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.