WILKIN COUNTY, MINNESOTA

History

By: Neoma A. Laken


Wilkin County, Minnesota, population 7516 (1990 census) is located on the prairie of the fertile Red River Valley of the North in west central Minnesota. It was named for Colonel Alexander Wilkin.

The first name given to the county in 1858, however, was Toombs for Robert Toombs, a congressman from Georgia. He was later expelled from Congress because of his Confederate sympathies and his perceived betrayal of the Union angered the people.

So in 1862, the people petitioned the Minnesota Legislature for a new name. The request was granted and Andy Johnson County was born, named for Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States.

Soon after, however, President Johnson and Congress quarreled, climaxing in an effort to impeach Johnson. His name fell out of favor with the people and in 1868 they again petitioned the Legislature for a new name. The county was then named Wilkin after a hero who died in the Civil War. The people were taking no more chances on a living man who could dishonor his name!

Breckenridge, population 3708 (1990 census), founded in 1857, is the county seat of Wilkin County, Minnesota. It was named for John C. Breckinridge, Vice President of the United States, 1857-1861. The "i" in his name became an "e" for an unexplained reason. On the original plat, however, it is spelled correctly with the "i".

Most of the land now platted as Breckenridge was originally owned by three French Dakota Indian women: Angelique Martin, Mary R. Marlow and Angeline Lagree with a small portion owned by Thomas Provencelle.

Breckenridge is at the Headwaters of the Red River of the North, the longest north-flowing river in the United States. It flows approximately 550 miles to Lake Winnipeg in the Province of Manitoba, Canada.

At Breckenridge the Otter Tail River snakes its way through the city and converges with the Bois de Sioux River. At this historic site the Red begins its unique northward flow. It's the number one attraction in Breckenridge.

The prehistoric heritage of the Red is responsible for the north flowage. Most of Minnesota lies in a region once invaded by glaciers of the Great Ice Age. Wilkin County lies within the bed of the huge Glacial Lake Agassiz. Levels taken along the still visible beaches of the glacial lake show that the lake could have been 150 feet deep at Breckenridge some 10,000 years ago.

As the glacier melted, its weight is believed to have caused the land to tilt from south to north. Drainage reversed becoming northward through the Red. When the lake receded it left behind fertile soil that made the Red River Valley one of the richest farming areas in the world.

The famous Red River Ox Carts screeched across Wilkin County for about 50 years from 1820-1870. They originated at Pembina, Dakota Territory, and traveled to St. Paul, MN.

Caravans left Pembina in early spring, as soon as the prairie grass was tall enough to provide feed for the oxen. They'd arrive in St. Paul by midsummer with their load of furs. It would be fall before they returned to Pembina loaded with supplies.

The ox carts traveled from dawn until dusk and averaged about 15 miles per day. Breckenridge was one of the regular tie-up points along the journey because it was the halfway point.

Old Crossing was the place where both the ox carts and the stage coach trails forded the Otter Tail River in Wilkin County. A historical marker currently exists 4 1/2 miles south of Foxhome, MN on Wilkin County Road 19. Old Crossing was three-fourths of a mile upstream.

After the creation of Minnesota Territory in 1849, stagecoaches carried mail and passengers. Stagecoach travel in Wilkin County started in 1859 and ended in 1877 and ran on the ox cart trails. There were three stage post offices in Wilkin County: Old Crossing, Breckenridge and McCauleyville. At Old Crossing a small inn and stage stable was located on the north side of the river and was operated by Mrs. Scott. The cellar of the inn and ruts made by the ox carts were visible until about 1970.

Settlers in wooden areas built log homes. Prairie settlers, however, found no lumber. So they used oxen to cut strips of sod to build their sod home, "soddy" as it was called.

Edward Connelly Sr. was the first settler to homestead in Wilkin County in 1868. He had previously worked for the Hudson Bay Co. and as an overseer of ox cart trains. He was known as the man who planted thousands of trees on his farm.

David McCauley came to Ft. Abercrombie, Dakota Territory, in 1861 to be post sutler. In 1864 he moved to the present site of McCauleyville, which was named for him. He was the first wheat grower in Wilkin County. Prior to 1871 and the coming of the railroad the only crops raised were those that could be sold at Ft. Abercrombie.

