The Polk County Historical Society finished their second week of hosting the traveling exhibit from the Minnesota Historical Society from St. Paul. During August and September, we are sponsoring this “Minnesota on the Map” display along with our own antique photos titled “Polk County on the Map.”
Note to readers: The success of the 2014 Crookston All-School Reunion and the amount of activity and local history bantered about at the Carnegie Building has spurred local historian and author Kristina Gray to take on another series of historical articles. She’s envisioning this latest series to be published once a week in the Times on this page through August.
The Polk County Historical Society finished their second week of hosting the traveling exhibit from the Minnesota Historical Society from St. Paul. During August and September, we are sponsoring this “Minnesota on the Map” display along with our own antique photos titled “Polk County on the Map.” We have over 100 of these framed pictures to show off to the public. Today I will feature Gentilly because this Sunday, August 17, Gentilly celebrates their centennial of the St. Peter’s Cathedral which was built in 1914. We also have some incredible, antique and original photos of what made Gentilly famous throughout Minnesota and the Midwest. This town was well known for its cheese factory, thanks to the foresight and direction of Father Elie Theillon but also to the hard work of many of the French Canadian farm families who were loyal to their Catholic Father.
Before I write specifically on Gentilly and explain more about Father Theillon and the process of making cheese in Gentilly, I will give a bit of background about three maps the Polk County Historical Society enlarged from Huber D. McClellan’s 1928 dissertation titled “History of the Early Settlement and Development of Polk County.” These enlargements are being shown in the Carnegie as well. First, there is an interesting hand drawn map of Polk County in 1858. It shows the two trails that were used by fur traders in the early days before Gentilly was even on the map. In fact, the only towns that are documented in 1858 are Georgetown, which is close to Moorhead, and Douglass. The latter town was on the Red Lake River and the name changed to Huot. Douglass was situated on the “Trail to Pembina” that was called the “wooded trail.”
I believe the second trail was far preferred over the flat, prairie trail which followed the Red River north and south which is described as the “Old Trail to Pembina.” It would have been all prairie except for the occasional trees along Buffalo River, Wild Rice River, Sand Hill River and Red Lake River as the trappers went north. That old trail went through Georgetown. This first map also shows the two Red Lakes and inserted on the east side is a hatch mark with “Indian Village.” For those interested in fur traders’ trails from the old days, this is an interesting rendering. I remember when I went out to visit relatives close to Ypsilanti, North Dakota, they said that the wagon wheel indentations could still be seen where the early pioneers travelled. There would be little chance of that on the Red River Valley soil to see where ox carts went even though thousands made their trek over the years in search of furs and on a quest for supplies.
The second map to note are the Railroad lines of Polk County showing original tracks of 1872-79. They were the Great Northern, Northern Pacific and St. Paul S.S.M. By this time, the drawing shows clearly five towns on the railroad lines, East Grand Forks, Fisher, Crookston, Beltrami and Angus. The third larger map shows Polk County in 1874-75 with its final boundaries that exist now. It reveals that Warren, Minnesota used to be known as Farley, East Grand Forks used to be called Nashville (or Huntsville) and what is now Red Lake Falls was referred to as Bottineau’s Colony.
There is an article on Gentilly, Minnesota written by Virgil Benoit in the quarterly published by the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, the winter of 1975. Virgil Benoit’s title reads: “A French-Canadian Community in the Minnesota Red River Valley.” Indeed, the French from Quebec, Canada did settle in the Red Lake Falls area what used to Bottineau’s area and also in the Gentilly area. In fact, the Minnesota town used the name of Gentilly from the provincial town in Quebec from which many of the early French Canadian families emigrated. According to Benoit, the first pioneers “encountered endless struggles in their efforts to possess the land.” Struggles meant surviving the wiles of the Red River Valley and Mother Nature while trying to feed a family of 10-12 children along with the economic fluctuations of land prices becoming more expensive and yet not bringing a profit after backbreaking labor.
In any case, when Father Elie Theillon arrived to the Gentilly, Minnesota community in 1888, he knew he needed to encourage the farmers who experienced partial failure of their crops. At the Carnegie, we have a photo taken by the early photographer Chesterman of Father Theillon. Elie Theillon was born on March 15, 1858 in Limousin, France and he was ordained in 1883. He left France for Canada where he served in Quebec but wanted to experience the new lands of the American Midwest. Father Theillon worked for the spiritual well-being of the mothers in his parish while at the same time studied the latest in farming methods. He knew that his farmers needed to adopt diversified farming. He also recognized that while other farmers to the west of Gentilly profited from having livestock as well as farming, his own farmers could gain more by focusing exclusively on dairy.
