“Way Down Upon the Cannon River:” The Norths’ First Year in Northfield

Originally Published in the November 2011 Entertainment Guide

Northfield’s founder John North, with daughter Emma, circa 1855. Photo courtesy Northfield Historical Society Collection.

Plans were made in December of 1855 for the family of John North to move south from St. Anthony to the Cannon River where he had founded a town and was establishing a mill site. North had spent much time away from his family to set up this new town and they were looking forward to being together once more. Ann North wrote to her parents back in New York that two of their children, Emma and Georgie, started singing, “Way Down Upon the Cannon River,” adjusting the words from the popular 1851 Stephen Foster song about the Swanee River, in merry anticipation of the move.

John and Ann North had come from New York to Minnesota in 1849. A lawyer by trade, he introduced a bill as a member of the territorial legislature to found the University of Minnesota in 1851 and organized the Minnesota Republican party in 1855. With the financial backing of his father-in-law, Dr. George Loomis, North began exploring opportunities for land development.

On Jan. 4, 1855, North wrote to Dr. Loomis that he had made a trip down to the “beautiful and very fertile” Cannon River valley, where “the crab-apple and wild plum grow in abundance and furnish fruit to the settlers.” He said that settlers were rapidly coming in and he envisioned “flourishing towns and cities” between St. Anthony and Iowa, with fortunes to be made. Accordingly, North sold his law practice early in 1855 to devote himself to what he called “outdoor business” (real estate). He became a proprietor of the Faribault Townsite Company, purchasing a quarter share of that town for $1,000. In March Ann wrote to her parents about North’s “Cannon River hobby,” and how he “even talks that we may sometime live at Faribault.”

But a place north of Faribault then known as Alexander’s held his interest as a potential mill site and North called a meeting of early settlers there to devise a plan for building a saw mill, grist mill and a bridge. On Aug. 15, 1855, Ann North wrote to her brother George that North had sold his interest in Faribault, “So all his interest on the Cannon River will be at Alexander, which will be much more pleasant for him.”

A town was platted and Ann North wrote to her parents on Sept. 9, “I see no reason why they may not make money as fast as they cut the lumber for there is such a demand and such a scarcity. We now hope to get to living down there ourselves.” Her brother George’s arrival to St. Anthony from New York was a boon to the Cannon River project. George kept the books, helped with surveying the town site and accompanied North to the Cannon River while also making trips on his own. On Sept. 16, North wrote to Dr. Loomis back in New York about the progress of the mill, sending a statement of expenses of the saw mill and dam and lower story of the grist mill. It came to “nearly or quite one thousand dollars more than I expected.” The saw mill was not yet running but North wrote, “There is an immense demand for lumber and it commands a high price. I never thought half as well of our enterprise as now; it looks more promising every day.”

On Sept. 23, 1855, Ann wrote to her parents:  “Mother asks why I desire to go to Cannon River to live. You know, to a woman like me, the PLACE of one’s residence matters little, so she can be with her own family, and have the conveniences of a home.” Friends were moving away from St. Anthony and, she said, “more than all the rest” her husband “is obliged to spend more than half his time, and that of itself is sufficient reason for me to want to go there to live. And George will be there which is no small inducement to me.”

In October, John North’s sister Clara arrived in Minnesota to help with the family (a third child, John, had been born in September). Ann wrote to her parents, “We have had five bushels of crab apples from our orchard at Cannon River. From less than one bushel, we have made about 35 pounds of VERY NICE jelly.”

The first mention of the name of the new town North had founded came in a letter of Dec. 9, 1855, when Ann wrote that her husband “has now been gone to Cannon River – Northfield – nearly two weeks…The mill is now running, and he is driving every thing there as fast as he can.” Ann was anxious to be reunited with him, saying she was “heartily sick” of this way of living apart.

Ann wrote to her grandmother on Dec. 23 that the family was packing to move, with a large wardrobe sent to Northfield. A carpenter promised a house would be ready. In preparation, Ann said, “We dressed 12 turkeys and 30 chickens. We are nicely fixed to go into a NEW country. I think we shall enjoy living there very much.” She added that her husband “likes his business down there.” Ann knew it would be quite an undertaking moving with three young children in such cold weather, “but I do not mind it yet.” She reported that daughter Emma had learned a little verse which “helps me to keep her straight” when she wants to misbehave: “I must not speak a naughty word, I must not tell a lie; I must not contradict; and make my little brother cry.” Ann praised her two sons, commenting on “Georgie’s winning ways” and saying Johnnie “is the most sociable baby of his age I ever saw.”

Ann wrote to her parents on Dec. 30 that they were still in St. Anthony. The excessive cold had stopped progress on the house being built in Northfield. But Ann was ready to move, saying, “I can adapt myself to circumstances as well as anyone.” She wrote, “We are to have a cover over our sleigh, and a stove in it, so I think we shall go very comfortably.” The sleigh driven by a four-horse team arrived to transport them on Jan. 1, 1856, with a feather bed, quilts for the children Emma and Georgie and a rocking chair for Ann and the baby Johnnie. The 40-mile trip took a day and a half.

John North wrote to Dr. Loomis on Jan. 6, 1856, “We are here comfortably settled in our new home, which you may have heard before this bears the euphonious cognomen of Northfield.” North said, “We are having the coldest winter I have ever seen in the Territory. But we do not freeze and we enjoy ourselves finely.” North noted the thermometer stood at 23 degrees below zero upon their arrival. Three stoves were needed for the sub-zero temperatures. North wrote, “Our mill keeps going night and day through the coldest of the weather.”

