Traveling down the Yellowstone Trail
Carver County Historical Society column by Wendy Peterson-Biorn
This week, a birthday card arrived from my mother. Across the top she wrote, “Happy 52nd Birthday.”
I called her up to thank her for the card and mentioned that she could have just said Happy Birthday. The number seemed rather large. Her comment was priceless, “Well, how do you think it makes me feel to have a daughter that old.”
She had a point. There isn’t a year that passes where some historic event or place celebrates a birthday. Please, no jokes about me being historic.
The Yellowstone Trail celebrates its 100th birthday this year. The trail is not history making because it was the first road in Carver County. That honor falls to an 1855 road in Dahlgren. The Yellowstone Trail is historic because it was created through a grass roots effort, and rather than poor disconnected roads, the Yellowstone Trail was the first “good road” connecting the east coast to the west coast. The fact that it passes through Carver County literally put us on the map.
To fully appreciate the size and scope of this grass roots effort, one must travel back in time. Prior to the use of cars, the main method of transportation was the horse and later the train. In 1903, Carver County was home to at least two cars, one owned by George DuToit and the other by John Maetzold.
Within a few years, cars were the preferred method of transportation. The problem, however, was that there were few, if any, paved roads. The roads that existed were plagued with potholes, mud and ruts, and few connected with another. Routes marked by the Government were nonexistent.
The Yellowstone Trail was a brain storm of J.W. Parmley of Ipswitch, S.D., in 1912. Parmley became frustrated by getting stuck in mud on the 25 mile drive between Ipswitch and Aberdeen, S.D.
His solution was simple and practical. Provide a connection of good roads between counties. Parmley’s efforts to build a road quickly caught on, with the Yellowstone Trail Association (YTA) being formed in October of 1912.
The YTA located the most promising road in each county, and connected it to roads in the next county. Federal aid to build roads was either nonexistent or in its infancy. The YTA solved the money problem, by lobbying local membership bases for improvements. Members promoted the road to communities as a method of increasing tourism and building businesses.
Membership in the association was offered to “delegates” in communities along the route. It was the job of delegates to lobby for money through local “assessments.” They would also mark the trail with yellow rocks, or the official Yellowstone Trail signs and distribute maps. The assessments were paid by businesses to promote the community. The original dues were $25 per county and $1 per individual. Quickly, the formula changed to $50 per county, $1 per person and could range from $250 to $4,000 per city.
In Carver County, the assessment amounts were determined by the county.
One such assessment is documented in the Waconia Patriot. County Commissioners agreed to make $4,000 of improvements to the Yellowstone Trail on May 2, 1916. The amount was divided up according to the length of the trail in each community. In Carver County, the Yellowstone Trail consisted of 25 miles and was broken down as follows: Chanhassen had 3 1/2 miles, Laketown 7 miles, Waconia 7 miles, Benton 1/2 mile, and Young America 7 miles. Based on this, a resolution was passed which asked each community to contribute its fair share: Victoria $250, Young America $750, Norwood $1,000, and Waconia $1,500.
In 1917, the Yellowstone Trail was designated as one of four military highways to be used to move military troops and equipment. Not long after, in 1918, Wisconsin became the first state to number its highways. In 1926, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) began numbering highways and the Yellowstone Trail in Carver County became parts of Highways 5 and 212.
Ruts from the trail can still be seen in Carver County. The easiest place to see the original road is to park at the Waconia Event Center and walk to the east. The trail runs between the south side of the lake and Highway 5. The yellow signs marking the trail are found along Highways 5 and 212.
An excellent book for those who might like to follow the trail is The Yellowstone Trail by Alice A. Ridge and John Wm. Ridge. The book can be found in the Carver County Historical Society gift shop.