Grand Opening of the Steffel Wing

Join us on Thursday, May 20 to herald in a new chapter of MCHS history.  At 4:30pm we will be hosing a Grand Opening of our new wing to the museum.  The addition is named the Steffel Wing, after our gracious donors, Vern and Alyce Steffel.  The event begins at 4:30 with a book signing followed by a ribbon cutting ceremony at 5:30 and a mural unveil to follow afterward.  Admission is free!

Breakfast Club 5-24

The McLeod County Historical Society will be hosting our monthly Members Breakfast Club on Monday May 24@ 10:30am.  The event will center around storms of the past where guests are asked to share memories of severe weather that they have been through in the past.

The Plato Fire

It was a soft autumn evening, and a stiff, southernly breeze wafted across Plato, MN. It was 5pm, and the good people of the community were just beginning to settle down. Stores were closing for the day or would soon do so, buggies pulled along by horses were rolling down the dirt streets of town, and meals were being prepared in the homes on the community’s outskirts.
On the south end of town, atop the Hastings and Dakota Railroad Track, sat a long, westbound freight train. The train had a heavy load to pull and in Plato was unloading a bit of cargo. In those days, the trains were pulled by large, black steam engines that were fueled by wood or, more commonly coal. Tasked with pulling a heavy load, the fire in the firebox would have to be stoked hot with fuel before taking off. With a shovel in hand and soot on his brow, the train’s fireman shoveled copious amounts of coal into the firebox until the glowing inferno was such that the train could be powered.

With its bell ringing and black smoke curling toward the sky, the freight train began moving westward toward Glencoe where it would drop its next load. The engine began to chug, puffing smoke and steam from its chimney. Suddenly, and without warning, a large ember, glowing red, was spat upward from the engine’s smokestack. It flew through the sky, then descended on the cedar shingled roof of the Empire elevator building. As the train slowly rolled out of town, the shingles around the ember began to smolder.

It didn’t take long for the breeze to turn the dry shingles into a smoking, smoldering bed of coal. Before long, the roof had caught fire. In what seemed like moments, the Strong and Miller Elevator, too, had caught fire, and in no time at all, the strong wind blew the heat and coals across the narrow street and started an entire block on fire.
Buildings in those days were made of wood and were built near one another. The hot, tickling flames from the fire spread from building to building with little effort. The townspeople, by this time, were well aware of the situation and worked frantically to fight the fire, but it was appearing to be a losing battle – like a prairie fire spreading across a windswept and drought stricken field.

The last hope for the town were the fire departments of Glencoe and Norwood where the alarm had already been sounded. Firefighters from both towns, aboard horse pulled fire carts, raced to meet at Plato where the inferno was out of control. By the time they arrived, it was nearly too late. Most of the downtown business block was engulfed in flames. At this time, it was decided by both departments to abandon fighting the fire and concentrate their efforts on saving the remainder of the town. This they did, with Glencoe working on the west end of town and Norwood on the east. Though much of the downtown was destroyed, the fire was contained to the one block. When it was over, only two buildings were left standing.

Fires were a regular evil in those days. Most buildings were made of wood and heated by burning wood, coal, or oil. Unfortunately for Plato, another fire would spread just four years down the road, yet never as bad as the famous fire of 1896 – one which went down in history and is still talked about today.

Holiday Cheer in a Troubling Time

2020 has been a rather detestable year to say the least, so much that I don’t feel I need to go great lengths to describe the situation. If future generations read this and wonder what worldwide ailments I speak of, I instruct you to google, or whatever means of searching reference you have in the future, 2020 and you will likely find out all you need to know. At any rate, there is one bright spot in 2020, aside from it being nearly over, and that is the fact that Christmas is near.

In spite of forces that might militate against it, there’s a certain sense of Christmas spirit this year that I haven’t felt for a while, evident of the seemingly uptick in Christmas lights that shine from front lawns this year. Oddly, or perhaps not so, it’s a similar situation today, as it was in December of 1931.

