By Tucker Henderson
A native welcome
Before this land was settled by European immigrants, old growth forests grew tall with their towering white pines and floors covered in ruddy-brown needles. American Indians called this their home along with herds of elk, moose, and even bison. Bands of rival Chippewa and Sioux once roamed the prairies that bisected this region.
Modernly referred to as tribes of Ojibwe and Dakota, respectively, these groups of Native Americans lived here when the first settlers arrived. The Chippewa were noted to be especially kind and friendly neighbors to the early residents of Minnesota. Members of the Sioux tribes used this area as a hunting haven as it was the host to a large number of game animals.
An early settler that lived in the New York Mills vicinity owned a guard dog to help keep away predators. The dog attacked a Native man and in turn, the dog was killed. It was a tense time for that settler and his family. The settler was told through sign language that his dog was not fit to be in the vicinity of Natives, but soon enough, the Native family came bearing a gift: a puppy to replace their guard dog.
Families of Native Americans and European Americans were great neighbors. They traded provisions including fish, venison, and waterfowl. The children all played together and the Native families helped the pioneering settlers with their gardens, firewood, and other tasks. Gifts were exchanged for help in both directions.
In one instance, a Finnish family that had settled south of town gave a loaf of flatbread to a Native woman and her child who were in need. She returned the favor after a few days with a handmade pair of moccasins. The Native Americans slowly disappeared as they moved north to occupy the land that the government allotted them. Before long, most traces of our Native brethren were gone.
Clearing the Timber
When the members of the newly-formed New York Mills Company first arrived on the scene of what was at that time known as “Frazee’s Mills,” virgin white pines were so prevalent that making your way through the country was not an easy task. R. L. Frazee, namesake of our own Frazee Avenue, first homesteaded what is now downtown New York Mills after moving here from Ottertail.
He had his own mills set up here, though not all of them were lumber mills. When the Northern Pacific Railroad had bisected the unnamed Township 135N-037W (now Newton) in 1871, Frazee was first to capitalize on this area.
Frazee sold the land to the NYM Company which was eager to start business. The first sawmill was erected in 1872 and was located where Central Park now stands. Advertisements were sent out across the country to lure in working men to log off the region’s forests. Otto Township was thickly forested all the way to the east end of Rush Lake, where the prairie country starts.
Within only ten years, the forests were logged off and the sawmill was dismantled in 1882. The New York Mills Company had a very short tenure here, but their endeavors have left this region in stark contrast to what it looked like when they stepped off the train.
The white pines no longer dominate the skies, farmers’ fields have taken over where their stumps once stood. While this spot used to be the home of Native Americans and Minnesota wildlife, settlers and their descendants have replaced the majority of those who lived here prior to 1870. Life as they knew it is very different from life as we know it today.