Tumbleweeds. Creaking doors. Luminescence on the stairway.

Spooky, right? What if someone told you Hollywood and San Francisco no longer exist? Apocalyptic?

Head west from the Twin Cities and you’ll find the answers in more than a dozen places in Carver County. You’ll also find remnants, wind and whispers.

Whimsical decisions were not on the agenda for early Carver County settlers.

The cost of getting to Carver County from Saint Paul by boat in the 19th Century? One dollar. According to one internet inflation calculator, that $1 would be worth $17.67 today. That dollar also represented what was left of early settler journeys that often started across the Atlantic Ocean, then involved trekking from the East Coast to what would become Minnesota. Much of this was before railroads and steamboats, so once you were committed there was no turning back.

Miles Jewell, Curator of Education and Exhibits for the Carver County Historical Society, gives a flavor of early settlers’ lives and what happened to some of Carver County’s Ghost Towns.

 

Life in pioneer-era Minnesota was not the stuff of pastoral, cinematic dreams – in fact, it could be downright rough and tumble. And there were countless reasons why a seemingly burgeoning town might fail, pushing residents onward in their quest for a foothold.

Even the height of romance in 19th Century Carver County looked a little different than it does today. What’s the special something you could possess that would turn the head of your dearly beloved? In addition to having made all of their furniture by hand, the deal was sealed for one newlywed couple due to the groom’s ownership of a cast-iron stove, as opposed to a makeshift fireplace carved out of the cabin’s wall.

One early settler decided to hire himself out to a farmer in Lakeville, about 50 miles away. Miles Jewell tells us, “He walked out to this farmer and worked for about two months. At the end of the two months, the farmer was poor and had no money to pay him. So he gave him a cow. The settler walked the cow 50 miles back to Carver County. His wife remarked, ‘You did very well. You could have worked an entire year in Sweden just to get that cow!’”

William Foster, erstwhile founder of San Francisco, Minn., got his affairs in order after the flood that ruined his dreams and moved his family back to California. One more note on Foster: Before venturing to Minnesota, he was a member of the infamous Donner Party of the 1840s, in case you need a real dose of macabre.

From 1850 until 1898, Swedish-American horticulturalist Andrew Peterson kept a diary, chronicling his life in Minnesota in sterling detail – and those diaries survive, including translations, and form the basis of author Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants series, which were turned into a film by Swedish director Jan Troell, starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. The 1971 film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film in 1971, as well as Best Picture in 1972. “Moberg is a wonderful author, very gifted. He picked some of the best passages out of Andrew Peterson’s diary, for sure. You can see a lot of the early history of Carver County and other Swedish communities here in Minnesota,” Miles says.

These are just a few of the stories. Indeed, there were many successes, too. “You’ll find a lot more interesting stories from the past. Some of these ghost towns – there are still remnants. Have a fun adventure looking for some of these places,” Miles suggests.

As far as tumbleweeds go, you won’t find many in Carver County. The creaking door? Maybe it simply needs a little grease. The luminescence on the stairway? Miles says, “I haven’t personally seen any ghosts. Not to say there aren’t any!”

Some places to start exploring:

Carver County Historical Society website

Andrew Peterson Farm – be respectful, people still live there; check ahead with the CCHS. The Scandia Cemetery is nearby and still maintained by Swedish Baptists.

If you’re looking for an outdoor escape along the Minnesota River near old San Francisco Township, head to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where you’ll find the Gehl-Mittelsted Farm.

In a similar vein, John Whitehead produced Farmhouses in the Heartland: Death of the Dream for Twin Cities PBS that was distributed nationally, about abandoned farmhouses that dot our landscape, revealing Minnesota’s agricultural history.

Sources and thanks:

Jeremy Murray, Curator of Collections, Carver County Historical Society

Minnesota Historical Society

The Emigrants movie stills: Svensk Filmindustri/Warner Brothers

Wiki Commons

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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