It was a tough time for Americans. The nation was amid an economic privation so merciless that history acknowledges it as “The Great Depression”. There were those who prospered during the depression, yet most suffered in some way, shape, or form. For some, it was just another day of destitution, for others, however, the Christmas season was a bright, shining star that glowed bright in the dark world around it.

In an uplifting article from the Glencoe Enterprise, dated in December of 1931, Author Win. V. Working wrote a reflection piece on the struggles of the time and the hope that the Christmas season brought to a struggling world. When people could not afford gifts, McLeod County merchants greatly reduced their prices to make their goods affordable for everyone. He wrote “It has been said that a corporation has no soul. Certainly, the large outside firms are lacking the human qualities that we find in our local merchants. It has been demonstrated to us this year that they are our real friends and the ones on whom we may rely in time of stress. As a result of this, the Christmas spirit really seems to be more in evidence this year than in former years. Adversity brings us closer together, and while the present situation is of little import when compared to a real disaster, the pinch has been sufficient to bring out the facts cited”.

In a troubling time, Working also noted that though things were tough, the situation was not so bad as it was for the early settlers in McLeod County, especially those who struggled through the financial panic of the late 1850s. During the panic, money was nonexistent in Minnesota and most communities operated on a system of barter. To make matters worse, spring crops were at the mercy of Rocky Mountain Grasshoppers that could devour a field, coupled with a string of late frosts, those living on the frontier at the time faced the reality of starvation as well as poverty. Working cited a quote from an unnamed pioneer who, in December of 1857, wrote “Times are hard and there will be much suffering this winter if prospects do not become brighter toward spring. I do not know what many of the people here will do as they have no money and little chance to earn enough to provide for the families”.

It’s odd how we, as humans, tend to look to the past for comfort in the present. Today, we look back at the Spanish Flu Pandemic, or the Great Depression as if to say, “at least it isn’t that bad”, and for Win V. Working and those of his time, they looked back to the generations before they in order to say the same. Perhaps looking to the past for comfort is merely a part of human nature.

To close, I’ll offer the words of our cited author, “It is a good thing for us to have a little hard luck one in a while, if only to cause us to more fully appreciate life’s values. The men and women of the early years knew more of life than we. They were in direct and constant contact with its realities. Their pleasures were few and simple but were enhanced by the contrast to their workaday lives. We might all be happier if we could go back to the plain living and the modest objectives of the pioneer days. Still, with a proper appreciation of these facts, we may better enjoy our present circumstances.”

Book Available!

The long awaited book of McLeod County History short stories, written by Brian Haines, and illustrated by David Wegscheid is now available at MCHS.  Books can be purchased on site, or can be ordered by calling 320-587-2109 and a copy will be reserved and/or sent to you (shipping rates apply).

A Budding Rivalry

It was the late 1850s. Though the exact date is not recorded, one can presume the event happened during a warm weather month, and on a pleasant day (you’ll see what I mean). For the sake of a good story, and bearing in mind that I’m at the end of my rope in regards to winter, we’ll place this narrative in the spring of the year – on a lovely day with plenty of sunshine, songbirds singing, budding flowers on the prairie, and a temperature of no more or no less than 73 degrees. It was on such a splendid morning that A. P. Fitch found himself driving his wagon toward Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was, at the time, a town on the rise. Its dirt streets were lined with several homes and budding businesses attractive to settlers looking for a place to lay down their roots. Its founders were of New England stock, steadfast in their desire to promote the ideals of nineteenth century progressivism. They, along with several of the town’s co-founders and leading citizens, fervently worked toward securing a prosperous future for their community.

