Pelican Rapids Booming in the Beginning

Picture this scenario: A wild–eyed community development grantwriter meeting with the city’s Economic Development Authority. He tells of a city with four hotels, ten factories and mills, twenty–five new retail outlets. A great vision of the future? Hardly. This is the Pelican Rapids of the past—December 28, 1883— recorded in the pages of the Pelican Rapids Times.

Pelican Rapids began as a boomtown, thanks to a steady influx of homesteaders in need of groceries and supplies. Water power developed by Tuttle and perfected by Frazee turned logs into lumber—and once the newly broken soil began yielding its bounty, wheat into flour. The editor of the Times was eager to praise local attributes, "The finest agricultural section in America...the Pelican Valley its garden spot." The Minnesota winter—the snake in this Eden—was dismissed as a mere misunderstanding. "One of the unfounded and groundless bugbears entertained by normally intelligent people is that the climate of Minnesota is but little removed from the Arctic regions, that to put one’s head outdoors in winter time means at least the loss of an ear or nose, to say nothing of the hazard to life itself. As a matter of fact, our air is dry and crisp, free from the chilling penetration felt in more moist climates further south… Men work outdoors here all the year round."

The irony that men worked outside because they had no other option must have been apparent those who had already experienced the severity of several winters. But Scandinavians contemplating emigration were not deterred. Norway and Sweden had experienced population growths that had outstripped each nation’s ability to provide land or jobs. Besides, winters were cruel there also, and land was unavailable or unaffordable. Rumors crossing the Atlantic that land in America was free, sent tens of thousands packing "America trunks."

Land in America was indeed free, but came with a price many were unable to pay. In 1862, Congress passed Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres to any head of a family, (a citizen or with intent to become a citizen) who would make minimal improvements and live on it for five years. Improvement and residency requirements would be waived for $1.25 per acre. Most of the land was from the original Louisiana Purchase, bought from France in 1803 for about twelve cents an acre.

Why, with the Confederate Army bearing down on Washington, Congress decided to give away millions of acres, is a mystery to some. However, the pressure to privatize "worthless" western lands had been building since the 1840’s, but fear that Southerners would sneak slaves into the new territory caused Congress to back away from formal consideration. With the South temporarily out of the Union, the issue was moot. A number of factors favored the giveaway. It would be a major Union publicity coup. It would attract European immigrants who would be subject to military draft. It was better to give away idle land today, and collect taxes on it tomorrow. Wholesale white settlement would displace hostile Indian tribes.

Homesteading was set back a decade by predictable Indian hostility, but by early 1880’s, a shaky European economy sent multitudes of impoverished Scandinavians to Minnesota. Even in the best farm country only half of them overcame isolation, poverty, grasshoppers, overwork, Indian panics, weather, and alcoholism to prove their claims. Still, the Homestead Act put nearly a half million families on the land. Interestingly enough, many of the Lakes Area homesteaders were part of a "reverse migration" from the Dakotas. Many early immigrants recoiled at the prospect of clearing land and headed further west for easier plowing. A succession of dry summers and cruel winters sent them fleeing east into the Otter Tail County woods where they were happy to grub and split stumps for firewood.

Much of the original Pelican townsite was railroad land, part of the one hundred million acres granted to encourage transcontinental transportation—in this case an extravagant right–of–way including every other section in a band five miles wide from Duluth to the Pacific. The strategy was simple and effective. The railroad would sell excess land to impoverished immigrant farmers, use the money to buy rails. The farmers would initially cut logs for railroad ties, then—once land was cleared and track was laid—the railroad would make money hauling their wheat, oats, and corn. Incidentally, the dependence on wood as a medium of exchange persisted as late as 1908, when parishioners of Maplewood Lutheran Church were instructed to annually deliver a cord of green popple to the Great Northern rail yard in Erhard in lieu of putting non–existent money in the collection plate!

Pelican’s boom continued into 1884, when three quarters of a million dollars were spent on commercial expansion, a considerable sum in days when only $2,500 would stock a general store. Population increased accordingly, tripling from just over 600 into nearly 1800 in just ten years.

Agricultural prices soared during World War I, when American grain fed Europeans too busy killing each other to farm. But the Armistice brought a surplus. Depressed prices would not fully recover for another twenty years. The 1920’s were years of falling away, the Great Abandoning, as tens of thousands of Minnesotans gave up homesteads hard won by their parents and grandparents and fled to jobs in urban centers. Throughout the northern half of the state nearly four million marginal acres went back to counties for nonpayment of property tax—in those days as little as a dime an acre. In Otter Tail and Wilkin counties, some failing farmers sold to prosperous neighbors. Others faced foreclosure. In either case, farms got bigger, farmers fewer.

The bigger farms—fewer farmers syndrome wrecked havoc on the local economy. And it continues, as evident by vacant lots in Pelican’s prime commercial area—and by the impossibility to buy even so much as a plow bolt or a cultivator shoe locally.

~Roger Pinckney