The year was 1869. The tide of immigration was carrying people to new country and in west central Minnesota a particular valley, yet unsettled, beckoned frontiersmen. In the autumn of the year the first cabins were built on the banks of the Pelican River, one near each of the two rapids about a half mile apart. Harrison and Emerson Harris had come in ox-drawn wagons from Red Wing, a journey of five weeks. They had stopped at Dayton, four miles from Fergus Falls, leaving their families there over winter until the cabin-building had been completed.
Although the home of Harrison Harris was the first building in Pelican Rapids, its owner was not the first white man who had reached the area. Asa H.Jacobs and Robert Scambler, employees of the Northwest Trading Company, had arrived in 1867 on a scouting trip with dog sled to locate trading posts where furs could be bought from the Indians. Asa Jacobs is also credited with encouraging William H.Tuttle, called the founder of Pelican Rapids, to come to the Pelican Valley.
It was an interesting world that Harrison Harris saw from his cabin located just south of the present Catholic Church. The river, gathering the melting snows of early spring, and the picturesque rapids suggested potential water power. Enormous pelicans circled overhead as they moved towards their nesting area at the upper rapids.
A daughter of pioneers, Georgina Cole Harris, had described the valley as it was in 1869. She has written of the profusion of wild flowers: violets, blood root, columbine, anemone, lady-slippers. On the prairies to the westward grew pasque flowers, buttercups and cowslips in early spring, followed by the roses, larkspur and lupins of summer, and the goldenrod and asters of fall. She has also described the old Red River Oxcart Trail, which crossed the Northwest section of the present town, and the occasional Indian with his braids and beads and moccasins, who walked there. Among the most picturesque was Antoine Mimi, the French-Indian fiddler, who often played for dances of the early settlers.
In 1869, as in 1958, the Pelican Valley revealed the characteristics that would make it one of the great vacation areas of the Midwest. The shimmering waters of more than two hundred and fifty lakes (one-half mile or more in width) lay within fifty miles; forests of beautiful oaks and maples, birch, elm, and pine stretched to the east and north; rich prairie land reached westward. The black bass, wall-eyed pike, perch, and pickerel abounded in the lakes, and the hunter could look to the woods for plentiful game.
Because of flaws in the titles to their claims, the Harris brothers moved from their cabins in a short while, Emerson Harris leaving the community and Harrison Harris building a new home in the northwest part of the present town. But the Pelican Valley had become known, and in 1870 there arrived the man called the founder of the village Mr. W. G. Tuttle, who with his wife and three small sons came from Rochester, New York. He chose his land claims well, for his two mile-long eighties included the best water power on the river. Mr. Tuttle had more money than most pioneer settlers. His comfortable cabin, just north of the Harrison Harris home, was a social center, both whites and Indians being entertained as Mrs. Tuttle played the baby grand piano brought from New York, and a rarity, indeed, in a pioneer home. Energetic and capable, Mr. Tuttle improved the water power, and, in 1870, built a saw mill. The swindler, Lord Gordon Gordon, caused ruination of Mr. Tuttle's excellent plans, and in 1874 the Tuttle property was sold to Mr John H. Robson. The sale of Mrs. Tuttle's piano provided travel money and the family returned to the East.
In 1871 there were three buildings in Pelican Rapids: the Harris and Tuttle homes and the log store of Mr. O.A.E. Blyberg, whose name was to loom large in village activities for many years. It is recorded that soon after his arrival he bought furs, paying thirty-five cents for muskrats and four dollars and a half for mink. He was first in many activities: first permanent merchant, first postmaster, and first builder of a frame house.
Pelican Rapids was, in 1871, still a frontier land. In that year the settlers had an "Indian scare." Fortunately that term describes it, for no Indians came. But the women and children were barricaded as well as possible in the Harris home while the men went on picket duty. The arrival in June, 1871, of three covered wagons that had made a six-week journey from Wisconsin brought the Cole families to the area. Mr. and Mrs. George Cole and their five children were in the first wagon, followed by Mr. and Mrs. Billy Cole and their year-old baby. In the third wagon were the parents of the men, looking older than their sixties because of the dress and demeanor of the day, characterized by the lace-trimmed caps of older women and the long beards of the men.
The Coles had good horses and stock; they carried chickens and ducks in coops fastened to the outsides of the wagons. Fresh milk, eggs, and even butter, churned as they traveled, were enjoyed by these pioneers, who brought with them into the new country some of the comforts and niceties of long-settled regions. For instance, Mrs. George Cole had thirty-five yards of rag carpeting, a splint-bottomed rocker, and a high chair for her baby. The Cole's journey had been a great adventure, more pleasant than most covered wagon journeys. But the families had, literally, to carve their way through the thick maple timber and underbrush to build their homes. Soon after their cabins were completed, Mrs. Georgia Cole taught in her own home the first school in Pelican Rapids.
Bustle and activity pervaded the town in 1872. So said the editor of the Fergus Falls Advocate, who under date of February 10, 1872, wrote of a trip to Pelican Rapids. He described the effective dam that had been placed across the river, the massive timbers that had been cut for the mill that was being built for Mr. W. G. Tuttle under supervision of C. O. Squires. The editor commented that no better saw mill or flour mill would be found in the state.
It was in 1872, also, that the village of Pelican Rapids was platted by surveyor Robert Miller, with the records being dated October 19, 1872. The proprietors listed were: George B. Wright, A. J. Baldwin, W. J. Tuttle, and Harrison Harris. The village was located in Sections 22 and 27, Township 136, Range 43, Otter Tail County; its altitude, 1,187 feet.
There are many "firsts" to be recorded as the 1870's drew to a close and the bustling 80's began.
