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Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post became a lot more than just a trading post

Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post opened in 1918 when new businessman Harry D. Ayer acquired a trader’s license from the White Earth Indian Agency allowing him to trade with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

historical photo of indian trading post building
Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post, ca. 1929.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post debuted its services as a general store for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in 1918. In future decades, it evolved into a center for local Ojibwe to trade and sell their art and educate visitors about Ojibwe culture.

Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post opened in 1918 when new businessman Harry D. Ayer acquired a trader’s license from the White Earth Indian Agency allowing him to trade with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. After receiving federal permission, Ayer began to trade tools, food, and clothing out of a small building he leased from the Minnesota government along Shaub-uush-kung Bay on Mille Lacs. The post operated as a general store for the Mille Lacs Band, selling or exchanging credit for essential supplies such as needles, thread, flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, bread, and vegetables. Non-essential items included snuff, candy, soda, and tobacco.

In March 1925, the federal government forced Harry and his wife, Jeanette, to vacate the building. One month later, in April, they moved three miles south along the lake to an area called Vineland Bay. Construction consumed the following months and on November 12, 1925, the trading post opened inside a newly built and permanent building that Harry and Jeanette owned themselves. Harry worked as the buyer and trader for the post, travelling to the southwestern United States to purchase or trade items to sell at his store. Jeanette supervised and ran the store with the help of day clerks.

The Mille Lacs Band highly valued the trading post. The store employed only local Ojibwe community members and operated a credit system that greatly aided locals during tough economic times. Local Ojibwe traded their cultural work and traditional harvests to pay debts owed to the store. According to the oral history of Fred Benjamin, a Mille Lacs Band member, not once was a local community member turned down; because of this, the trading post quickly gained an impressive collection of handcrafted Ojibwe art. Annual treaty payments from the Indian Service were paid out to the Ojibwe at the trading Post.

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The 1920s and 1930s brought affordable automobiles and improved roads to the area, both of which attracted tourists from the Twin Cities to northern Minnesota. The influx of visitors inspired the Ayers to expand the post’s business. In May of 1929 they added cabins (for rent) and a dining hall to the property and constructed an additional room. The extra space served as a museum for Ojibwe artwork, including beaded pieces like necklaces and earrings as well as birch bark items like toy canoes and small baskets. Other Native American artwork from Harry’s visits to southwestern states, like silver jewelry, rugs, and pottery, were also displayed in the additional room.

That same month, a small boat works (factory) was added to the property where boats of high quality were created. They were of various sizes and functions ranging from sports to leisure. The factory employed local Ojibwe men to work as laborers and as guides to visiting fishermen.

The post reached its peak year in 1937. By that time, it had evolved from a sales operation into a cultural center for art sales, trading, and education about Ojibwe life. The fishing and tourist resort was in full swing, and sales and museum visits soared.

The post enjoyed a fruitful business of art and culture over the next two decades. The boat works met its end in 1939, when it closed down after a decade in which it produced over 200 boats. The rental cabins and dining hall were dissolved in 1940. However, the trading post’s business of buying and trading Native American artwork continued to thrive. Its collection of Native American arts and crafts, as well as its legacy, grew to became not only a vital aspect of the lives of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe but also an enriching and unique contribution to Minnesota tourism and recreation in the northern lake regions.

In 1959, the post ceased to operate as an independent enterprise. The Ayers donated their collections and land to the Minnesota Historical Society, which reopened the post as an historic site in 1960.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.