Early History of Buffalo
When driving on Highway 55 today, it is nearly impossible to conceive of the changes in the landscape made by 130 years of farming and settlement of this area. Once this lake area was a part of the region known as the “Big Woods.” The heavy forests covered this entire area, only beginning to thin out beyond Cokato. The earliest white settlers tell of forests made up of “large hardwoods such as white elm and basswood that touched branches, cutting off the sunlight, and growing so thickly that a traveler could often see only a rod ahead. The white elms grew to four to six feet in diameter and stood over 100 feet high. Burr Oak, ironwood, red elm, tamarack, butternut, and ash trees grew so thickly that the ground under them was damp and marshy from rains which could not evaporate quickly in the deep shade. Sugar maples, wild plums, black cherry and willow trees added color to the forest in spring and fall. Mosquitoes were plentiful, for the shallow pools were kept from evaporating by the shading forest, and myriads of insects hatched out daily. The forest was interspersed with many natural meadows.” (101 Best Stories, p. 77)
White settlers desired open land and so hacked down the trees and burned what they didn’t need for building materials. What nature spent hundreds of years in making, the settlers destroyed in less than 50 years.
The Sioux, or Dakota as they now prefer, Indians camped, hunted, and fished this area between the lakes Buffalo and Pulaski for more than 300 years. It was a favorite camping ground of the Dakota and was where some bands came in summer to fish and gather cranberries and in winter to hunt deer. A number of earth mounds are to be found in the Buffalo area. A biography written by Fred Bjork claims there was an Indian cemetery at Mink Lake, and that Indians returned to visit this cemetery and the mounds until at least the 1890s. The Dakota were pushed farther south by the Chippewa, and numerous battles were occurring in this area for a number of years. The U.S. Army decided that a buffer was needed to be put between these two tribes, and so in a treaty signed with the Winnebago Indians of Iowa in 1846, the Winnebago were moved out of that newly settling area to Minnesota — right between the two warring tribes. This move was made in 1848, and they were led by a chief named Winnisheik. A Winnebago village covered the area now occupied by the Buffalo downtown business district. A few patches of corn were cultivated by the women, and the men spent their time in fishing and hunting. They lived in this area until 1855 when their treaty was revoked, and on May 5, 1855, Chief Winnisheik again had to lead his people to a new territory, this time farther west to the Blue Earth River. The removal of the Winnebagos opened the path for Yankee settlers to move in, and the history of the town of Buffalo begins.
After the Winnebagos were removed, the Dakota continued to roam through Wright County, hunting, fishing, trapping, making maple sugar, and gathering various fruits and berries. In September, 1858 the Dakota were again ordered to go to their reservation on the Minnesota River near Redwood Falls, but one band, led by Big Star, lingered in the vicinity of Buffalo. The 1915 Wright County History tells of their removal. “The white hunters were not willing to divide the game with them and took measures to remove them from Wright County. An order was secured and taken to them by J. M. Powers. Their camp was near the site of Chatham. The order limited the time to ten days. As they still remained at the end of this time, the hunters, ten in number, from Buffalo, Rockford and Greenwood, armed with rifles, marched to the Indian camp to enforce the order. They found the camp broken up and the Indians moving west. The ultimatum of the hunters was that they should go through Hennepin County by crossing at Rockford. (Why?) The braves were not in evidence when the hunters overtook the heavily laden Indian women and ponies, and turned them back through Buffalo to Rockford. They reached Rockford at sunset. During the afternoon, the braves, in war paint, carrying rifles, joined the band, marching haughtily behind the train in front of the hunters. When they reached the middle of the bridge over the Crow River at Rockford, the braves stopped and fired their rifles, skipping the bullets on the water up and down the county line. The women and ponies were tired from carrying their heavy packs, and all rested on Edgar Creek, one-half mile south of the village, near the big temple mound that overlooks the river.” (WrCoHist, 1915, p. 46-48)
The earliest white settlers were fur traders who came out of Minneapolis to trade with the Winnebago Indians. Edmund Brissett was a Canadian fur trader who had come to Fort Snelling in 1832. His principal trading post was near Lake Harriet in Hennepin County. He opened a trading post on the west end of Lake Pulaski possibly as early as 1849, definitely by 1850. In 1851 Brissett and his associates cut a road through the timber to Buffalo Lake. The road passed from Lake Calhoun, along the west shores of Medicine Lake, Independence Lake and Lake Sarah, crossing the Crow River at Rockford, passing north of the present Rockford-Buffalo road. It was a crooked, narrow track but was used extensively by traders and the earliest settlers. It was still in use as late as 1858. The Brissett post was abandoned in 1855 when the Winnebagos were removed to the west.
