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When wheat was king in Minnesota

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Goodhue County Historical Society
This late 1860s photograph shows barges along Red Wing's Mississippi River waterfront awaiting wheat for shipment to customers downriver.

mnopediaMinnesota’s southeastern counties held a commanding position during the second half of the nineteenth century, considered the state’s King Wheat era. In these decades, many farmers throughout the state grew wheat in preference to all other crops.

Minnesota farmers first started planting wheat during the territorial days of the early 1850s. They also cultivated corn, oats, and produce for their own use or barter, but wheat was their cash crop. By 1860, small mills scattered around the state supplied flour to local markets. The numbers of Minnesota mills grew rapidly. However, wheat farmers were producing an excess of grain that could be sold for cash and shipped to other markets. The grain brought needed money into the farmers’ hands.

Eight southeastern Minnesota counties, Houston, Winona, Fillmore, Wabasha, Olmstead, Goodhue, Rice, and Dakota, led the way in wheat production and sales in the territorial and early statehood periods. Each of those counties produced more than 100,000 bushels of wheat in 1860.

Minnesota’s southern Mississippi River towns serving these “wheat counties” became shipment centers. In 1860, Winona shipped a million bushels of wheat. Hastings shipped 600,000. Red Wing, moving up fast, exported 350,000. Orders for Minnesota wheat came from as far as St. Louis, Missouri, and Lockport, New York.

The milling industry continued to grow throughout the 1860s despite the scourge of the Civil War. By 1870, the state had 507 flour mills, most in the southeast. Goodhue County became the state leader in wheat production and shipment by 1872. Statewide, farmers grew wheat on more than 61 percent of the cultivated acreage. Goodhue County ranked first in wheat acreage at 116,977 acres. Thirteen percent of the Minnesota wheat crop that year was grown in the county. Its farmers also led in bushels produced with 2,311,674 and bushels per acre at an average of 19.76.

Red Wing held the title as the world’s largest primary wheat market in 1873. The city exported 1.8 million bushels, valued at more than two million dollars. The grain flood nearly overwhelmed the city’s one million-bushel warehouse capacity by December. Four months later the town still held 950,000 bushels of wheat, not counting grain in local mills for flour manufacture. In 1874, Goodhue County earned the label given by the Illustrated Atlas of the State of Minnesota: “the banner wheat county in America.”

With numbers like these, Red Wing bankers, merchants, lawyers, and assorted entrepreneurs turned to the lucrative grain business. The city was awash with wheat and cash. Merchant Theodore Sheldon became perhaps the city’s wealthiest man when he shifted to banking and grain buying. Newspaper owner Lucius F. Hubbard invested in flouring mills, and railroads. The speculation helped him gather great wealth before serving as a two-term Minnesota governor. City business leaders built the St. James Hotel and two lesser-known hostelries in 1875 to handle the influx of business-related customer traffic.

Wheat growers in Goodhue County and elsewhere in Minnesota found the business of grain selling challenging. Many complained that middlemen in the grain trade cheated them. They believed buyers “short weighted” farmers’ loads and improperly graded them. It was clear that wheat weigh-ins, without public scales or inspections of weights and measures, could easily be skewed against the sellers.

Red Wing grain dealer and future mayor Frank R. Sterrett gave local growers reason for suspicion in August 1870 by bragging about making a “killing” in the wheat market. To celebrate his success, Sterrett invited everyone in town to a dinner and dance. Clearly, town residents didn’t care how the businessman made the money. He served more than 600 meals to a crowd that ate more than 500 chickens.

A new class of grain trade middlemen emerged during the 1880s in the form of railroad “line operators.” Such business owners built grain storage elevators along rail lines providing farmers in remote areas a place to sell their grain. No longer did wheat growers face lengthy trips to distant river ports. Red Wing’s Theodore Sheldon’s elevator along the Duluth, Red Wing & Southern Railroad helped create the village of Goodhue. Much larger line operators in the region, including Will Cargill and Frank Peavey, soon eclipsed smaller firms such as Sheldon’s, doing business on a more statewide level.

The King Wheat era didn’t last in Minnesota’s once-booming, southeastern wheat-producing counties. A St. Paul Pioneer Press report on July 21, 1878 noted numerous samples of wheat from all parts of Goodhue County showing heavy blight. A black rust covered stalks of wheat from the head down several inches. A week later the Pioneer Press spoke of a general failure in the wheat crop in southeastern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

Minnesota wheat yields in the fall of 1878 averaged twelve bushels per acre, much lower in Goodhue and other southeastern counties. State farmers continued to produce wheat but slowly began to diversify their operations to stay profitable. Malting barley became the new cash crop and dairying grew in popularity. By 1885, Goodhue was the only remaining southeastern county among the state leaders in wheat production.

The St. Paul railroad man James J. Hill, the “Empire Builder,” provided a suitable epitaph for the King Wheat years around Red Wing. In a January 1897 address to the Minnesota Historical Society he noted that Red Wing’s status as “the largest primary wheat market in the world” had “passed away.” He added that farmers around the city “are doing other and better things.”

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