St. Cloud, a city split between three counties, emerged from the union of three distinct cities: one founded by a slave-owning southerner, one founded by an abolitionist Protestant, and one created just to build a sawmill. It’s a wonder the place ever came up with a cohesive identity.
St. Cloud emerged from the tallgrass prairie that bordered hardwood forest. The landscape dictated the location of early settlements, as deep ravines divided one part of the area from another. Upper Town was above the northern ravine along the Mississippi River; Lower Town was below the southern ravine; Middle Town was right between them. Settlement began in all three areas between 1853 and 1855.
The first area to attract settlement was Upper Town. In 1853 Sylvanus B. Lowry, a transplant from Tennessee, made a land claim above the northern ravine. Lowry owned slaves and brought some with him, even though slavery was supposed to be off-limits in the Minnesota Territory. Even as he developed his new city, which he named Acadia, he managed fur trading posts at Watab and Sauk Rapids and worked as an interpreter. In short order, other wealthy Southerners followed Lowry to Acadia. When the Civil War began, however, Southerners abandoned Acadia and the city became an isolated residential community.
At the opposite end of town (and the opposite end of the cultural spectrum), George Fuller Brott (a New Yorker) bought a claim from squatter Martin Wooley to create Lower Town. He platted the site as St. Cloud City and attracted settlers from New England, most of whom were were committed abolitionist and temperance advocates. By 1857, the city had a hundred buildings, including the Stearns Hotel which was a favored location for Southerners escaping the heat. Development of lower town was slowed by disputes over land claims, however, as some of the city’s land was deeded to the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad before the original official city plat was completed, which created a bit of confusion over who owned what. Rather than wait out the uncertainty, many businesses just moved to Middle Town, with some taking their buildings with them. Like Upper Town, Lower Town became mostly residential.
Which brings us to Middle Town. John Lyman Wilson bought the 320-acre claim of Ole Bergeson (another squatter) for $100 and commenced building a settlement. Wilson was a millwright from Maine who arrived in the area in 1851 and built sawmills at other places in Minnesota. When he platted Middle Town, he reportedly chose to name the city St. Cloud after a French suburb that had ties to Napoleon. Wilson read much about his life and recalled an incident about Napoleon when he was fighting Russia. His wife, Josephine, had taken up residence at their summer home in St. Cloud; when messengers arrived to deliver news from France, Napoleon asked, “And how are things in St. Cloud?” Ah, but who was the St. Cloud that the Paris town is named for?
Clodoald was one of four sons of Clovis, the King of the Franks. When Clovis died in 511, it triggered a battle for the throne that left three of Clodoald’s brothers dead. Clodoald barely escaped death, fleeing to the sanctuary of a hermit life where he studied under St. Severinus and renouncing any claims to his father’s throne. Clodoald, which translated into French as Cloud, was eventually ordained a priest and established a shrine at Nogent-sur-Seine where his relics are now kept in a church called St. Cloud; the village of Nogent-sur-Seine later changed its name to St. Cloud, as well. If your profession involves manufacturing nails or if you suffer from carbuncles, he is your patron saint.
Back to Middle Town. It was located more-or-less where today’s downtown St. Cloud is situated, and was settled primarily by German Catholics, many of whom were part of a settlement society from Evansville, Indiana that was led by John W. Tenvoorde (who was Dutch but grew up in Germany). As late as 1858, Middle Town had only about a dozen families in residence, some of whom were Germans who moved from Sauk Rapids because they weren’t allowed to brew beer there.
These three cities were united into one by an act of the Minnesota Legislature in March 1856, with the name St. Cloud winning the day. St. Cloud began to develop rapidly, which may have prompted an anonymous—and jealous—neighbor to call it: “a small but pretentious suburb of Sauk Rapids.” Lowry began ferry service across the Mississippi River in 1856; Wilson and Brott soon followed suit. St. Cloud had some steamboat traffic from Minneapolis before the Civil War, but water levels on the river varied too widely for dependable service.
