GENERAL DESCRIPTION ORGANIZATION FIRST SETTLERS FIRST COUNTY BUILDING INDIAN TRADING POSTS DIVISION OF THE COUNTY REMOVAL OF THE COUNTY SEAT COUNTY BONDS COUNTY SEAT RETURNED TO SAUK RAPIDS PRESENT ENCOURAGING OUTLOOK.
Benton county lies a little to the east of the central part of the State, and is bounded on the north by Morrison county, on the east by Mille Lacs county, on the south by Sherburne county, and on the west by the Mississippi river, which separates it from Stearns county. It* contains an area of 405 square miles, or nearly 200,000 acres, of which 9,043 are under cultivation. The county is well timbered, especially in the eastern part, the principal varieties being oak, maple, ash, basswood, and tamarack. It is watered by the St. Francis, Elk, Platte, and Little Rock rivers. There are also a number of lakes, the largest being Little Rock Lake.
The soil is a dark loam, producing good crops of grain and potatoes, and especially adapted to grazing and stock raising.
Organization.—The act of Congress, establishing the territorial government of Minnesota, was approved by the President on the 3d of March, 1849. That portion of the public domain lying west of Michigan, and east of the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, had been detached from what was known as the territory of Wisconsin, and admitted to the Union as one of her states, The territory left, after this division, was re-organized under the name of the "Territory of Minnesota." The laws in force under the old territory of Wisconsin, were to be in force in the new territory until a legally constituted legislative assembly should repeal, revise and modify them, or enact others in their stead. A Governor was appointed, and invested with executive power and authority in and over said territory, also a Secretary, Judges, and all other officers necessary to complete the territorial organization.
The first legislative assembly convened in the fall of 1849, and one of their first acts was to divide the territory into nine counties. Of these, three, Washington, Ramsey, and Benton, were declared to be fully organized counties, "and invested with all and singular, the rights, privileges, and immunities, to which all organized comities in this territory shall be, and are by law, entitled."
Benton county originally contained all the territory bounded by a line " beginning at the mouth of Rum river, thence up said river and the west branch thereof to its source, thence due north to its intersection with the Mississippi, and thence down said river to the place of beginning," being not far from one hundred miles in length, and from thirty to forty miles in width, at the broadest part.
The act declaring Benton to be an organized county, provided that the seat of justice " shall be within one quarter of a mile of a point on the east side of the Mississippi river, directly opposite to the mouth of the Sank river."
The first board of County Commissioners, consisting of William A. Aitkin and Joseph Brown, met at the residence of Jeremiah Russell on the 7th of January, 1850. Mr. Aitkin was Chairman, James Kitchens acted as Clerk, and was also appointed Register of Deeds.
Among other acts of the board at this meeting, was the division of the county into election precincts, as follows:
The First, or Sauk Rapids Precinct, included all that portion of the county from Ramsey county to the Platte river. The Second, or Swan River Precinct, extended from the Platte river north to the Gold Springs. The Third, or Crow Wing Precinct, extended north from the Cold Springs to the limits of the county. These precincts continued until the division of the county into townships, on the organization of the State in 1858. The first Board of County Commissioners, under the State organization, met at the office of the Register of Deeds, at Watab, on the 14th of September, 1858, and consisted of Sherman Hall, Henry B. Smart, and Burnam Hanson.
The county seat had been removed to Watab, in July, 1856, but was transferred again to Sauk Rapids, in January, 1859.
On the organization of the territory, it was divided into three judicial districts, of which Benton county, with Pembina, Itasca, and Cass, constituted the third. Hon. B. B. Meeker was appointed Judge of this district. Taylor Dudley was the first Clerk of the District Court, and also held the office of Register of Deeds, and was Clerk of the Board of Supervisors for many years. He recorded the first deed in Benton county on the 21st of October, 1850.
The first session of the District Court was held at the house of Jeremiah Russell, at Sauk Rapids, by Judge Aaron Goodrich. William D. Phillips was District Attorney. The Hon. Frederick Ayer was the first Judge of Probate.
The first settler in the county was David Gilman, who made a claim at Watab in 1848, but removed to Sauk Rapids the following year. In 1849, Jeremiah Russell settled at Sauk Rapids, and was followed in 1851, by William H. Wood and family.
The same year, Ellis Kling, William Smith, and George V. Mayhew, made a settlement in what is now Minden township.
Soon after the county was organized, a building of hewed logs was erected, largely through the munificence of individuals, for a county jail, and was owned and occupied by the county for this purpose, till the removal of the county seat to Watab. It was placed on the bluff at Sauk Rapids, nearly opposite the mouth of Sauk river, on land given for this purpose by Messrs. Jeremiah Russell and George W. Sweet. It was two stories high, the lower story constituting a strong prison, and the upper one, rooms for the jailer and his family.
About the time this county was organized, the United States Government removed the Winnebago Indians, then residing in the state of Iowa, to this region, assigning them a reservation on the west side of the Mississippi, opposite to what was then Benton county. Prior to 1853, settlements had been made at the mouth of Rum river, Itasca, Elk River, Big Lake, Sauk Rapids, Watab, Platte river, Little Falls, Belle Prairie, and .Crow Wing. At Itasca, Watab, Platte river, Swan river, and Crow Wing, were Indian trading posts, the chief business being making Indian payments, and trafficking with the Indians. The Chippewas occupied most of Benton county, while the Winnebago's were seldom seen east of the Mississippi river.
