History 1

Highway 2 is the road that comes in past Jacobs Prairie, runs south through Cold Spring, cuts between the Blue Heron and Gloria Dei church to Knaus Lake, turns west there, and then proceeds via the golf course to Richmond.  There, in the olden times, it crossed the Sauk at a sandy ford, thus soon reaching treeless prairie after having traversed the shortest and easiest route through the woods from the Mississippi to open country.

This route was already long in use by the Indians when the earliest written account of the region was put on paper - a journal of Territorial Governor Ramsey’s trek north in 1851 to negotiate a treaty with the Chippewas headquartered on the Canadian border.  A half breed guide, Pierre Bottineau, knew it and let the way, a troop of uniformed dragoons from Fort Snelling a part of the cavalcade.  Not a settler then anywhere in the region; but this trail already existed.

And it had existed prior even to the era of the familiar Indians: that is, to the era of earlier aborigines who knew how to make pottery, an art lost to the Sioux and Chippewas.  At Knaus Lake, where the trail turns, ancient burial mounds can still be seen; and the site of what must have been a populous village could be identified until a gravel-pit replaced it, thanks to the quantities of pottery fragments left behind by these prehistoric people.

With the arrival of the white man’s civilization this easy route to the prairies and the north became a chief thoroughfare for the trains of ox carts bearing supplies and ammunition to the pioneer forts of the Red River valley, and, on return, bearing hugely valuable cargoes of furs destined for the European market.

Then, as bridges were built, it came to be the stagecoach mail route through the region – until the railroad was laid in 1886.  In stagecoach times daring schoolboys hooked rides astern the coach, with a geography book in the seat of the pants to catch the smart flicks of the long whips of unsympathetic drivers.

There also was a secondary route south of our Red River Trail.  This Manannah Trail led into the District (from Clearwater) via Pearl Lake, and out of it again near St. Nicholas.  The pioneers’ wagons could come that way, or via the also-early road through Rockville.  The heron colony, across the Sauk from this latter road, probably already was there when the settlers were moving in.

The three towns of the District, Rockville, Cold Spring, Richmond, all were founded in the same year, 1856, only five years later than Governor Ramsey’s trek through the untouched wilderness.  Rockville and Cold Spring are both where they are because there was waterpower available to turn the millstones that ground grain into grist for the first farmers, or to saw their logs into lumber.  Richmond was at the all-important ford.

The first urban settlers were Yankee Protestants, who platted the towns, and set up as millers, storekeepers, blacksmiths, and postmasters.  But a few farms had been homesteaded a year earlier by German Catholic immigrants from overseas – who soon were arriving in a steady flood, brought by the publicity given the region by that great missionary, Father Pierz.  Our Red River Trail was well known to this dauntless old man, who traveled it on foot, his chalice in a clean handkerchief in the pack on his back.  The immigrants were all young people; thus the arrival at any log cabin of this venerable character was like a visit from grandfather in the Old Country – an event doubly sweet and benign.  The parish he founded in the region, St. James at Jacobs Prairie, is our oldest religious establishment, and continued to be Rockville’s church until its own was built in 1911.

Equally noteworthy in local religious history is Chapel Hill in the Cold Spring environs, originally known in German as Marienberg, or St. Mary’s Hill.  Here, during the grasshopper plagues that devastated the pioneers’ fields in the 1870’s, a frame chapel was built, with a statue of the Virgin Mary in it from the chisel of an old country woodcarver who had settled in St. Joseph.  This fulfilled a public vow, to erect such a shrine if the plague were averted, and to make annual pilgrimage to it for fifteen years.  This was too much for the grasshoppers; the decamped; the chapel was built; the pilgrimages were made – and soon after the fifteenth year the frame structure was whisked away by a tornado.  The statue however was recovered, and in recent times a granite chapel has been built to house it, for a devout link with one of the most colorful stories of the District’s past.

Meanwhile, in the Yankee towns, the merchants and millers had to be in touch with their German-speaking farm customers.  This could be affected by hiring farm boys and girls as clerks, who soon had come to be at home in both languages.  And before long the Germans had taken over entirely.  In Cold Spring the sermons at High Mass were preached in German until 1945, by which date the younger townsfolk no longer were bi-lingual, and went sound asleep during the saintly oratory.  The schools, or perhaps even more the radio, had made it prevailingly a region of English speech.

