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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


VII
Never a 'ghost town'

Characterizations of LaPrairie's condition following the county seat election have, for the most part, missed the mark. LaPrairie certainly wasn't the booming town it had been at the start, but neither was it a "ghost town," the favorite appellation of several commentators. An unpublished portion of Logging Town, The Story of Grand Rapids, Minnesota includes one of the more fanciful portrayals: "LaPrairie's final gasps as a town were drowned out by the derisive screech of the locomotives as trains rushed through that erstwhile terminus with unabated speed. The death knell of the would-be metropolis had been sounded by election tellers in 1892, and by 1900, it was down-at-the-heel and almost completely deserted, without hope or ambition, shamefacedly withdrawing its tumbledown shacks behind the forest greenery, and cringing before the ribald hoots of engines which gave it no further notice. LaPrairie was no more." Unkind and inaccurate. The remaining people did not lack ambition, nor did they shamefacedly withdraw. The commercial decline and the departure of many of the residents did lead to the disbanding of the village council, in 1911. But the people held onto their LaPrairie identity and strengthened their social ties - ties that became the base for reactivating LaPrairie as a viable political unit. The key to this development was the LaPrairie school.

John G. Fraser and his son, William J., in the cornfield at their LaPrairie farm, about 1919.
John G. Fraser and his son, William J., in the cornfield at their LaPrairie farm, about 1919.
Photo courtesy of Jack Fraser.

The founders of LaPrairie knew the importance of having a LaPrairie school. They started one in the community as soon as they could and jealously guarded its autonomy. When Itasca County was organized as School District #1, LaPrairieites wanted no part of it because of the antagonism that had already grown up between them and their Rapids neighbors. Contrary to some reports, this episode did not follow the county seat election, but preceded it. The antagonism was rooted in Grand Rapids' attempt to block LaPrairie's incorporation as a village, which began almost two and one-half years before the county seat election. On May 6, 1890, when the Aitkin County Board of Commissioners was considering LaPrairie's petition for incorporation, John Beckfelt, a Grand Rapids mercantile store owner, and others from upriver appeared to oppose it. Beckfelt contended that LaPrairie lacked the 175 residents required for village status, so the county commissioners postponed the LaPrairie request. Meanwhile, Grand Rapids, in hopes of incorporating first, presented its own petition, plus a court injunction blocking the LaPrairie move. By October, the Grand Rapids challenge was settled. The Aitkin board, satisfied that LaPrairie met the population requirement, set LaPrairie's incorporation election for Dec. 22, 1890. Grand Rapids' incorporation was delayed, however, with the election set, eventually, for June 9, 1891.

LaPrairie school students, about 1926
LaPrairie school students, about 1926. Students were identified by Jack Fraser, Coleraine, as follows: Left to right, front row, Dorothy Allen, Edna Anderson, Jean Patten, Daisy Fremont, Rose Ranger, (unidentified), Helen Sisler and Rose Fremont; middle row, Joe Lichenberg, Willard Anderson, Bobbie Sisler, Jim Hoolihan, John Ritter, Bill Sullivan and Lloyd Brown; back row, John Unger, Dan Hoolihan, Winnie Jones, Josephine Jones, Edna Anderson, Natalie Johnson, Elaine Cyrus, Jack Fraser and Darwin Franks. Teacher, at rear, unidentified. Photo courtesy of Jack Fraser.

Only a month after Grand Rapids voters approved incorporation, LaPrairie citizens went to the Itasca County board of commissioners (which was still in the process of becoming fully independent from Aitkin County) to secure autonomy for their school. They asked for establishment of School District #2. The area included LaPrairie and immediate environs, and had a population of 250, including 35 school age children. Shortly after that, the board approved the district, on July 31, 1891. Then the board allotted $1,500 for the new district's operation, and the school board, composed of Moses Manston, J.A. Bowman and S.S. McMahon, began operating.

