History of La Crescent (Village), Houston County, Minnesota
From: The History of Houston County, Minnesota
Edited by: Franklyn Curtis-Wedge.
H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co.
Winona, Minn. 1919


La Crescent, a pretty village, where centers so much that is interesting in the story of Minnesota's historical and economic development, is one of the most important fruit growing regions in the State. Its rich soil, its sunny slopes, its favorable contour, and its location all contribute to its importance. While it is still a small village, it is already the home of several important industries and with the extension of a trolley system from La Crosse, will become as important as a suburban residential district and possibly as a manufacturing region, as it is now as an agricultural region.

Situated somewhat back from the Mississippi, from which it is separated by a series of sloughs, marshes and lagoons which teem in luxuriant water foliage and flowering plants, and occupying the gently sloping terraces which terminate on the sunny slopes of picturesque hills, the village is free from floods, and still has all the advantages that can be given by nearness to that great thoroughfare. The dike road which joins the mainland to the La Crosse high wagon bridge, guides through La Crescent, all the road traffic flowing into La Crosse from southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa, and brings from far east and west the tourists, who find here a convenient crossing place.

To these sweeping terraces came Peter Cameron in 1851, with his dream of a great city. Here, a little later, came the Gillettes, who platted a village. Here in 1856, came the advance guard of the Kentucky Company, whose stockholders likewise had dreams of a great city. Here they platted their future metropolis. Eastern newspapers teemed with its possibilities, great men of the nation vied with each other in buying at fabulous prices lots in this new Utopia. But the wonderful ambitions of the promoters were never realized, and the lot ownership merely remained to harass the tax collectors, and to retard the growth of the town. Indeed it is only in recent years that the titles to the property by resident owners has all been cleared, and now all the land is owned by the La Crescent citizens themselves.

But while these plans for a great metropolis were meeting with failure, there was one dream that was being realized. John S. Harris was a lover of the out of doors. He was also a fruit and vegetable fancier. He came to La Crescent in 1856, and while southern promoters were platting and picturing the wonderful lots, in the swamps, on the terraces and up the sides of the hills, he quietly established the Sunnyside Gardens, and started raising fruits and vegetables. He probably did more than any other man to encourage the growing of fruit in the State of Minnesota. And in doing so he brought to La Crescent its present importance. The dream of a great city faded, but his dream of a great fruit and vegetable growing region has more than been fulfilled. Mr. Harris' own son, Frank I. Harris, and his grandson, DeWitt C. Webster, probably ship more berries than anyone else in the State, and there are many others in the same business. The slopes of the hills are covered with fruit trees, the fertile acres of level stretches of the terraces are covered with berry vines and bushes and truck vegetables, and the truck gardens extend far into the sunny valleys and rich ridges. Not only are fruit and fresh vegetables supplied to the cities in large quantities, but a canning factory devoted exclusively to tomatoes, cans the products of the great acreage of that refreshing product.

From the time the strawberries are ripe in the spring, until the last apples and tomatoes are harvested in the fall, the territory surrounding the village is a scene of busy activity, the fruit pickers, who come by the hundreds from La Crosse, forming a picturesque sight as they go about their duties of harvesting.

In addition to its fruit and vegetable culture, La Crescent is known as the home of the Smith Grubber Co., (N. W. Smith, president; F. R. Smith, secretary; manufacturers of stump pullers), whose advertising and whose product carries the name of the village near and far; and the sterling Machinery Co. (J. W. Welch, president; Phil Fitting, secretary) has a big business in cement block making machinery. J. W. Welch is proprietor of a well digging industry, which has also made the village well done. lie has done work through this region in Minnesota and Iowa. For several decades he has taken careful observations, and his conclusions are eagerly sought by learned societies interested in geology.

There are three churches in the village, the Catholic, the Presbyterian and the Methodist Episcopal. The public school has been long noted for its excellent work under trained and experienced instructors. The La Crescent Shipping Association is important in the business activities of the town. The creamery, the Pine Creek Valley Creamery, ships from La Crescent, but is located some distance away.

