Arlo Levisen is the President of the Grant County Historical Society. He has extensive knowledge on the history of the area, including: Grant County History, Big Stone Lake History, the History of the Holland Grist Mill, the History of the Milbank Congregational Church and much more! Each week, he answers your questions.
Q: Before railroad came here how did the first settlers get their lumber to build? J.B.
A: In the 1870’s, we had a pair of railheads at Ortonville, Minnesota, and Gary, Dakota Territory. Lumber products were railed that far, but it was difficult to get lumber beyond those points. The barriers were the Minnesota River, still referred to as the St. Peter’s River by many, the Whetstone River, the north and south branches of the Yellowbanks Creek, and numerous, small, nameless streams. Bridges simply did not exist and ferries were few and far between.
As an example, there is a written description from the Olson family in which they described traveling up and down the Minnesota River for the entire month of May, 1877, looking for a safe place to ford their covered wagons. They eventually homesteaded in, what is today, one of Bob Weber’s pastures near Strandburg, building into a hillside and using their canvas wagon tops for one of the walls. The only lumber they had was the wagons themselves.
What became Grant County, though, was settled very rapidly, starting in the summer of 1880. The Minnesota River was bridged by the railroad, into Inkpa City, today Big Stone City. The Whetstone River was bridged quite early also, but I believe by private parties. You can still see the bridge footings in the stream bed, if you know where to look. In fact, you can still walk the original roadway that eventually found it’s way to Milbank. Both sites are on private land, but the footings can be seen from a nearby road.
Lumber products flowed into this area at an accelerated pace with many different lumberyards opening up in Milbank, almost overnight. And, if you could swing a hammer with some sense of accuracy, you had a good job for quite some time.
You can also visit Marten’s Crossing across the Whetstone River and a bit north of Milbank. The Van Stralen family has preserved the post office, but you have to sit on the bridge and use your imagination to see how it would have worked. That’s fun to do. Surprisingly, we still have more than a few places where you can go back 130+ years and what you see today is still pretty much how it was then.
Consider, for example, Big Stone Lake and Hartford Beach State Park. Where do you suppose the word “Hartford” came from? Well, I’ll tell you. Hart was a family name and Mr. Hart homesteaded on the lake at what was, prior to the dikes being constructed at the foot of the lake, the lowest point in the lake, especially in the fall months. He established a ford going from his point, which he called Hart’s Point, across the lake to what was called Phelps Point. Today we call this area Salmonson’s Point.
It didn’t take too long before this trip across Big Stone Lake became known as Hart’s Ford. In truth, the Dakota Sioux Indians living along the lake on both sides used this ford for hundreds of years. They just never thought of a catchy name for it.
Q: How did Milbank get its name? – H.C.
A: The town of Milbank started out as Milbank Junction, named in honor of Jeremiah Milbank, one of the directors of the Hastings and Dakota Division of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company. In this case, the word “director” also meant principal investor.
Jeremiah Milbank was an interesting man. He started life as an orphan and died at the age of 65 in 1884, having amassed a fortune in excess of $12 million dollars. That’s 1880’s dollars and today he would have been a billionaire. He epitomizes the American Dream; he started with zero and, though his financial genius, became one of the richest men in America. Yet, he remains largely unknown today.
Milbank, DT, was his only namesake town in the U.S. and he was proud of that fact. He gave the fledging town of MilbanK $15,000 to construct a non-denominational church and sent out an architect from New York City. The church was built in 1883 and later became the First Congregational Church still standing at 407 East 3rd Avenue.
Have a question on Grant County you’d like to Ask Arlo? Click here to submit your question!
Arlo Levisen currently serves as the president of the Grant County Historical Society. He was born in Milbank in 1944 and grew up on his family's farm just east of Stockholm. Arlo attended school in Stockholm, Milbank, and South Shore. In 1967, he graduated from Northern State College with a B.S. degree in Elementary Education and History. He also earned degrees in Elementary School Administration and School Superintendency. He was employed as the Grant-Deuel School Superintendent from 1990 until his retirement in 2005. He and his wife, Paulette, reside near Big Stone Lake. They have two children and four grandchildren.