Since LaPrairie's property valuation slid downward at the turn of the century, the county board added territory east of the village to the new school district. Initially that didn't increase the tax base substantially, but soon the area's promise of iron ore was realized and, suddenly, the district became rich. As miners came and the towns of Bovey and Coleraine grew up, the main demand for school facilities shifted to the east. In 1905, the District #2 board members were all LaPrairieites (John G. Fraser, E.J. Anderson and A.M. Sisler) and they became the focus for the competing school facility demands of Bovey and Coleraine citizens. A compromise was reached but, meanwhile, Fraser left the board, to run for sheriff. He was replaced by H.C. Dudley of Bovey and that was the beginning of the shift in District #2 control away from LaPrairie.

In 1906, the LaPrairie school had an enrollment of 15. The teacher was a Miss Berry. In 1912, when the school needed a new teacher, L.R. Salisch, chairman of the school board, was said to have told Supt. J.A. Van Dyke to get the best. He got Mabel Cooper, who served for a number of years to the great satisfaction of LaPrairieites before being promoted to principal of the Taconite school and then the Greenway school.

LaPrairie's old school was only one of two public buildings in the community in 1917, at which time it became the only one. According to recorded recollections of LaPrairieites, the LaPrairie post office, operated then by Eugene Arnold, was discontinued and the building moved to Grand Rapids. Frances Mullins, a longtime resident of the area, has told of staying home from school just to watch the building's departure. In 1918, LaPrairie got a new school, a two-story brick building, constructed at a cost of $32,467.

The new LaPrairie school continued to be the gathering place for the community. LaPrairie had a Farmer's Club as early as 1890, which met at the school then, as did successor organizations including, some say, the Farm Bureau. Some business was conducted at these meetings, but most remember the fun - the spelldowns, the basket socials, musical presentations, community sings and dances. Special feature of a meeting in 1920 was the playing of a radio, which someone brought over from Grand Rapids. Meanwhile, George Ritter, who had the first automobile in LaPrairie (in 1916), treated kids to rides on the last day of school.

LaPrairieites gathered frequently at the LaPrairie school for community events of all kinds.
LaPrairieites gathered frequently at the LaPrairie school for community events of all kinds. Here is the cast of a play, circa 1935. Seated in the front are Mr. and Mrs. S.E. Bunnell; "Sandy" Fraser is in the back row, center, in bibbed pants.

Jeanette Voges, at 95 the oldest living resident of LaPrairie in 1990, recalled with fondness the basket socials and dances. One gathering especially stood out in her memory - a mock wedding that she participated in. She said Elmer Anderson was the bride and "Sandy" Fraser the groom. "They used a bullring for the wedding ring," Mrs Voges said, "and Donald Weiss was the minister and he used a Montgomery Ward catalog for the Bible." Mrs. Voges wore a blue, beaded dress and sang "Born to Lose," during which "I never hit a right note. We had flower girls, too. One of them was Mrs. Thiessen, and there was 'Fat Alice' and 'Black Alice' ... that's what we called them. They were the Anderson girls." A dance followed, and for the rest of the night, Mrs. Voges said, "we danced the light fantastic."

During World War II, Mrs. Voges said the Sislers' hired man went into the service and she, Mrs. Voges, helped out by driving the family's milk truck on deliveries. School children, meanwhile, were enlisted to collect scrap for the war effort, and the school district was hard-pressed to keep and hire teachers.

Jeanette Voges, at 95 the oldest resident in LaPrairie, posed for this photo at the LaPrairie Centennial with Mayor Robert Herdman.
Jeanette Voges, at 95 the oldest resident in LaPrairie, posed for this photo at the LaPrairie Centennial with Mayor Robert Herdman.

Among the LaPrairie teachers was Ruth Fraser, who came in the Thirties from a small town near Hutchinson, Minnesota. She taught at the LaPrairie school a year and a half before she was transferred to the Marble school. Female teachers had to be single then, and Mrs. Fraser recalled that "the girl at Marble got married at Thanksgiving and, though she tried, she couldn't keep it a secret, of course. So she lost her job and I was transferred there." Mrs. Fraser stayed at Marble until 1935 when she was married to R.A. "Sandy" Fraser, who she met earlier at one of the school socials in LaPrairie.

