by Debbie Griffin—
When it was incorporated in 1881, North Branch consisted of 149 families in 139 homes; it was a town that had a boarding house, two grain elevators, a sawmill, a three-story flouring mill, a tin shop, four general stores, two hotels and a warehouse. As the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad companies platted through the area, towns sprouted, including North Branch, Stacy, Harris, Wyoming and Rush City.
The steam engines needed more water every 7 miles or so, and each of the towns was established near a tributary of the St. Croix River.
Area farmers grew wheat crops but sought new options after prices and insects thwarted success. After a man arrived with railroad cars full of potatoes and declared the land perfect for growing spuds, the local industry boomed until about the 1920s.
As the industry of dairy farming grew, alfalfa and corn plantings appeared where the potatoes used to be. About the same time as the farming switch, Highway 61 was built, connecting the Twin Cities to Duluth and ran parallel to the railroad much of the way.
Train ridership decreased, and the number of automobiles grew. The U.S. Postal Service began delivering mail via truck instead of train.
In 1958, the state highway department announced plans for an interstate freeway to Duluth, and 11 years later, North branch celebrated the opening of I-35 with a community ceremony.
See it on the streets
Max Malmquist, of North Branch, and other area historians agree that because wood-based construction made buildings susceptible to fire, not many of North Branch’s original buildings still stand.
He’s written four book volumes on the history of the city, “From Prairie Chickens and Potatoes … to Houses I-IV.” The author has spent about 10 years of his retirement doing research and serving on the board of the North Chisago Historical Society. He said he’s read through 100 years of newspapers – the North Branch Review and the Rush City Post – looking for nuggets of history within serious news, social gossip and personal or opinion columns.
Malmquist has combed through maps from the State Historical Society – the Sanborn-Perris fire-insurance maps – that precisely locate and describe each building including how it was heated. He paged through some 185 history and reference books, studied the various fires, analyzed railroad-plat maps, interviewed dozens of people and passed the facts through 30 different proofreaders.
He said his best source was the late Clayton Anderson, who lived to be 101 and recalled much of the city’s history from firsthand experience.
“It gives you a perspective on history,” Malmquist said about his research.
He helps point to some of the remaining reminders of North Branch’s past.
Records say that 15-20 new houses were built in 1892, known as the potato era. Two of those homes stand at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Elm Street and exemplify the front porches and column supports characterizing homes of the time. Malmquist said by the late 1890s, porch posts were narrower and more ornate.
The well-known Dr. Thomas Zeien, a local physician, surgeon and the local health inspector, built the home on the northeast corner of the intersection. Records show he paid $100 for the land.
Jonas Bergwell built the home across the street on the northwest corner of the intersection. He was an agricultural-implement dealer who paid $25 for his lot.
The red brick building at 6355 Main St., which houses Great Clips today, probably survived fire because of its uncharacteristic brick exterior. The Bank of North Branch built the structure in 1891; in 1895 it went bankrupt and reorganized as the Merchant’s State Bank. Merchant’s built a new building across the street at 6338 Main, now home to the Jennings, DeWan and Anderson law office. Malmquist said that building dates to the mid- to late 1920s.
The big fire of 1914 destroyed many of North Branch’s business structures. The newspaper proclaimed it “the most destructive fire in the history of North Branch.” The flames consumed nine businesses in a few hours, as high winds fanned the fire and a broken truck hindered firefighters.
Afterward, the village passed a law requiring the outer construction of all business buildings to be “non-wood.”
The Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church built the building at 6486 Elm St. in 1887. The congregation, now known as Trinity Lutheran Church, met at the local Krantz Store downtown to discuss building the 36-by-50 frame church.
Though the worship house had no steeple originally, the church added one in 1893. The old church is now home to the Living Branch Lutheran Church. Trinity moved its worship in 1984 to its current location, 38460 Lincoln Trail, eventually selling the old church building.
Malmquist said a few years back, North Branch won a grant to publish a historic walking tour brochure. It features and describes 24 points in town that hold a part of North Branch’s history.
It depicts the scenes of yesteryear with historical photos and describes what is on the site now. The map portion of the brochure illustrates a walking route that passes the featured spots, and it gives information about local agriculture, industry, vegetation and prominent people.
The brochure is available at the local Chamber of Commerce office and North Branch Area Library.