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Going the distance

Descendant of mail carrier retraces footsteps from Fort Ridgely to New Ulm. Editor’s Note – Sr. Perspective writer Steve Palmer completed a 20-mile walk carrying the mail on foot from Fort Ridgely to New Ulm as part of the 150th U.S. – Dakota War of 1862 commemoration held in Brown County during August. Palmer carried 300 postcards that received a special postal cancellation stamp when he arrived at the Brown County Museum in New Ulm on Aug. 25. The walk, which started at the fort site monument, also paid tribute to his great-great-grandfather, Alois Palmer, one of the founding settlers of New Ulm. Palmer carried the mail on foot daily between New Ulm and Fort Ridgely starting in 1855 when the first post office was established. The following is Palmer’s account of his step back in time.

Alois Palmer, a young immigrant from Switzerland, came to the Minnesota territory in the fall of 1854 as part of an expedition for the Chicago Land Association to find a suitable location to build a new townsite for a German-speaking colony. Born in Canton, Zug, Switzerland in 1822, he learned a cobbler’s trade and traveled to America in 1853. He spent a year in New York before coming to Chicago and joining the Chicago Land Association. On Oct. 7, 1854, Palmer was one of four original settlers who selected the land that became the site for building the city of New Ulm. He took up a timber claim along the Minnesota River in Milford Township and settled on the south banks of the river across from the settlement of West Newton. He returned to Chicago and married Roslie Pelzl in 1858. They came back to Milford Township, and Alois was appointed the government’s river ferryman (Palmer’s Ferry) and official mail carrier between Fort Ridgely and New Ulm. The first post office for New Ulm was established in 1855, and Alois delivered mail to Fort Ridgely which was constructed as a military post in 1853. Palmer walked back and forth between the two places daily with his bag of mail. It was common knowledge that walking through the wild territory was at times difficult with hot or cold weather, prairie storms and the possibility of injury always present but Alois said he never had any great trouble in making the trips regularly. When the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 erupted, the Palmers’ cabin was burned to the ground, and with their two young children, they joined many settlers who escaped to New Ulm, St. Peter or Mankato for protection from the fighting with the Sioux. After the war, the Palmers remained in New Ulm until 1865. Along with other pioneers, they returned to the Minnesota prairie and settled in West Newton, this time on the north side of the river, where they farmed and operated Palmer’s Ferry downstream from Harkin’s Store. As a ferryman, farmer and mail carrier, Alois lived with his family on the West Newton farmstead for 25 years before returning to New Ulm, the town he founded, about 1891. He died at the age of 89 on April 12, 1912. His death notice in the newspaper reported the pallbearers at his funeral were all sons of the early pioneers who prevailed along with Palmer to find a place in the wilderness for New Ulm. Fast forward 150 years and his great-great grandson Steve once again carried the mail on foot from Fort Ridgely to New Ulm. “I wanted to honor him for what he did when he carried the mail and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” said Palmer. Palmer was going to retrace the footsteps of Alois 25 years ago at the 125th observance of the U.S. – Dakota War. “But I was too busy covering other events for the newspaper when I was publisher and editor of the Fairfax Standard. I didn’t get to do it 25 years ago and who knows if I can do it 25 years from now, so I thought ‘what better time.’” During my walk I often wondered just what it might have been like to actually carry the mail back in that time. His thoughts may have been about the crops, his ferry, politics and for sure the weather. As I walked I know his thinking wasn’t interrupted by traffic whizzing past him or the thumping sound of music coming from speakers. As I walk, I notice other contrasts that have occurred between generations since the 1850s. I see electric poles, rural mailboxes, road signs, a vineyard, a beer bottle cap, aluminum cans, plastic bottles and a modern hog barn…even the very cracked asphalt I’m walking on – they all weren’t here 150 years ago. He probably sat to rest under a shade tree near a creek to cool off on a hot summer day. I have a support team vehicle that is only a mile up the road and carry a cell phone if I need help. He was on his own facing the elements and unknown dangers. I wore a pair of shorts during my walk and sunscreen. He probably wore wool pants and a long sleeve shirt. I wore athletic shoes, he wore the shoes of a cobbler. I ate a banana and some granola bars, he perhaps had an apple and some beef jerky. I step over a broken cell phone tossed out lying on the side of the road. You know Alois would never have envisioned his descendants speaking into one of these devices more than a century later. Then too, we might have seen or heard some of the same things along our mail walk. Perhaps the call of a crow, maybe an eagle sitting in the tree, grasshoppers and crickets would be some of the same sights and sounds. I’m accompanied by the song of the chickadee and notice the steely glare of a hawk which does a fly by to monitor my progress. A bluejay scolds me along the way and a dizzy fly enjoys bugging me for part of the trip. I’ve driven this road (Nicollet County 21) perhaps a thousand times. Strangely, there are sections of the road I don’t recognize while on foot. Maybe it’s the 90 degree heat that’s bothering me today. Mile 8 seemed to be one of the toughest. I have this discomfort in the heel of my right foot. This goes on for awhile before I finally stop and discover I have picked up a small stone in my shoe. I’m thankful that it’s not a blister for I still have a long way to go. When I reach the Harkin Store it’s a heartening sight for me to know I’ve walked to the halfway point of my trip. I can also faintly hear a train whistle in the distance. I know I must be getting closer to the city of New Ulm although I can’t see it for the canopy of trees that line this section of the road. What I do notice along the narrow winding road are sumac bushes beginning to turn a red wine color and cottonwood tree leaves showing shades of yellow and gold. Soon, I’ve reached another milestone on the walk when I cross the Buessmann Bridge. I have only about six more miles to go now so I can take time to stop and visit with a newspaper editor who finds me for an interview and some photos. As I cross the modern bridge and look down over the tranquil Minnesota River, I’m reminded of how Alois must have crossed this same river on his way to Fort Ridgely and probably used his own ferry. The road turns into Brown County. It’s wider with broader shoulders and I have less competition with the traffic for walking space. In another hour, I reach the city limits and I’m now walking on a bike trail and sidewalks. This is the urban section of my trip. I’m grateful that I’ve reached the relative safety of residential neighborhoods as I walk in a gentle rain of a quiet Saturday morning. The final segment of my destination to the Brown County museum steps is nearly complete. In downtown New Ulm I walk past the original Kiesling House and replica barricades erected for the two battles with the Sioux. I go past the old Dacotah House Hotel site and the Erd building where women and children took refuge in the basement during the attacks. Around the street corner and I’m greeted by numerous descendants of Alois and other supporters too. Now, when I reflect on my walk for this story, I’m satisfied that I achieved my objective. I think Alois probably would be pleased that his great-great-grandson followed his route and carried the mail once again from Fort Ridgely to New Ulm. And I wonder too, how will I be remembered 150 years from now?

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