Other LaPrairie teachers of the Thirties included Lena Zanna, who taught the upper grades, and Irene Lynn, the lower; Zanna stayed on until 1936. During Zanna's tenure, Ruth A. Miska was hired for the lower grades and as principal.
Beginning in 1936, Mary Martinetto taught the upper grades and Stella Sanger, the lower. Lucille Constantine served for awhile prior to 1939. In 1939, Irene Hughes came on as principal. In 1942, Ellen Marinson was upper grades teacher and principal, followed by Minnie Gunderson, upper, and Melba Jacobson, lower. Thora Hansie was hired in 1944 as upper grades teacher. J.A. Van Dyke, the first superintendent of District #2 was succeeded by H.W. Dutter, followed by James K. Michie in 1944.

Meanwhile, the school district, which became Coleraine District #316, was growing ever larger in the eastern area, and the financially prudent placement and use of facilities pointed toward the closing of the LaPrairie school. As early as 1940, an Interim Investigative Commission recommended the closing of Cloverdale, Pengilly and Taconite schools, as well as LaPrairie's. As the Fifties dawned, LaPrairie's closing became a certainty. Some of the older elementary students were already being bused out. Only grades one through four were being served at LaPrairie. LaPrairie parents were reconciled to the closing, but they didn't want all students bused until the district finished the new Van Dyke school in Coleraine, the one for which their children were ultimately destined. A delegation went to the school board in August 1954 to forestall the closing, and they were successful. Attending the meeting were Mrs. Archibald, Mrs. Green, Mrs. Marok, Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Moren, Mrs. Ellis, Mrs. Ritter and W.H. Voges. The next year, the new Van Dyke school was ready and all LaPrairie children began attending there.

The LaPrairie school was put up for bids, but little interest was shown right away. The reactivated LaPrairie village council showed interest in it for awhile as a council and community meeting place, but dropped the idea. Eventually the building was bought, the upper story removed and the lower one converted to an apartment building, which still stands at LaPrairie Avenue and Fraser Street.


IX
A matter of $101.09

Compared with its meteoric rise in 1890, LaPrairie's new beginning as a village was modest. The council had quit meeting in 1911, but LaPrairie's legal incorporation remained on the books. Whether LaPrairieites ever discussed reactivating the council during the next two or three decades isn't known, but it probably is not likely considering the village's small population and the lack of a significant tax base. The situation changed in 1948, however, because of a matter of $101.09.

In 1947, the Minnesota Legislature decided the state should share cigarette and liquor tax revenues with its counties and municipalities on a per capita basis beginning the next year. And in 1948, LaPrairie, still listed as a legal corporation, had $101.09 coming. (Itasca County's share was $26,777, while the Village of Grand Rapids was alloted $7,848.) Itasca County received LaPrairie's share, but for lack of a LaPrairie government didn't know what to do with it. County Auditor R.J. Whaling passed the question to State Auditor Stafford King, who referred Whaling to the Minnesota Attorney General's office. While the state's lawyers wrestled with the legal questions, others had ideas about LaPrairie's fate.

At the Grand Rapids township annual meeting, in March 1948, not long after the announcement of the cigarette and liquor tax allotments, Allen J. Doran proposed the dissolution of LaPrairie. He had proposed that at the annual meeting the year before, too. Francis Muffins, the Grand Rapids Township clerk, told the meeting he had learned from the state attorney general's office that Grand Rapids Township or Itasca County could legally initiate proceedings to dissolve LaPrairie. R.A. "Sandy" Fraser suggested instead that they consult with LaPrairieites first, in case they might want to begin again. They did.

On May 3, at the LaPrairie school, 19 LaPrairie citizens, with their collective eye on the village's cigarette and liquor tax money, met and reactivated LaPrairie as a political entity. Attending were Mr. and Mrs. William Voges, Mr. and Mrs. L.A. Archibald, Mr. and Mrs. John Ritter, Mr. and Mrs. Art Ryan, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Sisler, Mr. and Mrs. Elias Black, Mrs. Thiesen, George Guertin, Glen Bunker, Chet Anderson, Kenneth Walters and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Walters. They elected a mayor and council, who began the work of the village. William Voges was the first mayor. Also elected were L.A. Archibald, clerk; Mrs. John Ritter, treasurer; and Art Ryan, Mrs. Ralph Sisler and Chester Anderson, trustees. In December, LaPrairie voters picked officers for full terms, with Voges and Archibald chosen mayor and clerk again, and Leo Demarais, George Guertin, Glen Bunker and Neil Porter the trustees.

