Work at the Historical Society sometimes feels like the television show, CSI. For those of you who have never watched the show, CSI stands for Crime Scene Investigation. The show follows Gil Grissom (played by William Peterson) and his Las Vegas crime lab team as they solve crimes using various scientific procedures. Some of the procedures are time-consuming and often put the team on false leads, away from their goal of catching the murderer.
Conducting historical research can also be time-consuming and present false leads. In our case, we’ve decided that CSI stands for Contradictory Source Investigation. Let me explain using a fresh example.
I’ve been conducting research on some buildings in Little Falls at the request of Rich Carlson, City Administrator. These building have undergone recent restoration and have been fitted with plaques denoting their contribution to the Little Falls Historic Conservation District. Rich asked me to edit the press releases for these buildings to make sure the information was historically accurate.
For one building, I had considerable difficulty in determining when it was constructed. This building, located at 302 First Street Southeast, now serves as the gift shop, Ambiance@53. We knew that the building served as a gas station prior to becoming a gift shop. A previous researcher, who had done a survey of downtown buildings, put the construction date at 1942. She cited an advertisement from the June 12, 1948 Centennial Edition of the Little Falls Daily Transcript as her source. I found the ad, which shows that the building was the home of the Morrison County Co-Operative Association. It states that the “business outgrew its quarters so in 1942 a move was made to 300 First street southeast, a modern service station and office.” From this statement, it sounds as though the business moved into an existing building. The building was apparently not very old due to the reference to “modern”. The ad includes considerable history on the Association, but never states that it had the building constructed. From this, it appeared that 1942 was not the construction date.
Note that the address of the building is now at 302, but in 1948, the address was at 300. This sort of thing happens frequently in town histories. Address numbering systems change for a variety of reasons. Road names can also change, as happened in 1892 in Little Falls. It helps to know these quirks because one can easily be led astray.
Now it was time to check the city directories prior to 1942. By looking under the headings for gas stations or automobiles, perhaps I could find the name of a station with a matching address. I was almost thrown onto the wrong path. A Conoco station was shown to be located on the corner of First Street and Third Avenue. No number was given and I thought maybe this was our gas station. Two things ruled this out. For one, the Conoco station would have been located to the south of the gas station in question. The gas station I was looking for was located on Second Avenue. I further ruled out the Conoco with a trip to the County Recorder’s Office.
The directory showed that Louis P. Johnson was the proprietor of the Conoco Station. When I arrived at the Recorder’s Office, the staff determined the legal description of the Ambiance building. Then they pointed me to giant books that list property transfers. Following the columns in the appropriate book, I found that neither Louis Johnson nor the Conoco Station was listed as an owner. Ruling out possibilities can be just as important in history as proving something to be true. This was a good lesson.
I discovered that the property was purchased by the Little Falls Elks Home in 1923. After the Elks Home had financial difficulties, the property changed hands several times, eventually coming under the ownership of James Madden and the Little Falls Hotel Corporation in the 1930s. In 1945, the Co-op Oil Association (name changed in 1947 to Morrison County Co-Operative Oil Association) bought the property from Cyril L. Stodolka. Because the Recorder’s Office is only concerned with property transfers, they were unable to assist me with the construction date. I was directed to the Treasurer’s Office to check tax records.
At the Treasurer’s Office, it was suggested that I check with the Assessor’s Office. The Assessor determines property tax values. When there is an improvement to a property, the Assessor has to reassess the property at a higher value. Perhaps they had the answer to my question. After a few minutes in the Assessor’s Office, the staff returned with a construction date of 1926. With a date in hand, I wanted to confirm it with another source and figure out who had built the gas station.
I returned to the museum and went through newspapers for 1926. I concentrated on the peak construction months, April through September. Often, early newspapers (pre-1930s) announced various building projects, sometimes with detailed descriptions of materials and style. The April 30, 1926 issue of the Little Falls Daily Transcript reported that the Home Oil Company was erecting a filling station. This was a similar name to the Co-op Oil Association. The proposed site was “on the northwest corner lot at the intersection of First street and Third avenue southeast”. Third Avenue would rule this out, but a check in the 1928 directory showed the address as the northwest corner of First Street and Second Avenue. Oh, my! Was this the original owner?
For some reason, I didn’t think so. Home Oil speaks of fuel oil for home use, not a gas station. I put this information aside and checked the tax roll records for the late 1960s to early 1970s that we have at the museum. The Pine Edge Inn was listed as the owner of the property at that time. According to these records, the building was constructed in 1928. More contradiction! Would this ever end?
Upon Jan’s suggestion, I called Jack Bares, whose uncle owned the Standard Oil station across First Street from this location. I wanted to know if Jack could tell me when it was built. While he did remember the Morrison County Co-op Oil Association, he couldn’t help with a construction date. It was before his time.
Next, I checked the 1930 Sanbourn insurance map. These maps show structures within a town. Unfortunately, no building appeared at this location on the map. This contradicts the Assessor’s information and the tax rolls.
Not knowing what else to try, I went to the 1930 phone book. This book is a skimpy pamphlet with phone numbers from one digit to five, many containing letters mixed with numbers. I resigned myself to looking through the addresses one-by-one to see if I could find the gas station. Within minutes, I found it: L. H. Bastien’s Super Station located at 300 SE 1st Street. I also looked up the Home Oil Company in this phone book and found it listed separately. Home Oil was now ruled out.
I checked our Family Files and discovered that Leo Bastien was “L. H.”. The 1928 city directory also shows him managing the Auto Sales Company at 210 Southeast 1st Street. This is where Don’s Food Pride is now located. The Auto Sales Company sold Nash and Packard automobiles.
After a full day of Contradictory Source Investigation, I decided that I had found just about all I was going to find. I never confirmed the date of construction, but would state it as 1926/1928. Leo H. Bastien appears to have been the earliest proprietor of the station, which was built on property owned by the Elks Home. That leads to other questions, which cannot be answered here. My investigation led me through thirteen separate sources; those listed here, plus the photograph collection.
Just like CSI, the TV show, sometimes we can only get close to solving a mystery. Move over, Gil Grissom. Historians, too, have the tenacity and patience to be CSI experts.
By Mary Warner
Copyright 2004, Morrison County Historical Society