Tricounty News

Three glorious months

© 2012 Duane Stanley

When B.U. Watkins and his wife, Saphronia, and his two unmarried children, Joe (later always known as J.R. Watkins of Watkins Products fame) and Ida arrived on Maine Prairie in the spring of 1862, there was a grand reunion. Brother William was reunited with his wife, Julia, and his "baby" Rosamond; and the lonely Julia Frost ecstatically welcomed the family members she had missed so terribly since she bade them goodbye a very long year earlier as she and new husband Alvah left Ohio to begin their married life in the new state of Minnesota. After a short period of wonderful reunion, it was time for Elder Watkins to make his own choices about a new home on the prairie. Frost's recounting of the next months for the Watkins tribe, gives us more insight into the earliest days of the settlement at Maine Prairie.

Among the earliest arrivals in Minnesota were land speculators who staked their fortunes on dreams of wealth. Such speculators arrived at their chosen location, laid claim to the land, platted the land for smaller homestead lots, chose an attractive name for the new village they saw in their minds, and began the task of luring new purchasers. Most wrote fanciful descriptions for publications back east for what was always described as the most attractive land in the state with abundant game and fish, and agricultural land that would require little work. Such was the unrecognizable description of Marysville, on the northwest shore of Carnelian Lake that Moses Ireland publicized in 1857:

"This town is located on what is called Maine Prairie in Township 121 N., R. 29; 10 miles S.W. from Neenah City. The town has been but recently laid out, it is located near the centre of said prairie, immediately on the west shore of Carnelian Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Minnesota. The lake is abundantly stocked with fish which can be taken out at any season of the year. Said prairie contains about 16 thousand acres, the soil of which is not surpassed by any in the Territory; the prairie is surrounded by timber of an excellent quality, it is altogether one of the most delightful locations in Minnesota. The projected improvements this spring, are a large two-story hotel, a store, a blacksmith's shop, shoe shop, etc., and a steam saw mill, there is already subscribed by the inhabitants, one thousand dollars, which will be raised to 15 hundred, and given to any person who will erect the mill. The proprietor, Mr. M. O. Ireland, offers unusual inducements to business men who will locate in said town; it is expected that a P.O. will be established in a short time." Not one of the described commercial buildings existed, nor would they for decades after Ireland left the prairie, never to be heard of again.

At the same time, on the opposite edge of the hidden prairie, on the western shore of Pearl Lake where Marty is today, another dream would be shattered where George Cutter platted his new town of Yarmouth in 1858. An early settler and developer with various co-investors, Cutter was elected as the chairman of the township administrators as well as a Stearns County commissioner during the time counties and townships were first formed in the new state. Cutter built a fine house for himself at the farmland he claimed. While most settlers were living in claim shanties or fairly simple log homes, the Cutter place was "a frame house with eight rooms and a large frame barn." Next to it in the platted town, Cutter built a single two-room house where he hoped many other similar homes would soon bring a town to life. But Cutter, like many other speculators, could not lure the purchasers he dreamed of, and having spent all of his money, could no longer wait for success. Frost notes of that one small house: "Indeed its one house perished after many years without an inhabitant." His dream undone, in 1860, Cutter returned to the East.

Frost records: "The projectors broke up and a merchant from St. Cloud had the property on his hands; and as fire in those times was often started by campers, this embryonic new town was endangered and it seemed quite unlikely to grow after all.... Father had found out by this time that the Cutter Place was to be sold at a bargain, so it came to pass that he went up to learn more about it, and found it could be bought for one thousand dollars. There was already on it a large field of spring wheat which was up and growing, and this he purchased for an additional hundred dollars. Thus it was that our people came into possession of a good house and barn and one hundred and forty acres of new land. Father afterward bought railroad land adjoining him on the north, which furnished both woodland and pasture. "The Cutter Place" became "The Pearl Lake Place" for the Watkins clan.

"How happy we were when we were all settled and together! I am glad to recall that our dear mother was charmed with the beauty of Lake Pearl and the delightful shades which kept off both sun and wind, and that we had a summer of peace together, a precious boon to memory."

At this point in most stories, one would anticipate a line such as "And they lived happily ever after." Not so, in 1862. Three glorious months would be followed by an equal number of terrifying ones. We will be tracing the days of the Dakota War (the Sioux Uprising) through the eyes of the Watkins family in the coming months, but first we will back-track to examine the Indian presence on Maine Prairie and the relationship of the new settlers to the traditional Indian peoples, both Dakota and Ojibwe, who claimed the area for their winter hunting of the abundant game, and who regularly confronted one another in deadly conflict.

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Quilting the Countryside, One Barn at a Time, was brought to life by Bert Dibley, who spent most of his life teaching in the Kimball school system, but is also a historian and member of our society. Another special event attended by many, leaving memories of a terrific story never heard here before.

Watch this column for great events yet to come, beginning with the Kimball All-School Reunion Aug. 11, during Kimball Days. Reservations are required and tickets must be purchased no later than July 20. Appropriately to be held at the impressive Kimball Area High School where there's ample room for all of us. The extraordinary reunion exhibit begins at 2 p.m. together with socializing. A banquet begins at 5 p.m. where more socializing continues. Affordably priced at $15, many have already purchased their tickets. We know you might have questions and you're invited to contact the Kimball Area Historical Society, who is hosting the event, at (320) 398-5743, or 398-5902, or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Volunteering is so rewarding and lots of fun. If you'd like to get more involved with the Kimball history movement we represent, you're invited to attend one or more of our events and learn where you may like to volunteer for something as simple as greeting at an event, or serving at the "Supper in the Park" that we host Friday evening, Aug. 10.

Kimball Area Historical Society can be contacted at Box 55, Kimball MN 55353, or (320) 398-5250, or 398-5743.

Coming Soon: Orphan Train Story and Moccasins on Maine Prairie.