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Humboldt Of The Past


John Bergh

The Red River Valley has been and is considered one ofthe most productive areas in the world. All this started to come about whena resourceful man named James J. Hill started his enterprises in the valley.

James Hill opened up the Red River Valley to settlementwhen he built the Great Northern Railroad through it in 1878. Little didhe realize the importance that his railroad would have on northern Minnesota.

James Hill acquired every other section of land along thetracks of the railroad as a reward for building it. As a result of owningso much land, Hill couldn't look after it himself. He hired the Payne InvestmentCompany to sell the land. Most of Hill's land was finally sold to privatecitizens of the valley.

Hill kept his land between Northcote and Humboldt, Minnesotaso he could start a large farm. He sent his son Walter from Minneapolisto man the headquarters of this farm which was located at Northcote. Thebiggest part of Hill's farm was located at Northcote, but he also had asmaller farm at Humboldt.

Moat of the settlers that came to Humboldt came after therailroad. Some came from Germany, but a majority of them came from the Canadianprovince of Prince Edward Island. The German descendants named the townafter a famous German scientist, Alexander von Humboldt.

During the early 1900's Humboldt's largest industry wasfarming. For many people that settled in Humboldt, farming was the onlytrade they knew. The railroad provided an easy way to send the farm produceto the markets.

Prior to the coming of the railroad, steamboats on theRed River carried grain to the market. When the train came to the Red RiverValley, grain elevators sprang up almost instantaneously. At one time therewere five elevators in Humboldt. The first elevator constructed was by theSt. Anthony & Dakota Company. Other elevators were built by James Hill,the McCabe Brothers, Red Lake Falls Elevator Company, and the local farmersconstructed a co-op elevator. The St. Anthony and McCabe elevators burneddown early in the century. The other elevators were moved to different locationsalong the tracks.

The Red Lake Falls, St. Anthony, and the James Hill elevatorswere built around 1880. About 1900, three McCabe brothers came to Humboldtand built a fourth elevator. This was just a start in busimess for them.They later formed a grain buying firm that served northwestern United Statesand western Canada. H. L. Chidlow and Albert Brown managed the elevatoruntil it was sold to the Humboldt Farmers Mutual Elevator Company in 1919.

The Humboldt Farmers Elevator was the first co-op elevatorin the county. In addition to the elevator it purchased from the McCabeBrothers, the company had built another one around 1910. Fred Bockwitz waselected the first president of the company. The company not only dealt ingrain, but it also sold coal, twine, and machinery. A serious blow was dealtto the company when the McCabe Elevator burned.

In the late 1800's there wasn't much demand for businessin Humboldt. However, the little demands the bonanza farmers and their workershad were met by one store. The Booker & MoFadin Store opened up forbusiness in 1878 and thrived for many years. Wilbur Kerns bought out thestore in 1890. In 1900 the demand for store goods had increased so greatlythat a second store opened its doors. The Florance and Nelson General Storeand machine dealer opened in 1900 and the town prospered greatly. They builtup a business of $50,000 in one year. In l904 the Matthews and Andersonfirm bought the store. It was at this time that the Soo Line Railroad wasbuilt, and this cut into the Humboldt trade territory. The general storesaround the turn of the century handled everything from dry goods and groceriesto hardware, furniture and farm machinery.

In the early 1900's all kinds of new businesses sprangup. Jack McCullum ran the local blacksmith shop. The town boasted a hoteland livery barn. George and Lynn Sylvester opened a barber shop and liverybarn. In the barbershop they had a pool table and the local gossip corner.The town hall served as a resturant. In the back of the hall was the localbutcher. Victor Clow opened a repair garage and Herb Diamond managed itfor a number of years. William Sylvester operated the International Harvesteragency.

In l9l4 the Humboldt Lumber and Machinery Company boughtthe lumber yard of the Humboldt Elevator Company. In 1925 the company tookover the International Harvester dealership. Thomas R. Brown took over asmanager of the firm in 1926. It was at this time that diesel tractors werefirst being used on a large sc.ale in the area. The company then took theShell Oil dealership. The company built a big business by retailing bulkoil products.

The First State Bank of Humboldt was incorporated in l904.It had a capital of $10,000. When World War I came there was a tremen-dousland boom. This gave the bank stability. This stability was to help thebank as it was the only bank in Kittson County to survive the depressionin the 1930's.

It is strange to note that before 1920 there was nevera tavern or bar in Humboldt. As Walter Clow put it, 'Humboldt was a tametown in its early days." (1) The bars came with the prohibition periodin the 1920's. Along with the bars came an exciting period in the historyof Humboldt.

The bootlegging of liquor from Canada may be connectedmostly with Chicago. North of Humboldt there were many roads which led toCanada. Walter Clow said, "It was a common occurrence to see peopleuse these roads." (2) Liquor was smuggled through the customs at Noyesin vinegar barrels. One depot agent in Humboldt made a lot of money withthis practice. Liquor wasn't the only article bootlegged across the border.Livestock was much cheaper to purchase in Canada than in the United States.It wasn't uncommon to see a farmer sell a whole herd of cattle which hehad purchased in Canada.

In any growing village there is a demand for a school.The first school in Humboldt, District 10, was opened in 1882. It was atwo room school located in the basement of the town hall. The first teacherwas Miss McLean from Orleans. Other early teachers were Victor Clew, DanMcLeod, and E. J. Lien. Most of the early teachers had no college training.Part of the present school was built in 1906 with an addition built in 1919.There were two teachers in this new school. The students that attended thisschool claimed they learned fast because they could listen to higher gradesin the same room. This school was used only for children from Humboldt.There were country schools north and south of the town. Some of these buildingsare still being used today. One is a Catholic church and another is a garage.

The businesses of early Humboldt were built and maintainedby the bonanza farms. Today, the farms are smaller, but the business communitystill relies on the farms. Today, there is only one elevator, a servicestation, a store, a restaurant and bar, a gas station, a depot, a waterhauling service, and a school. The population has dwindled to about 150people.

The population may be dwindling and the town dying. Thegrain prices may be down and the cost of living may be going up. But thisdoesn't stop the old timers from getting together and reminiscing aboutthe town that Jim Hill built, Humboldt of the past.

1. Walter Clow, Interview on January 29, 1969. Humboldt,Minnesota 56731

2. Walter Clow, Interview on January 29, 1969. Humboldt,Minnesota 56731



2. Walter Clow, Interview on January 29, 1969. Humboldt,Minnesota 56731