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A Brief History of Rothsay, Minnesota

The coming of the railroad provided Rothsay with one of its most turbulent days on record when a group of track-laying employees of the then St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway back in the late fall of 1879 decided to christen a newly opened, albeit half-finished, saloon expressly opened to whet the thirsts of those same track-layers.


Fortuitously enough for the track-layers, at least some of those thirsts were quenched. Nevertheless, a brawl soon ensued, according to the recollection of an early Rothsay area grain buyer by the name of Halvor L. Shirley, who later went on to become a Breckenridge bank official. The brawl, according to Shirley, left a number of bruised and broken extremities, busted up the half-finished saloon and severely depleted the stock of hard liquor especially

stocked up for the occasion. Evidently the track-layers felt that on the occasion of the first train into Rothsay the liquor should flow freely and free of charge.

As a general rule the first towns and cities in Minnesota were located on bodies of water. Witness St. Anthony and Pig’s Eye, which later became parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul respectively. Or of Stillwater on the St. Croix. Even Anoka on the Rum River. Both the St. Croix and the Rum in the early days were employed to float thousands of logs down their respective waterways when the state was still a territory and the northern forests were still full of trees.

Even closer by, Moorhead, Fergus Falls, Breckenridge, Detroit Lakes and even Pelican Rapids are all located on bodies of water, and water proved to be one of the easier and more feasible ways to get around.

Eventually, however, James J. Hill and other railroad magnates saw the wisdom of the advantages the “Iron Horse” could bring to the Red River Valley and points westward. The days of steam-boating on the Red River of the North were coming to an end, the ever-meandering Red not withstanding, its shallow bottom forcing the grounding of a number of steam boats in its day.

The first transcontinental railroad, an amalgamation of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads, was completed May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah. And it was that same year of 1869 that the first settlers began arriving in any number in the Rothsay area. A goodly share of these homesteaders had previously spent time in southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa or southwestern Wisconsin before resettling in these parts.

Churches were organized in the area before the then village of Rothsay came into being. South Immanuel Lutheran, Hedemarken Lutheran and North Friborg Lutheran all trace their origins to 1872, while Hamar Lutheran was organized in 1874. The Rothsay Baptist congregation wasn’t formed until 1882, originally as the Swedish Baptist Church of Oscar, also known as the Oscar Baptist Church until the congregation moved into quarters formerly used by a Methodist congregation in the village. Our Savior’s Lutheran congregation in Rothsay was organized in 1888.

Numerous school districts, most of them rural, were organized in the early days. By and large, school districts were numbered in each county in the order in which they were approved by respective county commissioners in each county.

Amund A. Baatten and Anders B. Pedersen opened Rothsay’s first two general merchandise stores within days of each other in the waning days of 1879. Pedersen had been the first to ship lumber to Rothsay for a commercial building, but both Gilbert Gilbertson’s ill-fated saloon and Baatten’s store opened their respective doors before Pedersen could open his establishment. Pedersen’s original store building, although since modified a number of times, is still standing kitty-corner from the Rothsay Farmers Co-op elevator in downtown Rothsay. Pedersen also applied to become Rothsay’s first postmaster and was granted that right by federal post office officials.

Pedersen also dedicated his life to public service, serving on early village councils, the school board and as a county commissioner in Wilkin County. Rothsay’s first mayor was George M. Cowie, who along with his brother, Albert E. Cowie, published the first permanent weekly newspaper in Rothsay called the Rothsay Record. Publication of the Record began in October of 1894.

By the early 1900s Rothsay could boast of having six general merchandise stores, a physician, livery stables, regular freight and passenger rail service provided by the Great Northern (a successor to the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Manitoba), a weekly newspaper, traveling dentists, hotels and a number of so-called “blind pigs,” the latter places of which served bootleg liquor, Rothsay denizens having opted to vote “dry” by banning the sale of liquor within the confines of the community.


Along about the time of World War I a small airplane made a forced landing close to the village. Shortly thereafter, Rothsay for a brief moment in time had its own radio station, that is until the powers that be determined its signal was interfering with that of an apparently approved radio station.


Rothsay area men and women answered the call of duty to their country. Some had participated in the Civil War prior to relocating in the Rothsay area. The area hosted a state plowing contest called Plowville in 1955 with state and national dignitaries attending. In 1972, Rothsay High School’s football team captured the state’s first ever nine-man football state championship with a 64-12 victory over Cotton. Three years later, Rothsay was designated the Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota.


To commemorate that designation Art Fosse designed and engineered construction of Rothsay’s famed prairie chicken monument, termed by some tongue-in-cheekers as a monument to fertility. The monument was dedicated in mid-June of 1976 in connection with Rothsay’s celebration of the nation’s bicentennial observance.


Art’s son, Paul Fosse, recently completed more than two decades of service as mayor of Rothsay, and he did it all on write-in votes through the years, never once having filed for the post of mayor. The newspaper USA Today even took note of that accomplishment.

In 2008 and again in 2009 the magazine U.S. News & World Report honored Rothsay High School by designating it one of the nation’s best high schools, an honor reserved for only three percent of all secondary schools in the nation. In 2009 Otter Tail Power Company in a pilot project chose Rothsay to implement an energy savings program which is still ongoing.


Gary Wigdahl bio:
Currently a member of the Rothsay, Carlisle, Foxhome area PARTNERS board and a volunteer at the Rothsay Library Link, Gary Wigdahl is a former award-winning newspaper editor with the “Grant County Herald” at Elbow Lake, Minnesota, and the “Cambridge Star” at Cambridge, Minnesota. He is the author of the centennial history of Rothsay, “Twixt Hill and Prairie: A Century of Challenge in the Rothsay, Minnesota, Area” published in 1982.

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