Having been inactive for nearly four decades, the first councils had to begin from the beginning, which meant buying pencils, paper and record books, adopting a seal, passing basic ordinances and assessing taxes. The village's assessed value at the time was $5,356 and the first levy on villagers was set at $250. Small though the levy was, the county quickly informed LaPrairie that it exceeded legal limits. The county advised making reductions as follows: general revenue from $150 to $107.12, fire from $125 to $26.78 and road and bridge from $75 to $53.57.

During the next decade, the council continued to lay the groundwork for LaPrairie government. Council members, who received $1.50 per meeting (the mayor received $2), added more ordinances to the books, contracted for fire protection with Grand Rapids, explored obtaining a village-wide water system and a permanent meeting place, and heard complaints from citizens.

Citizens worried about speeding cars, controlling dogs and the feeding of garbage to livestock within the village limits. In 1954, there was a fire at the LaPrairie school; village records don't show the amount of damage, but the fire call cost $46. Soon the LaPrairie school was to close and the council considered purchasing it for council chambers and a community gathering place. In 1956, the village bid $1,500 for the school, but a deal never was made.

In another decision that year, the Town of Grand Rapids was hired to grade and maintain streets at $50 a year. In the next year, citizens proposed a skating rink. As the Fifties shaded into the Sixties, liquor, annexation and water became important issues.

A motel, restaurant and banks are among the establishments in LaPrairie's commercial section on Highway 169 East.
A motel, restaurant and banks are among the establishments in LaPrairie's commercial section on Highway 169 East.

THE SIXTIES

In 1959, the LaPrairie council annexed the Hoolihan property, in Grand Rapids township, some 120 acres fronting on Highway 169 East. The property included the Coca Cola (now Pepsi Cola) bottling plant on the west to Motschenbacher's Rainbow Club on the east. Meanwhile, the LaPrairie council granted DeLyle and Delores Motschenbacher, the owners of the Rainbow Club, a license to sell liquor by the bottle as well as drinks. These actions touched off a storm upriver.
The Village of Grand Rapids considered challenging LaPrairie's annexation procedures, but in so doing raised questions in Grand Rapids about the legal validity of that village expending public funds for the challenge. The real worry for Grand Rapids was a competing bottle shop. For the previous 13 years, Grand Rapids had been operating a municipal liquor store, a monopoly which had earned it sizeable profits. In 1959, the village reported clearing $93,959.44 from its liquor operation. So important were the liquor profits that the publisher-editor of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review wrote that without the liquor store profits "the financial outlook for the Village of Grand Rapids would be very difficult if not impossible." A legal challenge was taken up by a few Grand Rapids citizens privately, but the action apparently was dropped.

No sooner had the dust settled on the annexation than another Grand Rapids-LaPrairie dispute began. It involved a request in 1963 for the extension of water from the village of Grand Rapids to a 60-unit motel, the Rainbow Inn, on the disputed tract just annexed to LaPrairie. Making the request was the DMN Corp., the principals being DeLyle Motschenbacher, George Glorvigen and James Preece. Still smarting from the decline in their municipal liquor profits, some in Grand Rapids didn't think their village should serve outside property owners with a facility Grand Rapidians had built, no matter what the terms. A Grand Rapids motel owner protested, too, saying the lower property taxes in LaPrairie gave the Rainbow an unfair competitive advantage in room rates.

The Grand Rapids council decision came after a final, two hour-15 minute meeting, which the Grand Rapids paper described as "one of the liveliest in the town's history." The chambers were filled with Grand Rapids citizens. Representing LaPrairie were Mayor Gordon Anderson, Clerk LeRoy "Bud" Olson and LaPrairie's attorney, Harry Chalupsky. In the end, the council voted unanimously to go ahead, adhering to what was basically the Rainbow's proposal. The Rainbow would pay full costs of the installation, plus a fire hydrant, and the Village of Grand Rapids would receive the necessary easements at no cost. It was an important cooperative step for the two communities; and, perhaps, most important for the future was the decision then to discuss LaPrairie's sewer and water needs via a joint committee of the villages.