While river traffic was somewhat limited, St. Cloud was strategically located on one of the main overland stops for oxcarts traveling the Red River Trail. Perhaps because of the Red River Trail, the freight business took off in St. Cloud. Brothers James Crawford and Henry Clay Burbank established a freight business that employed coaches and a steamboat, with St. Cloud as the hub.
All was not peachy keen between folks in town, however. Jane Grey Swisshelm arrived in St. Cloud in 1857 and founded the St. Cloud Visitor, a paper that served as a forum for condemning slavery and its supporters. As you might guess, she and Lowry—who served as the first mayor of a unified St. Cloud—had a hard time getting along. While she lauded his intellectual and leadership abilities, she attacked his support of slavery, writing: “his life spent among Negroes and Indians made him feel his superiority and assert it with the full force of honest conviction.” Her office was ransacked at least once, but support from the community helped her rebound. Swisshelm left St. Cloud when the Civil War started, first working as a nurse tending the Union’s wounded soldiers, then as an adviser to President Lincoln.
St. Cloud boomed after the Civil War, growth that was fueled in part by the arrival of the railroads and the rise of the granite quarrying industry. Granite quarrying began around 1863 but really picked up after the Civil War. By 1920 there were 20 active quarries employing 2,500 men, including many Scots and Swedes. Granite from these quarries helped build the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Minnesota State Reformatory for Men at St. Cloud; the latter is surrounded by a granite wall that is 1,700 yards long, 4½ feet thick at the base, and 22 feet high. You’ll also notice that many streets that dead end at the Mississippi have granite walls; these were built by the Works Project Administration in the 1930s, with granite donated by local companies. Granite quarrying, however, was rough on the health of quarrymen. Many developed silicosis from breathing the dust; methods to protect workers from silicosis were not perfected until 1970.
Meanwhile, the Great Northern Railroad erected a rail yard that quickly became the largest employer in town; today it houses a repair facility for Burlington Northern. The community around the yard eventually incorporated as Waite Park. Other early businesses in the area included a number of breweries, sash and door manufacturing, cigar shop, iron works, and flour mills.
A tornado hit the area on April 14, 1886, killing 20 and injuring 75 in St. Cloud, but neighboring Sauk Rapids suffered even more.
The Pantown Neighborhood Historic District is on the west side of the city (8th Street North from 33rd Avenue North to 29th Avenue North). The craftsman-style homes were built between 1917 and 1919 for employees of Samuel Pandolfo’s Pan Motor Company.
While politicians of the past may have promised a “chicken in every pot,” during Prohibition they could have pledged “a still in every home.” Those stills provided a second income for many folks in the St. Cloud region, including quite a few farmers. Law enforcement was usually willing to look the other way for local moonshiners. Most folks produced the mash by fermenting a hybrid corn called Minnesota 13 that was developed at the University of Minnesota. It should be no surprise that the local moonshine therefore became known as Minnesota 13, even gaining an international following.
After World War II, the city began to come to come to grips with the fact that over half of its property was exempt from property taxes and that much of the new retail and housing stock was being built outside of the city limits. The city responded by annexing some of those areas.
Today, St. Cloud’s largest employer is St. Cloud Hospital (3,367 employees), followed by the State of Minnesota (2062), Electrolux Home Products (1800), Coborns (1733), Saint Cloud State University (1450), and Gold ‘n Plump Poultry (1200). As you drive around, you may notice a few unfamiliar fast-food chains; that is because St. Cloud is a favored testing ground for fast food chains.
Exploring the Area
The Stearns County History Center is the place to research local or family history or just to leisurely take in the extensive exhibits on the region’s history.
The Cathedral of St. Mary was completed in 1931, although the parish dates to 1854. The original Gothic-revival church opened in 1864 but was destroyed by a fire on August 25, 1920. Construction began a replacement in 1921 but it took a decade to complete it. The church you see today is Romanesque in design.
The Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame Museum honors the state’s best amateur baseball players.
The paved Beaver Islands Trail winds 2.5 miles along the west side of the Mississippi from the Civic Center to 33rd Street South.
Quarry Park and Nature Preserve is a popular park in a reclaimed granite quarry. In summer, enjoy four miles of unpaved trails for hiking and mountain biking or find a rock climbing, hiking; in winter, those same trails are great for cross-country skiing.
