From dam building to forest preservation, Milton Milo Williams built a legacy of stewardship to community and the natural world that continues to be felt today. His entrepreneurship, agricultural innovations and civic engagement were widely recognized during his lifetime in his adopted town of Little Falls. Less well known was his impact at the state level. Williams’ service to the state included a fifteen year stint on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and over two decades of membership on the State Forestry Board. As a member of the Forestry Board, Williams helped to implement change in the state’s forest policy and to foster protection and preservation of significant stands of trees. The legacy of this work is the comprehensive forest policy that currently exists in Minnesota.
Milton Milo Williams was born on October 1, 1848, in Litchfield, Michigan, to John Newton Williams, a Presbyterian clergyman, and his wife, Susan (Halsted) Williams. When Milton was ten years old, the family moved to Lake City, Minnesota, later settling in St. Paul. In 1871, Williams began working on railroad construction with William Crooks and Colonel DeGraff. Crooks and DeGraff were associated with the Northern Pacific Railroad and had an office in St. Paul. While working on construction of the Little Falls and Dakota Railway, a line that stretched between Little Falls and Brown’s Valley on the Minnesota-South Dakota border, Williams saw the potential for water power on the Mississippi River in Little Falls. In 1887, Williams and a number of other investors organized the Little Falls Water Power Company for the purpose of building a dam and power plant on the Mississippi River. Williams was named secretary, treasurer and manager of the company and personally supervised construction of the dam. The dam that was built was the third at that location and the first to cover the full width of the falls. The earlier dams had only crossed the eastern channel. The second dam washed out during flooding and was completely destroyed in the summer of 1860. As the dam and its power were key selling points to industries that chose to locate in Little Falls, such as the Pine Tree Lumber Company and Hennepin Paper Mill, Williams and his fellow investors were credited with transforming the city from a “mere village” into a prosperous manufacturing and industrial center.
Besides dam building, Williams was involved in several other business ventures in the Little Falls community. For a time he was part owner of the Transcript Publishing Company and, in 1889, he helped organize the First National Bank of Little Falls. Williams was president of the bank at the time of his death in 1926. Williams was also instrumental in constructing the city’s second rail line, the Little Falls and Morris Railway. This line was built by the Little Falls and Dakota Railroad Company and ran west from Little Falls to Morris, Minnesota, a distance of about eighty-five miles.
In 1889, Williams married Florence E. Bennett (1863-1945) of Rochester, New York. The couple lived at Meadow View, a model farm west of Little Falls that was located on Section 13 in Pike Creek Township. Prior to moving to Little Falls in 1887, Williams had purchased the property and had built an elegant two-story home near the western edge. The home was the site of many social gatherings and the Williams were much admired. According to Emery Lindberg, a teamster who worked on the farm from 1912 to 1914, Williams had an electric car that his wife would sometimes use to get to town. Williams’ horses and carriage, however, were the envy of the entire community. Lindberg described the horses as wonderful, beautiful animals that were worth $500 each. The average annual income in the United States at that time was just over $600. (Lindberg, Emery. Letter to Stella LeBlanc. 5 November 1972. Williams Family File.)
Williams was a pioneer in diversified farming and an influential advocate for modern agriculture. Meadow View was large, at one time covering over six hundred acres. This allowed plenty of room for Williams to engage in his passion for raising purebred livestock. According to an article in the April 12, 1948, Centennial Issue of the Little Falls Daily Transcript, “M. M. Williams, businessman and gentleman farmer, believed that farms could be modern in their operations and was not afraid of working to prove that he was right.” (“Williams Had Point And Could Prove It.”) In 1898, with the help of a hired man, Williams installed running water in his barn. Williams was the first in the area to have such a modern amenity and he hoped to show that it was easy to do and inexpensive. Electricity was extended to the farm eight years later when arrangements were made in the spring of 1906 with the Little Falls Water Power Company to furnish electricity to the O. Duclos Brickyards. The Brickyards were located south of Meadow View. Several other residences in the area were also added to the new electric line. (“Line to Brickyards – Little Falls Water Power Co. Will Furnish O. Duclos With Electric Power.” Little Falls Daily Transcript 26 March 1906.)
After retiring in 1903 as president of the Little Falls Water Power Company and disposing of his controlling interest, Williams remained active in the Little Falls community, establishing a park, securing the first library building, and serving as director of the Morrison County Safety Commission during World War I. Around the time he retired, Williams was enlisted to serve on a library building committee that sought to obtain money from Andrew Carnegie for a separate library structure. Williams’ wife, Florence, had been instrumental in organizing the first library in Little Falls in 1892. The committee was successful and construction of the Little Falls Carnegie Library was completed in the spring of 1905. (“City Library Born in 1892.” Little Falls Daily Transcript 12 June 1948: Centennial Section.) Perhaps one of Williams most important legacies was Pine Grove Park. Established in 1907, largely through the efforts of Williams, the fifty-five acre park contains what was considered one of the last remaining stands of white pine in the state of Minnesota. Located on the west side of Little Falls, the park was to be set aside in perpetuity for the benefit of the public. The deed transferring ownership of the park to the City of Little Falls contained a special condition which stated that none of the pine could be cut and the land must remain a park or it would revert to the Grantors or their heirs. Williams, a shrewd businessman, was careful to have the park protected for the future.
Williams’ interest in Minnesota’s forests was already evident at the time Pine Grove Park was created with his extensive service on the State Forestry Board. A member at the time of his death, Williams served on the board for over two decades, taking a turn as president. Created by the state legislature in 1899, the State Forestry Board was responsible for the development and management of all tracts of state lands. The board had nine members, one of which was appointed by the Minnesota Horticultural Society. Williams served as the Horticultural Society’s representative at least twice and was made a life member of the Society by his friends. (“Journal of Annual Meeting, Minnesota State Horticultural Society.” Minnesota Horticulturist 35(1907): 505.)
Williams also served on the State Forestry Board as a representative of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Williams had been appointed on February 28, 1910, in place of Sidney M. Owen of Minneapolis who had died.Throughout Williams’ fifteen year career as a regent he served on several committees, including Agricultural, Auditing, Investment, Salaries and Finance, and Buildings and Grounds. Not surprisingly, he served as Chairman of the Agricultural Committee and, as a member of the Consulting Committee, was assigned to the Engineering College. After former Lieutenant Governor, Albert E. Rice, retired from the board, Williams took over as Vice President. Shortly after Williams became regent, a new special department, the Department of Forestry, was established at the University. According to the minutes of the May 12, 1910, board meeting, the first Standing Committee of the newly created department had three members, one of which was Williams. That same year, Williams helped negotiate terms for the provision of seed trees on forest land in Cloquet. The land had been deeded to the State of Minnesota and the timber was to be cut that summer. As seed trees would encourage new growth, the board requested the owners let stand for not over five years trees selected by the University of Minnesota’s Professor of Forestry with the object of purchase. Williams was also responsible for negotiating terms for the purchase of land adjacent to the University’s Experiment Farm in Duluth. Williams remained a regent until July of 1925, when new legislation made him ineligible for re-appointment.
Milton Milo Williams was one busy guy. Active up until his death on October 3, 1926, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Williams’ love of nature and community were evident in both his business and social pursuits. A successful businessman, compelling negotiator and respected leader, Williams used his talents for the good of both Little Falls and the state of Minnesota. Though his name is not well known today, Williams’ impact has been long lasting.
-By Ann Marie Johnson
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 25, Number 1, 2012.