The first Yankee to permanently locate in Buffalo Township (which included Chatham Township until 1866) was Augustus Prime, who settled on Section 9 in April, 1855. He died at Monticello in 1870. He was followed by Solomon Hatch, a native of Maine, who came here in May of the same year, purchasing a claim that had been previously made on Section 5. He brought his family to their new home in October and resided there until his death, which occurred in January, 1874. Also in the fall of 1855, Amasa Ackley and George A. J. Overton came to the shores of Buffalo Lake and selected claims on Section 30. They moved their families to the claims in February, 1857. Mr. Ackley is said to have built the first dwelling on the Buffalo site. His home served as the very first post office, and the very first election was held there also. He remained to enjoy Buffalo’s growth. Mr. Overton moved to Stevens County in 1875 and died there in March, 1881. James Griffin, the first black to live in the area, moved the Ackley and Overton families here, and on February 15, 1856, located permanently in Section 32.
Moses S. Calkins and David Calkins (Mr. Ackley’s brothers-in-law), Daniel Grey, Thomas Smithson, and S. B. Culver all settled in the township in the spring of 1856. S. B. Culver located in Section 20, on the west end of Lake Pulaski, the old site of the Indian trading post. Thomas Smithson settled in Section 8, on the northeast shore of the same lake, and his brother Levi was here by January, 1857. Daniel Grey took a claim adjoining Ackley’s. J. M. Keeler and J. J. Odell came the same year. Jackson Taylor arrived in Buffalo on August 20, 1856 and purchased the claim of Daniel Grey. Taylor was a native of Kentucky and became here a prominent citizen, being postmaster for many years. He also engaged in farming and in the hotel and milling business. The first birth and the first death in the township was that of William M. Smithson, born May 20, 1856 and died May 31, 1856 — the son of Thomas Smithson. The father made the casket, and C. W. Hudson, a neighbor, read the Episcopal burial service. The first marriage was that of James Gilbert and Jennie Prime, April 16, 1857.
In January, 1857, an election precinct was organized, called Buffalo, which extended to the west line of the county. The precinct was established by the board of county commissioners, and the following precinct officers appointed: Judges of Election, Amasa Ackley, Moses Calkins and Levi B. Culver; Justice of the Peace, G. A. J. Overton; Constable, A. Ackley; and Overseer of Roads, Moses S. Calkins. The township was organized and the first election held on May 11, 1858, at which the following officers were chosen: Supervisors, Jackson Taylor, Amasa Ackley and Moses S. Calkins; Town Clerk, J. M. Keeler; Justices of the Peace, David S. Calkins and J. M. Keeler; and Assesssor, B. Ambler.
In Rockford Township Henry Liederback took a claim on Section 13 in 1856. Except for Mr. Liederback, the land from Rockford Village to Buffalo Village remained unclaimed in that year.
The 1915 Wright County History presents a detailed account of the life style of these earliest settlers. The settlement which began in 1855 was very small. They tended to locate in clustered areas with often long distances separating them from the next cluster. The settlers had to clear the dense forest. They had no saws and so had to use axes to chop down the large trees. Since there was no market for the lumber, the trees were piled up and burned. It would take two men nearly a year to clear two acres of forest. The dense forests collected pools of water, which were breeding grounds for mosquitos. One account claimed the in- sects were so thick that they were known to suffocate an ox or horse. As the forests were cleared the mosquito problem was relieved somewhat, but it was one reason a number of early families left the area.
Oxen had been used to bring the earliest families to the area because horses were extremely expensive and unavailable. Although oxen were strong, they were extremely unintelligent, headstrong, untrainable and limited in the extent they could help at a farm. Only a very few oxen were owned by the earliest settlers, and the man who owned a pair was a very popular neighbor.
The settlers constructed crude log shacks, which averaged about 12 by 20 feet in size, and had roofs of elm bark which leaked whenever it rained. The chimneys were made of wood and lined with clay to keep them from burning. They were wide at the bottom (about six feet square) and narrow at the top (about three feet square). Chimney fires were common in the early days until the wooden chimneys were replaced by stone and mortar chimneys.
