To get to the Kasota Prairie, the best route is through the village of Kasota, whether walking or driving. It’s a little burg dominated by two bars. One, the Prairie Saloon, originally a dry goods store, has been in business for years; the other, down the street several blocks, is the Blue Moon, at one time called, J and J’s. It seems to be in business for a few years; then shuts down, with its name changing with every new ownership. When I first went to the Prairie Saloon in 1973 for a “coon barbeque” I was told to take a knife, and, I don’t mean that it was to cut the raccoon meat. Being told to pack a knife was certainly an exaggeration, but the Prairie Saloon had a reputation as a tough place. The Blue Moon wasn’t much better, but for me it had two redeeming qualities. It was one of my favorite examples of “Adaptive Reuse.” In historic preservation, it means a building’s façade, the outside if you will, remains largely intact but its use inside has been changed dramatically. At the Blue Moon, this was a dramatic understatement. According to Joni Nimps, a longtime town resident, the Blue Moon was the former Baptist Church. You can still see its bell tower, sans bell. And, where the altar once was located became the bar. The pews were taken out to make a dance floor. I also liked the place because at one time it had a free lunch on Saturday. This is where my daughter and I would go after a hard morning of collecting stone for a backyard terrace we were building. They had hot dogs and chips or soup and other sandwiches, maybe even sloppy joes on occasion. You could go in and sit at a table, order a couple of Buds and get some free food. You couldn’t beat it. Plus, on many Saturday nights some of the best bands in the Twin Cities would come down to play. Not a bad deal for a little village of around 500 people. And not a bad reuse for an abandoned church either.
Most of Kasota’s former businesses are gone now, other than these two bars. It still has a Presbyterian Church and a new US Post Office. There is a funky glass-making business in the old historic blacksmith shop. The only other two signs that show there is still a town, are a well known snowmobile sales and service west of the downtown and a relatively new Community Building that houses City Hall. Even with some recent upgrades, like curbs and gutters on some streets, Kasota has the look and feel of a place that had its best days years ago. The village’s past prosperity was not, however, as a thriving farm town like so many other places in rural Minnesota, but rather to serve the mining industry.
To get an understanding of the beginning of mining on the Kasota Prairie, you first need to know a bit about the start and development of the village of Kasota. One of the town’s first settlers was Joseph W. Babcock. In fact, he arrived before there was a town. By all accounts he was an energetic, enterprising man intent on making his fortune on what at that time was the (Minnesota) frontier. I put (Minnesota) in parenthesis as it was not a state when Babcock came to the area in 1851. In that year, the Dakota Indians signed a treaty in which they relinquished their rights to nearly 24 million acres, largely in what was to become southern Minnesota, to the U.S. Government. Although there had been some missionaries and fur traders in this area for many years, the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux ushered in a land speculation boom and subsequent migration to develop new towns. It was an opportunistic environment to carry out the ambitions of many people bent on making their mark on the frontier. Here was where it was happening, where men and women could make their reputations and a fortune at the same time.
This manifest destiny is neatly described by Edward Eggelston in his book The Mystery of Metropolisville. Although born in Indiana in 1837, a gradually worsening respiratory illness necessitated a move to Minnesota Territory in 1857. At the time this area was touted as having a bracing climate and especially dry air, helpful for people suffering respiratory problems. He settled at Traverse des Sioux, a village just five miles northwest of Kasota. Here he met Lizzie Snider, who became his nurse and housekeeper. They fell in love and were married in 1858. It would appear that Edward’s writing career began at this time and that the setting of his “Metropolisville” book was, in fact,Traverse des Sioux.
The book begins with a conversation among a passenger and the driver of a stagecoach headed south presumably for the frontier town of Traverse des Sioux. He writes of a stop for the riders and horses to rest and be replenished with food and drink at a tavern somewhere on the bluff of the now-named Minnesota River. The tavern had a sod roof that leaked water on both people and horses. A dark and dreary place. But, apparently the rain didn’t dampen the hopeful conversation of the passengers. Here was a good chance for land speculators intent on making a killing selling farms and businesses. Lawyers could relish the prospect of dealing with cases of land fraud or worse. Eggeleston writes of the time, “… in the spring of the year 1856, when money was worth five and six percent a month on bond and mortgage, when platted corner lots doubled in value overnight, when everybody was frantically trying to swindle everybody else …” The opportunities for making it big in the new land were boundless. As a base for these many business speculations, Traverse des Sioux could possibly become a “Metropolis.” But the same prospect probably held true for other frontier communities, including Kasota.
