The History of Northfield has never had a more rapt audience than the class convened on Sept. 14 by Brynnie Rowberg. Some of the texts of her course are given below for your own study. The photos show a field trip we took to the Northfield Cemetery and to historical homes on Northfield’s east side, courtesy of Bill Steele and Eco Trans, who provided bus transportation at a very nominal fee. The first stop, at the cemetery, allowed us a visit to the grave of Capt. Jesse Ames, the founder of Ames Mill and a prominent early citizen. (Click on photos to enlarge.) -Ed
Every history of Northfield must begin with the Ice Age. The Northfield area’s basic terrain goes back 700 million years to the Precambrian, but the surface area only 10,000 years to the Wisconsin Glacier. Without that glacier there would be no Cannon River, no Northfield, since the Cannon was once the edge of the last glacier. Among the animals that lived here were mammoths and six-foot tall beavers. The glaciers left behind souvenirs of their passing in the form of rocks known as “glacial erratics”, seen on many Northfield lawns and gardens. Such rocks, like one in the Seven Mile Woods, can weigh as much as fifty tons. At the time of settlement Northfield was a meeting point between prairie, on the east side of the Cannon, and the Big Woods (Le bois forte) on the west. It was said that at that time one could walk all the way to Mankato without coming out of the shade of a tree. A remnant of these woods exists in the form of Big Woods State Park. Northfielders, especially Dr. Harvey Storck of Carleton, and my father, were were among those who worked very hard to establish this park.
The Northfield area entered recorded history in 1689 when Nicolas Perrot, described on the bronze plaque commemorating the event, as a “handsome Frenchman”, not just any old Frenchman, claimed the area west of the Mississippi for Louis XIV. The French established forts on the Mississippi, not far from Northfield, in the 18th century, but French dominion ended in 1763 with the treaty that ended the French and Indian War. The area was ceded to Spain, then back to France, and in 1803 was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1805 the United States government sent Lt. Zebulon Pike to explore and map the area and it was he, while staying in what is now Red Wing, named our river the “Cannon”. This was an understandable mistranslation from the French. The French word for canoe (the Indian name for the river) is “canot”, and you have to be a better French speaker than I am to distinguish it from “canon” or cannon. The Ojibway name was Ingan Bosdata.
In order to demonstrate its sovereignty over the new territory, the United States began in 1820 to build Fort Snelling. The mission of the fort was as much to keep settlers out of the new territory as to protect the garrison from the Indians. A word of explanation here. I will call the members of the Ojibway and Dakota tribes Indians rather than “Native Americans”. I claim as my authority a decision made some years ago by the board which represents all Minnesota tribes.
Northfield was never a fur trading post, as were Hastings and Faribault, where Alexander Faribault had founded a trading post in 1825. In 1838-39 two scientists, Joseph Nicollet and Charles Geyer, made a journey from Fort Snelling to Spirit Lake, Iowa, passing through the Northfield area. During this expedition they carefully observed and recorded the flora and fauna encountered on the way. The journey was repeated in 2006 by St. Olaf students under the leadership of Prof. Charles Umbanhower, undertaking research which showed changes in the natural environment since settlement.
In 1848 Minnesota became a part of Wisconsin Territory, then in 1849 Minnesota Territory. In August 1851 the Treaty of Mendota was signed with the Mdwanketon Band of the Dakota and in 1854 the Northfield area was opened to settlement by Euro-Americans. The Dakota band which was most identified with what would become the Northfield area was the Wahpekute, roughly translated as “leaf shooters”. I assume that this meant that they shot arrows out of the leaves or trees. For the first few years after settlement began they continued to hunt in the area, even as towns and farms began to reduce hunting grounds.
The next few years saw a virtual explosion of nation-building in southern Minnesota. Hastings, Red Wing, Owatonna as well as many other cities and communities were established. Enterprising men – women played supporting roles – found a great deal to challenge them in these exciting times. Some were men of good character like Alexander Faribault, Philander Prescott, and the founder of Northfield, John North, whereas the founder of several other cities, Franklin Steele, was a scoundrel.
In 1854 the site which was to become Northfield was pre-empted by Daniel Kirkendahl, Daniel Turner, and Hiram Jenkins, but without lasting consequences. This was the same year in which John North arrived in Minnesota Territory. To quote: “John Wesley North was the very image of the 19th century community builder. Born on the Hudson, in Utica, in 1815 to an old New England Methodist family, he founded six communities and helped two new states, Minnesota and Nevada, to be born. Abolitionist, preacher, Republican politician, railroad promoter, land speculator, emissary for Yankee culture.” His wife, the former Ann Loomis, was well-educated, cultivated, and had inherited the money which enabled the Norths to make such a mark on their communities. With all his virtues, North never learned how to manage money, a deficiency which plagued him and his patient wife for the rest of their lives.
