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: What all took place at the site of Wilson? -V.H.
A: The place name “Wilson” began with the Wilson brothers, seven (7) of them, who constructed a flour mill on a creek in the southern part of Grant County, later to be known as the South Fork of the Yellow Banks Creek. I cannot find a year for their arrival but, in 1879 the Pacific Division of the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad Company sent a survey crew into Dakota Territory looking for a feasible line about halfway between Big Stone City on the north and Gary on the south. Their basic problems were the crossing of the creek and the 800 foot elevation in the 10 miles from the Minnesota border to the top of the moraine near what became the town of Strandburg.
Their choice for the best route to lay track turned out to be through what became the town of Revillo and the crossing of Wilson Creek pretty much due west, by the means of a substantial bridge, #95 in their terms, but local people calling it the “Wilson Bridge”. The bridge building crews needed a place to live and, as a result, the town of Wilson was formed, in 1882. It started with a double section house, just to the west of the bridge site.
Bridge construction lasted until late 1884, but it became a popular site, especially on Sundays, when people came from near and far to see the progress. A man by the name of Jack Cavenaugh saw some opportunities here and opened a general store, which lead to a US Post Office and other businesses. The railroad needed a water tower as well as a few other service buildings, places to stay and places to eat were needed – another railroad town was born.
This new town, Wilson, thrived for awhile, but there was a lot of competition also developing nearby, in addition to the towns of Revillo and Strandburg, the town of LaBolt was started, a bit to the east, and there were just not enough people in this general area to support all of these towns. The decisive factor came in 1899 when the railroad company decided to take up their tracks in Wilson.
The Wilson Bridge remained in use until 1960 and was sold for scrap in 1970. The Wilson Flour Mill was, eventually, moved to the town of South Shore. Many of the buildings from the town of Wilson found their way onto local farmsteads. It can fairly be said that nothing went to waste nor did anything burn down in Wilson during these times.
About 20 or so years ago Ambrose, Nancy and Jim Weber gathered together the information their could find related to the town of Wilson and wrote a 51 page booklet. It was a self-published, undated document and Ambrose gave me a copy many years ago, so I could be a bit off on when they produced it. Most of the information I have shared here came from this source.
Q: How about the term “Whetstone” we apply to some geographical features in this area? Where does that come from? – D.S.
A: Many of our local place names have either a Dakota Sioux or a French connection, but the term “Whetstone”, does not. About all one can ascertain is that, in 1874, Dr. J. W. Movius, a medical doctor who came to the fledging town of Ortonville, Minnesota, in 1870, and seeing a need for a flour mill, constructed a small wheat and corn mill on an unnamed river south of the town of Big Stone City, in Dakota Territory. He called his mill the “Whetstone Mill”.
One can speculate that Dr. Movius chose the name “Whetstone” all by himself, and this river became so-named, as well as being used far and wide by many others in our area.
It can accurately be said that this “Whetstone Mill”, became very popular and did a large business serving quite a wide area. It was a small mill with a limited capacity and, when the much larger Hollands Mill was constructed in Milbank in 1882, this mill started to change hands and ended up being transported further to the west by a Herman Mewing.
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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.