Fire destroyed several downtown businesses built by ‘Father of Melrose’
Edwin Clark, left, stands in front of his bank, built in 1887. Other unidentified people are businessmen occupying the various stores on the block. Contributed photo
In September, a fire started in an upstairs apartment in downtown Melrose after an apparent cooking mishap. The residents all scrambled to safety as the fire grew. The Melrose Fire Department, along with mutual aid from the Freeport and Sauk Centre fire departments, worked on putting out the fire for 12 hours. By the time the fire was extinguished, 11 businessses and two dozen residents were affected by the fire. Damage was estimated at $600,000.
Several of the buildings destroyed by the fire were long-standing fixtures in downtown Melrose, and most were originally constructed and owned by Edwin Clark, referred to by many historians as the “Father of Melrose.”
In 1867 a young man with a series of ventures under his belt arrived in Melrose. He and his cousin, William Clark promptly rolled up their sleeves and set to work. How Edwin Clark became the “Father of Melrose,” turning a little settlement of log cabins into a thriving milling and railroad hub is a pioneer success story that has largely gone unremarked in Minnesota history.
Previously Clark had edited Minneapolis’ first daily newspaper, served in Washington D.C., and organized and managed an Indian reservation. Now he was on to new challenges. He built a mill and dam, saw that Melrose had stores and streets, invited the railroad to town, and in 1887, built an entire block of business buildings on Main Street. Known as Clark’s block and the Brick or Opera block, they served many purposes until they were devastated by fire on Sept. 8, 2016.
Born in 1834 in New Hampshire, Edwin Everett Clark had an unremarkable adolescence. He moved wherever his Baptist preacher father was assigned, went for long walks, socialized with his cousins, read books, had periods of ill health and invalidism. Then he blossomed out, trying several careers and winding up in Boston, where he became foreman of the American Stereotype Company, which furnished plates for printing books.
“Mr. Alcott and his daughter, author of Little Women, called to investigate our method of work,” he wrote in his memoirs. In Boston, Clark sampled every cultural, religious, and entertainment possibility that the big city offered. He went to church and Sunday school, temperance meetings, an oyster supper, the Boston Museum, an agricultural fair, political and abolitionist meetings. He saw fireworks and a balloon ascension, heard a family of bell ringers, went on board the frigate Merrimack, escorted a young lady to a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saw a man wheel a barrel of apples up the street to pay a bet, had his picture taken, and cast his first vote, for the Republican Party.
In 1857 he “got the Western fever” and set off for the territory of Minnesota, where he had several cousins. He traveled by steamboat, train, and horse-drawn carriage, arriving in pounding rain at cousin Benjamin Clark’s farm near Mazeppa, soaked to the skin. “That day, I made two discoveries,” he noted. “One was that it was unnecessary to tote a Colt’s revolver about in Minnesota, and the other that fine calf-skin boots made for service in Boston were not proper footwear for traveling over wild prairies.”
Clark soon moved to the big cities of St. Paul, Minneapolis, and St. Anthony. (St. Anthony, sometimes referred to as St. Anthony Falls or The Falls, would merge with Minneapolis in 1872.) He saw huge lumber and flour mills being constructed on the Mississippi. Did those churning wheels and roaring machinery inspire him to dream of founding his own mill?
In St. Anthony, he speedily became editor and publisher of the weekly Minnesota Republican, published since 1854. Whatever connotations the name may have today, Republican stood for the abolition of slavery and alcohol.
Edwin Clark, also known as the “Father of Melrose.”
Clark shortly became acquainted with every important businessman and politician of St. Anthony, as he solicited funds to make the Republican a daily. His first issue appeared on Sept. 28, 1857. The timing couldn’t have been worse. A bad fire in St. Anthony the previous night dealt huge losses to many. This, combined with a financial panic which had hit shortly before, meant that people weren’t scrambling to subscribe to nor advertise in a paper they had once badly wanted. The Republican, now called the Minnesota State News, was published on an irregular basis until it was bought and merged into the State Atlas. Through a series of further mergers and acquisitions, the Atlas eventually became the Star Tribune, newspaper of the Twin Cities, and Clark can claim to be one of its founders.
