Smiley Township was founded in 1900, but a local resident Leon Lum convinced residents to rename it Nisswa, from the Ojibwe word "nessawae" (which means "in the middle" or "three"), when the town was incorporated as a village in 1908. On December 4, 1946, Nisswa became a municipality.
The Nisswa area is rich in history. As times changed and advancements were made, in many cases the physical sites remain, but the actual structures are no longer present. Here we will tell the story about how some sites have left physical evidence as well as some which have not.
These sites that we tell in our story have been important to the development of the Nisswa area.
To get an idea of "what was," a trip to the Nisswa Area Historical Society’s History Center is very beneficial. Loaded with photographs and artifacts, the visitor can gain insight into what transpired in our earlier days. Next door is the Pioneer Village with vintage buildings, mostly constructed of log. Across the street is Nisswa’s Original Railroad Depot along with a caboose constructed right here in Minnesota at the Great Northern shops in St. Cloud. Admission to the History Center, Caboose, and Depot is free. There is a small charge for the Pioneer Village.
An interesting aspect of the Historical Society is that it is located on a very historical thoroughfare. The Main Street of Nisswa was the old Highway 371. This highway was built by upgrading what was known as the Leech Lake Military Road, created by the Amy Corps of Engineers in 1855. That road was simply a simply a widening of what was known as the Leech Lake Trail used for centuries by Native Americans to travel from the southern part of the state through the area. The railroad tracks are now the Paul Bunyan Trail. The history of Nisswa can be traced through the stories of many of the sites along this historic route and the stories of the people who lived there.
Probably the earliest white settlement situated on the Leech Lake Trail in the area was James Lloyd Breck’s St. Columba Mission. The mission was established in the early 1850’s with the help of an Ottawa Indian named Enmegabo. Enme-gabo had married a niece of Bogone-giizhig (Hole-in-the-Day), the War Chief of the Mississippi Band of the Ojibwe Nation. He was able to negotiate a parcel of lakes for the establishment of a mission to bring Christianity and European education to the Ojibwe. The mission included The Church of St. Columba, the Mission House itself, and a school, as well as perhaps as many as ten other buildings. This site is one which has left no observable physical evidence, but was located in the area of the current St. Columbo road.
An important part of the mission was the church. According to Theodore Holcombe in his book "An Apostle in the Wildress" (1903): "This church built of square logs – having a nave and chancel, and architecturally, of the early pointed style and was consecrated the following summer (1853) by Bishop Kemper. This was the first Indian Church west of the Mississippi River, of any name."
In 1857 tensions between Whites and the Ojibwe increased to the point that most whites, including the leaders of the mission, left the area. Enme-gabo, who was an Episopcal Deacon, took over the administration of the mission and remained its leader until its removal in 1862 during the statewide Indian uprising. Enme-gabo transplanted the mission to White Earth were the Ojibwe were relocated. In White Earth Enme-gabo was eventually ordained as the first Native American Episcopal priest.
Moving north along the Leech Lake Trail one encounters a site that is one of the early permanent white settlement white settlements in the area. In the spring or early summer of 1886, the Gull River Lumber Company created a summer logging camp on the east shore of Middle Fishtrap Lake, now Nisswa Lake. They built a boarding house at the site and used it as a center for operations in the upper Gull Lake area. Webster (Web) Hill, a teamster and "barn boss" for the company, built two barns at the location and the beginnings of a permanent settlement were in place. The camp was roughly at the present location of the intersection of Highway 371 and Hazelwood Drive.
In 1890, after the Gull River Lumber Company moved its operations to Brainerd, Web was left in charge of what operations remained at the camp and was given the option to purchase the property, boarding house, and the two barns. Web permanently moved to the site and opened the Web Hill Ranch. The ranch became a common resting stop for those traveling north and eventually became the focal point for further settlement in the area. Early residents included Casper Mills, who built a summer cottage to the south of the ranch. In 1897 Web Hill donated an acre of land so that the first Nisswa School could be established. He also was a founding father of Smiley Township and the village of Smiley, renamed Nisswa in 1908.
