Spencer Brook: Nearly a Ghost Town

Settled in 1854 by Pennsylvania native Benjamin Spencer, Spencer Brook was one of the first communities in Isanti County. During the 1850s, Spencer Brook became a favorite spot for east coast Yankees seeking lumbering opportunities. The nearby Rum River provided the flowing waters needed to float logs downstream to the Twin Cities.

The first post office in the county was established in Spencer Brook in 1857 and a school in 1858. A hotel, blacksmith shop, implement store, creamery, photography shop, general store, and a grist mill soon followed. To ease crossing the Rum River, a ferry began operation in 1870. In 1874 a bridge was built to replace the ferry, but it was destroyed by ice the following spring. The brook that splits the town was dammed for the grist mill, and the resulting millpond was a popular recreation area for the residents.

Spencer Brook became known as the largest settlement of native-born Americans in the state outside of the Twin Cities. Swedish immigrants began arriving in the area in the 1870s and fields of potatoes and navy beans began to surround the township.

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District 6 School in New Sweden

The District 6 school in New Sweden Township stands in a field surrounded by tall stalks of corn in the summer and drifts of white snow in the winter. This pretty, white clapboard building with a porch and full basement was constructed in 1929. It is the third school to stand on this site—the first was built in the 1860s and the second in 1891. Nicollet County was once home to 68 one-room school houses spread across 13 townships. Now only two remain. The District 6 school closed in 1958, and the district split three ways—students were sent to either St. Peter, Gaylord, or Nicollet schools.

After the district dissolved in 1962, the land the school sits on reverted to the landowner, who then donated it to the township. It was used as the town hall and meeting space for many years until the township could no longer afford to maintain the building. It reverted to the landowner again. A new nonprofit group called the Friends of District 6 expressed interest in restoring the schoolhouse, so the landowner signed the property over to the group. The Friends of District 6 have worked diligently since 2011 to raise money and complete renovations on the 88-year-old school.

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The Pine Tree Lumber Company

Pine Tree Lumber Company was established in Little Falls in 1890. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River in central Minnesota, the company was run by Charles Weyerhaeuser and Richard “Drew” Musser. Little Falls was chosen as the location for this new mill because of its proximity to the Mississippi River. The dam created a large boom area where the logs could be stored and sorted, and the  Northern Pacific Railroad passed through town which made transporting lumber convenient.

An existing mill was purchased by the partners on the east side of the river, and a larger facility with cutting-edge equipment was built on the west bank. Commercial operations began at Pine Tree Lumber on May 18, 1891.  In this new venture, Weyerhaeuser was put in charge of the logs and the mill while Musser managed sales and bookkeeping. The mill employed several hundred men and doubled the population of Little Falls less than ten years.

An office building for the operation was built in 1891 on the east bank of the Mississippi, just south of the railroad bridge. The rectangular brick building features a hipped roof with eyebrow dormers that allow light into the attic where Musser is said to have held exercise classes for his employees. The first floor contained offices and meeting space. Living quarters for Weyerhaeuser and Musser were located on the second level of the building.

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West Riverside School Near Cambridge

Built in 1898, the West Riverside School was originally known as District #38 School. Isanti County once had 67 rural schools similar to this. Aside from teaching children, one of the important roles of rural schools was to teach immigrants the English language and prepare them for the American citizenship exam. Most were also an important community center for social and cultural events.

Located one mile west of Cambridge, the West Riverside School is constructed of brick made in nearby Springvale Twp. The open bell tower still houses a black iron bell. West Riverside operated until 1971 when the last of the remaining rural schools were consolidated. The school has been restored to its 1900 appearance by the Isanti County Historical Society. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Swenson’s General Store in Norseland

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Nicollet County had eight rural crossroads hamlets. While all of the other small towns have removed many of the structures that marked their existence, Norseland has held onto their identity by recognizing the importance of their general store.

