Several friends have asked me recently, "How do you come up with all these details about Crookston's history?" Any and ALL ways. The Internet certainly helps with scanned documents in pdf format. But I especially like the threads of information I hear from older people who are "in the know" about Crookston's proud tradition as the former "Queen City of the Northwest." I scribble down notes whenever old timers give me their tidbits of knowledge about Crookston's great past. I try to pursue those leads like a detective on a cold trail. Unfortunately, I believe we have lost much of Crookston's prestigious history that necessarily should be retrieved. I soon hope to write a short book with 200 photos about Crookston's early history but I need my readers' help.
First of all, I write "former" Queen City of Crookston because we have lost the notion that Crookston was esteemed by others as a regal or magnificent city even 100 years ago, but it was. I catch myself, even as a native Crookston person, questioning how Crookston could have been regarded by investors from out East and even as far as Europe as a place to trust their money for eventual profits. The facts stare me back in the face when I search dissertations, newspaper articles and books. I must talk down my doubts about Crookston's nobility, because we really hosted celebrities like Mark Twain and Charles Lindbergh. Yes, some very important people traveled through Crookston perhaps out of curiosity or maybe other reasons. I read that John D. Rockefeller's sons took a train to Euclid to check out the Keystone bonanza farm. Of course, we know now that the whole bonanza farm idea went bust but that is another article for a later time.
Next, those on the UMC campus for any length of time should feel a kind of indebtedness to the contributions the railroad baron James J. Hill made. He donated the land for the Northwest School of Agriculture so that future farmers would make astute decisions (unlike the bonanza farmers who went into it for the money) about how to farm wisely. Hill was highly respected by the Crookstonites, so much so that on Sept. 17, 1908 he came for a visit and Crookston declared it a "James Hill Day." Not to be outdone, eleven days later, President Taft even got off the Great Northern train and walked a half a block from the depot to talk to the Crookston people on Sept. 28, 1908. Must have been an election year for him to have made such a stop. Can you imagine our current president stopping off at Crookston today? No.
Lesser-known people might be T.B. Walker who I wrote about earlier. Walker was considered the "Pine King" of the North and owned hundreds of thousands of acres of timber throughout northern Minnesota. The freshly hewn logs wended their way down the Red Lake River to Crookston's lumber mill factories in the late 1880s and 1890s. Crookston's factory employed thousands of men over the years and they needed a place to live. Someone told me, who knew this piece of Crookston's history, that the mill workers had efficiently built a wooden foot bridge from the Wood's addition where they lived to cross to the Carmen side of the river where the lumber plant was. Easier than walking the long way around.
This same person also told me where Bernard Sampson had built his house of 15 rooms, somewhere close to the new fire station. Therefore, Sampson's house would have been close to where Walker's lumber mill was. Again, I have read here and there about these two men and then when the information becomes necessary for me to document, I have no idea where I read it. But this much I know, the early farmers along the river were none too thrilled about all these Walker logs bumping down the river. Perhaps the timber plugged up the drainage from their fields when they wanted to plant come springtime.
Another thing I understand is that the Bernard Sampson was a farmer first and foremost. As I recall he had as much as 700 acres from the Sampson's addition to south of the beet factory to Carmen area. Was T.B. Walker his nemesis or vice versa? I know that Sampson was Scandinavian and thoroughly Lutheran while Walker was Methodist. I'd have to go to the archives at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul to look through Walker's correspondence to find out more about Walker's relationship to the neighboring Crookston farmers. Did Sampson object to the lumber mill and Walker's big money from the Twin Cities? Or did they work amicably together, Sampson providing the lots in Sampson's addition while Walker provided cheap lumber to build houses?
Another old-timer also has told me that James J. Hill was a friend with Sampson. Indeed, Hill was also a friend with Walker. But then there is another character I'm interested in and that is S.W. Vance of Vance Bricks who died suddenly at a premature age of 60 years of age. I've written about this gifted entrepreneur and how his plant was located close to Walker's lumber factory. Eventually a competing brick factory Northern Pressed Brick Company emerged by Aunt Polly's slough. I've also given talks about August Miller who started a large tanning operation in the Sampson's addition. What bricks did Miller use to build his two brick buildings that were along the banks of the river on Woodland Ave? Bernard Sampson had invited this Swedish man to start his tanning plant along the Red Lake River where now the new dike has covered up any evidence of it.
I talked to a historian at the Becker County Historical museum who already finished writing a book about Detroit Lakes' history. She accomplished her task in 4 ½ months; she got her first royalty check in September. Amy Degerstrom said that deciding who and what to write about is like inviting people to a HUGE wedding. If you write about so and so, you are obligated to write on this other significant person then. She decided to focus on pictures of places and locations of Detroit Lakes and not to include the personalities of great men. Amy explained a kind of clan rivalry that continues to this day over two different men. Apparently, over political differences, one shot the other but he survived to keep up the fight. I can see why Amy would veer away from writing too much about family names especially if people on opposing sides of the argument still live in the same town. I don't think Crookston has that problem, or do we?