The railroad facilities are excellent. It is on one of the main lines of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, the line to La Crosse branching off a little to the northward, and the Southern Minnesota a little to the southward. A good hotel furnished accommodation to traveling men and tourists, and the business houses are adequate. For pleasure purposes, Pettibone Park, the famous La Crosse municipal park, with its great trees, its playgrounds, and its bathing beach, are but a little distance away.

The La Crescent State Bank was organized Sept. 10, 1912, and opened for business Nov. 25, 1912. As the result of the work of J. W. Welch, a leading business man of La Crescent, and L. H. Gardner, cashier of the New Albin Savings Bank, capital of $10,000 had been subscribed by some forty five business men and farmers, not more than five shares being allotted to one man. After the money had all been subscribed, the original meeting was held July 22, 1912, Masonic Hall, with Mr. Welch as chairman and Mr. Gardner as secretary. The first officers were: J. W. Welch, president; A. J. Cameron, vice president; Albinus Lilly, George Kinny and L. H. Gardner. Levi L. Atkinson was cashier. The store which had been occupied as a mercantile establishment by J. M. McCaffrey for some fifteen years previous was remodeled into a model bank building, with a comfortable banking room, a director's room, a safety deposit vault and an adequate safe. Before the bank opened, Mr. McCaffrey was named as cashier, and he has since remained in active charge of the bank. It is constantly growing and has proved a great convenience to the people who formerly had to do their banking across the river in another State at La Crosse.

The La Crescent Canning Co., Inc., is a large and growing institution, and is more than doing its share toward spreading the fame of La Crescent as a leading region for the growing of small fruits and vegetables. The plan had been operated for several years, when in 1909 it was given new life by coming under the ownership of A. J. Cameron, John L. Cameron and Philip Fitting. They purchased the plant, remodelled it throughout, installed new machinery, laid cement floors, instituted sanitary precautions, and otherwise greatly improved the plant and equipment as well as decidedly enlarging its capacity. In 1916, it was incorporated with a capital of $15,000 with Allen J. Cameron of La Crescent township as president; John L. Cameron, of La Crosse, as secretary; and Philip Fitting, of La Crescent, as treasurer. They are doing a splendid business, specializing in the La Crescent Brand of tomatoes, putting some up under their own name and some under the jobber's name. The officials are men of high standing and good judgment, their product is large, and they are utilizing many acres of rich land and thus giving employment to many people and adding to the wealth of the village and township.