A.P. Fitch did not live in Hutchinson, but on this day was compelled to take a ride into the town for the sake of attending a church service. In those days, few frontier settlements had buildings designated as churches. Most towns, as did Hutchinson, employed a circuit preacher who would travel from settlement to settlement and perform service in one of the larger community homes. Oftentimes, guests were invited to a place at the hosts dinner table when the service concluded.
Mr. Fitch was a relative newcomer to the area, and a first-time visitor to Hutchinson. It just so happened, that on that day, the service was held in the home of Asa Hutchinson, one of the town’s founders and most prominent citizens. Mr. Fitch was graciously welcomed by Asa, who with the utmost passion, promoted his community to the newcomer. Asa did his best to elevate the town’s points of interest, applaud its potential, and even confided in Mr. Fitch the plans he and others had for advancing the town’s interests.

The conversation continued at Asa’s dinner table, where Asa revealed to Mr. Fitch, that he and a group of committed town leaders had been meeting in private to hatch a plan that would wrestle the county seat away from Glencoe, McLeod County’s largest community. Mr. Fitch listened closely, and with great interest as Asa revealed the details of their plan.
With the dinner concluded, Mr. Fitch said his goodbyes and bid his gracious host farewell. He began his ride back home, pondering the events of the day – the service, the meal, and the news of Hutchinson becoming the new seat of McLeod County. Ordinarily, a guest in someone’s home would not divulge a private conversation with the host, but Mr. Fitch had other plans. It’s likely that his return was made with a bit of haste. Unlike the morning journey, A.P. Fitch did not take time to take in the soft springtime afternoon. Instead, his mind raced. He had to get home and share the news with everyone he knew, because after all, everyone he knew lived in Glencoe.

The Duck Cabin

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve always felt that there’s more to the phrase, however, in that those thousand words are probably different for each person. Some see a painting for what it is – a capture of an event or of people. Others see a story unfolding on canvas. I guess I’m of the latter. I like to think that an artist is telling a story with the stroke of a brush. I suppose in some ways the artist is as much a storyteller as a writer, or even the outdoorsman who stretches the truth of his/her stories. For myself, being a writer and outdoorsman, a thousand words are never enough.

There’s a painting by Les Kouba that I’m rather fond of. It’s titled, “The End of a Classic Era”. Les Kouba admirers probably know that the artist had a flair for telling a story in his paintings. It’s as if the images that came from his brush were a live event unfolding before the viewers eyes. For an outdoorsman and storyteller such as myself, I can’t help but get lost in the event that unfolds on the painting.

It was the late 20s, a golden era of waterfowl hunting. September passed, pleasant with cool autumn mornings and warm summer afternoons. It was weather that stuck into October, an agreeable climate for long walks and watching the leaves change color. As satisfactory as it was, however. it was doomed to change. On the last week of the month a cold snap swept through the region. From the north came a strong wind, chilly to even the heartiest of souls. The leaves fell, the trees went bare, and the air grew cold. For the normal folks in the world, the weather was depressing. For two men, however, it was just what they’d been waiting for.

They were duck hunters, and the cold beckoned them “up north” where a cabin awaited them on the banks of a small and secluded lake in the middle of the Minnesota’s north woods. It was a “ducky lake” – shallow with a sandy bottom and plenty of reeds that grew in clusters. Surrounding the lake was a seemingly endless stretch of vast forest, broken only by narrow logging roads that zigzagged through the woods. For some, it was a cold and dreary place to be, for the two hunters, however, it was heaven.

They left work on a Friday afternoon to headed up for the weekend. The trip was made in a 1925 Model T Ford, a slow moving vehicle that made for a long, and dusty drive, but one passed by with stories of yesteryears’ hunts and hopes for one to put in the books. Anticipation was high as they turned off the highway onto an old logging road. The road was rough going. It had been abandoned for a decade by the logging crew that cut it, yet it was still hard packed and could handle the little vehicle.

The sky was beginning to darken when the lake and the cabin came in sight. It was a rustic cabin, one that looked as natural to the landscape as the trees and lake next to it – it was the kind of place that made you feel like a part of the outdoors. It was a one room shack, built with discounted boards and a blueprint drawn on scratch paper. It was built earlier that summer, but was already beginning to show age from the sun. The roof had yet to be finished, and in places there were gaps covered with an old Coca Cola sign and two pieces of lefse. Like the old Scandinavian song goes, “You can even patch a roof with lefse”. In the years to come it would begin to sag a bit in the middle, and inside would smell of wood smoke and damp boards, in this day, however, it was new, a “Taj-Mahal” of Northwoods hunting shacks.

