It always amazes me how our forebears managed to find their way to Oklee, Minnesota. There were no roads, no cars, and no railroads. People from France, Norway, Sweden, and other European countries landed on the east coast, as they flocked to our country. When it became crowded, they moved west using the waterways and rivers for transportation. Much of the land was still wilderness. Many traveled up the Mississippi River and along the Red River, settling in the Red River Valley.
To stimulate growth inland, the Homestead Act was initiated. Many traveled overland by horse and wagon on rutted trails and grassland to find a plot of 160 acres of undeveloped land. They were granted title to the land if they “improved” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years on the land, farmers were entitled to the property, free and clear.
By 1870, the rich Red River Valley grew more wheat than any other place in the nation. River routes were limited and some farmers settled where they were landlocked. As you know, the Lost River didn’t afford much in the way of water access to major cities. To get grain to market, farmers had to ship their harvest over 80 miles to Moorhead. To travel over land, the transportation cost was $0.15/ton for every mile shipped. The value of wheat was only $1.10/bushel. If they were lucky, farmers barely broke even. Most farmers lost money.
Soo Line Steam Engine, 1950
The cost of shipping by rail was one-tenth of that at only $0.015/ton. At this rate farmers made money and could ship all the way to Minneapolis, where the value was up to $1.50/bushel. In 1893, the Soo Line began building a railroad across the hinterlands of Wisconsin and Minnesota so they could ship grain and l...
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... trains, but agents only need a company car and cell phone to run everything.
Oklee Soo Line Depot after Elevator Fire
The Williams family was the last to live in the Oklee depot. It was in bad shape after the great elevator fire in the fall of 1967. The depot probably would have caught fire if it hadn’t been for my father, my uncle and the help of the townspeople who doused the rooftop continuously while the flames roared just across the track. The windows of the depot were so hot that you couldn’t put your hand on the glass without burning yourself. The main telegraph window broke and the paint blistered and peeled.
Sadly, the once brightly colored yellow and maroon railroad depot that was the hub of Oklee, was no longer needed. It was moved to the Oklee city park and in 1982 lightning struck it and burned it to the ground.
Jill S. Flateland (Williams)