The ambitious group at the sod tavern could have mirrored the dreams of wealth and power of the aforementioned Joseph Babcock. He had been awarded a mail carrier route from St. Paul, Minnesota to Sioux City, Iowa. It was one of the first postal routes to begin serving the needs of this developing region. He made the Kasota area a base for his route. As a partial payment for his mail service, he was granted a land claim. He chose a piece of land in the Big Woods around present-day Lake Washington, which was known for its extensive hardwoods. He made this land choice in anticipation of his next occupation which was to cut, mill, and sell lumber to the growing nearby towns of Traverse des Sioux and St. Peter. St. Peter, in particular, was a boom town, hell bent on becoming the eventual capital of the state. Babcock’s lumber company cut the trees and floated them down Chankaska Creek, which begins in Lake Washington and eventually flows into the Minnesota River. Here, at a natural drop in the creek, he built a water-powered sawmill. In 1853 the sawmill turned out as much as 10,000 feet of lumber a day. This was a big business at the time. He also operated a ferry from Kasota across the Minnesota River to a landing at St. Peter to haul lumber and people. One could say that Joseph Babcock started the town of Kasota. It was later officially platted and recorded as a town in 1855.
The growth of the town was enhanced by the establishment of a number of other commercial enterprises during Minnesota’s Territorial period. In 1855, a Mr. Butman built a dry goods store that is now used by the aforementioned Prairie Saloon. Gresham says that “the store sold silk and the finest grade of woolen fabrics of as good a quality to be found.” A general store owned and operated by C. Schaefer was started in 1854. It became primarily a grocery store in the 1940’s and was razed in 1975. A bank was also established at the corner of Cherry and Rice Streets. It later became the post office. I remember first walking into it to mail a letter in 1973 and thinking how cool it would be to have a post office box here. The old brass boxes were lined up along the walls separated by metal screens from the work area. It is still a magnificent structure even though it has been poorly modified into a home. A modern metal-framed post office was put up a few years ago, which is a far cry from the glorious architecture of its predecessor. I never once think about how cool it would be to have a post office box in this new building. I should not be so harsh though, as it is a feather in the town’s cap to be able to still have a Post Office.
The period following the Dakota/U.S. War and the Civil War saw more commercial additions to the town. A flour mill was added in 1868 at the Hubbard and Palmer Elevator. A blacksmith shop was started in 1871 by John Ofenlack. He also started the town’s hardware store. The blacksmith shop was sold to Nels Olson in 1902 and later his son, Elmer, bought it in 1927. Elmer sold the blacksmithing equipment in 1975. It is one of the few original commercial buildings in town still standing and one of three original blacksmith buildings in the state. As previously mentioned, it is now a glass-making business called the Hallmark Glass Shop owned by Mark Hall. His studio is worth a visit to admire his creative glass pieces and to see one of the first blacksmith shops in the state. It is located next to the Prairie Saloon. So if you’re in town, get a beer (the racoon barbeque is no longer available) and then stop in to see Mark and the old shop.
Two other original buildings, the Kasota Town Hall and the Kasota Township Hall are still standing. In the late 1990s, the 1898 Kasota Town Hall got a reprieve from the wrecking ball. The City Council, under pressure from a local group of concerned citizens, voted to have a “reuse study” done. It was recommended that the town hall be preserved and converted into apartments. Sorry to say, unlike these two structures, most of the old buildings from that era have not been preserved.
In 1916 there were 16 businesses in Kasota (see Table 1).
|Olson Blacksmith Shop||Warrant Cement Works|
|Stockton Hotel||Davies Drugs|
|Wistrom Hotel||Hanson Dray Lines|
|Nason Butcher Shop||Johnson Restaurant|
|Dr. Powell,M.D.||Swenson Shoe Store|
|Swenson & Youngren General Store||Hubbard & Palmer Elevator|
|Peterson & Kottke General Store||Standard Lumber Company|
|John Ofenlock General Store||First State Bank|
As you can see, in addition to the businesses I’ve already mentioned, there were two hotels, three general stores, (the Swenson Shoe Store was part of their general store), a lumber company, a doctor and, later, a dentist, a butcher shop, a drug store, a cement works, and a restaurant. It had a growing and recognizable downtown. It was also becoming a major railroad town.
Railroads in Kasota
At one time three railroads ran through Kasota. The St.Paul and Sioux City was the first line in 1868. It was bought by the Chicago, St. Paul, and Omaha, which built the a depot in a place that came to be known as “Depot Town.” The depot is no longer there, but Depot Town lives on, almost as a separate entity from Kasota. It consists of a collection of modest houses with no commercial buildings. A small grain elevator was later built near the tracks to ship grain. Since farming was never a real money-making enterprise here, it is no longer there.
The Winona and St. Peter became the second railroad to pass through Kasota. Although it was established in Winona, Minnesota in 1862, the line reached Rochester, Minnesota in 1864, and in about 1871 connected to Kasota. By 1882 it ran to the James River in the Dakota Territory. Later, it was incorporated into the Omaha Road and was bought in 1900 by the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. It later merged with the Union Pacific line which still runs through the town. The Winona and St. Peter began as an east to west connection through the town and, prior to its coming, there was no bridge over the Minnesota River. In 1879, an impressive wooden bridge was constructed. Later, the railroad, at a cost of $130,000, made a more sturdy bridge. The old limestone rock pillars can still be seen from Hwy. 169. The Winona and St. Peter was an especially important railroad line as it enabled goods and passengers to move from the eastern settled areas of the state into the western frontier of Minnesota.
