Community Building

“James Green made a “squatter’s” claim in 1848, and built a saw-mill on the east side of the Mississippi river by the island at the falls.” So wrote Clara K Fuller in the “History of Morrison and Todd Counties”, published in 1915. Various versions of this statement have been repeated over the years. While it is not incorrect, it falls far short of telling the whole story. It does appear that James Green settled in 1848. He arrived here from the Selkirk Colony with his wife Isabelle and three children. Beyond that, Green seems to be somewhat of a mystery. Little seems to have been written about him. In examining history it is necessary to ask questions, and the often repeated story of James Green and the dam prompts many questions. Who was Green? Why would he come here to build a dam when there were no other settlers? Did he have help? It is not likely that he came here to build a dam by himself.

The answers to the building of the dam are in a little-known document which begins; “Articles of Copartnership made and concluded this First day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty nine by and between John R. Irvine, J.B.S. Todd, Allan Morrison , N.J.T. Dana, Henry M.Rice and James Green, all of the Territory of Minnesota.” The document continues; “Whereas, it is the intention of the said parties to form a copartnership for the improvement of the water power at the Little Falls of the Misisippi (sic)River in said Territory by erecting thereat a dam and one or more saw mills; for the manufacture and sale of lumber and shingles, and to connect such other busines (sic) therewith as may, by said parties be deemed advisable, and for which purposes they have agreed on the following terms and articles of agreement……..”

The Articles then go on to state the terms of the agreement. The first five partners simply claimed the rights to the water power, then named the firm the Little Falls Mill and Land Company. They evidently put up the money for the materials and improvements, then sold five-tenths of the interest to Green who was to have complete charge of the dam and mills. It was also agreed that Green could build a store from which he could sell goods and merchandise.

The question still remains. Why? To whom would Green be selling lumber? Who were these five men who were investing in a venture at the Little Falls? It is important to understand what was happening all around. In March, 1849 Minnesota Territory was established by an Act of Congress. Henry Mower Rice, along with Henry Sibley, had been at the forefront of the movement to establish Minnesota as a Territory. Rice’s influence in the entire region was far-reaching. He arrived at Fort Snelling in 1839. In 1840 he went to Ft. Atkinson on the Missouri and Platte Rivers. He soon began trading out of St. Louis for the firm of Pierre Choteau Jr. and Company. Through his trading he became well acquainted with the Ojibwe and the Winnebago.

In 1847, Henry Rice, along with General Isaac VerPlank, wrote the Winnebago Treaty and established the Winnebago in the area which he had selected for them between the Watab and Crow Wing Rivers on the west side of the Mississippi River. Previous to, and during that time, Red River Ox Carts plied the trail from Pembina to St. Paul carrying goods and furs. Henry Rice was also involved in that trade. Considering this setting, it is safe to assume that Henry Rice gathered together the rest of the partners to establish the water power at the Little Falls which he saw as a great opportunity.

John Irvine came from Danville, New York in 1843, bringing a load of groceries which he marketed. Irvine was a blacksmith and plasterer by trade. He soon invested in the newly forming St. Paul. He acquired a large tract of land, part of which is now Irvine Park. Henry Rice also had significant holdings in St. Paul, where Rice Park still bears his name. Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana and John Blair Smith Todd were military Captains who where sent to establish Fort Ripley. Could it be that lumber being sawed at the Little Falls was helping to build structures at Fort Ripley? The fifth partner, Allan Morrison, was a well known trader in the area. Understanding the backgrounds of these partners, it is evident that they all had much to gain if the Little Falls venture was successful. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. About a year after the dam was constructed, James Green was in Ramsey County on business when he contracted Cholera and died. There is little record of the transactions between that time and the venture of the Little Falls Manufacturing Company of James Fergus, William Sturgis and Calvin Tuttle some five years later.

In 1853, Henry Rice had become a Congressman from Minnesota Territory. In 1858, H.M.Rice, along with Henry Sibley, was instrumental in Minnesota becoming a state. Rice then was elected a Senator from the new state of Minnesota. It is clear that, although James Green is credited with building the dam, Henry Rice and his partners were the moving force in establishing the first dam on the Mississippi at Little Falls.