What happened often was everyone in the surrounding urban areas, such as Crookston, enjoyed drinking milk and eating cheese but when it came to harvest time, the milk cows were not top priority. Instead the farmers were laboring behind the swathers and threshing machines, while the milking of cows and distribution was relegated to the womenfolk. In the early days, just surviving with raising children, preparing meals, cleaning, canning, sewing and all the other things expected of an early pioneer woman, was all she could do. Therefore, Father Theillon hit upon a way to lay the foundation of the cheese factory that made Gentilly famous. On April 29, 1895, a group of men began planning their cheese factory.
According to Benoit’s article, “In the fall of 1895 when it first began production, it was one of five such factories in Polk County. By 1915, however, it was the only one still operating. Much of this early success has to be attributed to the first cheese maker, W.H. Verity, who brought to Gentilly the experience of many years of cheese making in Wisconsin. His product received first prize at the Minnesota State Fair in 1895 and second prize in 1896, to the surprise and discomfiture of the state’s older cheese producing firms.”
Benoit continues writing about Gabriel Bernou, the son of an immigrant from France who worked as a Gentilly cheese maker. We have on display in the Carnegie, a framed award that Gabriel Bernou received from the Minnesota Dairy and Food Department with the Governor’s signature in 1909. We also, in fact, have 11 original photos showing the following pictures with Bernou posed in the different stages of cheese making: 1) acid being mixed to the right proportion 2) cutting 3) stirring so to separate the curds from the whey 4)grinding 5) salting 6) pressing 7)working with the cheese boxes 8) putting the cheese in the containers of boxes 9) continued delivery of milk to the factory 10) testing the milk and the final photo shows all the prizes and trophies that the Gentilly cheese factory was awarded.
The Polk County Historical Society also has a photo of Marie Bernou who is posing next to one of their top grade cows whose milk was used to produce cheese. That is being displayed at the Carnegie this month and all of September along with a photo of the Gentilly cheese factory as it looked in 1924. We have many other photos of Father Theillon with his car, dog and his hunting companions. The Carnegie also has a photo of “Gentilly’s White House” which was the rectory that was built in 1901 and Father Theillon standing behind a great deal of snow that almost covers his picket fence.
The reason I featured Gentilly in today’s article is to not only encourage people to come to the Carnegie to see original photos under glass along with the many other towns of Polk County, but also to let people know about the festivities planned in Gentilly this Sunday on August 17th. The mass will be at 10:30 a.m. and then lunch served afterwards. The remainder of the day will be tours, showing off historical items, kids games and much more. The 100 year anniversary of the St. Peter’s cathedral is something the people who have attended that church can be proud of.
Of course, some of you maybe have heard the stories about how one priest came along to Gentilly in the 1970s. He wanted to take out all the beautiful ornamentation inside the beautiful cathedral because it was considered too ostentatious.
The descendants of the fiercely proud French Canadians who helped build the church would have none of that. It is said that the dispute amongst the parishioners and this one “politically correct” priest got so hot that he was found running away, across the field outside of the cathedral. He obviously had no support. I don’t have anything that is documented but it is a true story. Ask people who are in the know about those particulars on Gentilly’s history and ask what ever happened to that unpopular priest.
Thankfully, the town of Gentilly still has all of their original pews and sacred ornaments that were bought and meant to stay for many generations. Some Catholics from Crookston even attend mass at this beautiful sanctuary in Gentilly. Go visit it on Sunday, August 17th.
Outside of the St. Peter’s Cathedral, a statue of Christ was erected in 1933 to commemorate Rev. Elie Theillon’s 50th anniversary in the priesthood. Father Theillon died in December of 1935. He lived 77 years serving the people of Gentilly for over 50 years. It was well known Father Theillon used half of his time to give a sermon and the other half to talk about the latest in dairy methods. All that means is that one person can make a difference with their vision. However, they also need helpmates and supportive people working as a team to make things actually happen. May we have more people like Father Theillon who are forward thinkers, passionate and who are willing to put the work in to achieve success.
Remember, come to the Carnegie building next to the library on Robert and Ash Street. We will have this display through the end of September showing every Monday and Thursday from 4:30 – 7:30. Come see the “Minnesota on the Map” along with the over 100 photos of many Polk County towns.
We also have three large atlases of Minnesota and three atlases just of Polk County. We also are featuring a kid’s corner where they can create their own maps while their parents read the display banners or study the atlases.
This traveling exhibit is FREE to the public and paid for by our tax dollars from the Legacy fund.