The coming of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad to Breckenridge in October 1871 gave agriculture the stimulus it needed in Wilkin County. Grain could now be exported. Wilkin County became one of the great wheat regions of the Red River Valley.

At one time, Foxhome in Wilkin County, was the greatest natural hay market in the world. More tons of wild hay were cut, baled and shipped from Foxhome each year than any other shipping point in the world where the hay was actually grown.

The townsite of McCauleyville, settled in 1858, on the banks of the Red River of the North, across from Ft. Abercrombie, Dakota Territory, is the oldest village in the Red River Valley. Ox carts hauled wares to McCauleyville where they were loaded on flatboats for the journey north. The townsite was a transportation center. In 1870, 40 flatboats and the steamboat "Selkirk" were built in McCauleyville. A historical marker has been placed at this townsite.

Wilkin County, Minnesota, still contains natural virgin prairie hay land and it's located in Prairie View Township in the hilly northeast part of the county. The land has never been turned by a plow. Beautiful wild tiger lilies, the orange of their petals mixing with white daisies and other wild flowers, transform the field into a huge bouquet.

The natural springs located near the townsite of Lawndale have bubbled since before the county began and will continue to bubble long after we're all gone. Some are along the roadside. A very large one is about 1 mile from the road. You have to walk part way since it's on a minimum maintenance road in Tanberg township in Wilkin County and is part of the Rothsay Wildlife Management Area.

Wilkin County at one time had within its borders the greatest farm in the United States - the famous FEMCO FARMS (of which there were six), 5000 acres of breeding and diversified farming. It belonged to Frederick E. Murphy, president and publisher of the Minneapolis Tribune.

In 1918 failing health forced Murphy to leave the newspaper business to live outdoors. The next three years he lived on his wife's farm, the Connelly Farm, in Connelly Township, Wilkin County, Minnesota. It was during this period, he developed many of the modern agricultural ideas that were to bring him fame.

All livestock was purebred: Percheron horses, Duroc Jersey hogs, McKarrow Shropshire sheep, White Orphington chickens and Holstein dairy cows. Murphy had long believed diversification in farm operations held the solution to agriculture's problems. During his three years at FEMCO FARMS it was confirmed. In addition to the livestock, he raised oats, barley, corn, alfalfa, sweet clover, rye and flax.

Documentation of FEMCO FARMS has been placed in the Library of Congress so that all generations in this nation might know what was first begun in Wilkin County, Minnesota.

Wilkin County government was organized in 1872. The first officials were: Auditor, C. W. Richardson; Register of Deeds, J. D. Boyer; Treasurer, Wm. Felton; Sheriff, J. R. Harris; Clerk of Court, Andrew Brandrup; Justices of Peace, Wm. Rapp and J. E. Pettit; Attorney, Chas. B. Falley; Court Commissioner, David McCauley; Judge of Probate, Jas. Longevin; and Coroner, Wm. Gelton.

Fire razed the first two courthouse buildings. The current Wilkin County Courthouse was completed in 1929. Over the front door we find: TO NONE WILL WE DELAY, TO NONE WILL WE DENY, RIGHT OR JUSTICE. This unique inscription is taken from the Magna Carta of King John accepted by him in 1215 A.D. at Runnymeade, which was the greatest charter of liberty known prior to the United States Constitution.

Wilkin County, with an area of 472,001 acres, is "Gateway to the Red River Valley". It has 22 organized townships and 9 cities, namely: Breckenridge, Doran, Campbell, Nashua, Tenney, Foxhome, Rothsay, Kent and Wolverton.

Wilkin County has sites within the county listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the United States, namely: Wilkin County Courthouse, Breckenridge; Stiklestad Lutheran Church, rural Doran; Tenney Fire Hall, Tenney; FEMO Farm No. 2, Roberts Township; Wolverton School (now Victoria's), Wolverton; and Johnson Blacksmith Shop, Rothsay.

From wooden beam walking plows drawn by oxen and the cradle type scythes to the ultra-modern equipment of today, Wilkin County, Minnesota, has always stood for progress. Agriculture is Wilkin County's biggest industry.

The farmers of the new millennium are pioneers of their era, ever striving to improve and increase farm production for the benefit of all mankind.

Come and visit Wilkin County, Minnesota, on the prairie, "Gateway to the Red River Valley". You won't be disappointed!
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