There have been four successive dams built at approximately the same location. The second dam, a venture of the Little Falls Company (later Little Falls Manufacturing Co.) resulted in Little Falls becoming an established community. However, the Little Falls Mfg. Co. failed and Little Falls was once again floundering, although there were residents who were able to remain in the city. In 1887-88 the third dam was constructed with financial backing from a development group from Louisville, Kentucky. It was at this time that Little Falls became a boom town. The Pine Tree Lumber Company soon took advantage of the boomage area and built its sawmill a short distance above the dam. Although the Pine Tree mill shut down in 1920, construction of another, more modern, dam had already begun. The loss of the Pine Tree mill was a blow to the community, but the city was well enough established, as were agriculture and other industries, that Little Falls continued to flourish. The power of the Mississippi River cannot be overlooked as the major force in building the community of Little Falls.

by Jan Warner
Copyright 1999, Morrison County Historical Society

2 Comments

  1. It must be remembered that there was little market activity in the area at that time. The fur trade was the major industry. In time, land speculation became a major economic activity. Early farms were not able to market for quite a while–not until they were able to work up a surplus beyond their subsistence crop.

    The possible customers for the upper-Mississippi lumber on 1849 included these:
    1) The Long Prairie Winnebago Agency. This was the government’s first construction project in the area. The Winnebago removal was predicated on the idea that there would be a crop waiting for them when they arrived from northern Iowa in early summer 1848, which was an optimistic promise, at best.
    The Winnebago Agency had plans for an Agent’s house, barns, a school, homes for workers, and homes for Winnebago families. The construction of the Indian homes became a sore point for years–newly constructed ones were counted on one or two hands per year, tops.

    2) As you state above, Fort Ripley. The military base was part of the promise that was used to make the Winnebago feel secure enough to volunteer to accept the Long Prairie site–they were to buffer the friction between the Dakota and the Ojibwe, in order to hold apart warring people. Not an easy thing. Anyway, that military base brought a lot of jobs and money to an area that had previously only known financial stimulus through fur trading activity.

    3) The a new Indian Agency at Sandy Lake, which was another pipe dream of the government. The idea was in the air in 1849 and was very likely batted around with Ramsey at that time. The idea was to move the financial stimulus connected to the Ojibwe annuity payment from Wisconsin to Minnesota. By 1850, there were a few structures built, but not the village-like enclave that would have been assumed. Because the Wisconsin Ojibwe refused to remove to Minnesota in 1850, the Sandy Lake fiasco was a poor use of valuable lumber, budget, and labor.

    In a couple years, the government changed the Ojibwe Agency itself, making a new “Chippewas of the Mississippi” full agency and left the LaPointe Agency in place, with a smaller client base. From the point of view of sawmills, this started the building activity all over again. This was sited a bit north of Crow Wing. Additionally, Clement Beaulieu had begun to make a town at Crow Wing, which he hoped would serve the two closest Agencies and the fort.

    4) Settlers in the area also demanded lumber. There was a lumber shortage for many years. Apparently there was a portable steam sawmill that was used by Frederic Ayer and his son at Belle Prairie, but belonged to a larger group that included Henry Rice. I suspect that this was the start of Lyman Ayer’s lumbering career.

    Another market for lumber was the budding services that were associated with the territorial transportation system. In time, taverns and hotels, stores, and ferry owners’ homes were a few destinations for dimensional lumber.

    Traders to the Ojibwe and to the Winnebago were willing to camp out in the early years but each needed to make a structure, in time. The 1849 and 1850 censuses show these men bunking together in a group. Must have been crazy times. Rice built a warehouse at Sauk Rapids for his own use as far as I know. I’m sure he envisioned this building back in 1849.

    After the Winnebago evacuated their reserve after 1855, the land and the buildings went onto the market. I’ve read something about these abandoned structures being plundered, for their lumber.

  2. Linda – You always bring such a wealth of information about early Morrison County history to the discussion. Thanks so much for your insight and comments.

    Mary Warner
    Museum Manager

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