Make or Break Before a State

Make or Break Before a State


Early towns that were established in Brown County and survived

In past issues, we looked at the city of Columbia, the first “sooner” town in what would become Brown County, and the fate of other sooner towns who gambled on the railroad and lost, quickly fading into history. Aberdeen was established in 1881, and has since grown to be the third largest city in South Dakota. In this story, we’ll learn about other early towns in Brown County that sprang up along the various railroad paths, before South Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889, and still exist today.


At its beginning, Bath was actually bigger than Aberdeen. The train grade reached this site in the fall of 1880, at which time the town was laid out. In May 1881, a post office was commissioned, and by June 1881, the actual rails were laid in Bath. The first building, Raymo’s Hotel, was built two months later. Shortly thereafter, the city boasted two general stores, a bakery, a school, a boarding house, and a depot. A newspaper, the James Valley Post, was published for just that year.

The first wagon bridge was built over the James River and in operation by January 1882. Drought and resulting poor crops from 1883-1886 did affect Bath, but the town survived. By 1886, the city had a third general store, a large livery stable, a doctor’s office, drug and hardware stores, and had added a third story to the hotel. By 1889, it had a blacksmith shop, an elevator, a feed and flour mill, and a lumberyard. Bath had its heyday in the early 1900s. In June 1944, a tornado swept through the community, damaging all but two of the 22 homes. Bath is located six miles east of Aberdeen.


This site was picked as a townsite on June 28, 1880. A post office was opened on June 9, 1881, and the Milwaukee Road tracks reached the town in the fall of 1881. Again, like Bath, Warner was bigger than Aberdeen for a short time. It rapidly became an economic hub with a depot, bank, two churches, three general stores, two doctors, a school, a butcher shop, barbershop, poolroom, a blacksmith shop, a dressmaker shop, furniture shop and factory, hardware store, a theatre, lumberyard, livery stable, a dray and transfer operation, and four elevators! By 1883, it had begun publishing The Warner Sun, a newspaper that lasted until 1890, when the editor moved to the rapidly growing town of Aberdeen.

Warner managed to survive the drought years of 1883-1886, but ran into tough times. As Aberdeen grew into the “railroad Hub City,” so did it draw people from the surrounding area. A fire around 1913 destroyed the Brown Hotel, Fowler Hotel (where three people perished), the livery stable, a dance hall, the new schoolhouse, an elevator, and many other buildings. The “Dirty Thirties” also took its toll on the town. Today, Warner is a great little community south of Aberdeen.


The land where the town now sits was bought in November 1880 by a man from New England named C.H. Prior, and settlement began. The Milwaukee Road tracks reached the site five months earlier in June 1880. Prior surveyed the town and recorded the plat on July 6, 1881, and a week later the seventh post office in the county was commissioned here on July 13, 1881. By the end of September that year, nine businesses and two newspapers were up and running. Before other rail lines came into the area by the end of 1881, Groton for that very short time was known as the world’s largest shipping point for wheat.

By 1883, the population reached 410 people, and officials were elected to fill a variety of city management positions that included three overseeing trusties. Bonds were sold to drill an artesian well and construct a water system, which they did, but over time they became a liability to the city. In 1885, two three-story buildings were built on the north side of the city by the Presbyterian Church, and were operated as a college known as the “Groton Collegiate.” It closed in 1889, and the classroom buildings, a chapel, and a building used as a dormitory were all moved to Huron.

In 1888, the Groton city government was reorganized into the mayoral style of government. A fire in the early 1900s wiped out a large section of Main Street, and new brick structures were built in the void. The “great land boom” after 1900 transformed Groton into a boom city overwhelmed by trains.

