A History of Mower County

My great-grandfather, Patrick O’Malley, was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1851. His family were early pioneers in Minnesota who settled in Mower County in 1856. The woman who, in early 20th century, wrote chapter twenty-three of the History of Mower County (1911) was of the same generation as Patrick. In this post I provide the complete text of the chapter that I supplied a portion of in an earlier article. The story of Mrs. Sherwood’s journey to Austin Minnesota begins 88 miles away in Winona Minnesota, a town on the left bank of the Mississippi River. Yet, she hints that her family originated in upstate New York. See if you can spot the clues in her narrative.

The path of her family would have followed roughly the same course as that of my O’Malley family who traveled to Austin in 1856 from lower Ontario. My assumption is that they would have traveled primarily by steamboat from the upper New York/lower Ontario area to Chicago, then by rail to Rock Island, Illinois, where they then would have traveled north by steamship on the Mississippi River to Winona on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.

Mrs. Sherwood describes a trip that took approximately 4 ½ days to travel the 88-mile journey “overland” on extremely bad roads through the “bluff country” of southeastern Minnesota. The road they traveled was then known as the Old Territorial Road and their path was roughly the course that is now Interstate 90. Leaving the river town of Winona, they entered a region, also known as the Driftless Area, which is made up of steep limestone bluffs and deep river valleys carved by ancient glaciers. Due to the poor conditions of the roads in those days, their wagons, drawn by teams of two horses each, could travel no more than 20 miles a day. If anything, her narrative provides a glimpse of how very different travel was in those days, where bad roads and bad weather could make for a deadly trip.

Here’s the complete text of chapter 23. I have provided some context in brackets.

“Austin is fortunate in having a resident who came here as a girl and has lived through the events which made Austin what it is today. Sprightly as a woman half her years, it seems almost impossible that she saw Austin when but a cluster of houses existed here. There have been few movements in which she has not taken apart, and she is still in the prime of her activities, loved by the few left who knew her as a girl, and revered and held the deepest affection by the younger generation. The following article by Mrs. LA Sherwood formally alter Bella Albro, contains a few of her experiences, the hearing of which when she consents to tell them give so much pleasure to her friends.

Reminiscing I find rather difficult, especially where one is writing for others to read. The events of the past come crowding so thick and fast that it is hard to choose that which will be the most interesting. I find myself going back to the beginning or rather to the time when the JL Davidson family, consisting of a father, mother and six children (the eldest brother being at Oberlin College at the time), moved from Winona, Minnesota., to Austin.

“Moving in those days was not all together a thing of beauty and a joy forever. There were no railroads and no easy transportations. One thing we did have, and that was bad roads and plenty of them. Having had a good bit of travel, for a child of my age, before coming to Minnesota, both by rail and boat, I was anticipating a great deal of pleasure in having a four-day trip overland.

“We were not going in a prairie schooner or with oxen, as many did. We had fine horses, and with a part of our household goods well packed into respectable looking wagons, and the two cows tied behind, as many did. We had fine horses, and with a part of our household goods well packed into respectable looking wagons, and the two cows tied behind, we made a very good appearance.

“It was on Wednesday the 24th day of May 1857, that we left Winona for Austin. Father couldn’t talk of anything else it was going to be another Chicago right away. Getting started rather late in the afternoon, we only went as far as Stockton the first day. [Stockton is a small town located about 7 miles west of Winona]

“I remember what a cozy little nest it looked, nestled in among the hills. I thought I wouldn’t mind staying there always. The weather was beautiful – birds were singing, flowers springing up all around, and the grass was like velvet, and I can remember as we drove along the next day how I enjoyed the winding up and down, in and out, around and about, of that road that led us over the bluffs and far away.

“We were to leave the bluffs Thursday, and I was enjoying every minute of the time. We had our lunch at noon and a beautiful spot between two bluffs. I had wanted several times during the forenoon to get down from the load and gather flowers, but no! there was no time for that; we were moving. So, I made a hasty meal at lunch and time and spent the rest of the time we were to stop in gathering the flowers and moss I had so much wanted.

“As we rode along on our winding way, we could often touch the bluffs on one side, while on the other look away, way down two or three hundred feet or more, and just discern a little stream, trickling along, singing its own little song.

Minnesota’s Bluff Country (public domain photo)

“When we were on the top of one bluff we could look across and see where we would be on the next one if we ever got there. I had been cautioned when we started about sitting very still when I was on the load alone, for the seat was just laid on, and so far, I think I must have remembered to sit still, for nothing had happened.

