Squeaky ox carts rolled through Sherburne County in earlier times

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Well over 100 years ago, caravans of ox carts loaded with furs and other goods traveled through Sherburne County on their way to St. Paul.

A replica of an ox cart is on display at the Sherburne History Center in Becker. The main ox cart route ran about 1/4 mile south of where the exhibit stands today.

A replica of an ox cart is on display at the Sherburne History Center in Becker. The main ox cart route ran about 1/4 mile south of where the exhibit stands today. Photo courtesy of Sherburne History Center.

The carts were pulled by oxen and made their way along the Red River Trail ,which ran between present-day Winnipeg, Canada, and St. Paul. In St. Paul the furs were exchanged for trade goods, Sherburne History Center Curator Maureen Galvin said in a July 26 program at the Elk River Library.

The ox cart route went through Sherburne County starting about 1839, according to Galvin. A newer trail hugged the western shore of the Elk River. An older trail followed the Mississippi River. Both trails passed through Becker, Big Lake and Elk River.

One distinctive feature of the ox cart caravans was the noise. No nails were used in the construction of the two-wheeled wooden carts and the wheels squeaked.

“There were long lines of these ox carts and you could hear them for miles and miles and miles,” Galvin said.

There was a Red River ox cart stopping point at Bailey Station, located between Elk River and Big Lake where today Highway 10 and county roads 14/15 meet, she said.

The ox carts were driven mostly by Metis —offspring of American Indians and white fur traders.  The carts carried furs, pemmican, buffalo tongues, robes and moccasins to St. Paul. On their return, the carts were loaded with a variety of manufactured goods: scythes, pitchforks, hoes, blankets, chains, chairs, tables, bureaus, clocks, bedsteads, pails, saddles, tinware and some staples like flour and sugar, according to the Sherburne History Center.

The rutted ox cart paths were used until the coming of the railroad in the 1870s. A replica of an ox cart is on display at the Sherburne History Center in Becker.

Transportation in general has been a strong theme in Sherburne County’s history, Galvin told the group at the library.

A stage coach line also passed through Sherburne County, connecting St. Cloud with St. Paul. Orlando Bailey kept a station for the stagecoach and a hotel for the travelers at what became known as Bailey Station.

In later years, the Jefferson Highway was a major transportation route.

It was the first intercontinental highway in the United States and ran from New Orleans to Canada — through Sherburne County. Charles Babcock of Elk River encouraged construction of the highway, Galvin said. Babcock served as Minnesota’s first commissioner of transportation.

Other historical notes she shared in her presentation:

•Zimmerman was originally called Lake Fremont and Becker was initially known as Pleasant Valley.

•Potatoes have been a big crop in Sherburne County for years. At one time children got out of school when it was time to harvest the potatoes. “It was a big job and you had to do it by hand and the entire family was involved,” Galvin said.

•The speed limit in Becker in 1912 was 10 mph.

•Elk River was home to the Surf Aces Water Ski Team from 1955 to 1970. “They got their name because the skis rode on the ‘surface’ of the water,” Galvin said.

The 1956 prom in Elk River.

The 1956 prom in Elk River. Photo courtesy of the Sherburne History Center.

Couples walked through the decorated high school gym at the 1956 prom in Elk River.

Couples walked through the decorated high school gym at the 1956 prom in Elk River. Photo courtesy of the Sherburne History Center.

•Galvin also talked about the 1956 prom in Elk River, with couples promenading in the high school gym that had been lavishly decorated with crepe paper streamers.

•In 1900, 70 percent of the workers in Sherburne County were somehow involved in farming and 30 percent were non-farm workers. By 2000, that had changed dramatically, with 1 percent of workers in farm-related work and 99 percent in non-farm work.

Sherburne history on display in Becker

The Sherburne History Center, 10775 27th Ave. S.E., Becker is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free. For more information, call 763-261-4433.

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