Early History of Le Sueur County and Le Center, the courthouse town
Written by the late County Historian John Zimmerman (1922-2008)
In 1853, the territorial legislature of Minnesota passed an act establishing a number of counties along the Minnesota River, Le Sueur County was among them. The earliest settlements in Le Sueur County took place along the river which, as a navigable stream, provided European man with a highway into this part of the Minnesota Territory.
The first towns established in Le Sueur County or what was to become Le Sueur County, were established, platted and built along the Minnesota River. They were Le Sueur, Ottawa, and Kasota – Kasota being the earliest.
During the 1850s, the Minnesota territory began to receive large numbers of immigrants from the east, both native-born and foreigners coming to this county for land. Shortly after the beginning of settlement along the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota, these people began to take up lands away from the river. By the end of the 1850s, most of the towns that we have in Le Sueur County today had been established. The first three: Le Sueur, Ottawa, and Kasota, along the river, but also Cleveland, a few miles inland, Waterville and Elysian, were established in 1857. Cordova, Kilkenny, Lexington, Montgomery and New Prague had seen their beginnings as well.
The center of the county, however, was without settlement of any size. People living in the center of the county were isolated from markets, from mail service, from schools and from the facilities that made commercial life possible.
The roads that connected the various towns in the county to each other and to the river communities were hardly more than muddy tracks through the woods. All of Le Sueur County was covered with what was known as the “Big Woods” – a very large tract of deciduous hardwood timber that stood between the prairies of the southwest and the pine forests of the northeast in Minnesota. The soil was black, heavy and, when wet, sticky. The soil (the land) was what brought the settlers to the county and was their inducement for spending their lives working in the woods far from any population center.
Le Sueur was the first town of any size and it was designated by the legislature as the county seat. It stands in the northwest corner of the county and the result was that most of the people living in the county, especially those living inland, had a hard time getting to the county seat for necessary business, to pay taxes, to serve on juries, to attend court, to register land sales and to trade with the various purveyors of services.
The roads were terrible. If you lived in the southeastern quarter of the county you had a long and very hard journey to get to the county seat. The county was then crossed by a number of pioneer roads. Among them, Dodd Road, which ran from the St. Peter area to Cleveland, Cordova, and then to Kilkenny and on to the east into Rice County and Shieldsville. Another important road for residents of Le Sueur County was the Wheeler Road, which extended between Waterville and the Le Sueur area. It crossed the county diagonally from the southeast to the northwest and was a very difficult road. It traveled from Waterville to Chehalis, to Cordova to Union Center Station and on into Le Sueur. In the spring or during wet weather, it was all coachmen could do to make this trip in a day. It was a “horse killer,” and was a misery for everyone; the driver the passengers, and the horses.
Before long a climate of opinion arose to the effect that the county seat should be relocated. At first there was an attempt by the Cleveland community to acquire it. A referendum was held in Cleveland, in which Cleveland received the largest number of votes, but according to the court, there were certain informalities in the counting of the ballots and the election was thrown out. The county seat remained in Le Sueur.
Again Cleveland tried and for a short time in 1875, they held the county seat. The county offices were housed temporarily in an unused church. The county seat was then returned to Le Sueur.
A number of businessmen, led by L.Z. Rogers of Waterville, undertook to make possible the location of the county seat near the center of the county by acquiring a tract of 160 acres at what is now Le Center and platted it. They offered the use of a newly constructed two story brick building to the county board for use as a courthouse if a referendum of the people of the county agreed to allow the moving of the county seat to this new location, which they chose to call Le Sueur Center. The referendum was held and passed. The county offices were moved to the new location in 1876 and the county seat has remained there ever since.
The county officers now found themselves housed in a building and on property belonging to a private land company. After several years, the county board, having had to build a jail, a sheriff’s residence, and a stable for the sheriff’s horses, found it necessary to acquire the land, which we now call the courthouse park where the present courthouse stands.
A deal was struck with the Le Sueur Center Land Company agreeing that the county should pay the land company $5,000 plus the title to the county poor farm located on the east side of Lake Volney (a total of 160 acres of land) in exchange for the title to the block that the courthouse stands on today.
The relocation of the county seat had the effect of dividing the journey to the county seat as equally as possible between the residents of the various portions of the county. This was as good as a compromise in locating the county seat as was possible.
Le Sueur Center was now considered, what is known in the south, as a “courthouse town.” It was still by no means a commercial center, but there quickly grew up a number of businesses which catered to the needs of travelers visiting to the county seat. There were hotels, restaurants, blacksmith shops, liveries, saloons, general stores, and the homes of the various county officers who had moved their families to the new county seat. However, it was still necessary for the farmers in the area around the new town of Le Sueur Center to continue to take their produce and livestock to other towns on the borders of the county.
By the 1870s, Le Sueur County had entered the age of the railroad. In the late fall of 1867, just two years after the close of the Civil War, the first railroad entered Le Sueur County from the north in the Minnesota Valley and arrived in Le Sueur. It continued south through Kasota, to the Mankato area and on to St. James. A few years later, in 1876, the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad was built from north to south through the eastern portion of the county passing through New Prague, Montgomery, Kilkenny, and Waterville. The railroad provided rapid transportation for the farmers’ grain and livestock which could be sent to market in the Twin City area. This left the farmers of Le Sueur Center area at relatively the same disadvantage they had always suffered in that they were as far as possible from transportation. This had also been true in the days of the steamboat trade when the steamboat was rapid transit for freight, passengers, express and mail. It was now true with the railways running down the east and west sides of the county, but not through or anywhere near the center of the county.
For this reason, Le Sueur Center remained a small, residential community until the turn of the 20th Century when finally a railroad was built. In 1903, the Milwaukee Railroad Company built a branch line, which passed through Le Sueur Center. Suddenly the town was easily accessible. The railway also brought the telegraph. You could now get on a train on the east or western sides of the county and make connections with this cross country railway which met the St. Louis Railroad at Montgomery and the Omaha Railroad (or the Minnesota Valley Railway) at Kasota and come directly to Le Sueur Center. There were two passenger trains each way, each day, as well as a large number of freights and specials. The town suddenly began to grow.
In the first decade after the coming of the railway, much of the large, permanent construction took place in the business district of Le Sueur Center. Banks were established, a stockyard was built and farmers’ produce could be rapidly sent to market from Le Sueur Center. What had been the isolation and disadvantage of the Le Sueur Center area now became a great advantage in promoting the growth of the town.
When the railway came through, Le Sueur Center was able to seize almost the whole of the center of the county as a trade area. It acquired a larger trade area than many of the other, earlier established communities.
With the stimulus of public business at the courthouse, banking, transportation, establishment of various church denominations in town, the building of a large public school in 1903 and the beginning of road construction as we know it today, Le Sueur Center suddenly began to come into its own. Over the course of about 20 years, it acquired the major outlines of the town, Le Center, which we know today.