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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • Gray Historical Series : Part VIII of VIII: Polk County on the Map – Fosston

  • This Polk County town, 40 miles east of Crookston, almost needs a whole series of articles written on it. Much to cover, and the Polk County Historical Society (PCHS) has some very valuable photos of old time Fosston to prove it. Fortunately, our PCHS board has a hometown resident from Fosston, Dean Vikan, who gave me a lot ...
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  •     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 spurred local historian and author Kristina Gray to take on another series of historical articles. This is the eight and final installment in this series.   
        This Polk County town, 40 miles east of Crookston, almost needs a whole series of articles written on it. Much to cover, and the Polk County Historical Society (PCHS) has some very valuable photos of old time Fosston to prove it.  Fortunately, our PCHS board has a hometown resident from Fosston, Dean Vikan, who gave me a lot of valuable information.  Dean graduated from Fosston’s high school in 1956 and went on to a 40-year military career which led him to many different places before he returned to Fosston. Dean was honored this past weekend as the Distinguished Senior Citizen of Polk County in the Ox Cart Day Parade.   
        For starters, I looked at the plat map of Fosston from 1902 and then found a later one which had updated their very different street names.  For example, the 1902 plat map had streets off of Central Avenue like Davis, Franklin, Harrison, Stephens (as in Crookston’s A.D. Stephens), Lincoln, Johnson, Fosston and Polk Avenues.  Apparently, from what Dean told me, in 1958, Fosston’s Athenian Club renamed all the city streets so that they would be in alphabetical order. So instead of Central Avenue, it became Granum and each block east was renamed Foss, Eaten, Dunley, Cormonton, Brandt and Amber. West of Granum it was Hillestad, Indrelee, Johnson, Kaiser, Larson, Mark, Newton, and the most west, Omland.    
        Dean told me that all the street signs for Inderlie Street are misspelled except for one sign that reads correctly with “Indrelee.” That’s little known town trivia.  What is really not known by most people who live elsewhere in Polk County was that there was a purposeful delay in having early settlers claim the land in the Fosston area. Despite the steady stream of newcomers looking for virgin land to settle on, they were stopped due to disputes with the Indians about the reservation in the northeast corner of Polk County.   
        This area was a coveted spot and known later as “Thirteen Towns.”  A certain congressional politician (the Honorable Knute Nelson) and Paul C. Sletten who worked at the United States Land Office were able to pull the right strings so that by July 4, 1883, men were ready to do a land rush going east from Crookston.  According to Dean, up to this time, the rush for land had always been from the east going west. That is what makes Fosston unique. Therefore, men during that summer of 1883 waited for the crack of the rifle to take off from Crookston on the bumpy terrain heading 40 miles due east to claim land.  According to what I read, these early settlers used ox teams, bouncy buckboards, mules or road horseback to find their piece of land for their respective family’s homesteads.     
    Page 2 of 4 -     As it turns out, many of these pioneers had been wooed earlier by the railroads to leave their Scandinavian homes with promises of fertile land and bright prospects in Minnesota.  Some who came later found that the Red River Valley land was already spoken for so some drifted westward into North Dakota and beyond.             
        However, many other Norwegians and Swedes eventually ended up in Fosston. Dean knew a little poem that speaks of the dust kicked up by these two Scandinavian nationalities. Since Dean has an ethnic background of Norwegian and Swede, he could recite this poem in good jest. “One thousand Swedes were rushed through the weeds, pursued by one Norwegian.        
        And the dust from the weeds made snus [snoose] for the Swedes and they called it Copenhagen.”
        Actually, the area the early settlers were racing towards, east of Crookston, was really a wetlands area.  Perhaps during the “Dirty ‘30s” would have been the only time that dry dust would have appeared. Some old timer told me that the way to go towards Fosston on what we know as smooth Highway #2 was full of ups and downs because of the sloughs.  We take our ditches and drainage for granted these days. But back then, the settlers would follow the old Indian trails which may have skirted some ponds. OR, they may have followed the well beaten path created by the lumberjacks going from their logging camps to civilization.   