Tom Adamson, center, was mayor of LaPrairie from 1988 to mid-1990, when he left for a new teaching position in Phoenix, Arizona. He was instrumental in the planning for LaPrairie's Centennial. Council members are, left to right, Steve Feyma, Clerk-treasurer Nancy Gimpl', Adamson, Floyd Rueckert and Robert Herd-man, who succeeded Adamson as mayor. Photo by the author.

Before the Sixties passed, other important decisions were made. LaPrairie embarked on a major street improvement plan, and made progress toward establishing a community building that would house the village operation. The idea of buying the school faded, and talk began of the village building its own building. In 1964, Art Ryan donated five acres of land for a city park, which became the site for a village hall-community building and village garage. The park and community building are named after Ryan. Meanwhile, a recreation committee was formed and it pushed ahead with significant park improvement plans.

Liquor became an issue again when the Minnesota Legislature made legal the Sunday sale of liquor drinks in food establishments, if approved locally. In 1967 and 1968, LaPrairieites rejected Sunday liquor, but in 1969, they approved it by two votes, 47 to 45. LaPrairie has had Sunday liquor ever since.

THE SEVENTIES

At the turn of the decade, LaPrairie dealt with two matters of governmental organization. In 1969, voters were asked to decide if they wanted to continue the village's Standard Plan of government or switch to the Plan A system. Under the Standard Plan, villages (now cities) have an elected mayor, elected clerk (or clerk-treasurer) and three trustees, while Plan A provides for an appointed clerk and a fourth elected trustee, as well as mayor. The new state law said villages had to change to Plan A in 1970 unless voters rejected it. Favoring the Standard Plan they had used for many years, the voters rejected Plan A. LaPrairie continues today with the Standard Plan. It is designated a city, the result of a state law that did away with the village designation. LaPrairie also phased out the justices of the peace, which was another change mandated by state law.

Perhaps the most important action of the village in the Seventies was the adoption of a comprehensive zoning ordinance which, with refinements, has guided the development of LaPrairie ever since.

The zoning ordinance may have been the most important matter for the village then, but the entertainment at the Oasis Inn is what received broad attention in the community. The routine of Venus Starr, characterized as a go-go dancer, prompted many citizens to call the mayor and members of the council. They didn't think the village's reputation was enhanced by Miss Starr's "vulgar" performances. Although Miss Starr moved on, complaints continued concerning noise at the club. And when the owner proposed moving in a trailer next to the club for use by the entertainers, the council responded with an emphatic "NO".
Wiring of the village for cable television continued in the Seventies, during which time the council learned to its surprise that parts of the village had already been wired, as early as 1965.

Assessed valuation of LaPrairie continued up, reaching $1.1 million by mid-decade. An old issue hung around: Dog control. And a couple new ones came forward: Smoking in the council chambers and other public places and conservation of energy, the latter having been touched off by the two Mideast oil crises of the Seventies. Council members agreed to ban smoking during council meetings and to establish an energy conservation committee.

EIGHTIES

LaPrairie moved ahead in the Eighties with the completion of its sanitary sewer system, which is hooked into the City of Grand Rapids system, and stepped up plans for a water system, which would tie into the Grand Rapids system, too. LaPrairie was waiting word in 1990 on its application for an Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) grant for water line installation. On Sept. 25, 1990, the city received word that the IRRRB approved the request. LaPrairie, meanwhile, added to its commercial-industrial tax base with the arrival of two banks on Highway 169 east - the LaPrairie branches of the First National Bank of Deer River and the First National Bank of Coleraine. Another new addition was the LaPrairie Church of God. But the largest addition was Sandstrom's, a wholesale distributor of institutional and snack food products, which employs about 50 persons fulltime. It moved to the LaPrairie Center from Grand Rapids.


 


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