“We were at the top of the last bluff. The road down was very steep. Father called and said, The wheels must be chained. [see this article on the use of stay-chains in the days before brakes and also this article on wagon brakes]

“So, we stopped, brother got down from the wagon, and I was thinking how would we ever get down that hill, with the wheels chained, I wanted to see how they chained the wheels. So, I leaned over the side and down I went, and the next thing I knew I was going downhill at quite a speed. I was frightened, of course but I had learned to roll downhill when quite a little girl at Susan B Anthony’s beautiful home, where I used often to visit with my mother, and I thought as I found myself going down, If I can only steer away from those big rocks perhaps, I won’t get hurt.

“However, I think I must have been too much frightened to steer straight, for I was soon caught in a clump of bushes. I picked myself up and climbed to the top of the hill. Mother was so frightened when she saw me fall that she jumped from the wagon forgetting all about the bird cage which she was carrying and had dropped. She was going after me. Father saw I would soon be in those bushes. So, he held her back.

“After they found I was not hurt and the birds safe, they had a good laugh, very much at my expense, I am afraid. The wheels were chained, and mother and I were back in our places. Father told me that here after I had better keep my face to the front and my eyes looking straight ahead. The idea of giving a child, and a girl at that, such an order!

“Regardless of the chained wheels, we reached the bottom of the hill in safety. The horses pricked up their ears and started off on a brisk trot. It looked like fair sailing now, as we had left the birds behind (except her own) we began singing ourselves to while away the time.

“After a while we began having little patches of mud. Then there were more of them. They were larger, and deeper. The wagon would go up on one side and down the other. I was beginning to wonder how father expected me to keep my face to the front and eyes looking straight ahead, or stay on the wagon either, but I hung onto something and did the best I could, for I hadn’t had a father very long, and I confess I was a little bit afraid of him.

“Finally, these mud holes were so bad we couldn’t get through them with one team so it took the four horses to pull the load through, then they would go back and get the other load, and that is the way it was most of the time till we reached High Forest Friday night. [High Forest is a small town approximately 50 miles west of Winona and only a few miles south of Rochester. At this point they were about 30 miles from their destination.]

“All this while we had beautiful weather, but Saturday morning there was a change. Clouds begin coming. It wasn’t quite as warm, but we started bright and early, for it was our last day. About 10 o’clock it was raining hard and growing colder. The rain changed to snow and sleet. By noon we could hardly see the horses, and they finally stopped and refused to go any further. There we were on that bleak prairie, not a tree or shrub of any kind in sight, and not a house. There was one lone tree, as it was called, somewhere, but nowhere near us. Anyone who has never crossed that prairie, in those old days, coming from Winona to High Forest, don’t know what they have missed.

“As the horses wouldn’t go another step, we concluded to stay, too, and make ourselves as comfortable as possible. The wagons were put together in the shape of a V, the cows tied close behind in the horses close to the wagon box in front. Our bedding was put in the corner and mother, Della (sister), and I and the birds were in and covered up with more bedding and told to keep still. We had tried to eat our lunch but were so cold it was impossible.

“I don’t know just how long we stayed there. It seemed a very long time to me, probably an hour and a half, when one of the boys said he believed he heard an empty wagon coming. The storm was beginning to pass away, and soon a man with an empty wagon stop beside us. He said he was going our way, and the women folks could be put into his wagon. This was done, bedding under us and bedding over us. He said he had only to stop at Pearson’s a minute, then he could go right on when the wagon stopped we knew we must be at Pearson’s.

“A man came to the wagon and said, What have you got Colby, a load of hogs? And begin lifting the quilts. Very suddenly the quilts were dropped, and we concluded the man didn’t like the looks of Colby’s pork.

“Our stop was very short and we very soon on the way again. Mr. Colby, the gentleman who had befriended us, lived 2 miles outside of Brownsdale, towards Austin. When we reached his house, we found it was 5 o’clock. Father and the boys came a while after with the teams. It was so late in the afternoon, Mr. Colby thought we had better stay there till Monday, which we did, and we were very grateful for the kind offer. We thought we never would get warm again. The Colby home consisted of one room downstairs and one above. There were three children in the Colby family. Thinking of our stay there in after years, I wonder how they managed to stow us all away at night but they did, and Sunday afternoon there was a Methodist class meeting there. We could do anything in these days.

“Leaving the Colby family, whose hospitality we were so grateful for, we reached Austin, Monday morning at about 10 o’clock, the 29th day of May 1857. We came into town by the Old Territorial Road, known now as Lansing Avenue. We had a very good view of our future home. At the head of Main Street, where the Fox residence is, was the home of L. N. Griffith. To the west on Water Street, where the George Hormel residence is, was the home of the Rev. Stephen Cook. That completed the houses of any description west of Main Street.