St. Cloud has several parks along the river:
- Wilson Park (625 Riverside Dr. NE) and Hester Park (1020 6th Ave. N) are neighborhood parks on opposite sides of the river.
- Clemens/Munsinger Gardens (1515 Riverside Dr. SE), is a spectacular set of formal gardens along the riverfront. You’ll find them in Riverside Park (1725 Kilian Blvd), which was established in 1915 on the site of a former sawmill.
- Beaver Island Park (1503 3rd Ave. S) is 25 acres of scenic and serene riverfront property.
- Landing Park (Cummings Ln) and Edgewater Park (4390 Clearwater Rd) are on the city’s south side.
- St. Cloud River Bluffs Regional Park (522 38th St SE) is a relatively new park on the south end of town that has good hiking and access to the river.
St. Joseph/Collegeville area:
The St. Cloud area has a rich tradition of Catholic education. Just west of the city, the small communities of St. Joseph and Collegeville are home to two well-respected institutions, both of which have attractions of interest to visitors.
St. John’s University was established in 1857 by Benedictine monks from western Pennsylvania (via Germany). They first set up around Lower Town but moved to their current location in 1865.The campus is a model for balancing the demands of a 21st century educational institution with land stewardship.
Saint John’s Benedictine Abbey Church is a stunning modernist building designed by renowned architect Marcel Breuer; the open interior is decorated with the world’s largest stained glass window.
The HILL Museum & Manuscript Library began in 1965 with the mission of preserving old European manuscripts. Much of what you’ll see on display right now are pages from Saint John’s Bible—completed in 2011 after 13 years of work, and the first illuminated Bible completed in 500 years.
Richard Bresnahan is artist-in-residence at St. John’s University; stop in to his pottery studio in St. Joseph Hall to learn about his art and his mission to create sustainable pottery.
Benedictine sisters settled down the road in St. Joseph in the early 1860s. The Sacred Heart Chapel is a beautiful baroque structure, blending traditional design with modern touches. The Whitby Gift Shop and Haehn Museum have exhibits on the past and present of the Benedictine sisters of St. Joseph.
The College of St. Benedict was established as a women’s college in 1913 focused on teacher education.
Where to Stay
St. Cloud Campground & RV Park is located just east of St. Cloud on the outskirts of town and can accommodate anyone from tent campers to RVs.
The Night’s Inn (720 Highway 10 South; 320.255.1274) is an older mom-and-pop motel along US Highway 10; the rooms are in good shape and each has a microwave and small fridge.
Bed and Breakfast Inns.
If you prefer a B&B, St. Cloud has several good options:
- Heritage House Bed & Breakfast has four rooms in an elegant Queen Anne mansion south of downtown.
- The Riverside Guest Haus has two rooms for rent near the Mississippi River.
- Victorian Oaks Bed and Breakfast (404 9th Ave. S; 320.202.1404) has three rooms in a late 19th century Victorian mansion south of downtown.
- Wild Rice Inn (1016 8th St. S; 320.259.0178) has two affordable rooms in a late 19th century farmhouse near the university (continental breakfast).
Where to Eat
To get your fix of Thai food, head to Sawatdee in downtown.
The Granite City Food & Brewery may have grown into a regional chain, but they began in St. Cloud. This popular place is a good choice for small batch beer and good food.
The White Horse specializes in creative, freshly prepared meals complimented by a fine selection of craft beer and adult beverages.
Anton’s Sea Galley on the Sauk River in nearby Waite Park is the place for fine dining in a casual setting; the popovers are beloved (for good reason), but they do a good job with the whole menu.
For something completely different, detour 20 miles to the town of Avon and check out Fisher’s Club. Once owned in part by Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame, the restaurant is well-known for its outstanding walleye dinners, charming ambiance, and views of Middle Spunk Lake (open W-Su from spring through December; call ahead to make reservations: 320.356.7372).
Next stop downriver: Clearwater and Clear Lake.
Next stop upriver: Sauk Rapids and Sartell.