So the names that I have become familiar with in recounting Crookston's early history are: Bernard Sampson (farmer, legislator), T.B. Walker (lumber baron), James J. Hill (railroad baron) S.W. Vance (mason of bricks), August Miller (tanner). Should I include N.P. Stone, implement dealer? When I write this book on Crookston's early history, do I need to mention Jimmy Ward, the daredevil aviator or Rolf Amundsen who returned to Crookston from his expedition to the North Pole? Should I go back to the 1870s and early 1880s to find out more about those 60 early investors in the bonanza boom who threw money in the direction of the Red River Valley? I've learned about Keystone bonanza farm west of Euclid along with its southern next-door neighbor of Buffington bonanza farm.
An astute and well read friend of mine gifted me with interesting information about James J. Hill whose son Walter was not as enamored by the railroad business like his father was. Walter, instead, wanted to go into farming and since he was kind of a tycoon, big spender and loved to drink, his father readily helped facilitate that move from St. Paul up to Northcote or close to Hallock. From what I understand, a large brick house still remains of the residence that Walter Hill lived in. Of course it used to have all the fineries that would be expected in Hill's St. Paul home decor. Sadly, Walter still liked to drink and party and once his father died, he never returned to his farm of 4,000 acres in the northwest corner of Minnesota.
I intend to write about Crookston's early history from the 1880s to 1920s and so I have to choose my characters carefully. Even though some of Crookston's main characters might not have been as prudent as they might have been colorful. What about Mr. Kiewel who owned the brewery north of the Great Northern railway depot? What about Col. William Crooks, who the town was named after? What about the steam ship captain and mayor Captain Ellery Davis? Or how about Ole Tiegen whose office was also close to the Great Northern depot? He had a window front showing he was in charge of Lands and Loans? At one point, his company had earlier owned the land that my paternal grandfather had bought in 1915.
That is perhaps why I am still puzzling over the bonanza farms. Was there acreage that was broken up by early tillers of the soil who were forced to leave because drainage was a problem? It took the legislature down in St. Paul to pay for the ditches that we take for granted with our well graded, gravel roads. Maybe some bonanza farms closer to Crookston never got off the ground (pun intended) because of too much water. The acreage that James Hill donated, to what is now the UMC campus, was considered a swampland and was like a lake every spring. (No wonder he donated it)
Early pioneer Sampson knew this as a farmer as did Hill who hired men to do the painstaking job of setting rails in the ground for the steam engine trains to whistle through. Both men campaigned for better drainage in the Crookston area because the soil was saturated during the spring melt. Again I wonder who were friends (or enemies) with whom back in those early days.
Should I try to find out information about E.M. Walsh who had a hardware store along with Ross on Front Street in the early 1880s? From what I am gathering, he might have been Catholic because much of the property where the Mount and the Villa are on the east end of town, were once owned by him. I was also told that the Northwest Fairgrounds where the racetrack was, next to the Highland tennis courts, was Walsh's property. In fact, there is a street named after Walsh, close to the old Lincoln school.
I have prefaced my talks on Crookston's early history that usually I focus on important men in Crookston and not women. I think the disclaimer I should make at the beginning is a very useful Ukrainian saying. "The man is the head of the house, but the woman is the neck that turns the head." Another way of saying, "Behind every successful man is a supportive and helpful wife."
To live in Crookston 120-130 years ago needed women who could endure hardships with much stamina. Also, I believe man and wife both needed a deep faith in God. I have not written much about early churches in Crookston. However, I believe the diversity that we enjoyed of the different ethnic groups made Crookston stronger. We have the Catholic head of the diocese in Crookston while we have several Lutheran churches that were (English, German, Norwegian and Swedish). The Episcopalians were here early on and sandwiched in between the old Carnegie library and the Catholic cathedral. If you go to the Woods addition, there is a small wooden church that has the Star of David in their front windows. Was there a Jewish synagogue here in the late nineteenth century? Looking at some of the names of the early businesses in 1899 and 1900, it would seem there were Jews who set up shop. The Methodists held sway with their big structure across from the skyline three-spired Cathedral that was built in 1912.
Finally, who were the successful men of Crookston and now I'm finding out how history takes on a life of its own. Whoever wrote about what they experienced or did in the old days and IF it was saved from fire or someone who had a penchant for throwing old letters and files, then those people emerge as the most important. I'm thankful for the writings of Elias Steenerson who wrote down his recollections of the early days. So, what qualifies to be in the book about the "Queen City of the Northwest?" I'll soon find out if there are enough photos to go along with the story.
To write about Crookston's early history is a daunting task and I implore your help to help tell the Crookston story for generations to come. I don't want to go beyond the 1920s because I believe during the Great Depression there were many people who packed up their bags leaving Crookston for greener pastures. Also, not much was documented before 1870s because really my main sources are what people wrote. Still I welcome any input for this book that will be tentatively called "Crookston: Queen City of the Northwest." Maybe we can regain our title. Maybe with men (and women) who have business acumen and dare to take the kind of risks of an 19th century entrepreneur, we can revitalize our town of 8,000 friendly people into a place where people want to visit just out of curiosity.