“Main Street at that time was nothing but hazel brush. There were no streets. One could go where one chose. We drove to the hotel kept by snow and Wilbur, the only hotel in town, located on Mill Street, on the site of the Williams house. To go the same way today would take us through Murphys dry goods store and the meat market of John Briebach. Across from the hotel there were two or three small buildings, one occupied by Yates & Lewis as a store. Dr. Orlenzer Allen, was the father of Dr. A.W. Allen, now here, had a drugstore in the same building. A little further east on the south side of the street, where the German hotel now stands, was a log building, the home and store of Father Brown. Water Street had a few buildings. J.C. Ackley lived there where the express office now is, or a lot below. Then there were perhaps half a dozen more going towards the river. [Cedar River]

“A Mr. Walters lived in one. A Mr. Brown lived in another. Esq. Sylvester Smith and doctor and lawyer Allen lived in others. Possibly there were a few others. There were three houses on Chatham Street, where the elk hotel now stands. R.L. Kimball and his brother had a hardware store in the first. The post office was also there, and the family lived in the second floor. The next door was that of Sprague and Hanchett. The last was the home of Chauncey Leverich. I think these were all the buildings with the exception, possibly, of one or two others right in the same vicinity. I had taken them all in while waiting for father and mother to decide what to do about remaining at the hotel. Of course, I did not then know the names of the people but learned them afterwards.

“And I am reminded right here how the first Dr. Allen happened to make his home in Austin. In the fall of 1856, he started from his home in Wisconsin with his wife and son George for Faribault to locate. Coming by way of McGregor, they reached Austin by night. So, they were obliged to stay here until the next day. [McGregor, Iowa.]

“The hotel was so full they could not be accommodated there. Mr. Snow took them over to a Mr. Brown’s, son of the merchant, living on Water Street, where the large double house now stands. They found they could have a room for the night. They had been there but a few minutes when a man came for the doctor to pull a tooth. This he did for fifty cents. The next morning, while at breakfast, a man drove up to the door in great haste. He said he had heard that there was a physician there. He wanted him to go and see his wife, who was very ill. The doctor being a very kindhearted man, could not refuse. So, he went and did not go on his way to Faribault, as he intended, the next day.

“The result of this hurry call was that Mower County had one more voter, and Dr. Allen decided to remain in Austin, where it was apparent, he was very much needed. That’s he became our first physician and remained here for many years, finally going back to Wisconsin, where he felt that his duty called him. The time, however, never came, as he was called to his eternal home. His son came a few years later, bringing the dear mother with him. Mrs. Allen was one of our first callers, and the friendship begun in those early days continued until the day of her death, which was only four or five years ago, when she was in her 82nd year.

“But to resume, as Samanthy says. [This is apparently a reference to a popular literary character of the time.] We found after going into the house that the people were glad to see us and glad that we had come to town. But it was Monday morning, the house was full and there was not much to eat, and to have seven more come to dinner look like a mountain to Mrs. snow, as she confided to us after we became better acquainted. We decided to go over to the house. Father had bought a piece of salt pork and potatoes from Mr. Colby, and we had brought some provisions with us, and thus could get her own dinner.

“So, we started cross-lots again through hazel brush and I’m afraid right through the First National Bank. But that did not matter in those days. On reaching the building, mother did not know whether to laugh or to cry. It looked like a great barn. The front below was not enclosed the stairs were on the outside on going upstairs we found one large room. Not a word was said, but I think father must have known how we felt, for he said: Well, this is the only place. We’ll have to stay here until the house is ready for us.

“Sis said: Every back is fitted for its burden. So, we went to work. The stove was immediately set up; by noon the table was set, and a good dinner ready to be eaten, and what is more, seven hungry people ready to eat. By night we had a very comfortable looking home. Carpets and sheets were used for partitions and if we didn’t have all the comforts of life, we had a place to stay.

“We had brought with us quite a supply of provisions, half barrel of butter, sacks of codfish, coffee and everything in that line, for father said it would be hard to get things to eat. What we wanted most was fresh meats. Once in a while, a farmer would sell a pig, but unless one had ordered it or happen to get to the man first when he came to town, was not so sure of getting a piece. The farmers had many pigs to kill, and beef was out of the question. [Austin, Minnesota, has plenty of meat today as it is now the home of the Hormel Corp., maker of a food product that I enjoy and consume regularly, SPAM.]