North first visited the rapids on the Cannon in late 1855, returned in early 1856 to build a flour mill on the east side of the river. That year saw an influx of the earliest settlers, one of whom was Hiram Scriver. In a speech given years later Scriver describes his arrival: “I came to Minnesota, riding on a stage from Hastings. As the prairies spread out before us in their living greens, dotted with the wild rose and other flowers, was it any wonder that the heart of the traveler from the barren hills of the East and the wilds of Canada should leap for joy within him and that he should feel that this was indeed a goodly land?” Scriver was himself from Hemmingford, Quebec. Many other early arrivals were also from Canada.
There was already a very small population on hand to meet Scriver. Among them were John S. Way of Vermont (Way Park), William Bierman from Illinois, Sylvanus Bunday from Orleans City, New York, Fred Shandorf, originally from France, Duncan Ferguson from Dundee, Scotland. A Baptist minister, Rev. James Wilson of Vermont came in the same year; he later was a zealous promoter of education and served on an early board of education. C.F. Whittier, father of Burt Whittier, grandfather of Grace, also came from Vermont in 1855.
The surrounding countryside was being settled at the same time. Parties of Germans, among them the Fred Sommers and the Tralle families, and a group Norwegians came to the Prairie Creek area, including Gov. Al Quie’s grandfather, Halvor Quie.
The year 1856 saw the arrival of two men who were to become leading citizens. They were Myron Skinner, who immediately opened a dry goods store and went on to become one of the city’s wealthiest men, and Ira Field who is sometimes, probably erroneously, credited with being the “field” in Northfield. The new arrivals needed not only houses, but public buildings as well. The Lyceum Building went up in 1856 and the next two years saw the erection of several houses of worship: the Congregational Church, the Baptist Church the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church (this denomination had held its first service in 1855 at the home of Edwin Larkin, a native of Litchfield, England) and the German Methodist Church. The first school was established in 1856 with 25 “scholars” in attendance.
John North’s mill went into operation in 1856. The first load of grain to be milled was brought by the Joseph Drake family, whose brick house still stands south of Northfield on Hwy. 246. Mrs. North sewed sacks for the flour by hand until a cooper’s shop was erected near the mill and barrels became available. By the beginning of 1857 there were two hotels, a third under construction, two carriages, two blacksmith shops, and the Lyceum Building housed a small library and reading room. Gibson’s, an early hotel, was known as “the hash factory”.
Public transportation was available from a very early date, when the village had only 240 inhabitants. The principal line stage coach line ran from Hastings through Hampton to Northfield. In my childhood there were still old ladies who had come to Northfield by stage. They regarded Hampton, a connecting point for several lines, as a shocking place, full of horsey men, idlers, drinkers of much too much whiskey. It’s cause for reflection when one thinks that in 1857 Grandma could go by public transportation from Northfield to Hastings and Faribault, slowly and uncomfortably, but she still got there. She couldn’t do so in 2010. As to the whiskey referred to above, Northfield’s problems with alcohol first surfaced in 1857 when Benjamin Kimball opened a bar and sold liquor for a few weeks. Then George Loomis (John North’s brother-in-law), W.W. Willis, and Warren Weed demolished the barrels and bottles. Northfield remained a “dry” community until recent times, but problems caused by alcohol abuse remain. Just ask the administrators of both of our colleges.
Indians continued to pass through the Northfield area during settlement. In the harsh winter of 1857 Esther Sloan Wood, whose family had settled in the Northfield area during the previous year, remembered: In the winter of 1857 with deep snow, “I did not see a white person but saw several Indians. The first one I saw gave me quite a fright. I heard a little noise, and looking up saw an Indian at my door and I am sure that I showed my fear, for he gave me a pitiful look and said ‘You ‘fraid Injuns?’ ‘Yes, I’m afraid of Indians.’ ‘When think Injun no think bear, wolf, think man’ I thought that means when I think of Indians, don’t think of them as wild beasts but think of them as humans. My feeling toward the Indians was completely revolutionized.”
All contacts with Indians passing through were not as hopeful and pleasant as the man of Mrs. Wood’s encounter. In 1856 the Ojibway fought and won a battle with the Dakota not far from Northfield. They celebrated their victory with a scalp dance, featuring three scalps of their enemies. The dance was held at a place described as “near the north end of what is now West Water Street on the side hill, a few rods from the river.” Witnesses included Hiram Scriver and D. F. Kelley, who had some knowledge of the Ojibway language. They reported that drums and fifes and incomprehensible shouts accompanied the dancing. As reported by Emily North Messer, the North family saw the dance from a distance, from their own home.
Northfield, Minnesota Territory, and the rest of the country suffered a recession in 1856 and the economic situation worsened in 1857. It was blamed on “too much borrowing, too much expansion, too many extravagant plans.” To eke out their meagre incomes Northfielders were assisted by the “accidental discovery of large quantities of ginseng which proved a godsend. From May to July the woods were filled with ginseng hunters. It brought as much as fifty cents a pound.” This is the explanation for the name “Ginseng Court”, just off St. Olaf Avenue.