In 1858—the same year that Minnesota became a state—Irish immigrant John Burke moved to Nicollet County from New York City. The 29-year-old planned to buy a farm and operate a general store that would “carry everything a human or animal needed to survive and thrive.” Once a post office was established in Burke’s general store, a town was born. The community chose the name Norseland to pay homage their dominant population of Swedish and Norwegian settlers. Burke’s store became known as the Norseland General Store.

John Burke retired in approximately 1893 and left the store to his sons, Henry and George. George took more interest in farming than running a general store, but Henry enjoyed the grocery and dry goods business. In 1900, Henry virtually rebuilt the store by expanding the main level, adding a second story, and tacking on a single-story addition to the east side. A buggy sales and repair shop were established in the new, single-story addition. The main part of the store handled the grocery business on the first level and dry goods on the second floor. An elevator was also constructed to move merchandise between floors.

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Hollywood-Inspired Fairyland Cottages in Detroit Lakes

Although the local resort industry near Detroit Lakes stretches back to the 1870s, it wasn’t until the automobile allowed families to become more mobile that Detroit Lakes became known as one of the top resort destinations in the region. As roads improved and leisure time increased for Americans after World War I, demand for outdoor recreation hit a fever pitch. To meet this demand, numerous resort hotels and tourist cabins were constructed along the northern shore of Detroit Lake in the 1920s and 1930s. The darling of this later phase of the burgeoning tourist industry were the Fairyland Cottages.

In 1938, Art and Beatrice Shipton opened the Fairyland Cottages. The cottages were modeled after the iconic movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released the previous year. Art and Beatrice designed the cabins, and their daughters chose to name each of the twelve, wood-frame cottages after a character in the popular movie.

The cabins were arranged around a U-shaped gravel driveway and across the street from a private beach on Detroit Lake. Each cottage was sheathed in identical white lap siding with corner boards and trim that were painted red. A porch with a clipped gable and curved underside gave the cottages their fairytale look. Each cottage was identified by a carved wooden character from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs attached to the front. Red lawn chairs were placed in a plot of grass bordered by white rocks for guests to relax and socialize with other vacationers.

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Fredrick C. Pillsbury Mansion in Minneapolis

The Fredrick C. Pillsbury mansion in Minneapolis was considered the finest of all of the homes in the Pillsbury family. The house was built in 1888 and designed by noted architect Leroy Buffington. It was located at 303 Tenth Street South—just across the street from his brother George’s mansion that was built nine years earlier. This 1888 drawing from Buffington shows the elaborate front door that featured panels inlaid with colored glass, metal studs, and swirling wrought-iron patterns.

Inside, the central hall led to a library, drawing room, and a dining room with a fireplace surrounded by Mexican onyx and Tiffany tiles. Fred died in the Richardsonian Romanesque home in 1892 at the age of 40. Just 38 years after being built, the mansion fell to the wrecking ball in 1916. An addition to the Curtis Hotel took its place.

District #28 School in Ramsey

The District #28 School was constructed in Ramsey in 1892 to replace a smaller, wood frame school house. Buff-colored bricks manufactured by the nearby Kelsey Brickyard cover the exterior of the school. Inside, one large classroom dominates the space. It has a pressed metal ceiling and chalkboards covering the walls. All windows and the original double entry door are arched to match the decorative brick arches above.

From 1947 until 1977 the old school house served as Ramsey’s Town Hall. One of the cloakrooms was converted into a kitchen, the chalkboards painted over, and many of the interior walls covered with fiberboard. The beautiful arched windows and front door were blocked in with plywood so rectangular windows and a standard door could be installed.

After being abandoned by the local government, the Anoka County Historical Society formed a restoration committee that concluded many of the school’s historical integrity remained intact. It was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and accepted on February 11, 1980. It continues to be one of only a handful of one room schoolhouses in Minnesota on the Register.