“Callers began coming the very next day after our arrival. We thought it very kind of them to come and not be formal about calling, and then they had a curiosity to see how we looked. They had been here all winter long and not a new arrival. We found there was another reason in several cases. Mrs. Campbell was the first to come. How well I remember her – her black eyes snapping, with the fun that was in her. She stayed quite a while. Finally, she said I like the looks of those cows about as much as anything; don’t you think you could let me have milk right along? There was no reason why we could not, so mother said yes, she could have it by the quart. Mother didn’t know how much it would be as yet. Mrs. Kimball said she had been paying ten cents a quart all the time; that was what everybody paid. Mother thought if that was the case, that’s what we would charge but it was terrible.

“The callers didn’t always want something to eat, but when they did, they knew they could have it. The boys were going to Winona every week for lumber for the house and they could always bring out supplies of some kind, and in this we all did quite a bit of trading, which finally led to our having a store of our own. No man could go to the river for goods of any kind unless others were going. It wasn’t safe. The roads were in such a terrible condition most of the time that they find themselves going to China, and no one to help. So, if there wasn’t two teams to go no one went, or it was very seldom one would start out alone

“And it was so easy to get things. One little incident I must mention. Father came in one day and said: Wife, have you any darning needles? Mother answered: Yes, two or three. Why did you want them?

No, I was just down to Brown store; a man from the country came in for supplies, among them darning needles. Mr. Brown had put two; the man wanted both. Mr. Brown wouldn’t let him have both; it would break his assortment, and beside someone else might want one. I thought if you didn’t have any I’d go and get that one.

“The second Sunday we were here there was a terrible storm came up in the afternoon. It came so quickly there was no time to think what to do. We were all outdoors, mother, Della and I. We hurried upstairs as fast as possible, but could hardly get up, the wind was so bad. We were in just in time to see the west windows blown in. We couldn’t keep the door shut, so I found a stick and braced against the door, then sat on it to keep it in place. Milk pans were blown off shelves and everything went helter-skelter. We expected the house would go over.

“The men couldn’t get upstairs, and they expected every minute to see the building go over. Galloway’s new building blew down; also Mr. Ackley’s new house, which was being built where the HUB building now stands, and was blown down, but we were spared any serious accident. Everyone in town was ready to come to our assistance and was watching our building till the storm had passed.

“We had a Fourth of July, too, that summer. The exercises were held somewhere Near Kenwood Ave., West, under the beautiful Oaks, which at that time might have been taken for a good size orchard. We had a fife and drum to head the procession. Esq. Smith was president of the day, Judge Allan read the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Mr. gurney gave the address, Rev. Cook offered the prayers, and the singing was what might have been expected from a much larger town. The singers were William Cook, John F Cook, Rufus Kimberly, John Hallot, Quincy Andrews, Mrs. Dr. Wheat, Mrs. R Kimball, Mrs. J.L. Davidson and Hattie McAdams. I was too small to be in the chorus, but my hoop skirt was there, borrowed for the occasion and worn by one of the ladies.

“Flowers decked the speakers stand, culled from nature’s greenhouse. Everything had passed off finely. They had come to the end of the program when the president arose to make his last remarks, closing by saying, We have been hearing about all kinds of institutions this morning, now we will adjourn to the bread-and-butter institution, when down went the platform and everybody on it. It had been built rather high, and not very secure, and was so surprised with the amount of talent Austin had displayed that it just collapsed. No damage was done.

“Everyone felt so happy on that beautiful day that they were not going to let a little thing like that mar their pleasure. Ample justice was done to the good things that had been prepared to make men happy. People came from far and near, with ox teams, horse teams and on foot, to that first Fourth of July celebration.

“Austin was always an adventurous town, it seems, adding a good deal of spice to every undertaking. Austin had been chosen the county seat, but we had to steal the records in order to get them. They were hid under a bed for safekeeping until the excitement had died out. The county treasurer did not know what he could do for the excitement, but finally decided to burn the books. JE Willard, deciding to return East (or rather his wife deciding), determined to let his friend, Ed Ford, have his office as clerk of the court. Another man, however, went to Judge Donelson and got his official appointment, feeling quite gay that he had for once outwitted someone. When he wanted the belongings to the clerk’s office, those holding them would not give them up. Thus, some time passed. Finally, the plan was made by which to get the desk and records, the desk being nothing but a table about 3 feet long with a box containing a few pigeonholes.