Web Hill moved to the area as a result of the northern movement of the Minnesota logging industry and the resulting extension of the railroad north of Brainerd. An early important railroad stop on this extension was the Hubert Station, located on what is now County Road 13 two miles south of Nisswa (by rail). Established around 1895, the stop consisted of what was only a small building, but nevertheless was the major stop in the area for several years. Because its importance and the number of travelers using the stop, in 1909 Tony Bohlke built his first store there, including the first Post Office. This store was the first of the Hubert Store which, in one form or another, remained near the site until 1998. In 1915 the small building was renovated and an open waiting area was built. This depot is still kept up on a site about a block from its original location. The interior is not open to the public, but the quaint building is worth a trip.
The immediate vicinity of the Hubert Depot was the locale of a number of other interesting bits of history. Not far away, on the southeast shore of Clark Lake, was a home called "The Castle" built by Colonel Freeman Thorp of Ohio in 1907. The building was literally patterned after a castle, complete with crenellations, and was a popular point of interest until 1941 when it had to be torn down due to the fact that the bulky masonry was too heavy for the building’s foundations.
Col. Thorp was a veteran of the Civil War and had become known to General Grant and Secretary of War Stanton. After delivering a secret message to Secretary Stanton from Grant, Thorp asked if he could travel to Gettysburg to listen to President’s Lincoln’s speech. During the Gettysburg Address, he stood 15 feet from the President and made a pencil sketch to paint the portrait of President Lincoln that was chosen to hang in the Capital Building where it remains to this day. As it turns out, this was the first of seven Presidents that Col. Thorp painted, three of which hug in the Capital Building. He also painted, at one time or another, the Governors of all 48 states as well as Senators, Representatives, Cabinet members and Judges. In 1924, a copy of the Lincoln Portrait, painted by Col. Thorp, was presented to Brownie Cote. It was hung over the fireplace of the great hall of the Blake Camp for Boys on the west shore of Lake Hubert. The camp was subsequently renamed Camp Lincoln for boys.
Col. Thorp moved to the Lake Hubert area in 1895. His son Clark suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and it was thought that the climate would help his condition. Unfortunately, Clark died but his legacy live on – Clark Lake is named for him. He was buried in what became the Thorp family cemetery located on what is now East Clark Lake road near the corner of County Road 13. The cemetery was located so that Mrs. Thorp could see the headstone from her bedroom window. The Thorp family remained in the area and continued to contribute to the community.
Further north along the trail is the city of Nisswa and the location of the Nisswa railroad depot. Nisswa has been called "The city almost never was." The original plan of Brainerd and Northern Minnesota Railway, the company that built the logging railroad north of Brainerd, was to run the track from Hubert Station west to Lake Margret and the Village of Lake Shore. Track was laid to Lake Shore and a 673 foot trestle was constructed over the Gull Lake Narrows near what is now Causeway On Gull. Once there, however, they found the route too expensive to complete. In 1894 the decision was made to tear up the track from Hubert to Lake Shore and build north to Walker through what became Nisswa. This re-routing closely followed the Leech Lake Trail.
In 1898 Ernest Smiley established a Post Office and railroad stop at his homestead located on what is now Poplar Avenue just off Nisswa’s main street north of the city center. The stop was called "Smiley" and so the original name of Nisswa and Nisswa Township was Smiley.
The stop was moved one-half mile south to the Nisswa city center. The move was made because the original stop was at a low place on the railroad grade and train engineers had long complained about the difficulty of starting up after stopping at this point. In 1907, a small 12’ x 14’ depot building was constructed in front of Murray’s Store and home. In later years the bottom half of Murray’s barn was remodeled into Nisswa’s first City Hall and the two subsequent halls have both been built on the exact same site. In 1908 the name of the village was changed to Nisswa and the railroad added a sign to the depot officially naming it "Nisswa".
The Leech Lake Trail provides an interesting vehicle for reviewing the history of the Nisswa area during its early days of settlement. It allows one to understand that the current city is simply the latest incarnation of a series of communities that existed in the locations along the trail that define the city, even if there is no longer physical evidence of them. The stories of the people who lived at these sites give one a view of the uniqueness of the development of this historic part of central Minnesota.
**Story by the Nisswa Area Historical Society.