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Death of a small town

The rise and fall of Wegdahl, Minn.

By Gail Opdahl of Granite Falls

Several years ago, I signed up and took a pontoon ride (sponsored by Montevideo’s Let’s Go Fishing) on the Minnesota River by the village of Wegdahl.

Our guide was very well informed and told us about the river and Wegdahl. He said several years ago wild rice was grown by the river by the Dakota natives. The valley presented fine rich soil, rather swampy in places, and covered with high grass and wild rice. This was confirmed in 1886 by government land surveyors, Jewett and Howe. This piqued my curiosity and led me to do some research about Wegdahl.

The bank in Wegdahl was open and doing well about 100 years ago, but closed a short time later. Contributed photo

I grew up on a farm about three miles north of Wegdahl. A friend and I would bike or walk to Wegdahl to play with friends or maybe buy a treat. I belonged to a 4-H club named Wegdahl Willing Workers.

The village of Wegdahl is located halfway between Montevideo and Granite Falls in Sparta Township. It was located on a hillside overlooking the Minnesota River. It was described in 1916 as a “pretty hamlet of a hundred or more population and a half a dozen stores -- a bank, a grain elevator and a cooperative association which engaged in general mercantile business.”

When the 1900 plat book was published, the map of Wegdahl was using the name Myers on the map, which comes from Myers Creamery. The Creamery brought many people into Myers (later called Wegdahl).

Some remembered taking a five-pound crock to the creamery and having it filled with the best that an award-winning butter maker could make, and watched while paper was placed over the top and securely fastened with a couple of winds of string. It came to about a dollar -- a premium because it was so good.

Hemming Wegdahl was the original owner of the town site and became the first postmaster when he started a store with a post office. It became necessary to change the name of the village to Wegdahl because there was already a Myers post office in Minnesota. Nels O Nelson, manager of the store of the Farmers’ Cooperative Association at Wegdahl, was born on Jan. 27, 1881, on a pioneer farm where the Wegdahl village now stands. He was one of the organizers of the creamery company and the elevator.

When the bridge was built connecting Stony Run Township of Yellow Medicine County with Wegdahl, the village became very active. The Sambo Grocery Store, which was built five feet higher than Main Street and had a cement sidewalk, became a stage for home talent and other shows given on Saturday evenings during the summer months of the Depression years. The shows were sponsored by the Wegdahl merchants.

The Wegdahl Farmers’ Store was a cooperative and handled everything from groceries to machinery. When people started coming to shop in cars, they installed gas pumps. The post office was also located in the Wegdahl Farmers’ Store in the 20s and 30s until the post office was closed in 1957 and Wegdahl was put on a Montevideo rural route. When the new 212 Highway bypassed Wegdahl on the other side of the river, and as bills piled up during the Depression years, the store was forced to close.

The town hall was a two-story building. Meetings were held in the town hall and dances on the second floor. Later the Farmers’ Store used the lower part of the building for storing machinery. The hall was packed one night for an old-time dance, and when a fast polka was being danced, the floor collapsed. The machinery kept the floor from falling too far, so no one was hurt, but there was screaming and much excitement.

The country churches organized outside of Montevideo were determined by the ethnic groups which settled the area. The Swedes that settled north of the Minnesota River and west of Wegdahl, established Strombeck Swedish Lutheran Church on Nov. 1, 1873, but the church was not built until 1884. The church and the cemetery were built on a sharp knoll overlooking the Minnesota River. This is the church I was baptized in and attended Sunday School and church services at for a few years. This church is no longer in operation but its daughter church, Salem, in Montevideo, carries on its work. The inscriptions on the stones erected in the cemetery for children during the diphtheria epidemic of 1880-1881 tell a sad story. These deaths included several brothers and sisters of a friend of my mother’s.

The name Skunk Hollow was almost synonymous with Wegdahl to some in the 1940s. Skunk Hollow was a night club well secluded in the trees by Wegdahl about half a mile from Highway 212 between Montevideo and Granite Falls. Lawrence Erickson owned the place and stories said the sheriff would raid the place once a year and be paid a fine of $500, which took care of the rest of the year. There were stories about stabbings and shootings and bootleggings -- a few of them true perhaps. Take the one about the sheriff being shot. Some were trying to close down the place (because of the bootlegging, most likely) but a backhand wedding dance was held there. Sheriff Homme from Granite Falls heard about it, came in and accidentally shot one of the wedding party. One woman remembers hearing that the sheriff was present because the groom was on probation and wasn’t supposed to be getting married. Another story was one of guests had a revolver in his pocket, got drunk and into an argument, went to pull his gun and shot himself in the rear end. Skunk Hollow is remembered as a pretty rough place, a dance hall, bootleg whiskey and lots of fights. Skunk Hollow was eventually moved to Granite Falls to become the Bronze Boot.

Oscar Nygaard’s pool hall in Wegdahl was busy all day and night. It was across from the elevator and all the farmers came in there. There was a lot of card playing and dice shaking. Many kids in the Montevideo school would skip school and take up the four pool tables.

Wegdahl had a pretty good hockey team just before the war. District 15, above the hill to the east of town, had about 40 kids.

Businesses in Wegdahl in 1915 included the bank, barbershop, blacksmiths, general store/post office, depot, restaurant, farmer’s co-op store, meat market/locker, creamery and grain elevator.

The bank was doing fine until a bank in Montevideo folded and the county got squeamish about having all their funds distributed in the small banks of the county and took out all the funds to be put in a bigger bank and closed the one in Wegdahl.

The town, like so many small towns, was dying. Businesses were closed and people moved away. All that now remains of what was once a active village are a few dwelling places.

Wegdahl during its heyday. The village is often remembered today as the site of Skunk Hollow, a roadhouse notorious for bootlegging. Contributed photo

Changes come. The crowd that showed up on a Thursday in 2017 found a much different environment. I went to the open house hosted by Chippewa County to introduce people to the park it has developed on this Wegdahl site along the Minnesota River. The 30-acre park comes completed with two camper cabins, two RV camping sites with water and electricity, rustic tent camping, two picnic shelters, playground equipment, wooden trails, a boat access with a dock, vault toilets, river frontage for fishing and lots of open space. The cabins are on wheels and can be removed if flood waters return some spring. The park also has a well and hydrants including one for washing boats.

The county acquired the property following the 1997 flood. Clean Up Our River Environment, the Montevideo Scouts and the National Guard teamed up to remove the trash that had accumulated there. Federal Emergency Management Agency funds were used to remove houses that had been ruined by the flood in the park area. There were junk houses and another house where its residents were suspected of making drugs that were removed.

The park was nearly two decades in the making. The County Board had rejected a $162,000 grant to develop the park in 2005 but the call by citizens to develop a park did not stop. The county set apart its own funds and there was help from citizens and organizations. The Knights of Columbus at St. John’s Catholic Church donated $16,000 towards a picnic shelter. There is a six-mile bicycle trail from Montevideo to the park, which is hoped will some day continue to Granite Falls.

Fishing is the biggest draw. Anglers here come mainly for catfish, but also pursue small-mouth bass, northern pike, walleye and crappies.

Back in 1968, bridges provided virtually the only public access to the river in this area. Later four public access sites on the river were developed on the river in a stretch from north of Montevideo to Granite Falls, including the site at Wegdahl. The Wegdahl access sports the only dock on the Minnesota River in a very long stretch.

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