The ever optimistic John North built a new hotel called the American House in 1857, just about the time he was suffering a financial disaster of his own. He sold the mill to his old friend, Charles Wheaton of Dutchess County, New York, and left Northfield in 1858, under a cloud. He was blamed, probably unjustly, for the unhappy financial position of many in the community. Investments in badly-run railroads were at the heart of the problem. He returned only once for a brief visit thirty years later.
A bit about Wheaton. He was well-educated, an early anti-slavery advocate, a friend of William Lloyd Garrison, and also active in the temperance movement. He was a member of the Presbyterian Church until it split over the question of slavery whereupon he joined the Congregational Church. After the death of his first wife and loss of much of his money in railroad investments, he came to Northfield at the urging of John North. He was still able to buy North’s mill and to establish a newspaper, The Rice County Journal, which he published for many years. He sold the mill in 1864 to Jesse Ames, of whom more later on.
From the very beginning Northfield served as a processing and trade center for farmers and to some extent continues to do so to this day. The earliest settlers, under the leadership of the idealistic John North, wanted a co-operative community, with a way of life emphasizing family, education, culture, and religion. Although all newcomers did not share this vision, it was still alive in the 1930’s as I will discuss in a later lecture.
The economic situation remained mired in depression in 1858 and, moreover, the country was torn by disputes over slavery. This was one of the issues under discussion at the newly formed debating society which held its meetings at the Lyceum Building. The first question to be debated was, however, that of female suffrage. Supporters of the right of women to vote won, 62 years before the country as a whole would catch up. An explanation is offered by a writer of the time: “Young men and old bachelors, eager to attract women to Northfield, offered this as an inducement for women to settle here. Time hung heavy on our hands since money and girls, prime necessities of life, were scarce.”
Hard times and the shortage of young women did not, however, deter the settlers from organizing theatricals, although no record exists telling us where and when the plays were performed. A list of offerings does, however, exist. The small community of Northfield was at that time without a government but in 1858 Northfield township was formed with John S. Way, George Thorpe, and J. H. Hunt on the board of supervisors.
Settlers from the East and from Europe continued to move into the area until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Migration to the Northfield area then ceased and did not resume until after the end of the war in 1865.
Not much information is available on Northfield during the Civil War, but the times must have been very difficult for everyone. Most people had relatives here or “back east” serving in the armed forces. Manufactured goods of all kinds were hard to come by. The mills in Northfield and along the Cannon were under pressure to supply flour for the troops and civilian population. Rice County had a quota of 336 men to fill, and it did so, but it was reported that many men of Irish and French backgrounds were slow to enlist. The Irish were well aware of a long history of enmity with the English, still alive in New England, and it was less than one hundred years since the French had lost Canada to the British.
Even the few people then resident in Northfield volunteered in the great national crisis of the Civil War. Women formed Soldiers Aid Societies and joined the Women’s Relief Corps of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) which bought but mostly made items for use by the military. A partial list gives one a heart- breaking feeling of the suffering and appalling conditions endured by the troops, and the poverty and self-sacrifice of those at home: “8 quilts, 17 pillows, 2 dozen woolen socks, 8 coarse combs, slippers, 9 new shirts,1 dozen brown belts, 1 package linen thread, 5 papers of needles, 2 pounds of castile soap, 5 books and 2 Bibles.”
Northfield suffered losses of men. William Bowe, three Fredenburg brothers, and two Closson brothers were killed. Wellington, Andrew and Marvin Emery marched with Sherman through Georgia, as did Halvor Quie, Al’s grandfather, who fought in eleven battles, and was wounded at Antietam. He lived to return to the farm not far from Northfield. His grandson says that he used to meet a fellow farmer, also a veteran, at the road and the two would fall in step, then march down the farm lane.
During the midst of the Civil War, in the summer of 1862, Minnesotans were horrified and terrified by the events known in my childhood as the Sioux Uprising, now termed the Dakota Conflict. This came at a time when most young men were serving in the Union Army, and settlers, particularly those on isolated farms felt, and in many cases were, defenseless. A description written a few years later: “In the autumn of 1862, after the Sioux Massacre, the people in and about Northfield were in a chronic state of apprehension. Indians were constantly passing in small bands, and while the days were passed with feelings of security, the nights were instant with emotions of dread, every sound was transformed into indications of the approach of the blood-thirsty savages.”
This sounds and probably is harsh and unfeeling toward the Dakota, but it should be remembered that it was only a few years earlier that a scalp dance had been held in Northfield, and that news from the New Ulm area reported actions by some Indians which were truly horrifying. Moreover, nights in a small town without street- lights, in homes lit only by candles or kerosene lamps, were dark in a way almost incomprehensible to us in our much too brightly lit times. After the Civil War finally came to an end on April 9, 1865, the relief must have been overwhelming. Still, the losses in lives had been horrendous, and grief did not cease with the end of the war. In the near-by Holden community, my great- great grandparents learned that their grandson, 17 years old and a freshman at Luther College, a private in the Union Army, had died of fever just eight days before Appomatox.