A third railroad, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific came to Kasota in 1902. It later became the Chicago and Northwestern, and now is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad Company. It continues doing a lively business with over 100 trains a month moving through the town twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The tracks of these current and former rail lines dominate the landscape on the eastern edge of the Kasota Prairie. The Union Pacific is a double line and part of the old railroad bed of the Winona and St.Peter makes a fine walking/biking trail on the edge of the bluff.
With three railroads operating at one time, Kasota became one of southern Minnesota’s most important railroad towns. For example, in 1922 the three railroads had fourteen trains a day moving through town. A turntable for the trains was also added. These trains and the number of businesses that chose to locate in Kasota contributed to the town’s population growth.
Table 2 shows Kasota’s population change compiled from the Federal Census Bureau.
As you can see, the town reached its maximum population in 1900. What I find interesting about these statistics is that in comparing the business listing in Table I with this table, there appears to be a mismatch between the town’s number of commercial establishments in 1916 and a population of around 700. For example, why would a town this size have two hotels? Why three general stores? Clearly, something had to be happening in Kasota to account for this early business growth and three railroads.
Not A Farming Community?
Unlike many other places in frontier Minnesota, farming was not the major income maker for the town. The Kasota Prairie has never been an impressive farming area. In the book, Kasota: A Historical Perspective, is this statement: “The earliest settlers of the town site of Kasota, as a rule, did not fit the storybook picture of the poor, hardworking pioneer who clears the land in order to farm it.” The farm families that claimed a homestead here found very little top soil to work with. As we previously learned, the Prairie was a bedrock terrace. Glaciers had sheared off (or possibly “cut off,” remember?) the surface of the land to nearly bedrock. Only a relatively thin layer of topsoil remained, unlike the land to the west of the Minnesota River where farms had a topsoil layer of a few feet in thickness. I do believe, however, that the Kasota Prairie pioneers were hardworking, but it must have been quite a struggle to farm if you put down a plow to turn over the soil and you hit rock instead.
Some years ago I discovered an old stone fence on the Prairie that in both a historical and practical sense represents the difficulty of farming here. In a newspaper article that was published about this stone fence, I was quoted:
I almost went beserk when I spotted it. I just couldn’t believe it. You’d expect to see stone fences in the New England area where there’s so much rock, but not here. When people arrived on the prairie, hoping to farm, they were surprised to find there weren’t any trees.They had to make fences to keep in the animals, so they picked up all these rocks and made a stone fence.
That old stone fence is still standing. It is no longer keeping in animals, but serves as a remnant of the kind of hardships farmers here faced in the pioneer days. No, a prosperous farming economy did not account for the early growth of the village of Kasota. So what could it have been?
The Other Church
This chapter began with the former Baptist Church in Kasota that has been reused as the Blue Moon bar. However, there was another church in town that had a different story.The Evangelical Mission Church sat on the corner of Ridgely and Main Streets. It is no longer there. It was torn down many years ago so its stone could be used for an art museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. How did this happen? The Philadelphia Art Museum wanted to add an addition to its building. The only stone of the exact same color and texture to match the museum’s was the Evangelical Mission Church’s construction stone.
It was from a quarry where years ago the stone for both the church and the museum was obtained. The quarry had long ago been abandoned when its stone was depleted. Hence, the church was torn down and its stone shipped to Philadelphia for the museum’s addition. I found it almost unbelievable that a museum in Philadelphia led to the demise of a little church in Kasota, Minnesota. To me this story was a clue as to what made Kasota an important place. It was the money that could be made from the limestone mining industry.
The story of mining the Kasota Prairie is the subject of the next two chapters.
- Joni Nimps, Dec.4,2012, Interview. ↵
- Edward Eggelston, The Mystery of Metropolisville. Orange Judd and Co. N.Y., 1873. ↵
- Eggelston wrote many books. He is most famous for The Hoosier Schoolmaster. ↵
- Eggelston, Metropolisville, p. 13. ↵
- Traverse des Sioux, unlike its predicted future as a metropolis, turned into a ghost town, its future dashed by the stronger business powers in nearby St. Peter. Part of the once flourishing town is now a State Historic Site, managed by the Nicollet County Historical Society. Visitors can walk through its old streets and see the foundations of its former businesses. ↵
- Kasota: A Historical Perspective, Urban and Regional Studies Institute, Mankato State University, Mankato Minn., Printed by Robinson Graphics, 1976 p.3. ↵
- Wm. G. Gresham, History of Nicollet and Le Sueur Counties, B.F. Bowen, Indianapolis, 1916, p.400. ↵
- Ibid, p.402. ↵
- Joni Nimps, Dec.4,2012 Interview. ↵
- Kasota: A Historical Perspective, p.11. ↵
- Wm. Gresham, History of Le Sueur County p. 371. ↵
- Jim Brogen, Unimin Corporation, Oct.2010 Interview. ↵
- Kasota:A Historical Perspective, p. 13. ↵
- Kasota: A Historical Perspective, p. 4 ↵
- Bob Douglas,”Discovering the Local Landscape," Mankato Free Press, August 29, 2004. ↵
- Arnie Nimps, Interview, Feb. 7, 2013. ↵