By 1910, the city was a sight to behold. There were, believe it or not, three banks, five insurance agencies, seven elevators, three lumberyards, five grain dealers, four livery stables, four general stores, three grocery stores, four restaurants, two hotels, three blacksmiths, two butcher shops, two newspapers, three farm implement dealers, three harness dealers, two furniture stores, four physicians, two dentists, two druggists, three jewelers, three lawyers, three real estate agents, three draymen, two machinists, three barbers, two theaters, three saloons, two rooming houses, a boarding house, two music teachers, two paint dealers, two contractors, two milliners, two dressmakers, an automobile dealer, an oil dealer, a hardware store, a notary public, a nurse, a novelties store, a feed barn, a cigar factory, a well driller, a veterinarian, a clothing store, a shoe store, a telephone company, a plumber, a cement block factory, and last but not least a photographer!

But the hard times of the 1930s took its toll, and many of these businesses closed or combined. Since then, Groton has rebounded and continues to grow slowly. This is a bustling small community 20 miles east of Aberdeen.


In 1882, an immigrant from Ireland named John Mansfield platted the town of Mansfield on land he had bought, and sold lots for $25 each. The land straddled two counties, and was first developed on the Brown County side. By 1904, the town had some small homes, two general stores, a depot, a saloon, a blacksmith shop, and a unique elevator built long and low, not high, and powered by a blind horse. That same year, the town expanded into Spink County, and by 1910, it had added three more elevators, a broom factory, and a nursery. The first area telephone company, the Mansfield-Scatterwood-Coop, was headquartered in Mansfield and served a large three-county area until the 1940s, when it was bought out by Northwestern Bell. Many businesses were lost in a fire in 1910, and those that weren’t closed shortly after. This quiet town still exists south of Aberdeen.


This townsite was platted on June 28, 1880, and the first train from Aberdeen arrived in 1881. On May 22, 1882, a post office was established. The town streets were laid out parallel to the tracks for ease of access, and the community grew rapidly. Despite the drought years of 1883-1886, by 1887 the town boasted a hardware store, a hotel, a confectionery, four general stores, a lumberyard, and a blacksmith shop. The town continued to grow slowly until the 1920s, when due to its close proximity to Aberdeen, it began to steadily decline. Today it still has a small, but dedicated, community population.


When the first Chicago Milwaukee train arrived from Aberdeen on this spot in September 1881, the city of Frederick was staked out. The town was named by the railroad for one of their land agents, Kustaa Frederick Bergstadius, who was from Finland. By January 1882, two buildings were constructed: a shanty home and another that was intended to be a home, but became the town’s first hotel. On March 3, 1882, a post office was opened, and three days later the first newspaper, The Free Press, was distributed.

Between March 1882 and the end of that year, a general store with an upstairs hotel was built. A bank opened. There were 27 buildings that included one barber shop, two saloons, one tailor shop, two attorneys, one general store, four land and loan offices, a blacksmith shop, two lumberyards, three hotels, two hardware stores, and three livery stables. In 1883, two doctors, an attorney, a drugstore, and another hotel came to the community. In 1884, a volunteer fire department was established, as well as a big industrial flour mill that was an important area business for many years. Again, the 1930s took its toll on the city, resulting in a number of businesses closing. The town still goes on north of Aberdeen.


In 1881, Cyrus Spurr, a blacksmith from Minnesota, loaded his equipment into a wagon and settled at a spot one mile north of present-day Houghton. He also built a creamery close to the office home of a manager for a stage line that stopped in this area. In 1886, when the rail line reached the spot one mile south and a town was platted, Spurr moved his buildings to this new site and opened the first general store and post office. In 1889, when townships were established, Houghton was split right down the middle by two townships, Shelby and Lansing. The town soon had a hotel, a depot, lumberyard, bank, drugstore, and a doctor. By the 1920s, there were 19 businesses. Over the years, the famous reporter and author Ernie Pyle visited his relatives who lived one mile east of the community. Teddy Roosevelt came by special train to hunt ducks at Sand Lake, and past SD Governor Ralph Herseth lived a few miles west. Houghton still hosts visitors during hunting seasons.


