By Amanda Schwarze
While the city of Maple Plain is turning 100 years old this year, the story of the people who came to shape the town begins well before 1912.
The early settlers faced hardships that are hard fathom today. Those men, women and children dealt with isolation, faced starvation and endured deadly diseases. Because they stuck it out and stayed in what at times was an inhospitable area, the city of Maple Plain was born.
The white settlers, of course, were not the first people to inhabit the area. Well before they arrived, American Indian tribes, mainly the Dakota, made their home around what is now Maple Plain. According to the book "1868-1968 Maple Plain and Independence Past-Present," the two groups tended to be wary of each other and had disputes over hunting and allegations of stealing. The book notes, however, that no killings took place between the groups and that at times a friendly American Indian would even leave food on the doorstep of a destitute family.
White families began settling in the Maple Plain area in the mid 1800s. Some came during the dangerous winter of 1855-1856. Amanda Johnson, the daughter of a settler, wrote in her memoirs that her father said snow came on Nov. 20 in 1855 and it stayed until the following the April.
During that winter, she wrote, the temperature was regularly 30 to 40 degrees below zero.
Families lived in small cabins filled only with necessities. Children typically slept in lofts in the cabins. According to the "Maple Plain and Independence Past-Present" book, it was not uncommon for them to find patches of snow on their beds. Once the snow was brushed off, there was still not much comfort to find in the beds, which usually had rope springs and cornhusk mattresses.
The day-to-day lives of the settlers involved long days of physical labor. Men cut down trees and gathered and burned brush to make space for crops. They used plows pulled by oxen to prepare the ground for potatoes, wheat, barley and corn. Women and children stayed at the cabins to tend to gardens with homemade tools and to look after any livestock the family might have owned. Women and children also helped with stacking hay.
These early settlers were heavily dependent on their crops. Just a few months after the winter of 1855-1856, about which Amanda Johnson wrote, a new calamity hit the area. In July of 1856 an infestation of grasshoppers began and lasted until June of 1857, according to the "Maple Plain and Independence Past-Present" book, The grasshoppers devastated the crops, which caused a real fear of starvation for many families in the area.
During the grasshopper invasion and other times of crop failures, many settlers were saved by ginseng, which is native to the state and was found to be abundant in the Maple Plain area. Families would hunt through the woods for the plant and they would receive five to six cents per pound of ginseng by buyers in Wayzata and Excelsior. The buyers would dry the roots, which were then shipped from St. Paul to China.
The support of friends and neighbors who were going through the same ordeals was likely a comfort to the early settlers, but socializing was made difficult because people lived far apart from each other. When they could get together, people celebrated with music and simple food.
Support and encouragement were in great demand during the Civil War. According to"1868-1968 Maple Plain and Independence Past-Present," between 30-40 settlers served in the war. Some of those men never returned home and many suffered severe injuries. The book notes that at one point only three able-bodied men remained in the community.
Nearly decade after the fighting ended, people in the area suffered through another tragic period. The book notes that typhoid fever took its toll on many of the area’s inhabitants from 1872-1873. According to the book, Eliza Jane Williams nursed the sick in the area until she became a victim of the disease. Typhoid fever devastated other families, such as the Crigler family where four members died leaving only the father and one son as survivors and the Gustavus Johnson where three members died.
Regardless of the harsh realities that the early settlers faced, they remained in the area. They continued to cultivate crops and open stores. Their work was the foundation of modern-day Maple Plain – a city of about 2,000 residents, many businesses and several parks that is just a short drive away from Minneapolis.
The book "1868-1968 Maple Plain and Independence Past-Present" is available for reading on the city of Maple Plain’s website at www.mapleplain.com. Click on the link on the left side of the page titled Community History to access the book.