The early settlers were very poor. Although the land was cheap, the tools and other necessary articles were very expensive. The cost of shipping their produce to market was prohibitive and so profit was nearly nonexistent. Aside from a little pork and beef, most the meat was wild game which luckily was plentiful. Fish also was very abundant. (WrCoHist, 1915, p. 205-209)
The village of Buffalo was platted on December 27, 1856 by Amasa Ackley, George A. J. Overton, Moses A. Calkins, and William J. Feuseca. It was surveyed and recorded in the County Records in January, 1857. Almost all of the old settlers had a street named after them: Taylor, Dudley, Overton, Grey, Calkins, Ackley, Morgan, Blakeley, Stevens, Odell, Keeler. The north and south streets were named for trees: Cedar, Hackelberry, Butternut, Ash, Elm, Maple.
George Overton sold his interest in the village site to Jackson Taylor and Moses Calkins in June, 1857. Mr. Ackley sold 3/12 of the town site to C. L. Miller in June, 1857. Samuel E. Adams appears on numerous early land records but he was not a significant factor in the village history. He was a speculator whose primary interests were in Monticello.
The village remained a small, struggling, isolated place for a number of years. Although the farming land was quickly settled between 1855 and 1857, the financial crash in the fall of 1857 left the settlers with no market for the few crops they could sell. Many claims were abandoned during 1858, 1859, and 1860. However, ginseng grew wild in this area, and in 1859 Colonel Robert Blaine arrived, ready to pay cash for the roots. Men, women and children turned their attention to digging up the roots. With the accumulated cash, the settlers were able to pay up old debts, clear up mortgages, pay for their land, and in everything were prosperous and happy. (WrCoHist, 1915, p. 217) In Buffalo the ginseng drying sheds were located on the Buffalo Lake shore, almost exactly where the Sturges house now stands.
On September 3, 1861 Jackson Taylor, of Buffalo, presented a petition to the county commissioners asking that the county seat be transferred to Buffalo. The vote on the question came up in the fall and was defeated. In 1867, the state legislature passed a bill ordering that the question be put before the people in the fall election. This time the vote was in favor of moving the county seat to Buffalo for three reasons. The population was more generally distributed in the county than it was earlier; Jackson Taylor personally canvased the county, visiting nearly every voter. And last, but not least, Clearwater and Monticello were in competition for a county bridge across the Mississippi River. Jackson Taylor, as Buffalo’s County Commissioner, promised his vote to Clearwater in exchange for their vote on the county seat. Becoming the county seat spurred the growth of the village. Numerous new businesses and homes were built. In 1882 the town lay clustered aIong the lake shore. Everything beyond the Court House and the Presbyterian Church was still a deep forest.
The next spur to growth was the arrivaI of the railroad late in 1886. The first train to run from Minneapolis through Buffalo was in January, 1887. With the advent of the railroad, people began to arrive, new buildings went up on every hand, new businesses were opened up, and there was life and energy everywhere. In July of that year, the village was incorporated, and its official history began.
Buffalo owes its existence to the two lakes, Buffalo and Pulaski. They drew the earliest settlers, provided food, ice, and recreation for the past 150 years, drew tourists in our resort days, and still today contribute greatly to our quality-of-life, pride and even “notoriety” as a community.
An article in the “Buffalo Journal,” April 29, 1891, gave a detailed description of our lakes. “Buffalo Lake is a pretty lake with high banks surrounding it. It outlets through the Crow River into the Mississippi and has been famous for its inexhaustible supply of fish. The lake is nearly circular in form and is about three miles in diameter and its waters were once described as deep, pure and clear. lnlets to the lake are from Mill Creek, which flows out of Ramsey and Lightfoot Lakes and from Willow Creek, which drains from the area northeast of the lake. The lake was named by the Indian traders on account of the large numbers of buffalo fish found in its waters. A few rods south of Buffalo Lake and connected with it at Olson’s Point is Mink Lake (once called Pickeral Lake). This little lake is surrounded by agricultural land. About one mile to the southwest lies Deer Lake. To the southeast is Lake Mary which connects directly to the Crow River via Frederick Creek. To the northwest one mile is Lightfoot Lake, surrounded by high, precipitous bluffs. This is a very deep lake and noted for its big fish. And finally on the north edge of the town is the gem of all the lakes, Lake Pulaski, which has neither outlet nor inlet but is a spring fed lake and as a consequence its waters are pure, clear and cold and while it is a deep lake yet it is an easy matter to look down through the water and see the fish and other water animals and reptiles swimming and crawling on the bottom. It has clean, gravelly and sandy shores and is surrounded by homes.”