“The clerk’s office at that time was in Galloway’s store by the front window, behind the counter. A customer was found that would go some night after dark and purchase some goods that was kept in the cellar is one small lamp was the only light kept in the store in the evening that light had to be taken to the cellar. While the parties were in the cellar with the light, Allan Mollison jumped over the counter, which was quite near the door, and the clerk’s office was easily lifted over the counter and went to its new home. Everything seemed to be all right but the seal. That could not be found, and it was sometime before it was found. Then in some mysterious way it came to light again and was hid in a pile of calico in Mrs. Davidson store, till it was thought safe to produce it.

“The first concert given in Austin was by the Sherwood brothers, assisted by John halide, a young gentleman living in Austin at the time. It was given in Headquarters the latter part of July 1857. A little later a family by the name of Baker came and gave us a treat in the musical line. So, from the first, Austin has always been called a musical town.

“The women of Austin have always been foremost in work for the betterment of our town. How well I remember the time when a meeting had been called for at our house for forming a society, by which, in some way, we could earn money to purchase grounds for cemetery. There had been several deaths here and no place to bury our dead. The society was formed and called the Ladies Mite Society of Austin. The men hearing of what we had done, thought it time for them to go to work. This they did, and they purchased the ground that is known as the old part of the cemetery. A very small portion up in front was surveyed and laid out and lots. The ladies took to work of fencing the ground. The men did nothing more towards finishing the survey or laying out the rest of the blocks.

“Several years passed. When the ladies thought it was time again for them to do something, we decided on the day (I think it was a day in September 1864) for work on the cemetery grounds and invited the men to help us. We were to give them their dinner and supper. Early in the morning of the day appointed one could see men and women carrying implements of all kinds wending their way to the cemetery, and all day one could see men and women working, the women driving stakes, holding chains, picking brush and burning it. The dinner and supper were served across the street in the yard belonging to William Crane. Austin certainly looks like a deserted village that day, and the work which the ladies began has been kept up till now we have one of the most beautiful resting places for our loved ones gone before in Minnesota.

“Shall I ever forget the day the little company of men, headed by Capt. Mooers, marched into town? It is known they were coming. A war meeting was to be held in the afternoon, and I had thought to have my little school dismissed before they arrived. But when the sound of that fife and drum broke upon our ears we all rushed to the door, pupils and teacher, and we were there ready to receive them. So they came to a halt before the door and it is needless to say they were received with cheers and the waving of handkerchiefs from the little band of scholars that were there to receive them.

“Before that company of soldiers left town that night their numbers had been increased by several of our own townsmen, and many will remember that the brave captain was one of the first to fall for his country in a very few months after going to the front. The ladies of Austin purchased a silk flag for the company with the names of the donors printed upon its silken folds it has been through many a battle but never was trailed in the dust. It was brought home by the captain, George Baird, after the close of the war and is now in Mrs. Baird’s possession.

“The people who lived in Austin in 1862, will never forget the night we expected the Indians, and they didn’t come. We made great preparations for them and posted our sentinels on the outskirts of town. The blacksmiths were running bullets all night. A company had just been raised in Austin and the towns and country around and had gone to reinforce General Sibley, who was then fighting the Indians, so our force of men was not as large as it would otherwise have been. We had brave ones left, however, and they worked with a will. Nearly all thought it not possible for the Indians to get here, but the people were coming in so thick and fast, hotel and private houses filling and many would not leave their wagons for fear they would not reach them in time to get away. [Apparently, this refers to refugees who were coming into Mower County from the Northwest.]

“When the Indians did come, such a frightened lot you never did see – children were brought in half dressed, women with no shoes on, or perhaps one shoe. It was enough to frighten anyone, knowing what had just been done around New Ulm [the site of a major massacre of white settlers; approximately 100 miles northwest Of Mower County].

“Father and mother were away and would not return until next day, so sister and I were all alone. We had friends that came to stay with us and finally two or three families that came to the hotel and couldn’t get in wanted to come to our house and we were glad to have them.

“Mr. Ackley told me if I could get father’s papers and our small silver in any shape that wouldn’t take up any room I had better get them ready; we would want some quilts, he would have his horses ready and could take all that was at our house if the Indians should come. I put three dresses on my sister and three on myself, put the silver and papers into two towels, sewed them securely, then put one on Della (my sister) and I wore one, bustle shape, and in that condition we waited and waited.

“Three shots in quick succession was to be the signal. Sometime after midnight the first one came. We were at the door in an instant, each with a bundle of silverware. But the other shots were never heard and about daylight, after much pleading and many tears, I allowed Della to take off some of her extra adornments.

“In looking over the past 54 years and thinking what Austin was and what she is today we feel we can well be proud of our little city we have never had a boom and for many years had no railroad. We had a great many things to contend with, but we have come out of the fray with our banners flying. We are a ‘city of homes.'”


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