The hunters excitedly transferred their gear, and food from the little Ford to the cabin. One of the first tasks was to start a fire in the cast iron woodstove that sat in the corner – a big blaze that would take the chill out of the cabin and make for cozy confines as night drew near. Supper that night was beans from a can, thick, smoky bacon, fresh bread, and hot coffee. After a nightcap, the two climbed in their bunks and readied themselves for a cold morning.

Saturday morning began before sunup, while the moon and stars still shone brightly in the dark sky. The hunters dressed in wool sweaters, canvas pants, and tin-cloth hunting coats. It was cold, a crust of ice had formed on shore during the stillness of the night, yet it would soon melt away in the morning sun. In handmade, wooden boats the hunters set out with cork decoys and hopes of a good hunt.

The weather didnt look good for hunting ducks. The breeze stood still, and few clouds floated in the sky. Sunrise, however, was gorgeous, and as the sun crested the eastern horizon, it cast a red glow into the sky. The hunters saw it as a good omen. “Red in the morning is a sailor’s warning”, one said to the other. How right he was. As the morning wore on, the wind came whipping up and the sky filled with gray, low hanging clouds. The air, too, grew cold and damp – as though any moment it might rain big, cold, and wet raindrops.

The hunt was successful, yet one of the men had a mishap when he fell into the cold water. Luckily, he made it back into the boat. With a limit of birds in hand they arrived back at the cabin. The wet hunter changed clothes, put wood in the stove and set to hang his wet clothes on a rope tied to the cabin and a half dead poplar tree. The dry hunter brought the boats up on shore and hung the ducks on the side of the Model T. The wet hunter reached into the stock of beer out on the porch. As Kouba said about the man, he was “getting dry on the outside and wet on the inside”. Meanwhile, his partner brought in the last of the ducks from the boat. With a smoking pipe in his mouth, he looked above the cabin’s roof where the wind blew the smoke straight to the west and saw thirteen plump, late season mallards heading out onto the lake. Though it was thirteen, he took it as a lucky omen, meaning a storm was coming, and would bring ducks with it. Tomorrow morning’s hunt would be one to remember.

The Grasshopper Scourge

It was June of 1873 – a time of year, and a season that was likely similar to today. One could imagine that it was a pleasant day, warm, with plenty of soft sunshine – the kind of day where a warm breeze gently rolled atop the tall prairie grass and made it dance in harmony like waves on the ocean. On the frontier, June not only meant a time of pleasant weather, but a time of optimism. Gardens and farm fields that had been planted earlier were starting to sprout upward and climb toward the sky – their success having great impact on the year to come and they were monitored carefully.

By afternoon, it appeared as though a change in weather was coming. Those to recall the day would lament on what appeared to be a storm cloud on the horizon, some describing it akin to what looked like a snowstorm. Indeed, a storm was coming, yet it was not one of the meteorological brand; rather, the storm on that June day was a colossal swarm of locusts – one so large and so thick it was seen with biblical proportions. It was the start of the great grasshopper plague of 1873.

They were called Rocky Mountain Locusts, a species of grasshoppers now extinct. They were green, large, and devoured every piece of vegetation they could find. Those who lived through the incident recalled that after a swarm swept through, they left a patch of land that resembled late autumn rather than summer. All across central and southwestern Minnesota, the swarms destroyed vegetation – trees became bare and fields yielded no crops.

