History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wadsworth Trail drew intrepid (& eccentric) folks

Wintermute Lake seems a pretty ordinary Minnesota lake but it has significance, as it's next to the earliest pioneering path out here. (B.W. photo)

"The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity."
- Wayne Fields, "Lost Horizon"

The people and adventures of the Wadsworth Trail could appear in a Louis L'Amour novel. People wound their way out west with risk but it must have been the kind of risk they felt could be rewarded. It's a testament to the indomitable human spirit.
It's a spirit that brimmed never more vigorously than when facing the opportunities of a free and expanding America.
"No man has to bow," Joshua Chamberlain told his Maine troops, propping up morale just before the battle of Gettysburg. "America should be free soil, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Here we judge you for what you do, not for who your father was."
Chamberlain's speech, to a group of demoralized (actually mutinous) troops, was re-created in the movie "Gettysburg" (given the full four stars by critic Roger Ebert). Jeff Daniels played the heroic role.
Sam Smith might have heard such a speech. Sam was a war hero who settled in Morris. He was a significant early resident and he has descendants here today. His monument at Summit Cemetery is the most distinctive one there.
Smith fought for the kind of ideals that were the underpinning of the push west. The issues of the Civil War weren't felt here - further south like in Kansas of course, but not here.
The Civil War seemed almost to rip America's heart out. It was business that had to be accomplished. That it took so many lives is the tragedy.
European civilization was beginning to probe out here as the ashes were still smoldering from the war in the east. The Wadsworth Trail was established in 1864. Any study of Morris history begins with this. The travel was primitive and dangerous. But the western frontier was tantalizing.
The prairie seemed like a vast sea where you saw a flat horizon in the distance.
The first known settlement here was in Framnas Township in 1866. The trail was in its prime from 1864 to 1871. The U.S. government planned the Wadsworth Trail for transporting supplies from St. Cloud to Fort Wadsworth.
The fort, named for a Civil War general, was located near Sisseton, South Dakota. The government planned for security out here in light of the feared alliance of Native American factions who would pursue hostile intentions. Memories were fresh, needless to say, of the Sioux's hostile actions two years previous.
Henry Gager built a stopping point in Stevens County. Gager's Station might well be Chapter 1 in any history of the county. It thrived and then flamed out as transportation methods were sharpened. It was the railroad that truly laid the foundation for Morris.
Gager had a good reputation. He was very civilized with his values. I would guess that anyone out here back then had a gun at the ready, though.
The wide spectrum of people who made their way here included those of dubious reputation or intentions. I'm reminded of the Clint Eastwood westerns that were set in territories as they worked to become full-fledged states of the U.S.
Statehood didn't come until law could be asserted without resistance.
Granted, Minnesota had become a state in 1858. But the western prairie was desolate compared to where Europeans first settled in large numbers. For all practical purposes we still seemed like a territory. Fort Snelling with its assertion of Manifest Destiny was a long ways away.
Here we had the humble outpost of Gager's where such shady folks as horse thieves and cattle rustlers were known to circulate. Weren't these hanging offenses in some places?
Henry Gager was known to trade with horse thieves from Horse Shoe Lake. Doesn't sound to me like there was much active law enforcement.
Travel was so primitive and hazardous, a simple creek could spell nightmares, even death. We learn of the Big Muddy Creek. It flowed in Pepperton Township. It was notorious. It was tame in dry times, but the heavy rains spelled a much different picture.
Remember, the land was not yet tilled. The land was less able to soak up rain, so rain collected in the creek and rivers, spelling "torrent" at times.
The unrestrained muddy water was an obstacle that could be fatal for horses if not people. If you survived the creek you headed west toward Toqua Station near Graceville. A park commemorates that place today. I believe Graceville has an annual celebration with the "Toqua" name.
