History of Hokah, MN
From: The History of Houston County, Minnesota
Edited by: Franklyn Curtis-Wedge.
H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co.
Winona, Minn. 1919


Town Histories

Hokah is the second river township from the northern boundary ot the county, lying south of La Crescent, having Mound Prairie and Union to the west, and Brownsville to the south, with the Mississippi River as the eastern boundary. The name of the township is of Indian origin, and was applied by the aborigines to Root River. According to tradition, it was also the name of a powerful Indian chief, whose village formerly stood on the beautiful spot now occupied by the village of Hokah.

Root River, which in early days, before the erection of mills on its banks, was readily navigable, enters the township from the west, near the southweát corner of section 36, and winds in a generally easterly direction through the northern half of the township until it empties into the Mississippi. At its point of entrance it divides into two streams, both of which run northeasterly, though at times several miles apart, until they unite in the southwestern corner of section 28. The river then takes a more northerly course until it touches the boundary line - of La Crescent Township, after which it turns to the southeast and continues in that direction until it reaches its outlet. The valley of the river has here an average width of about two miles. Here and there the river is joined by other streams, the most important of which is Thompson's Creek, which is fed by springs, and furnishes a remarkably reliable water power.

The surface of Hokah closely resembles that of the other river townships in the county, having the usual bluffs facing the Mississippi, with interior valleys, ridgqs and plateaus, and in many places the scenery is very picturesque. In early days the bottom land was heavily timbered with black walnut, maple, oak and other hard woods, large quantities of which were cut and rafted down the river, and some of which was sawed in local mills.

It was this lumber that brought the first settlers, William Richmond and John Kreels, who in 1849 built a shanty on the banks of the Root River in section 34, and got out lumber to Eaft down the Mississippi River. They had a comfortable home but made no attempt to enter a claim.

The first permanent settler in the township was Edward Thompson, who arrived in the spring of 1851. Attracted by the fine water power, he staked out a claim, and in October brought his wife and family here, Mrs. Thompson for some time being the only white woman in the locality. With the assistance of Johw H. Steward he built a mill. Soon after his brother, C. W. Thompson, came and proved an active factor in the development of the community. Other early arrivals were Albert Blackinton and wife, Hiram Griffin, David House, who located in what is now Union Township; Fred Hammer, William Rielur and Jerry Jenks. Mr. Jenks was soon afterwards taken ill, and after some delay a doctor was procured from the Iowa River settlement, who gave the patient hydropath treatment, which was quite popular at the time, but it proved ineffective and the man died.

Butterfield Valley, south of the village, was first settled in 1853 by Hiram Butterfield, who came from Illinois and took a claim in section 8. He remained until about 1874, when he went to Oregon. John Densch, who arrived in 1854, was probably the first settler on the "Ridge." It is related that he made the experiment of using for the roof of his log cabin a piece of sailcloth which he had brought from the East.

In 1852 William James settled on section 34, but two years later moved to section 5, where he died a few years later.

The first town meeting was held May 11, 1858, the day on which many of the older towns in the county organized. The meeting, which was at the Hokah House in the village, was called to order by Clark W. Thompson. J. G. Prentiss was called to the chair, and L. S. Keeler was chosen moderator, with D. L. Clements as clerk. Seventy-two ballots were cast, and officers were elected as follows: Supervisors, C. W. Thompson, chairman: R. S. Wooley, and David House; clerk, D. L. Clements; assessor, S. E. Sneider; overseer of the poor, A. H. Davison; constables, Anthony Demo, Jr., and Henry Franklin; collector, Anthony Demo, Jr., justices of the peace, L. L. West and Lewis Pond. It was voted that all hogs found running at large after May 20 should be liable to a fine of one dollar each. It was also resolved that "a fence four and a half feet high, and with not less than four rails, not over eighteen inches from the ground, shall be a legal fence." On May 29 overseers for road districts were appointed. At a meeting April 5, 1864, it was voted, 29 to 23, that the town should pay a bounty of $100 to each of those who might enlist in the army before the first of September.

Attracted here, as he was, by the water power, Mr. Thompson, in 1852, put up a sawmill. The dam, as first constructed, secured the enormous fall of 36 feet, the pressure of which, however, proved too great, so that just as the mill was ready to begin operations it gave way and started down stream. Though a hard blow to Mr. Thompson, he persevered, modified his plans, and reconstructed the dam, this time giving it a head of 25 feet, and in due time had his mill in motion. It had a Muley saw and could cut 5,000 feet of hardwood lumber in a day. In 1853 his brother, C. W. Thompson, came into the concern and put up a grist mill. Afterwards he started a furniture factory, which for a time did a good business.

A. M. Thompson and S. J. Prentiss started a plow factory. The plow manufactured was of steel and a very good implement, but the factory was finally sold, and one of the flouring mills afterward resulted. The manufacture of brick was later carried on in the western part of the town by W. F. Weber, and some were also burned near the railroad shops. In 1869 William M. Wykoff started a foundry, which did mostly railroad work.

To preserve the waterpower at Hokah, Mr. Thompson achieved a notable construction, starting work in 1866. He placed his head gates in the old channel at the upper railroad crossing, using the old bed between the two railroad crossings. From thence he excavated a canal six feet deep, fifty feet wide and 1,500 to 1,800 feet long through the bottoms to the mouth of Thompson's Creek, which was used as a tail race to the mills. In the construction of the foundation, there was used some 1,500 cords of timber and some 500 cords of stone. On top of this was placed the dam, consisting of crib work planked with three inch plank. Then the whole dam was covered with stone, making a crossing from twenty to fifty feet wide.

Hokah Village is the head and heart of the town. It is most charmingly situated on a ridge in a crescentic form, reached by a not very abrupt incline from the northeast. The principal business street is along this ridge, with a slope to the north and on to the Root River valley, and to the south into Lake Como. While the village overlooks the scenery all around, there is, in the not remote distance, a series of peaks on every side, arising with almost Alpine sharpness of outline, and only wanting in altitude the character of mountain scenery, and to one who has never been beyond the confines of a prairie country, a sudden transition to this spot would be a realizing of the poet's and the artist's dream.

Its earliest years were full of promise, and it was flourishing and building up with great rapidity, when the panic of 1857, caused by the failure of the Ohio Loan & Trust Company, of New York, dealt it a severe blow, from which it did not recover until after the Civil War.

Then better times began, when, in 1866, the Southern Minnesota Railroad began operations. The next year the splendid railroad shops were built, Edward Thompson being the master mechanic, and the village began to revive. The streets took on a more businesslike aspect, new mills were put up, and old ones remodeled, and everything seemed to conduce to the permanent growth and prosperity of the place. Thus it went on until June, 1880, when the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Company got possession of the railroad, the car shops were broken up, and the workmen scattered, and the business interests of the place were speedily reduced to a point beyond which they were long in advancing. When the catastrophe came there were here, in addition to the railroad shops, four first-class flouring mills, with their elevators and cooper shops, giving employment to scores of men, besidS a number of stores and small shops of various kinds.

Hokah was constituted an independent village by an act of the Legislature of the State, approved on March 2, 1871. The first election was in May following. S. J. Prestiss and E. H. Keeler were the election judges. The first officers chosen were: Trustees, H. H. Bowdish, John F. Russell and William Wightman. Mr. Bowdish was president of the board; justice of the peace, David House; treasurer, W. F. Weber; constables, Oliver P. Sprague and H. L. Dunham. A corporate seal was procured, and the village set up for itself as an independent municipality.

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