There seemed to be no stopping them. Of the first swarm in 1873, they left larva everywhere they went that hatched the following spring, creating more swarms across the prairie. It seemed as though no method, not even prayer, would rid the region of the locusts. One man, John E. Beach, whose grandfather owned land near Buffalo Creek, recalled, “Grandfather’s land lay with Lake Addie to the east and Buffalo Creek to the northwest. These were partial barriers to the locally hatched hoppers. Enlisting half of the neighbors who were fully exposed on the open prairie, they plowed barriers across the southwest flank and by using tar, burned old hay and straw spread in long windrows, adding eternal vigilance. They saved enough crops to make flour for the families involved…using every resource and ingenuity, the folks were able to stick it out, but scars could never be erased from memory”.

Those who were unable to devise methods to relieve themselves from the locusts chose other means to rid themselves of the grasshoppers. McLeod County resident, Carlos Avery remarked “When the grasshoppers came, the exodus was almost as marked as the Indian Outbreak of 1862. Our family was one to leave the farm to the hoppers and move east until the scourge was over”.
It wasn’t until 1877 that the grasshoppers finally left. That spring, a late snowstorm passed through much of the state and killed most of the freshly hatched larva. It was followed by good rains (which would put a damper on grasshopper hatching) and pleasant weather that allowed the crops to grow fast. Later that summer a drought hit, and a new swarm of grasshoppers emerged as years before. This time, however, the swarms did something unexplained – they took wing and left the area. By the end of summer, 1877, few of the locusts could be seen. It marked the end of the great Minnesota grasshopper plague.

A Real Pioneer

Bradbury Richardson was a young man of 26 years when he came to Minnesota. It was the height of the initial rush of pioneers to the state. For centuries, the land was largely populated by Native Americans, and a sparse number of French fur traders. By 1857, however, the Natives had moved onto the reservation, and white settlers began filtering into the countryside in search of new beginnings.

The land that Bradbury Richardson came to was desolate, yet not empty. The woods south of Glencoe, where the young man built his log cabin, teemed with wildlife. The shaggy buffalo, wolves, and black bear were beginning to disappear from the countryside, but deer, fowl, and upland birds still abounded in the land. In addition, though the Natives were living on the reservation, it was not uncommon to see large groups of Dakota Indians pass through the region. This was the world that Bradbury entered in 1857. He came to the area with his brother, Marquis, a man referred to as Cpt. Reed, and Bradbury’s young wife, Huldah.

They were of old New England stock, had come from Maine, and were accustomed to the comforts of the old New England communities. Though unaccustomed to the hardships and privations of frontier life, Bradbury was full of youth, and determined to make his life on the desolate countryside of Minnesota – he and his young bride would not falter, nor be discouraged.

Obstacles in their path were evident from early on. Upon approaching their future homesite, Bradbury and Huldah came to a large marshy area that had to be crossed. Being the eastern gentleman, Bradbury removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and carried Huldah across the swampy threshold and to their new home – a tiny log shanty in the heart of the woods.
It was a lonely life for the Richardsons. During the first month, the only people they encountered were members of the party with whom they traveled to Minnesota. They had no neighbors, and supplies were limited – they had no salt for seasoning and were forced to live on the land that surrounded them. At one point, Huldah thought she heard a rooster crowing. She proceeded to climb the tallest tree to discover if the sound was real and meant that others had moved to the area, or if she had only imagined it.

The young couple’s six weeks of solitude finally came to an end when a group of Dakota Indians came calling. They were friendly enough, but clear that they were of an entirely different culture. The Indians had no qualms about walking into the home without announcing their presence, and often surprised the Richardsons by spying through the windows. Huldah quickly learned her first words of Dakota, and would shout “packachee”, which loosely translates to “nothing doing” – and would result in the Dakota leaving the home.

On one occasion, Bradbury was striding alongside his oxen when a large band of Dakota came running by. As each man passed, he would slap Bradbury on the back, a customary way to say hello. So many came running by that Bradbury’s shoulder was lame for several days after.

Several years later, when the Dakota declared war on the white settlers, the Richardson family packed up and headed to Carver. By this time, they had children, and with Huldah, they headed to Rochester for safety. Bradbury, however, returned to Glencoe to aid the town in defense of any attack that might come their way. At one point he volunteered to act as a messenger and ride to Fort Ridgely, but since he was a husband and father, was told he could not go. The man who did go, Eliphalet Richardson, was killed a few miles from the fort.

