Tricounty News

History Matters: Historic Ox-Cart Trail

Stars again for sesquicentennial If you are planning to visit the State Fair this year, perhaps you have waited a bit late to get on your way. Certainly, Orlin Ostby has a head start, having begun his journey July 1. But then, he does have a little further to go and is covering every mile by foot. His 420-mile trek began at Pembina, on the Red River near the Canadian border. You'll know him if you see him; he is accompanied by Pum, a 2,700 pound ox pulling a two-wheeled wooden cart. Ostby is reprising the efforts of Delmar Hagen who, for Minnesota's Centennial in 1958, retraced the historic Pembina Trail by ox-cart. When Hagen made his trip, Ostby was present - a young man of 17 who helped "train" Napoleon, the shorthorn steer. It began that year, when Hagen-now passed on - suggested Ostby should make the trip in 50 years. Ostby pondered that possibility for five  decades, and was pretty well committed over six years ago when he bought two large Holstein steers broken to harness as a 4-H  project by a young boy in New Hampshire. Their names were "Pum" and "Kim," named for the the family's pumpkin farm. The trail was most heavily used from 1830 until 1875 to move furs and buffalo hides from the northwest wilderness of Pembina or even Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to  St. Paul, The "trail" had three primary routes, each with numerous variations. To the south, carts followed the Red River to the Minnesota River and up past Fort Snelling. The middle trail, while the most direct, required effort negotiating lakes, streams, and wetlands. It cut east through present Detroit Lakes, and on across the prairie to the Sauk River valley, passed through Cold Spring to Waite's Crossing west of St. Cloud before following the Mississippi southward. The northern or "woods" trail was the least precise, crossing to the east while still far north, meeting the Crow River and following the Mississippi south. Cities of today began as trading posts along the trail, from Coon Rapids and Elk River in the south to Detroit Lakes in the northwest. The ox-cart story is detailed in The Red River Trails: oxcart routes between St. Paul and the Selkirk settlement, 1820-1870 by Rhoda R. Gilman, Carolyn Gilman and Deborah M. Stultz (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society) 1979.  Loads heading south - some 800 pounds per cart - were almost exclusively furs. But on their return trains took supplies of all kinds for the northern settlements, including manufactured goods, ammunition, food supplies, liquor, and tobacco. One account even tells of a piano riding in one of the rocking carts. Driven by mixed blood Métis in long trains numbering upward of 200 carts, they covered perhaps 10 miles per day. The carts were known for their continuous, piercing shrieks as wood wheels turned on raw un-greased wood axles. It was said you could hear the carts from as far as 5 miles away. While not exactly on the main ox-cart trail, some carts crossed from Cold Spring through Maine Prairie to Clearwater and picked up furs from local trappers and hunters. Both Mary Greeley Street and Julia Watkins Frost tell of their memories of the ox-carts during the early 1860s. Frost describes being on the side porch at the family farm on the western shore of Pearl Lake, when "from over the lake we heard a strange noise,  unlike anything we had ever before heard. Soon our entire family was out to divine if possible what the sound could be. The loud squeaking, screeching, seemed to be approaching nearer and nearer and louder and louder; then we heard the brush cracking and the heavy tramp of an animal, and at last from the hazel bushes emerged the head of an ox, and then a cart loaded with furs." They came, she said, for "the furs collected by Mr. Stanley and other trappers and hunters. All winter the Stanleys had been trapping muskrats, weasels,  raccoons, skunks, etc. This Red River half-breed was gathering up the accumulations of the winter's trappings." Frost referred to T.B. Stanley (my great-great grandfather, who arrived on Maine Prairie before statehood when he was 34 years old) as a "frontier huntsman." He and teenage sons "D.B." and Joe, soon gained a reputation as capable hunters and trappers. Frost notes that the Stanleys were seldom without fresh meat. They were among many on the prairie who supplemented the fruit of their farming labors with the abundant supply of game available in the heavy woods surrounding the prairie. For this modern trip, Ostby is carrying donated beaver, fisher, otter, muskrat, skunk and reindeer hides along the "Woods" trail, dropping south to Fergus Falls and then following Highway 10. July's end found him at Little Falls. As this goes to press, they are circling St. Cloud and have reached Becker, but are trucking Pum and the cart back to Fergus Falls for another weekend community celebration. Family members follow with a truck and trailer, and friends  occasionally hike along side for a few miles. The boy who broke the oxen hopes to join Ostby before the trip is over. To follow Ostby's travel, read his cousin's daily blog at You might even venture to see him along the route. This reprise of the Centennial trek, like the original, will be celebrated when Ostby arrives at the State Fair in St. Paul. Look for the sesquicentennial tent when you visit. ********** Thank you for attending the "first time ever" 100th birthday party of our city hall, celebrated at the eighth historical exhibit during Kimball Days 2008. Together with a new Supper-In-The-Park, unique artifacts from city hall's beginnings, Marilyn Gordon's "Under-pinings and Extras," birthday cake, restored city hall's "new look," a memorable time was had by all. ********** "Upcoming events": Mark your calendar to attend our Tuesday, Sept. 23, Forest City Stockade Program. Kimball's Historical Society will host speaker Bob Hermann, telling the story of the historic stockade and reconstruction of this site. Not unlike every fortification built in the 1862 era, was the one right here in Maine Prairie during the Dakota War. ********** You're invited to new or renewed membership, donations for the city hall's restoration, saving your stories, photos for our growing collection, remembering the popular keepsake cookbooks, the variety of souvenirs making great gifts for yourself and others. We can be reached at The Kimball Area Historical Society, Box 100, Kimball MN 55353, or by phone at (320) 398-5743, (320) 398-5250 or toll-free (800) 252-2521 for those not nearby. ********* "In the midst of restoration and preservation."