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Jefferson Highway Through St. Cloud

Lincoln Avenue, located on the east side of St. Cloud, became part of the Jefferson Highway system in 1916. Edwin T. Meredith of Iowa believed an international highway from New Orleans to Winnipeg would be economically beneficial to farmers and promoted his idea in states along the proposed route. A committee determined that the Minnesota route would enter the state at Albert Lea and proceed through Owatonna, Faribault, Northfield, and Farmington before arriving in the Twin Cities. From there it would pass through Osseo, Anoka, Elk River, St. Cloud, and Little Falls before turning northwest. The entire route was completed in 1922 and was touted as the longest paved road in the United States.

This sign persuaded travelers to make a stop in downtown St. Cloud via St. Germain Street. The sign was erected by the St. Cloud Automobile Club for $1,000 in the early 1920s. The sign stood 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide and was illuminated by 300 lights after dark.

Portions of the Jefferson Highway still retain its name in several states—including sections near Osseo and Wadena—but in many places it was replaced with a numbered highway system in the mid-1920s. Lincoln Avenue became part of U.S. Highway 10 in November 1926. In 1953, a new four-lane highway was constructed just east of Lincoln Avenue, and the route was discontinued in St. Cloud by late-1958.

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The Fire Relief Houses of Pine County

After a devastating forest fire had obliterated the villages of Finlayson, Hinckley, Miller, Mission Creek, Pokegama, and Sandstone in Pine County on the afternoon of September 1, 1894, the state put forward an unprecedented humanitarian effort to attend to the needs of survivors. Hundreds of people were left homeless and without necessities such as food and clothing. Governor Knute Nelson appointed a state commission that would receive and distribute contributions of money and supplies, as well as provide victims with temporary shelter, food, clothing, furniture, seed, and tools. The commission also oversaw the construction of houses for survivors who owned homes before the fire but lacked sufficient insurance to rebuild. These homes became known as fire relief houses.

Within three months of the fire, 149 simple 16-foot-by-24-foot fire relief houses were erected in the burned area. The houses were either one or two levels depending on the size of the family, and cost approximately $150-$180 to build.

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The End of the Line in Currie

In 1899, the Des Moines Valley Railway Company began work on a plan to extend their rail line in western Minnesota an additional 38.63 miles northwest from Bingham Lake to Currie. That year, nearly 14 miles of track was laid and put into operation. The remaining 24.73 miles of rail between Jeffers and Currie was finished the following year. Upon the completion of the spur, the Des Moines Valley Railway Company and all of its property was purchased by the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway. It was decided that the line would not extend beyond Currie, making the small town the new terminus of the railway’s western spur.

As a terminus, the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway needed a way to turn locomotives around so trains could return to Bingham Lake along the same track. In 1901, they contracted with the American Bridge Company of Chicago to build a massive, manually operated turntable constructed of stone, wood, and steel. Its massive undercarriage measured 70 feet long and just over six feet wide. The platform on top of the undercarriage was constructed of 16-foot oak timbers over which rail was laid. The pit that held the turntable varied in depth from four feet at the outer edge, to seven feet at the center. Mankato limestone lined the entire pit and the stones were carefully fitted together to eliminate the need for mortar.

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Frank E. Little Mansion in Minneapolis

Frank E. Little was a partner in a Minneapolis-based real estate firm. He didn’t leave behind much of a legacy in the city he called home, but this architectural rendering of his mansion near Loring Park proves that he did alright for himself. Little’s home was located at 1414 Harmon Place—about halfway between Spruce and Willow.

Built in 1889, the home was designed by acclaimed architect Leroy Buffington. Buffington mixed design elements from Queen Anne and Shingle styles with other inspirations such as a beehive tower, checkerboard trim, tiled upper walls, and a front overhang that some have compared to a railroad lounge car.

In 1903, banker Edward W. Decker purchased the home for $10,000. Decker sold the mansion to the Luther Ford Company after constructing an automobile sales building next door. Luther Ford Company owned the property until it was razed in 1936.