After the fighting ceased, Bradbury and his family went back east, but later returned to McLeod County in 1873. Here they lived until old age. Bradbury died in 1907, and Huldah in 1912. They were true Minnesota pioneers, and an important part of McLeod County history.

Opening Day

It’s a beautiful day in May. The sun is high over the lake, and thirteen gulls circle the water. The wind blows a soft, but steady breeze that rolls the water into gentle waves that slap at the side of a boat in which two old fishermen sit. It’s opening day, and the lake is full of other fishermen, yet the men in the boat pay little mind. They are focused at the task at hand, to catch some walleye. They’ve been fishing together since they were kids, and this is their 75th year. They’ve had many good outings and some that didn’t go so well. They’ve caught big fish, and they’ve caught no fish. For the man piloting the boat, he’s still looking to catch his fish of a lifetime, the one that’ll hang on the wall above his fireplace. He came close once, but the line broke just as he was landing the monster. Like so many others, his “big one”, was the one that got away.

Another boat, a newer boat, races through the water. Its aluminum sides are bright with fresh paint. Its large outboard motor hums as the boat cuts across the water at high speed. The two old fishermen look up. The sight of this new, fast boat stirs emotion in one of the old timers, the one who owns the boat they’re sitting in. It’s an old boat, one with bench seats made of wood – one that has that old familiar smell of sweaty marine plyboard. Its sides are faded from the sun, the paint chipped away from dock posts and rock outcroppings. The bottom, too, has grooves cut along the keel from rubbing against gravel flats and sandy shorelines.

Like the boat, the motor is old. It was once painted, its bright colors visible from across the lake, but nature had long ago chipped and faded the paint to little more than a film over top of a metal shell. The motor is a tiller, the kind that needs to be started by pulling a cord that’s wrapped around a greasy flywheel. The owner of the motor has thought often of replacing it with a more efficient model, yet though it smokes a bit, it still pushes the old boat across the water. Like the boat it’s attached to, it still gets the job done.

This certainly isn’t the first trip the boat and motor have had. They were once new, the prized possession of a young man with visions of catching limits of fish and trophies to hang on the wall. As the years passed, “it” became a “she”, and finally an “old girl”. A quick bit of math and the owner realizes it’s the boat’s 50th year on the water. With this thought he wonders how many trips his prized boat has left, and how many trips he has left before he no longer hears the waves slap against her hull, or the hum of his old, smoky motor. It’s a deep thought, but as every fisherman knows, deep thinking is always a companion on the water.

The only thing not old is the newly bought Rapalas that the two men are using – a tradition they have held up for years. The old timer piloting the boat is using a “shallow-dive” Rapala, he feels the choppy water will bring the fish closer to the surface. Soon, he’ll find out just how right he is about his hunch. Behind his lure is a trophy walleye, the kind he always envisioned would hang on his wall, yet the one that has always eluded him. On this day, the day that could possibly be his last opening day, he’ll finally catch his fish.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to a painting, I would say that it’s worth a thousand thoughts. The aforementioned scene of two old fishermen is one frozen in time, created from the brush of none other than Les Kouba. The story that jumps out of the painting, at least to me, is the one I write down today. With opening day of fishing at hand, I thought this would be the best time to describe one of my favorite prints at the McLeod County History Museum. It’s titled “Opening Day on Lake Mille Lacs”, and was painted by both Les Kouba and Bud Grant in 1995 during a period of conflict between the State of Minnesota and the Mille Lacs Lake Band of Ojibwa over treaty rights and walleye harvest quota for non-band members. It was donated a number of years ago by a friend of Les named John, one of many on display in the museum’s Les Kouba collection. When John donated the painting, he said that one day Les borrowed some clothes to go fishing. When he returned the clothes, Les said “John, now I know what it’s like to be in your shoes”.