So quickly had the community developed a "settled" air that in the late 70's the first village band was ready to play. The director, Mat Nelson, seemed far removed from the frontier in his uniform of flaming red trimmed in gold braid.
In the forefront of business activity was the huge flour mill erected by R. L. Frazee in 1879. The building of four-story height and an elevator with a carrying capacity of 120,000 bushels made possible a daily production of two hundred barrels of flour.
By 1881 Mr. Blyberg had a partner, Mr. Charles N. Haugen, and their store occupied a spacious new frame building, 24 x 140 feet, located at the present site of the post office.
Professional men became residents of the town in 1881. Early accounts vary in designating the first doctor in Pelican Rapids. However, both Dr. Cormonton and Dr. W. H.Pattee arrived in 1881. Apparently, Dr. Cormonton remained only a brief time and Dr. Pattee became the family doctor of the early settlers. A native of Warner County, New Hampshire, he was descended from distinguished lineage, one of his ancestors having served as physician to Oliver Cromwell and King Charles II of England. In 1883 Dr. William Rae became associated with Dr. Pattee both in medical practice and in the management of a drug store purchased from Mr. Blyberg.
As with the doctors, there is difficulty in identifying the "first" minister in the community. The pioneer Lutheran pastor, T. Rosholt, the Congregational missionary, Mr. Mason, and the Circuit Rider, Mr. Young, were the town's earliest ministers.
A Congregational Church was organized in 1882, and in a year's time the parishioners had erected a substantial brick building for worship. Their church, still in use, was built northeast of the Blyberg-Haugen store. Travelers who stopped in the growing town had a choice of hotel accommodations. Mr. Fauld was the earliest hotel keeper, and by 1882 Hudson Shaver and R. N. Bodgett were managing established hotels. Also new was Mr. E. W. Lowe's Central House, located south of the river near the proposed site for the railroad station. But most important of all was the Grand Hotel, built in 1882 west of today's Press office. This large building, boasting a stove in every room, was a favorite stopping place for the hunters and fishermen, who even in pioneer days had discovered the tremendous sports resources of the region. After Mr. A. G. Kinney leased the Grand in 1893, his reputation as guide made the hotel even more popular.
The new town was thriving: new people, new buildings, new activities were part of the rapidly expanding community. In the Fergus Falls Weekly Journal of March 2, 1882, there are references to Pelican Rapids as it was in that year. In a short account it is possible to mention only a few of those items as representative of the many that were cornerstones of the town. The first train arrived. A bank was established, chiefly through the efforts of Mr. J. P. Wallace. Mr. R. L. Frazee was president of the bank, as well as operator of the flour mill.
Mr. Blyberg, busy with his growing general store, had Mr. Frank E. Blodgett as partner in the drugstore he had started.
Several stores had been established: Theodore Frazee had a business south of the river. Foss and Michel were owners of another. Proprietors of the hardware store were Robards and Mickelson. H. P. Johnson and Nick Tyrell had set up a meat market in the old Blyberg building. H. W. Bragg, an old settler, was described as "fairly active in the furniture business."
Blacksmith John Halvorson was planning to build a new shop. N. H. Bruce and E. J. Lacy were harness makers. P. J. Logan had a machine shop, and, before becoming hotel manager, A. G. Kinney was in charge of a farm machinery business.
To record the small details and the great changes the first newspaper, Pioneer Times, began publication in 1883, with Mr. Alonzo E. Rathbun as the editor. But, probably, April, 11, 1883, is the date one must choose for special mention. On that day a petition for the incorporation of Pelican Rapids was signed before a notary public. Following are the names on this petition: M. B. Gibson, Henry Dressier, Frank E. Blodgett, E. Leonard, H. O. Rime, W. H. Hazle, E. Keller, Frank Davis, John F. Cox, J. E. Lacy, J. A. Goodrich, D. D. Woodruff, Z. I. Burton, W. H. Pattee, John Simpson, G. S. Hanson, C. H. Burrows, Melvin Leonard, N. N. Haugen.H. P. Johnson,N.Tyrell,N. Conyne.E. Collins, Ernest H. Hubbard, Charles Rupell, C. A. David, A. A. Woodworth, Anthony Healey, Peter I. Holen, AsaMeyers, Andrew Oleason, Henry Manley, Charles T. Robards, H. N. Bruce,I. W. Stage,J. O. Sands, H. Achmar, B. B. Hovey, K. T. Quale, E. S. Pinkham, L. B. Ramsdell, H. D. Wilcox.L. W. Gray.Hans Mickelson,O. M. Carr, J. P. Wallace, G. W. Batcheller, A. G. Kinney, A. N. Eshelman, W. E. Ingalls, W. G. Cox, R. N. Blodgett, F. Murray,G. B. Puckett.R. R. Kinney,R. A. Pierce,C. A. Lipe, E. B. Gray, F. P. Percival, P. A. Williams, H. W. Bragg, R. E. Lacy, W. P. Reynolds, H. R. Day, H. Fred Fleischer, L. C. Druy, L. F. Fleischer, H. L.Poler,William Hubbard, I. P. Lackey, E. H. Noel, M. F. Jacobs, George Chapman, Joseph Chapman, H.H. Wickum, A. E. Boen, F. E. Holmes, August Anderson, John M. Stellen, Albert Teilset, Imbret Skreden,Charles Port and Theodore Frazee.
A month later, May 16, 1883, S. W. Collins, Judge of the District Court granted the request of the petition. Thus, only a dozen years after the arrival of the founder of the town, an incorporated village with a population of seven hundred had been established. And so, within a generation of the first white man's appearance in the valley of the Pelican River, Otter Tail County, Minnesota, a hustling frontier town had begun a strong and steady growth, destined to reach far into the future.