Beyond Toqua there were further destinations for the intrepid folks: Browns Valley, the Indian Agency, the Buffalo Lakes Station and finally Fort Wadsworth.
Government teams were run by teamsters. Large wagons were pulled by 12-mule teams. The loads could weigh 3-4 tons.
A man on horseback was out front. A driver with a whip was positioned on one of the rear mules. The sound of a whip could resonate over a wide area. Two soldiers and a brake operator were on the wagon. Oh, and there were cavalry at the ready, escorting dutifully.
Again, memories of the Sioux uprising (or massacre) were fresh.
At least one soldier lost his life in such treks. Children playing in Morris Township in the 1920s found a sword stuck into the ground. This identified a burial.
Think mosquitoes are bad today? You might want to put aside any romantic notions of the early frontier. In the Wadsworth Trail days, mosquitoes could be so thick you might have difficulty lighting a match (so the legend goes).
Hot weather made it hard to keep animals properly hydrated. Wagons could tip over in mud.
The Pomme de Terre River flooded in 1867, causing delays. It also took the life of a mail carrier who tried to make a crossing at Johnson's Mill.
The Wadsworth Stage was an institution that would belong on the pages of a L'Amour novel. It was a two-horse stage that ventured from Sauk Centre to Fort Wadsworth once a week. A heavy load would necessitate mules. The stage's schedule often seemed to exist in theory only. It proceeded as best it could.
The stage was famous as a vehicle for relaying news from other places. George Lee was a well-known stage driver.
One noteworthy incident had the stage getting upset in the Pomme de Terre River. Mrs. Gager, Mary, was on board. She was later quite chagrined that Lee saw fit to retrieve the mail dispatch before he attended to Mary!
Ethelyn Pearson once wrote about "the dude of Wadsworth trail." That was the name of a chapter in her 2000 book "It Really Happened Here - Amazing Tales of Minnesota and the Dakotas."
Ethelyn is the mother of long-time (now retired) Morris Area industrial arts teacher Larry Pearson. I knew Larry well even though I wasn't a "shoppie" (shop class devotee). Actually I got to know him best after my high school years. He's very pleasant and capable, and worked for a time at Morris Lumber and Millwork.
I never met Ethelyn but I feel kindred with her given her journalistic inclinations and historical curiosity.
"Refinement and elegance arrived at Gager's Station," Ethelyn wrote, beginning her chapter about the "dude" whose name was Albert Hawkes.
Hawkes drove no ordinary team of oxen. The oxen understood a different "language" from the usual oxen. Hawkes saw to that. He had a musical background from back east, Ethelyn informs us. He turned west seeking adventure. He had a pleasant demeanor and clean lifestyle. He promoted levity wherever he went.
But he was eccentric. He examined oxen in planning for his travels and found them to be too lacking or too, well, pedestrian. He didn't want the usual oxen that responded to the standard commands ("hish," "gee," "haw"). He obtained a young pair of oxen and instilled in them a grasp of a different language. It was the language from square dancing, a pastime that had fulfilled Mr. Hawkes much.
He wanted his team to be a reminder. So they became well-versed in commands like "forward all" and "promenade." The oxen might even understand "swing your partners." Observers might laugh when hearing "allemande left."
The behavior was derided by frontier journalist "Shanghai" Chandler, a notable early Morris area personality. Chandler felt Hawkes to be worthy of arrest, so irregular was his behavior.
Hawkes certainly didn't stick around here. He ventured way over the horizon to Bismarck and the Black Hills, driving a stage over a newly-laid route. His story has a tragic end, as he was shot by Indians.
Ethelyn reports that traveling from Gager's to Bismarck could be a "teamster's nightmare." At the same time it was "an Indian's paradise," the author noted. Mud and sinkholes were hazards. Crossing tops of hills put you in eyesight of Indians who might be predatory.
Ethelyn wrote about the "young Indian bucks" who might hide in ambush awaiting a supply train with its guns, ammo, whiskey etc.
"The blood of Albert Hawkes and his companions kept open a trail that had to be traveled if the West was to be won," Ethelyn wrote.
It's important we remember the hardships, sacrifices and indomitable spirit of those souls who saw the possibilities out here way back in the mid-19th Century. Manifest Destiny arrived with the Wadsworth Trail.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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