Benson Area History

Benson began as the "End of Tracks" for the Westward pushing railroad to become the commercial center of a rich agricultural area in Western Minnesota.

Indians in a canoe

Train animation

Fields with grain elevator

In 1849, when Minnesota became a territory and people were going to California to strike it rich, the land on which Benson is now situated was the home of the Dakota Indian.  No white settlement had occurred in the area even though the Santa Fe Trail, first traversed in 1821 and the Oregon Trail in 1842 were used by thousands as they sought out new homes in the west.  It wasn't until after the Indian Outbreak in 1862 and the Homestead Act of the same year that the area began to be populated by other than the American Indian.  

 The first white settler in the Benson area is thought to be Ole Corneiliusen, a Norwegian who arrived on foot from Olmstead County in 1866.  A month or so later, Lars Christianson came with a group of settlers from Wisconsin by ox team, some of which settled at Camp Lake and others along the Chippewa River which they called Six Mile Timber.  

The first railroad built in Minnesota was in 1862, the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad had reached as far west as Willmar, some thirty miles east of Benson.  That same year, A.W. & W.V. Lathrop were among a few who built stores next to the Chippewa River assuming that a trading center would be established there upon the arrival of the railroad only to rebuild when the railroad determined the location of the town site to be where it is today.  From 1870, when the railroad reached Benson, until 1871, when more rails were laid farther west, Benson served as a market center for a 100 mile radius.  It was also the stopping point for the famous Red River Ox Carts, whose unoiled wheels could be heard for miles.  Goods were transported from Benson to Fort Abercrombie, about 15 miles downstream from Wahpeton and shipped on the Red river to Fort Gerry Winnipeg.  Benson is where the Hudson Bay Company had a warehouse.

The first stores in Benson were made of sod.  In 1870 Meldahl and Sunde opened a general mercantile store and Thomas Knudson a bar.  With the number of immigrants arriving by train, hotels were a necessity.  In May, the first hotel was built.  Soon after, the Benson House was opened in a temporary railroad building which was later rebuilt.  Other hotels were the Aldrich House built in 1880 and destroyed by fire in 1930; the Emigrant House later known as the Columbia was located on the corner of Pacific Avenue and 14th Street South.  In 1900, half of the Columbia was moved to one block south of the present City light plant so that a three story brick building, the Paris Hotel, could be constructed in its place.  The Paris remained in use until September of 1976 when it too was destroyed by fire.  Another hotel, the Merchants, was demolished in 1992 to make room for the new Benson Public Library.  Benson no longer has hotels but does provide excellent lodging by its three motels, the most recent built in 1996.

Within five years the population of Benson had grown to 300 with four general stores, two drug stores, two machinery houses, three hotels, one bank and two saloons.  In one of the general stores, A.N. Johnson and Co., the sales ran up to $60,000 in the last eight months of 1875. During the same period there were sold in Benson almost one and one-half million feet of lumber, 1,260,000 shingles, 170,000 laths, 380 reapers, mowers and harvesters, 240 seeders, 10 threshing machines, 160 plows, 137 wagons and 61 sulky hay racks.  It was distinctly a boom period.

Benson continued to expand more rapidly than any other trading center in the county.  In 1880, its population was 457 with the business interests numbering 30 stores and shops.  Its growth can be partially due to the decision of the legislature in the spring of 1876 when it authorized the construction of a courthouse to be built in Benson at a cost of $3,000, making Benson the county seat.  This frame building served the county until 1898 when the present courthouse was completed.  In the fall of 1876 the land business was further stimulated by the removal of the US Land office from Litchfield to Benson which resulted in more people using Benson as a market place.

In 1877, 100 carloads of gravel were put on the streets and a system of drainage to the Chippewa River was completed.  In the same year the village had been incorporated by a special act of the legislature.  The waterworks was constructed in 1895.  The city's water tower has been located just south of West Pacific Avenue.  The most recent water tower was constructed in 1998 and can be seen for miles.  Quite different in appearance from the first wooden tower.  In 1894, 4,000 feet of sewage pipe was laid down.  Cement sidewalks began to be constructed in 1901.  The first telephone was operated between the office and home of Dr. C.L. Scofield in 1893, three years before the original Bell patent expired.  In 1904, after 10 years of development as a local exchange, the Benson Telephone Company incorporated, taking the name "Swift County Telephone Company".  The power and light plant was built by private investors just before the turn of the century and was purchased by the City in 1902.  Streets in Benson were paved in the 1920's.

The first school classes were held in the Emigrant House in 1870, with Mrs. Charlotte Knowlton as teacher. The following year a one story frame structure was erected on the northeast corner of the courthouse block to serve as the school.  This building is now one of Benson's attractions and is located at Ambush Park.  In 1879 the Benson School District decided to build a new school on 13th Street North. It was built of Chaska brick, two stories high, for $4,994.  This building was torn down and a new school was built in 1904.  In 1929, $135,000 was spent on an addition.  In May of 1963 construction began on the present high school.  In 1975, the 1904 building was torn down and work began on a new complex that included an indoor swimming pool.  In 1888, the first wood frame southside school was built.  An addition was made in 1891.  In 1913 it was torn down and a new brick school was constructed.  Benson's most recent Southside School building was demolish in 1995 to make room for a new motel and restaurant.  In 1958 the present Northside Elementary School was built with an addition completed in 1994.