W. H. Parks, who came to La Crescent as a boy, has written some interesting reminiscences of La Crescent. He says:

The winter of 1855-56 my step father, H. Gleason, and my mother came by team from Blissfield, Mich., to the town of Manton, now the village of La Crescent. We crossed the mighty Father of Waters from La Crosse to Manton on the ice, Christmas Day, 1855. The town plat of Manton nearly all belonged to Harvey and William Gillett, who lived in a log house, the only house in the village. William Gillett was the first postmaster, and the mail he kept in his trunk until called for. The Gilletts built the first frame house in the hamlet in 1857, if my memory serves me right. Harvey Gillett built the second frame house, the "Minnesota Hotel." H. Gleason bought the place and ran a hotel there for many years. The general store was built and run by J. A. Anderson and a partner named Crocker. Afterward it was bought by Farnham & Hanscom. The first school was taught by a lady from Ohio named Nancy Ambler. The pupils were William, Estalla and Benjamin Mercer, Larkie Lapham and the writer. In the near future there was a large sawmill erected on the river bank, about eighty rods north of where the present railroad bridge is, and was a great source for employment from La Crosse. About that time, a company of Kentuckians came up the river and made a trade with the Gillett brothers for their interest in the townsite, two steamboats and some other property. This company established its general office on the lot where the residence of the Houston county surveyor now stands, and had several residences built in the village. The first railroad grade and bridges were completed in La Crescent in 1864 by the Southern Minnesota, formerly called the Root River Valley Railway Co. Injunctions and financial difficulties stopped the work for several years. Finally about two miles of the north end of the grade was abandoned, and a new grade was built across the low lands to the Mississippi River opposite the south end of La Crosse, and the traffic was transported by boat to connect with the railroad running east from about midway between the north and south part of La Crosse. The western terminus of the line was Rushford for some time, and finally was completed to Lanesboro, where it remained for some years. The first resident attorney in La Crescent was O. T. Gilman. The first blacksmith was Charles Sperry. The first wagon maker was named Case. The first newspaper was published by E. A. Purdy. The first drug store was kept by James Ayers. Many of the old time farmers used to haul their grain fifty or sixty miles from the west to La Crescent by ox team before the Southern Minnesota was built, taking four or five days for the trip. In 1862, the time of the great Indian Uprising, hundreds of settlers became frightened and put their families in their wagons and rushed to La Crescent to get across the river for safety. The first resident physician in La Crescent was Dr. H. T. Fox, from Lexington, Ky. He was an army surgeon in the Civil War and after the war returned to La Crescent and resumed his practice until his death in 1875. S. E. Truesdell built a large hotel on the bank of the river along in the sixties, and J. C. Burbank established a stage line from La Crescent to St. Paul. Twelve and fourteen coaches used to leave the hotel every noon, as well as many other teams carrying the freight, mail and express over land in summer and on the ice in winter, on the river. Joseph M. Garner superintended the transfer of mail and baggage and express from the stages to La Crosse in the winter and endured many hardships and narrow escapes on the treacherous ice in early winter and spring after the ice got really unsafe for traffic. A group of people from Kentucky consisting of Benjamin Mills and family, Edward Rice and mother, Mrs. Andrews and daughter, started an educational institution in what was then known as the La Crescent House. This female seminary was the best school for somewhat advanced students ever in the town. During the regime of the old Kentucky Company, previously mentioned as owners of the townsite, it operated a ferry boat, and a transportation line from the Minnesota side to La Crosse until a short time before the wagon bridge was built in 1889, and great was the tide of immigration until the railroad was finished from La Crescent to St. Paul in 1872. The railroad from Dubuque, Ia., was completed to La Crescent in 1872 and connected with the line to St. Paul. The first passenger train to arrive in La Crescent was at 4 o'clock p. m., Dec. 28, 1872. In 1876, the railroad bridge was completed across, the Mississippi River.

La Crescent has now no newspaper but was the home of two pioneer journals.

The La Crescent Banner. When the village of La Crescent was enjoying the highest tide of prosperity, a newspaper was started called the "La Crescent Banner," the publisher of which was A. P. Swineford. The paper, a six column folio, was issued from a small press in a not very well furnished office in the old double store of the Kentucky Company. It flourished but for a short time, however, the whole concern being soon removed to La Crosse.

Robert F. Howard, in the La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press of Jan. 5, 1919, says of this paper:

"In Louisville, Ky., there was founded a company called the Kentucky Company to found a city in Minnesota. As a part of their plan a newspaper was started to boom the prospective metropolis, bearing title of the La Crescent Banner, with the magnificent motto in bold capitals underneath. "Democracy Our Policy, the Stars and Stripes Our Banner." The editor, and for the purpose of the Kentucky Company, the proprietor, was A. P. Swineford, who when Grover Cleveland was elected president, became governor of the territory of Alaska. Mr. Swineford was an ambitious man; a native of Indiana, who had exalted ideas of the possibilities of the press. He didn't have much ready money, but he had a tremendous amount of energy and sufficient self assurance to combine the two and fill in the void left by the lack of capital. After abandoning the field at La Crescent, he startled the primitive population of La Crosse one morning in the autumn of 1859 with a circular announcing that he was coming among them to establish a morning paper to be known as the La Crosse Daily Union."

The La Crescent Plaindealer. The next candidate for favor in the journalistic line was the "La Crescent Plaindealer," which was started by E. H. Purdy, of Minneapolis, in 1860. It was a seven column folio, well edited, and strongly Democratic in principle. In about two years it was sold to J. T. Ferguson, and was finally closed out in September, 1862, the editor having enlisted. It was in the office of the "Plaindealer" that George B. Winship, afterward the able editor of the "Grand Forks Herald," !earned the printing business.

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