His newspaper career at an end, Clark received a political appointment to Washington D.C.,where he became a clerk in the House of Representatives. He met with President Abraham Lincoln on several occasions and saw Lincoln deliver his last address, from an upper-floor window of the White House.
In 1865, two days before he was assassinated, Lincoln gave Clark a new assignment. He was to be agent to the Winnebago and Chippewa (Ojibwa) tribes living in 10 locations in Minnesota and North Dakota, at an annual salary of $1,500. He left for Minnesota at once, then returned upon hearing of the president’s death. When he viewed the body lying in state in the Capitol rotunda, he was surprised that there were no flowers. He and two young women picked some in the Congressional garden. The women dropped theirs into the casket, and Clark placed his in the president’s lapel.
After making a round trip of some 500 miles to visit his far-flung charges, Clark’s first decision as Indian agent was to headquarter the agency at Leech Lake. He planned and saw to the building of a number of buildings, constructed roads and a kiln to burn bricks, and attempted to teach the rudiments of farming to a people accustomed to living by hunting and harvesting. With no medical training whatever, he ministered to their ailments, adding a large dose of moral teaching to his potions and pills. An ardent promoter of temperance, he also tried to curtail the illegal liquor being brought into the reserve.
That November he made a dangerous and harrowing trip of 675 miles during fierce winter conditions to deliver cash and goods promised to the natives. But when President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, demanded he pay $60 into his campaign chest, Clark refused and was promptly fired. He wasted no time in moving to Melrose.
The reason Edwin and William Clark chose Melrose as their next project are as muddy as the millpond. Cousin Benjamin may have built and abandoned a primitive mill and dam there. Clark said he chose it for its water power. Melrose had only one proper building, a combination stage coach station/post office/hotel. There were no stores of any kind, but reportedly an abundance of mosquitoes.
Edwin Clark’s mill had grown to three stories by 1880. Contributed photo
Clark’s small mill grew, providing flour to several Army posts and to neighboring towns. He added a sawmill. He built two stores, stocking them with all the provisions a pioneer settlement would require, including clothing, dry goods, building supplies, hats and crockery. He bought up all of the original settlers’ lands —anybody owning part of the original townsite today will find Clark’s name on their deeds. He and William platted and surveyed the town, giving streets names that do not survive today (One was Clark Street, of course). He and his wife, Ellen, and their children lived in a splendid house, now the site of the Melrose city offices; William, wife Abby, and their family lived in a smaller home a few doors down.
But Clark’s main contribution toward turning Melrose into a thriving city was inviting the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (later the Great Northern) to extend their line from St. Cloud to Melrose. He offered them a free right of way, half the lots in the proposed town site, and space to build a depot. He paid an extra $1,000 to ensure the depot was in Melrose, not Sauk Centre, and to build a sidetrack beside his mill. His offer was accepted before anybody could say “feasibility study.” By 1872 the trains were seeing agricultural products out and immigrants in.
Eventually, much of Clark’s empire fell to dust. The railroad went bankrupt, due largely to the Panic of 1873, leaving Melrose a (temporary) ghost town. Edwin and William had to conduct a friendly but sad law suit in order to cut their losses. William became a stone mason.
Yet Edwin managed to survive, and in 1887 built his Brick Block. He established the Clark State Bank in the corner building, where he sold town lots and insurance, loaned and collected money. Various businesses rented out the rest of the apartments, as they continued to do before the fateful fire in 2016. (It’s hard to imagine what Clark might have thought of that bar at the north end!) But the Great Depression of 1893 was his undoing, as he lost everything he owned in Melrose.
The Clarks returned to Minneapolis. There he founded two historical societies and two small museums. He died in 1922 and was buried beside Ellen in Lakewood Cemetery, where in 1998, the Melrose Area Historical Society placed a monument on his unmarked grave. In a flowery encomium in a Minnesota history book, Clark was called the “Father of Melrose,” and that is how he is thought of today. He would later say that the 26 years he spent in Melrose were the busiest and happiest of his life.