The public library was established in Benson in 1911 through a $7,500 donation from Andrew Carnegie and many generous gifts from local citizens.  In 1992 the city recognized the fact that this historic building did not serve the current needs of the community.  It was not handicap accessible and had limited space.  The new library features 6,154 square feet and was built at a cost of $590,381.  The Carnegie building was demolished in 1994.

 The first Swift County-Benson Hospital was constructed in 1912 at a cost of $15,000 and had an original capacity of 20 to 25 patients.  A new city-county hospital was built in 1949 at a cost of $400,000.  A million dollar addition was built in 1973.  The top floor of the 1949 building is now used as a Medical Center.  the 1912 structure was demolished in the 1960's and now is the location of Scofield Place, a congregate housing facility built in 1996.

Early industries in Benson, like today were mostly agricultural related.  The Benson Woolen Mill which opened in 1880 and manufactured wool into rolls of yarn and cloth.  The Benson Roller Mill was erected in 1881 and made three grades of flour much of which was shipped to the Twin Cities and the east.  For a time tobacco was grown in Swift county.  Benson is reported to have had more than one cigar factory.  Creameries and produce businesses were also part of Benson's history.  Some of the brick used in the present courthouse came from Benson's own brick factory.

Benson can still boost of industries that are providing employment for hundreds of people.  Among them are Lorenz Manufacturing founded in 1962 by Herman Lorenz and began manufacturing the original hydraulic driven grinder mixer.  Since the original incorporation, several products have been added to the Lorenz product line.  Lor-Al Inc was founded in 1975 by Loren Tyler of Benson and in 1990 was purchased by Ag-Chem Inc.  In 1980 Lor-Al expanded into a new building with a 21,000 sq. Ft. expansion added in 1995.  Lor-Al manufactured Easy Rider high flotation fertilizer applicators.  Custom Ag Products (CAP) began business in 1984 in the lower level of a downtown Benson office building and moved to its current location in 1990.  CAP manufactures and distributes the Redball brand liquid application monitor equipment as well as other ag equipment.  CAP constructed a 22,500 sq ft expansion in 1995.  A ground breaking ceremony for the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company (CVEC) was held in 1995.  The 15 million gallon ethanol plant was created to give added value to the corn produced in the Swift County area.  Tyler Manufacturing -aka TCI -aka Tyler Industries and currently known as Case/Tyler was founded in 1958 by Loren Tyler.  In 1960 Loren Tyler constructed an 80x80 ft building east of Benson and began to mass produce a trailer spreader to distribute fertilizer on ag fields.  In 1965 Ivan Bowen purchased Tyler Manufacturing from Loren Tyler.  In 1995 Team Tyler constructed a $5 million state of the art, 130,000 sq ft addition to their plant.  In 1998 Case IH Purchased Tyler Industries.

Early pioneers to Benson enjoyed many social activities.  In 1895 the Benson Opera House was built.  The entire second floor was used as an opera house with room to seat 400 people. The Opera House featured shows from the eastern states as well as Medicine Shows.  A motion picture theatre opened in Benson in 1916.  DeMarce Theatre of Benson currently serves as the only movie theatre in Swift County.  Pioneers progressively organized many societies and organizations.  The Coterie Study Club, a women's study club, was organized in 1895 and is still active today.  The Benson Hockey Association is among the many organizations popular in the 1990's.  Adding to the social life throughout the years has been the Benson Gold Club organized in 1923.  In May of 1978 work began on the back 9 holes of the course making it one of the finest 18 hole golf courses in Western Minnesota.  The Benson Outdoor Swimming Pool was constructed in 1940 as a WPA project.  It was one of the largest and most modern swimming pools in the state.  The pool has experienced may improvements since its opening and remains a popular summer attraction.  The Benson Civic Center was constructed in 1994 and provides an indoor hockey arena for Benson area youth.

Among the events hosted by the Benson community are "Kid Day" and the Pioneerland Band Festival.  Benson's Kid Day began in 1930 by local merchants who handed out candy treats to area children and formed a parade consisting of the boys dress as hobos and girls pushing their doll buggies.  In 1931 Mayor W.X. Jones signed a proclamation that August 26 of that year would be "Kid Day" in Benson, MN.  The festivities included a parade of which some 500 Swift County children entered.  June 14, 1988 Benson hosted its first Pioneerland Band Festival with eleven high school bands participating.  The event has grown over the years and brings thousands of people to Benson to watch some of the best high school bands in Minnesota compete. 

Early life in Benson also had many hardships such as the small pox epidemic of 1872, the grasshopper plague of 1876/1877 and the fire of 1880. The fire was started by a cigar butt which was dropped and rolled through a knothole in the floor of Joe Fountain's saloon. The smoldering cigar soon burst into uncontrollable flames that resulted in severe losses to 20 concerns, destroying an entire business block. As a result, the volunteer fire department was organized by the Village Council on June 18, 1881.  The fire fighting equipment was kept in the newly constructed City Hall, located on the west end of Atlantic Avenue.  Cisterns were built within the village so there would be a ready supply of water.  In March of 1999, the Benson City Council agreed to expand the Benson Fire Department at its current site south of Pacific Avenue.

The History of Benson tells the story of pioneer life, of hard working people, and of a community which endeavors to meet their needs, a community of people working together to create the quality of life they truly cherish.

Benson continues to grow over the years: 1880-457; 1890-877; 1900-1525; 1910-1677; 1920-2,111; 1930-2,095; 1940-2,729; 1950-3,398; 1960-3,678; 1970-3,549; 1980-3,656; 1990-3,235;

History submitted by the Swift County Historical Society.

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