Ann North circa 1855. Photo courtesy Northfield Historical Society Collection.

As usual, North needed money from Dr. Loomis, since “Our expenses this fall have been enormous and I have had to be always ready with the money to keep things going.” The accounting of expenses that North enclosed came to a total of $4,365. This included the cost of making and holding a claim, cost of a survey, payment to a millwright, $620 for timber, $200 for plank, $100 for nails, spikes, tools and iron and $200 for “my expenses 20 trips to Cannon River.” Ever-optimistic, North added, “Things look promising here and I have no doubt we shall do well,” with George working into the business “finely,” doing “better than I ever expected.”

Ann could not write her first letter to her parents until a week after their arrival, explaining, “You see our ink has been frozen.” A good many people have “frozen hands, feet and faces and some have been frozen to death – And in the midst of all that, we moved down here with these three little children.” She wrote that their house was 18 by 30 feet with a 10 by 30 lean-to. The house faced west, with a view of the mill, river and woods on the other side.

Within their first month of residence, North called a meeting where 20 men contributed almost $300 toward building a schoolhouse which could be used for religious services and public gatherings. (Completed in the fall, the schoolhouse was dedicated on Nov. 16, with Ann North singing and playing the melodeon at what she described as  “quite an enthusiastic and a very pleasant meeting.” She proudly wrote that it was the “first school-house in Rice County. It is very prettily and well finished.” There was no schoolhouse in Faribault yet, she said, and “Me thinks we are getting quite a nice start.”)

By the spring of 1856 North had added to the community a 40-foot store, shops for two wheelwrights, a cabinetmaker, joiner, shoemaker and a blacksmith. North built an icehouse, using sawdust from the mill for packing. When the gristmill started operations, the North family helped sew sacks for the ground corn. (By September Ann could write, “The teams are coming constantly, with wheat for the Mill. They are obliged to run nights to keep up.”) A post office was transferred from Fountain Grove to Northfield so that Ann could write to her grandmother on May 15, “Letters to us may be directed to Northfield, Rice Co., Minn.” The Norths wrote “puffing letters” about their growing town back to friends in New England, attracting mostly Republicans who favored abolition, education and temperance, as John and Ann did.

The new schoolhouse also served as the first meeting place for the Lyceum Society on Oct. 1, 1856. The minutes book (preserved at the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault) set forth the goal: “Believing in the utility of societies for intellectual improvement, we, citizens of Northfield, agree to unite ourselves into an association for the purpose of establishing a reading room, circulating library and debating society.”

On Oct. 12, 1856, Ann wrote her parents about the Lyceum: “We have a Lyceum recently organized and they have already sent off $50 for newspapers and periodicals to furnish a public Reading Room – Is that not doing pretty well for our little place?” She added, “They intend having a library too, in the Reading Room- – Now, father, there is an opportunity for you to immortalize yourself by making a donation of books and papers to the society.” At the meeting Ann said she joined others in singing, “Cheer up, cheer up, persons of toil.” Ann, who had given piano lessons  in St. Anthony, wrote, “They are quite determined to have music, and it seems necessary for me to help.” On Oct. 25 she wrote to her grandmother, “They had the subject of woman’s rights up for discussion at the last meeting – It was discussed with much spirit – We sang ‘Life is but a strife’ and ‘There’s a good time coming.’” (The minutes book said the topic was “Resolved that woman is entitled to all the social and political rights employed by man,” and “The society with the assistance of the ladies decided the question in the affirmative.”)

As the new year of 1857 approached, North could write proudly to Dr. Loomis on Dec. 6, “Our town is prosperous as ever. We now have 40 families in the village.” The Norths had moved into a new house in October (which Ann called their “mansion,” with the outside “all clapboarded and painted white,” and a piazza high from the ground on a hillside). On Jan. 11, 1857, North wrote Dr. Loomis that he had contracted for “the building of a block of Stores up near the Liberty Pole which will when completed cost not much short of $4,000.” Stage proprietors planned to build a stable and make Northfield a dinner stop in the coming summer en route from Hastings. (North also built the American House Hotel which in 1867 became the first home of Northfield College, later renamed Carleton after a benefactor. A Lyceum Building was also built in 1857 which remains as Northfield’s oldest building at 109 E. 4th St.)

“Everything looks prosperous for the coming year,” North wrote, “except that there is some opposition from our neighbors at Waterford and Lewiston against the annexation of those Townships north of us.” He told Dr. Loomis the Territory was united to become a state. (North went on to lead the Republican wing of the Minnesota constitutional convention, supporting suffrage for women and blacks.)

Life was good “way down upon the Cannon River” at the end of that first year the North family lived in Northfield. But the economic downturn called “The Panic of 1857” lay ahead, a time of economic uncertainty which affected North’s plans for the community. In May of 1860 North, chairman of the Minnesota delegation to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, was one of those who made a trip by rail to call on Lincoln in Springfield to notify him of his nomination. By the summer of 1861, the Norths were gone from Northfield. John North had been appointed by Lincoln to be Surveyor General in Nevada Territory. And the town John North had founded braced for the exigencies of the Civil War.

Two books in the Northfield Historical Society History Series which provide further information about early life in Northfield can be purchased at the Northfield Historical Society at 408 Division St. S. They are Pioneer Women: Voices of Northfield’s Frontier, 1856-76, edited by Jeff Sauve (2009) and The Lyceum: Northfield’s Oldest Building, written by Susan Hvistendahl (2010).         

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