        Dean mentioned that there was hilly terrain close to Trail, Minnesota where serious motorcyclists would take to the rugged trails for entertainment. “Trail” as a town name seems appropriate based on their early beginnings before roads were created.  Dean told me about a feature that Fosston has and that is a life-size wooden statue of “Cordwood Pete” which was placed in Fosston 10-12 years ago.  The guy was a real person by the name of Peter DeLang (but supposedly the kid brother to lumberjack Paul Bunyan). There are many fictional stories attached to this legendary character who also had a donkey named Tamarack.        
        Thanks to a time capsule that was uncovered at Fosston’s Hartz grocery store, there was more info on this person nicknamed “Cordwood Pete.”  When you see the photos that the Polk County Historical Society features (at the Carnegie building on Mondays and Thursdays the remainder of August and all of September) you might be struck by seeing many photos with much wood piled up near Fosston’s buildings. It was their source of cheap energy, what with the timber land being close by.   
    Page 3 of 4 -     Another joke shared among Fosstonites is that they once considered their town the “Lutefisk capital of the U.S.” Maybe they still claim that title. Dean told me that this really started with Clarence Offerdahl’s Hartz grocery store which had a 55 gallon barrel out front of the store that had the fish soaking in lye. They had many more barrels of lutefisk in their warehouse. What struck me as odd was while looking through the Centennial book of 1983 for Fosston, I noticed on p. 100 that there were 24 cemeteries listed. I’m not suggesting that eating lutefisk encouraged so many fatalities in the Fosston area. I simply do not like lutefisk myself even though I have the same mixed Scandinavian background that Dean Vikan has.  Dean helped explain that many of these cemeteries were attached to country churches. Back in the early days in the Fosston area, travel over rough terrain to get to town was difficult for the farmers. It was better to have a church and country school close to the homestead.   
        I found some information about Fosston on the Internet and there was one simple hand drawing by an artist named Esten Moen done in 1941.  According to Dean, he had written three books and one of them mentioned was “Fosston, Minnesota – A Story of the Old Town.”  Another book Moen wrote and drew pictures for was titled “Tales My Father Told Me.” Artist Moen depicted the early days of 1887 or 1888 when the town was only 4-5 years old. He drew a blacksmith shop, the pastor’s house, the doctor Cormontan’s house, the saloon, grocery store and the little school house next to the “duck pothole.” What was interesting to Dean was that this talented artist, who was prolific with the pen and ink, was also crippled in his left arm.  He was also an engineer and scientist and lived by himself close to the high school.  Fosston’s Heritage Center has a collection of Esten Moen’s, about 142 sketches, some in color of how he visualized early life in Fosston.     
        The Great Northern railroad finally reached Fosston in 1888 and served their area until it quit running in 1988.  In the early days there had been stagecoaches that traveled as far west as Maple Bay of Maple Lake. Much more could be written about Fosston’s early history and maybe it would warrant a few articles to acknowledge settlers like W. J. Hilligoss or Al Kaiser, the man who started the “Thirteen Towns” newspaper which is still running.  I would love to write more about the Sather Brothers who were doctors that made Fosston like the “Little Mayo of the North.”  Earlier there had been the town’s famous Dr. Cormontan who was known to wear a stove pipe hat and swallow tail coat.  There had been the Larson brothers and S.S. Stadsvold who worked together in merchandise with their general store.  Stadsvold was later known for his flour mill with a huge “S” on the side of the building. There are many other notables but I’ll save that for later.   
    Page 4 of 4 -     I’ll end with a quote I found from “Early days of Fosston” which could apply to any city in Polk County or in the Midwest, for that matter. “Fosston looks back with a great sense of accomplishment and pride, and turns to the future with a prayer for continued growth, peace and unity. It realizes that a heritage isn’t preserved, it’s nourished. It grows from bits and pieces told and written.”   
        That is why I encourage my faithful readers, who might also be interested in seeing hundreds of framed photos, to come to the Carnegie building on Ash Street in what is left of August and all of September when we open the doors on Mondays and Thursdays from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Polk County Historical Society is doing its part to help “nourish and preserve” the history of many towns throughout our large Polk County.     
        By October, the traveling exhibit of “Minnesota on the Map” will move on to the next museum in the state of Minnesota.  Hopefully this display of maps and antique photos will get more people interested in their own heritage. Otherwise, it could slip away to oblivion if it is not talked about or written down.  If you have stories to tell, come and share them with me and other volunteers with the Polk County Historical Society.

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