Skip to main content


Conflicts such as the Civil War, Dakota War, and a plague of grasshoppers preceded the lauded growth both the Industrialization and Progressive Eras brought farming Minnesotans, and this represented a period of bouncing back from consistent struggle and loss(1). For those in Clay County, Minnesota, advances in transportation, such as extension of the railroads and growth of the automobile industry, aided in the institutionalization and growth of their agricultural society. Railroads acted as a civilizing agency and owners of these railroad lines, such as James J. Hill, promoted settlement inspired by the booster ideology. This “boosterism” found inspiration through a concept of the railroad boosting settlement and production which created dominant distribution points out of cities(2). Investors praised the Red River Valley soil for its fertility and promise in agricultural development to attract both emigrant and immigrant settlers. Automobiles followed the railroad, earning popularity in the first decade of the twentieth century, and further connected these rural communities to one another by easing the time and manner of transportation within communities and to outlying warehouses.


Railroad Depot and Mill, ca. 1880-1890

Railroad Depot and Mill, ca. 1880-1890

Railroad depots acted as the starting point for settlers moving out westward, and mills along the lines were used for storage, and eventual shipping, of excess grain to the market.

The North Pacific Railroad, with a projected reach to Seattle, Washington, reached Moorhead from Duluth in the latter part of 1871 becoming Clay County’s first railroad(3). The Red River Valley garnered booster attention through promise of agricultural production from fertile soil and investors hoped for profit along railroad lines and attraction of farming settlers to the towns(4). Emigrant and immigrant farmers settled the area through access along the railroad’s depots, and towns grew exponentially from these points along the lines. Population numbers following the railroads indicate the growth power they provided as Clay County recorded a population of 92 inhabitants in 1870, which jumped to 2,500 people in 1874, and 46,608 within the first hundred years(5). As the railroad attracted settlers to land advertised fertile and profitable, this shaped the economic development of the area.


Lumber Mill, ca. 1890-1910

Lumber Mill in Hawley, ca. 1890-1910

Lumber mills were some of the first processing buildings built along railroad lines in Clay County and cleared land for property and agricultural use.

One of the first productions capable through, and influenced by, the railroads consisted of lumber mills as investors “felt that by clearing away the forests they were bringing civilization and progress to the state(6)." Next, flour mills developed along the lines in accordance with the county’s agricultural development as a wheat monoculture, and these stations for processing, storage, and delivery revealed rural response to the market and national demand. Industrialization and competition eventually moved these various mills into the larger urban centers and forced the county to adopt newer production methods modified by industrialization's ideology of greater and faster. Challenges faced by farmers through these modifications came through closer connection to the effects of national depressions and corporations changing prices for storage and shipment fees to increase their own profit, placing the small producers at a disadvantage(7).

View to the Northeast from Moorhead Mill, ca. 1900-1915

View to the Northeast from Moorhead Mill, ca. 1900-1915

This scene shows the development of shops, saloons, and mills out from the railroad lines.

Farmers Unloading Wheat at Brun's and Finke's Elevator A, Moorhead, ca. 1879

Farmers Unloading Wheat at Brun's and Finke's Elevator A, Moorhead, ca. 1879

Farmers would bring excess grain to mills for storage and eventual shipping to the national market, which led to mass production of wheat and other grains for extra income for farmers.

Just as railroads allowed for greater distance traveled in a lesser amount of time, so too did the automobile which debuted regularly in rural life during the first decade of the twentieth century. Rural life tended to be isolated within the farming communities separated by a considerable distance of farmland, and the introduction of the Model T Ford in 1908 aided in relieving isolation for social groups such as the Rural Free Delivery (RFD)(8). The introduction of cars changed rural life as farmers became increasingly connected to each other, and afforded cheaper transportation to local markets and cities nearby as they no longer needed to store and ship grain with the railroads and warehouses for certain deliveries. 


1. Annette Atkins, Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out," (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008), 84.

2. Carroll Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2007), 44-45.

3. John Turner and C. K. Semling, History of Clay and Norman Counties Minnesota: Their People, Industries and Institutions, Vol. 1 (Indiana: B. F. Bowen & Company, 1918) 243-244

4. Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains, 58.

5. Western Minnesota Steamthreshers Association and the Red River Valley Historical Society, Clay County Family Album: A History of Rural Clay County, Clay County, Minnesota, (Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company, 1976), 9.

6. Rhoda R. Gilman, Northern Lights: The Story of Minnesota’s Past, (Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1990), 142.

7. Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains, 91.

8. Susan Granger and Scott Kelly, Historic Context Study of Minnesota Farms, 1820-1960, Vol. 1, (Minnesota: Gemini Research, June 2005), 3.50. --According to the study, the Rural Free Delivery was established in 1896 and consisted of a group of farmers who tried relieving isolation by going to the nearest town nearly once a week for letters, newspapers, supplies, and other materials as an acting delivery service.