As for the schools, under Public School auspices the present District’s many original small districts came into being in the 1860’s.  As early as 1859 there had been private schools maintained by subscription, the first being Frank Kuhn’s near Big Fish Lake and Henry Klostermann’s at Richmond.  The Kuhn school, absorbed into the Public system as District 15, continued in operation on land he donated for the schoolyard until the consolidation.  It was served throughout all its first century by none but male schoolteachers.

Among the tales of early school events is that of the rural teacher near St. Nicholas who, for economy, lived in the schoolhouse.  Here his pupils, on winter washdays when things froze out-of-doors, peered between the legs of his long-legged underwear – that is, until an unheralded look-in by the County Superintendent on one of those washdays dictated an abrupt change in his way of life.

Another tale is of Rockville’s school, originally at some distance in the environs.  As the village grew, its citizens tired of this inconvenience; but when a vote was taken, lost to the still-rural majority.  Unwilling to let it go at that they hatched a secret plan, carried through one night when it was seen that the farm lamps had been extinguished and everyone was snoring.  Horses, skids, and foundation blocks were ready, and in the dim starlight the little building was lifted and conveyed to town.

But, as it happened, the grapevine, that wonderful means of communication, had not been inactive.  The farmers were snoring less soundly than had been supposed.  Thus, on this same night, with the same skids but with their own horses, a second job of removal was achieved before dawn.  On Awakening, the townspeople to their astonishment found the schoolhouse right where it had been the day before – in the country.

Later, in Richmond and Cold Spring, the Public system gave way to the Church’s energetic ambition to have its children in parochial schools.  The new venture blossomed into successful operation in the era of World War I.  During this phase, which saw brilliant teaching by many dedicated nuns, the region’s high school was established: St. Boniface at Cold Spring.  With this momentous step, and soon with lay principal, athletic coach, bandmaster, and tradeschool instructors, the library was greatly enlarged, and the District’s famous band, an award winner from the start, came into being.  But financial pressures ultimately forced a return to the tax-supported system of education.  District 750 was consolidated in 1967, and Rocori soon was built.  For a pleasant touch, one of the Twin City firm of architects responsible for Rocori’s plans was a St. Boniface graduate, Robert Kuebelbeck.

Meanwhile the wonderful growth of the region’s industrial giant, the Cold Spring Granite Company, had greatly altered the complexion of local life.  Young men from the farms or nearby villages could find jobs close at hand, and were adept in learning new skills.  In the epoch of World War II, under farsighted management, they quickly learned yet other skills and did prodigies in the great war effort, welding ship bottoms – Navy corvettes, for example – which bottoms, in chunks as big as a railroad flatcar could carry, sped away for assembly at deep-water ports.

Rockville was the original site of our granite industry.  There, Clark and McCormack, shortly before World War I, and all by hand labor, fabricated one of the outstanding granite structures of America, the St. Paul Cathedral.  This was an extraordinary chapter in Rockville’s history, horse-and-buggy traffic on Main Street at a stop in the evenings while the stonecutters brought in from Scandinavia and Scotland played European-style soccer up and down its central length.

And from Rockville it was, with Cold Spring capital to finance their ambition to mechanize the industry, that the Alexander brothers, Patrick H. and John, came to found the Cold Spring Granite Company in 1920.  Their innovations proved to be of world-wide consequence in revolutionizing granite production.

Cold Spring’s brewing industry had been founded much earlier, in 1874 or 75, under German auspices naturally.  The brewery was built atop the abundant spring that gave the town its name.  Good water, good beer.

Meanwhile, too, Richmond’s long role as host to the anglers and vacationers who thronged to enjoy the Sauk’s chain of lakes had brought prosperity to the up-river town.  And the countryside had played its part in making Stearns County the chief butter producing county in the entire United States.

While all this has gone on, the prehistoric Red River Trail, leading through the District from end to end, has continued to carry traffic, as it has for we wonder how long?  And how long has mankind inhabited Minnesota?  Well, the oldest human skeleton yet found (a girl’s, drowned near Pelican Rapids) is said to date back twenty thousand years - for the last thousand of which at least our trail can be supposed to have been in service.