Resorts on both Pulaski and Buffalo Lakes once brought hundreds of people to our town each summer. From about 1890 through 1920 the summer population nearly doubled that found here in the winter. The summer trains would arrive filled with passengers and went on west from this point nearly empty. World War I travel restrictions and then a succession of cold and rainy summers gave a lethal blow to Buffalo’s resort industry. When people were again ready to make summer plans in the mid-1920s, improved roads and train service to resort lakes farther west and north shifted the location of popular summer resorts, and Buffalo’s resorts were forgotten.
At one time Buffalo Lake was a major natural resource for some local businessmen. Fish were harvested and sent by the ton to Minneapolis. In June, 1890 the “Buffalo Journal” reported shipments of 200 to 500 pounds of fresh fish each day from Buffalo. For a time it was feared that the fish supply would be severely damaged, and a petition was presented to this county’s congressional delegation by J. H. Miller and 70 others requesting a special law passed to prevent the catching of fish in any lake or stream in this county for market and to make it unlawful for railroads to ship the fish. That request was not acted on. In January and February, 1900 the local meat dealer, Mr. Woolley, shipped 9,885 pounds of fish to Minneapolis. The ice industry also cut tons of ice from the lakes, some of which was shipped to the cities.
Schmidt Lake, located five miles east of Buffalo, at one time was the site of a natural curiosity. An island on that lake, near the home of Trougott Schmidt, was once the home to thousands of cranes. There were said to be but two such places in Minnesota, one at Minnetonka and the other near Buffalo. The island at one time was completely surrounded by water and could be reached only by means of a boat. But by 1901 the lake had dried up enough that the place was easily accessible to people on foot. There were about 60 trees on the island, each tree contained from 8 to 12 nests, and each nest contained four or five eggs. That meant about 2000 young cranes were hatched there each season. As the lake levels lowered, people began to invade that natural bird reserve, and eventually the cranes found other nesting sites. (BJ, May 3, 1901)
Water levels have long been a concern for Buffalo citizens. As early as February, 1891 a bill was presented to the state legislature to allow the village council to raise the water level in Buffalo Lake. (BJ, February 28, 1891) This bit of humor appeared in the local newspaper in 1895 — “There has been talk of draining Gilchrist Lake, but farmers around there are now generally opposed to the scheme. They say if it is allowed to remain, the county officials will soon have it filled with shot, and it will be valuable as a lead mine. We also understand that McGaffey, our hardware man, claims that the lake is worth a good round sum to him. He furnishes the shot. The ducks don’t mind it, in fact they have become used to the daily bombardment and none of them ever get hit.” (BJ, September 4, 1895)
In 1933 the low level of Lake Minnetonka became a concern for our citizens. A conservation project which would provide work for Hennepin County labor, maintain Minnetonka Lake levels, and keep water flowing over historic Minnehaha Falls was under consideration by house and senate committees of the legislature. The bill would construct a canal 15 miles long from the Crow River to Lake Minnetonka at an estimated cost of $250,000. Buffalo and the river communities of Delano, Hanover, Rockford and Watertown united to fight the project. When a bill passed the Minneapolis Council requiring milk sold in Minneapolis must be processed in Minneapolis, the Wright County cry was, “If you don’t want our milk, you can’t have our water.”
In 1944 and 1945 the water level at Buffalo Lake was so high that all the beaches were under water, and the water reached the edge of the highways around the lake and did extensive damage to the highways. The high water drowned out the acres of rushes that used to dot the lake. Local citizens were sure that altering the dam at Deer Lake would alleviate the problem and petitioned the Minnesota Water Resources Commission to change the dam level. (BJ, July 5, 1945)
The rise of the water level at Lake Pulaski has been a problem for various lake shore residents since the early 1970s. At first the problem was blamed on a heavy snow or rainfall, but over the last fifteen years the situation grew from a few wet basements to dozens of homes severely damaged by the water. Finally, after numerous meetings and hearings — involving the home owners, the city, the township, the county, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the Army Corps of Engineers — an agreement was made for funding the Lake PuIaski Stabilization Project in the fall of 1986. The project was to cost $1.4 million, $346,125 to be borne by the citizens living on the lake. The project called for pumping water from Pulaski, if the lake level was above 966 feet above sea level and if Buffalo lake is 915.5 feet or lower, through the city sewer system to Buffalo Lake, which naturally overflows to the Crow River. Improvements to the city’s storm sewer system began in September, 1986, and the pumping began in February, 1987. The pumps are located at Griffing Park on Pulaski and can pump 8000 gallons per minute; and the sewers empty into Buffalo Lake just west of the Court House. Within just a few months the water levels were brought down to the project’s goal, and now cleanup of beaches and repairs to property have begun.