There’s an old oxcart on display in the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum, and it must have quite a history. In the first place it is safe to assume that it is at least 150 years old. That’s when the railroad came to Willmar and, for one year, was the end of the line for the Red River carts on that trail.
Those carts were all handmade, from lumber and timbers that were to be found easily, and were held together by strips of rawhide which had been thoroughly soaked in water. Those strips were used to tie pieces of the cart together and then left to dry. When they were thoroughly dried, they had nearly had the consistency of iron.
The carts wheels were five to six feet in diameter, and were shaped like hollow cones. The axles were carved out of hard woods and would last through several round trips to Canada. The wheels were wood greased with tallow, which didn’t last long so the resulting sound of wood turning on wood announced the approach of the cart long before it could be seen.
They were made to haul furs and dry goods. The wagon box, mounted between the wheels, was close to four or five feet on a side and could hold a half ton of goods or furs.
The carts were made to be drawn by one ox or a span of two, and there were hundreds of them crossing the prairies at any one time during the summer months from about 1820 until the 1870s, when the faster railroads took over the hauling business. As an economy measure they were, sometimes, hooked up in trains of up to 10 carts, drawn by two teams of oxen.
People often ask, “Where can I find the Red River Trail?” and are astonished to learn that there were three major and several more minor trails. They all were on the route between St. Paul and Fort Garry (now Winnipeg).
Each of those trails was “fed” by several smaller ones, and none of them followed a single path. Generally speaking, those trails were made by carts travelling in the same direction. The paths they made were up to five miles wide, because the carters loaded up at different places and, once loaded, just headed out in the general direction of their final destinations.
Most of the carts were drawn by just one ox so they left a trail of two tracks made by the cart wheels and a third track, between the two, made by the oxen. Some of those tracks were pretty deep by the time railroads came on the scene. The only place where they could really be identified were by lakes and other obstructions. Those were the places where all the carts came together in one large track. A few of these places might still be found, but modern civilization and time have obliterated most of them. Looking for them would be a fruitless search. Fifty years ago Pembina Trail tracks were plainly visible on the west side of Diamond Lake and between George and Nest Lakes. Don’t bother to look for them — they’ve gone the way of the dodo bird.
There were camps along the trails, where supplies could be purchased and oxen rested. The people there did land office business with the carters even though their trips were, usually, annual affairs because most carters could only make one round trip each year, between the spring thaw and winter. A fully loaded cart could only travel about 15 miles a day, assuming good weather and no troubles.
Several weeks ago there was a column about Joseph R. Brown, for whom Brown’s Valley is named. He was one of Minnesota’s “Founding Fathers,” and a man who was very interested in the shipping business.
He lived at Henderson for a time, and while he was there he started what became known as the Pembina Trail, though Brown’s main interest was in supplying Fort Abercrombie in southeastern North Dakota. His trail ran north and west from Henderson, by Cedar City and on to where Lake Lillian now stands. There he constructed facilities to care for a hundred or more oxen at one time. This was also a rest area for his caravans. From there his trail ran north by Diamond Lake and George Lake to near New London.
New London had been in existence for several years and was considered to be on the proposed route of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad line which was being built westward from St. Paul. A couple of businessmen had moved to New London from Paynesville in anticipation of that happy day. One can well imagine their chagrin when they found out there were too many lakes and other obstructions on the New London route, so the line would run about 15 miles to the south on the south side of what is now Willmar Lake, where A. S. Leib had built a trading post and a couple of other businesses had opened. At least one business man from New London joined him.
When the trains finally arrived in late 1870, they had taken over the carting business from St. Paul to what is now Willmar. That made Willmar Lake the place where all the goods to and from Fort Abercrombie and, possibly, Fort Garry, were transferred from trains to carts and vice versa for a year. That transfer point kept moving westward along with the railroad lines, The next year that point was Benson, the following year Breckenridge, and so it went. It wasn’t long before the Red River trails were only memories.