Sauk Rapids and Sartell are located along what was once known as “Third Rapids”, because, well, they were the third set of rapids upriver from St. Anthony Falls. Those rapids are now obscured by a dam, and those two small towns have in recent years developed into medium-sized bedroom communities for the St. Cloud region.
Sauk Rapids (2010 population = 12,773)
The origin of the Sauk name is not entirely clear. The Sauk nation never lived this far north from what I’ve read, but there is a story that five Sauk Indians fled here after killing someone; they supposedly lived in the area for a while before they were killed by Dakota Indians. Another source suggested that the name comes to us from the Ojibwe language, where Sauk means “a meeting place”, which could be a reference to mouth of the Sauk River at the Mississippi, or maybe it’s just that this area had significance as a meeting grounds for the Ojibwe. I’ve checked a couple of sources, though, and I have yet to find one that says “Sauk” means “a meeting place” in Ojibwe. Guess I’ll keep digging.
Europeans first came to the area to establish a trading post. Phillip Beaupre established a post near the mouth of the Sauk River in 1845 that changed hands a few times. The village was platted in 1854 by a group that included Jeremiah Russell, who is sometimes called the Father of Sauk Rapids. Russell was from the Northeast US, like many of the first settlers. Before he came to Sauk Rapids, Russell worked as a clerk to the sutler at Fort Snelling and as a trader.
The little village saw some steamboat traffic from Minneapolis (62 boats reached Sauk Rapids in 1858), but this was pretty much the end of the line because of the rapids. Sauk Rapids also had ferry service across the river, a stage coach stop, and, later, a railroad station. The village was named the Benton County seat in 1859, but calls for a more central location were eventually heeded; county government offices were moved to Foley in 1901.
The biggest early industry was the sawmill, which processed timber coming down river from the pine forests. Granite mining was an important local industry beginning around 1880. For decades, big plans were floated to build a dam for water power at Sauk Rapids. The most promising effort was led by Sauk Rapids Water Power, which was chartered in the 1860s and, in 1872, presented a plan for building a dam. Contributions from some subscribers raised enough money to build a wing dam in 1873, but that was as far as the effort got. The company went out of business and their property was sold off at a foreclosure sale in 1880. The first dam in the area was eventually built upriver at Sartell in 1907.
Sauk Rapids is perhaps best known for a natural disaster that nearly wiped it off the map. On April 14, 1886, a tornado ripped through the area, destroying property in St. Cloud before destroying every business in Sauk Rapids save one, killing 38 residents and injuring nearly twice as many. Some witnesses claimed the Mississippi was sucked dry by the winds. While many people claim the tornado was the reason that St. Cloud became the commercial center of the region instead of Sauk Rapids, the reality is that St. Cloud already had a larger population and more industry. The failure to build a dam on the Mississippi to generate power was a bigger factor in the town’s slow early growth than the tornado.
The town center has been redeveloped many times over the city’s history, so there aren’t a lot of original buildings left. When the new Highway 10 bridge was built, the center again saw significant redevelopment in the form of a couple of strip malls. Sauk Rapids eventually got the growth it desired, but it came about 100 years later than expected and has been primarily residential. From 1960 to 2010 the city’s population tripled from 4,038 to 12,773.
Sartell (2010 population = 15,876)
Joseph Sartell, obviously the city’s namesake, arrived in 1854; he was an east coast transplant with root in Massachusetts. Sartell was a millwright who, true to his background, went about opening up mills over the next few decades. In 1884 he and sons started a lumber mill, the Sartell Brothers Lumber Company, that stayed open until the 1930s. For most of the city’s existence, a member of the Sartell family was on the City Council.
The two main industries that sustained the early city were a paper mill and a valve plant. The completion of the dam in 1907 provided power for the Watab Pulp and Paper Company mill that opened the same year. The company changed hands a few times, but it was owned by VERSO on May 28, 2012 when an explosion at the mill killed 50-year old Jon Maus and injured four others. The ensuing fire took several days to extinguish. In August 2012, the company announced that the plant would close permanently, eliminating jobs for the 259 employees (down from 500 just three years earlier). The mill had been losing money anyway, but the explosion and fire made it too expensive to repair and keep it open. The average wage at the time of the plant closing was $26.35/hour.
The DeZurik Valve Company opened in 1925, founded by Matt DeZurik, who had once worked at the paper mill. One of their innovations was the “eccentric valve” that could go from closed to fully open with just a 90 degree turn. The plant was still open in 2012, even after shedding 1,000 jobs in 2001.
During Prohibition, Sartell had an active cottage industry making liquor. Over a dozen of the towns hundred or so houses were unofficial “beer farms” where homebrew was sold to visitors. The feds occasionally cracked down and even managed to send a few residents to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
The housing market boomed beginning around 1960 and the city’s population exploded as it grew quickly into a bedroom community. In 1960, Sartell had a population under 800; in 2010 it was almost 16,000.
Exploring the Area
The Benton County Historical Museum has assumed the task of preserving and interpreting the area’s history. Check out the large collection of research materials and tour the exhibits about the county’s history, including the unique school bus that was once used to transport kids to classes.
Both cities have excellent parks along the Mississippi River. In Sauk Rapids, they include:
- Island View Park (1469 River Ave. N)
- Lions Park has a nice overlook of the river (95 River Avenue North)
- Municipal Park (1001 River Avenue North)
- Oxcart Trail (paved trail along the river that connects the 4 riverfront trails)
- Southside Park (103 River Avenue South)
In Sartell, the riverside parks are:
- Linear Park (Riverside Dr.)
- Sartell Rotary Park (Riverside Ave. S)
- Sartell Veterans Park (Riverside Ave.)
Where to Stay
Your best options will be in neighboring St. Cloud.
Where to Eat
For a bit of fun with your burger, check out Molitor’s Quarry Grill & Bar, a place that is part sports bar and part playground, a creative reuse of a former quarry site.
Next stop downriver: St. Cloud
Next stop upriver: Rice and Watab