GRANITE FALLS — It was over a century ago that a group of business owners gathered in Ipswich, South Dakota, intent on getting a road built to help their communities grow and attract new residents.
Their effort in 1912 led to the development of the first transcontinental highway through the northern tier of states, and became known as the Yellowstone Trail. The 3,600-mile trail connected Plymouth Rock on the Atlantic Ocean to Puget Sound on the Pacific. Arrows on canary yellow signs along the route pointed the way to Yellowstone National Park, the prime destination for the route.
Just a week ago, a group of civic boosters from Ortonville to Waconia gathered in Granite Falls, intent on once again promoting the Yellowstone Trail for the very same reasons. They’re looking to help their communities grow by promoting tourism and by using the trail to introduce new people to their communities.
“I was struck by that too,” said Jim Roe, of Jim Roe Museum Planning, St. Paul, of how much the goals of those who gathered in 2021 matched those of that original group.
Unlike their counterparts of over a century ago, today’s civic boosters have the infrastructure they need in place. What was once the Yellowstone Trail is U.S. Highway 212. Most of the highway follows the original trail.
Today's trail proponents still have plenty of challenges, starting with the trail itself. Roe, who has been a student of Minnesota history for more than 30 years, admitted to the group that he had not heard of the Yellowstone Trail until they went looking for a consultant.
Thanks to a state Legacy grant, members of the local Yellowstone Trail Association have contracted with Roe to help with two goals: Find ways to promote the trail as well as build the vitality of the organization, which was formed only two years ago. Its current membership primarily includes communities along Highway 212 in western Minnesota. They would like to reach out to the metro area and east to Wisconsin to build a stronger alliance.
Most of all, they want to encourage visitors to explore the trail and discover its history. The idea has some legs. Wendy Peterson Bjorn, director of the Carver County Historical Society in Waconia, told Roe that her history center regularly sees visitors who are interested in the trail’s history. Many leave with a copy of Alice and John Ridge’s book about the Yellowstone Trail, she said.
“It’s small, but it’s there,” said Peterson Bjorn of those who purposely follow the trail to learn its history.
Members of the association believe they can increase the numbers of people visiting the trail communities by getting out the word about the interesting history waiting to be discovered. In this area, the story of Michael Dowling is central to it. He was perhaps the trail’s best-known and most influential proponent for its development.
Dowling lost his legs, left arm and fingers on his right hand to frostbite when stranded in a blizzard as a boy in western Yellow Medicine County. He persevered to become a school principal in Granite Falls and Olivia, a newspaper publisher and a successful business owner in Olivia. He went on to serve as Speaker of the House in the Minnesota Legislature.
The trail can provide opportunities to learn so much other history as well. There's the history and modern accomplishments of the area’s Indigenous people to showcase. The story of the pioneer settlers, agriculture and the cooperative movement, Andrew Volstead and the Prohibition era, and the geology and scenery of the Minnesota River Valley: These are all assets to promote, meeting participants noted.
The communities along the trail have lots of their own individual stories to tell as well, noted Nicole Elzinga, director of the Renville County Historical Society. Trail visitors could be invited to explore a variety of themes, everything from crime and murder stories in the trail communities to the story of modern agriculture.
The trail also has a story that’s pertinent for residents of the communities along the route today, according to member Scott Tedrick, editor of the Renville Register. Tedrick is credited by the association members with being the most passionate about its history. The trail’s history of how communities joined to further their own self-interests is so important today, he explained. “(It's) very much a way to say 'here is our story as a community,'” said Tedrick.
Celeste Suter, director of the Chippewa County Historical Society, urged the members not to underestimate the appeal of what the area has to offer. She had previously worked at the Java River Cafe in downtown Montevideo. While there, she was surprised by the number of visitors to the area she met. Her eyes were opened as well by how many of them ended up making this area their home because they liked what they found.
Becky Heerdt, of Hector, is serving as president of the local trail association. Like Suter, she also believes that promoting the trail can attract new residents to the towns along its way. She’s already witnessing it in Hector, where houses are being purchased by people leaving the metropolitan area for a rural lifestyle. “Getting people to see there is value in living out there,” she said of the trail’s potential.
The group will be meeting with Roe in upcoming months to develop a plan on how to achieve all of these goals. Roe said they intend to have a master plan in place no later than October 2022.