The town of Hecla was named by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and was platted on July 2, 1886. This area was well settled by this time, so the town grew quickly. As soon as word of a town leaked out, a depot, and then a restaurant, were built. The city was granted a post office later that year on November 26, 1886. In 1887, a physician moved to Hecla, and along with men of the community, battled a typhoid epidemic that year. The men kept four livery teams available for the doctor to use anytime night or day, and as a result, the doctor lost only two people from over 300 who had contracted the disease.

In 1903, a law office was opened, and in 1904 cement sidewalks eight feet wide were poured along Main Street. In addition, two chemical fire wagons were brought in for the fire department. By 1910, Hecla had two artesian wells in use by the city, and a city electrical company. In September 1922, four businesses were lost to fire, and 14 days later, nine more were also lost to fire. Some of these businesses were not replaced. In the 1960s the largest building in town, the Union Building, and three others burnt to the ground, and in the 1970s the largest elevator was destroyed by fire. Hecla is located northeast of Aberdeen near the north end of the Sand Lake Refuge, and remains active and stable.


Toward the end of 1886, a rail line was built by the St.Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad from North Dakota to Aberdeen. A city named after Claremont, New Hampshire, was established by railroad officials that year. Typical of railroad platted towns, the streets ran parallel to the tracks. The first buildings in town were moved in from Detroit, seven miles northwest, which did not obtain rail connection (see next issue). The first trains actually came through in the spring of 1887.

The town grew rapidly during 1887. They received a post office on March 19 of that year, and in 1888 the town had a bank, a hotel, two general stores, two lumberyards, a weekly newspaper, two grocery stores, a dry goods store, two hardware stores, a meat market, a restaurant, a livery stable, an insurance office, a drug store, a real estate office, a blacksmith shop, a physician, Dr. Willard E. Densmore, a harness maker, a lawyer, and two implement dealerships. Claremont thrived, but then suffered through the Depression, and like many small communities lost its newspaper, doctor, and many businesses. It is located northeast of Aberdeen.


In 1886, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad laid track between the cities of Doland and Groton, and the city of Verdon was platted. The town was named by a railroad official’s wife who was French. A post office was established on June 14, 1887, and by 1888 the city had four general stores, two livery stables, a real estate office, a hotel, a confectionery, a restaurant, a meat market, a harness maker’s shop, and a newspaper, The Verdon Times. When Verdon reached its peak in growth, the town had five elevators and 26 other businesses. The town’s demise started in 1906 when it declined to make a bonus payment to the Minneapolis and St.Louis Railroad for putting an east-west line through town. The track was then run west through Conde, south of Verdon. Verdon is most famous for its opera house. It was built in 1916 by area residents buying stocks in it for $25 per share. It is no longer there. Verdon is south of Groton.


Ferney was platted on October 30, 1886, a few months after Verdon, and its name is also French, having been named by the same woman who named Verdon. The trains started running in the spring of 1887, and a post office was established in a new general store in August of that year. Ferney grew slowly, and by 1900 had a bank, a flour and feed mill, two barber shops, two contracting firms, a poolroom, a blacksmith shop, a dray line, three elevators, two general stores, a hotel, a hardware store, a meat market, a harness dealer, a livery stable, a restaurant, a real estate office, and two saloons. The town was always known as a “liquor/party town” for it, along with the town of James (see next issue), were the last two places to close during the prohibition years, and the first two to reopen. Apparently they had a statewide option for towns to be dry by community vote, so when the surrounding towns all voted to be dry, Ferney stayed “wet” and the Ferney saloons were thriving with business. As a result, the Ferney jail was also very busy during these years of prohibition, especially during the summer months, when transients from all over would flock there to drink and have a good time.

Stay tuned for our next issue, where we’ll discuss the towns in Brown County that came to be after 1889. Some are still going today, while some are gone forever. // – Mike McCafferty