About this time the Government purchased most of the pine lands east of the Mississippi, as far up as Sandy Lake, and the lands in Benton county had been surveyed and were offered for sale.
Now began the noted speculation in wild lands at the West, which raged so high for several years, previous to the financial crisis of 1857. There was violent strife among the speculators, to get hold of the choicest pieces of land, the best town sites and water-powers, and to get a county seat established on or near their claims. There was almost an insane rage for laying out land into village lots, as if, in a few weeks, there would spring up a flourishing and wealthy village on almost every quarter section, while, as yet, there was not a solitary inhabitant there. With this idea, came the rage for cutting up this territory into so many small counties, each one hoping to secure the location of the county seat on the site of his own favorite paper town.
This county seat speculation had much to do with the division of old Benton. In 1856, the measure providing for its division passed the Legislature, while a majority of the people to be affected by it were unaware of what was going on, and were very much dissatisfied with the result. The southern part of Benton county, as far north as the line running from the Mississippi to the Rum river between townships thirty-five and thirty-six, the present southern boundary of Benton county, was cut off, and constituted Sherburne county. The northern part of the old county, as far down as the line running from one of the above rivers to the other between townships thirty-eight and thirty-nine, the present northern boundary of Benton county, was constituted Morrison county. The remainder, lying between the above described lines, was allowed to retain the old name. The county then extended through three tiers of townships bordering on the Mississippi, and east to Rum river, with Watab for its county seat.
But this division did not long satisfy all concerned. Mille Lacs wanted a piece of this county, from which to make a capital. Consequently, the Legislature set off to that county the portion of Benton lying east of range twenty-eight, thus cutting Benton county entirely off from Rum river, and leaving the boundaries as now defined.
The changes made by dividing up the territory of the old county and locating the county seat at Watab, were not satisfactory to a portion of its inhabitants. They thought the means used to effect these changes were not fair and honorable, and that the leaders in this matter were actuated by narrow and selfish designs, rather than by a. desire to develop the resources of the county, and advance its material prosperity. As soon as these changes were made, a Board of County Commissioners was created, who sat about erecting a court-house, a jail, and a building for county offices at the county seat, which involved a heavy expense for such a small and sparsely settled county to bear. Bonds were issued to the contractors for these buildings. These bonds were sold to other parties. They bore a heavy rate of interest. No provision was made to pay either the principal or interest. There was not enough collected from taxes, to pay the current expenses of running the county. The county was delinquent to the State. Through this style of mismanagement, the financial condition of its affairs was deplorable. County orders were fifty per cent., or more, below par. The holders of these bonds demanded their payment. The buildings were not completed. The officers of the county, then in power, repudiated the bonds on the ground that the contracts were not fulfilled, and that they were not legally executed. The holders of the bonds sued for their pay. The officers resisted the demand, and the case came into the courts for decision, which decided in favor of the holders of the bonds, and the county was compelled to pay both the principal and interest in full. As a result, the county has been taxed heavily for many years, to pay off those old judgments and get free of debt. This has been accomplished, and the financial condition of Benton
county is prosperous, and, profiting by the experience of the past, the people have determined to keep it so.
About the time of the change in the county limits, and the removal of the county seat to Watab, several men, possessing capital, came to the place and commenced business, apparently expecting to derive some advantage from the prestige it would give as the county seat. A large steam saw mill was built and put in operation. One respectable store was built, and several other buildings of less pretensions. A printing office was brought there, and a newspaper published for a short time. But this show of success in the building up of a large village ended in failure. The proprietors broke down and left, and business came to a stand-still.
In 1858, an act was passed by the Legislature, allowing the citizens to vote at the annual election, on the question of the removal of the county seat back to Sauk Rapids. The order came to the Board of County Commissioners to insert this item in the notices of election. They refused to comply with the order, on the ground that the notices were already posted, and that there was not time now to change them. An application was made to the Judge of the District Court for a mandamus compelling them to put this into the notices, and they reluctantly complied. The result was a decided majority at election in favor of removal. Of course, all that had been expended at Watab for county buildings was lost to the county.
Until within the last year or two, the material progress of Benton county has been slow, owing, chiefly, to a mistaken policy of the first fathers of the county, in having its land surveyed by the government, and placed in market before the " squatters" had selected their claims. This gave speculators a chance to purchase the laud, of which many took advantage, and have held it at a price beyond the reach of most new-comers. This difficulty, however, is now being overcome, and the population is on the increase. According to the census of 1880, 3,012 persons reside in the county.
The present county officers are: Judge of Probate, Joseph Coates; Clerk of the District Court, S. P. Carpenter; Auditor, John Renard; Treasurer, S. W. Wright; Register of Deeds, Wayland Miller; Sheriff, William Scott; County Attorney, J. Q. A. Wood; County Surveyor, Frank Saunders; County Commissioners, A. J. Demeules, C. Galarneault, and H. Webster; Superintendent of Schools, John A Senn; and Coroner, Joseph Moody.