced difficulties, unelaborated on in the paper, that resulted in the failure to hold the annual meeting and election of officers as scheduled. It was rescheduled, and the shakeup resulted in the election of the following officers: C.E. Leeman, chief; Neal Coleman, first assistant; George McDonald, second assistant; John A. Bowman, secretary; and C.A. Buell, treasurer.

One of the 1893 fires destroyed the "house of ill shape." As the News reported it, "The house of prostitution that has played so prominent a part in the making of some of LaPrairie's history burned Sunday evening." The fire didn't spread any farther, but for awhile it threatened C.L. Newell's drugstore. Said the News, "The spectacle of a number of females prancing around in tights and neglige dress was highly edifying to some people Sunday night and Monday morning. As expected, all those who usually consort with women of loose character were conspicuous by their absence."


The 1928 pulpwood drive was one of the last on the Prairie River. Working on the drive for the Itasca Paper Co. were George Ferguson, loading logs onto the chain hoist, with George A. (Dell) Smith looking on; Johnny Schultz is in the launch in the background. Photo courtesy of the Itasca County Historical Society.

In late April 1893, the town got a real scare. A fire started in the McGovern building, spotted first by Joe Shepherd and Frank Fredl, a night clerk at the Fraser House. Many buildings were immediately threatened, including three bars: The White Elephant, The Office and McMahon's. For a time, the Fraser House was threatened, too. Praised for their firefighting were E.W. Fuller, Percy Baker, age 12, and Edwin French, 11, who "worked feverishly" carrying water from the railroad water tank. Nevertheless, the fire destroyed four buildings, including the McGovern and one containing Newell's drugstore stock. "LaPrairie has suffered many bad fires," the News said, "but, all in all, this one came a little to the nearest wiping out the town."

The Leary Sawmill fire occurred Sept. 11, 1895. Somewhere between 11 p.m. and midnight there was an explosion at the mill, located about a half mile from the center of town. The boiler in the engine room burst "throwing it about 30 feet towards the river." Flames, fanned by wind, rapidly destroyed the wooden structure. Luckily, the wind was blowing away from the nearby lumber yard. At some point not long after the Leary fire, there weren't any more business buildings that fires could burn.

Just when LaPrairie's decline started cannot be pinpointed. Nor can anyone say exactly when it hit its lowest point. But it was only a short time after the arrival of the railroad and incorporation that the center of business activity seems to have been shifting from LaPrairie to Grand Rapids, a trend boosted significantly by Grand Rapids' victory in the county seat election. Other events involved in the decline have already been cited - the loss of the hospital, the extension of the railroad terminus, the general hard times - all exacerbated by town feuding. In 1890, LaPrairie numbered 230, according to the special census taken for LaPrairie's petition to incorporate as a village. The 1895 state census lacks a LaPrairie count. But in 1900, the federal census reveals a decline in population, to 88. By 1910, the village's population dropped to 48.
 


On to LaPrairie History Page 6


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