This summer will mark the 150th anniversary of a Fourth of July picnic at a tiny, unplatted settlement called Tordenskjold.
While the COVID-19 crisis will cancel many Fourth of July gatherings this year, in 1870 a large gathering was seen as a very fitting event to hold at Tordenskjold. Five months earlier the Minnesota Legislature had recognized Tordenskjold as the new seat of Otter Tail County.
Fired by the opportunity to acquire free land under the Homestead Act of 1862 signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, immigrants were arriving in west-central Minnesota by ox cart. It was a time of tremendous change for Otter Tail County. In 1870 the official population of the county was only 1,968. Ten years later records show the county’s population had already increased nine times.
According to a 1916 history of Otter Tail County, penned by J.W. Mason, Tordenskjold’s ascendancy began when the city of Otter Tail, located 21 miles to the northeast, lost its bid for a railroad line. People who were interested in the formation and permanent organization of the county started to look around for another county seat. At the time the largest concentration of residents in Otter Tail County was found in the neighboring townships of St. Olaf, Tordenskjold, Tumuli and Dane Prairie.
Lien does not know exactly what attracted people to the four neighboring townships but he suspects the sawmill was one good reason.
“It was probably because of the river,” Lien said.
Mills were once plentiful in Otter Tail County because of the abundance of lakes and rivers. There were those who saw Otter Tail County becoming the greatest milling area west of Minneapolis.
Tordenskjold’s main business was a sawmill operated by the Hoff brothers, Helmer and Ole. The sawmill was built on Helmer’s farm. The Hoff’s created power for their sawmill with a dam on the Pomme de Terre River that linked Hansen Lake with Stenerson Lake.
The property where the sawmill stood is now situated along County Highway 39 on a farm owned by Harlan Lien.
Harlan’s son, Toby, presently lives in St. Paul but he has a keen interest in local history.
Lien noted that many of the families who attended the Fourth of July picnic in 1870 have descendants that still live in Otter Tail. Mason’s history of the picnic refers to men like Alleck Johnson, Knud Peterson, Christ Hansen, Peter Larsen, Tyge Tygesen, Nels Nelson and families like the Beardsleys, Hammers, Kinners, Frones, Dahls, Branvaldts, Hoffs, Ihlsengs, Juelsons, Lees, Skjordals, Bjorgos and Jensens. Exactly how many attended the picnic is not known but it was a gathering of considerable size — with a lot of good food, plenty of patriotic spirit but no long-winded speakers.
Lien has found stories that the river was more to the people of the area than just a spot for a sawmill. Just below the Tordenskjold Dam was a big swimming hole where kids would gather in the summer, many of them making the trip from Dalton, 3 miles away.
History records the distinction of being one of Minnesota’s county seats was short-lived for the settlement. The Legislature had recognized the city of Otter Tail as the first county seat in 1858 when Minnesota gained statehood. A new legislative body took the distinction away from Tordenskjold in 1871 because the residents of the county had not been given a chance to vote on the question. It slipped away from Otter Tail in 1872 when the Legislature moved the county seat to Fergus Falls.
During its brief time in the spotlight Tordenskjold functioned as a county seat. The county commissioners held eight meetings at Tordenskjold. At an Oct. 18 meeting a resolution was offered and approved to build a courthouse and a jail, at a cost not to exceed $1,000.
Time has erased all man-made remnants of Tordenskjold. A small statue near the Lien farm is now the only landmark that commemorates Tordenskjold’s historical importance in Otter Tail County.