The following article invites readers into an imaginary trip back into the early days of Northfield. The time is summer 1876. May your journey feel real and tangible, as though actually stepping backing time.
Setting the stage
In 1876, Northfield is a community of over 2000 people, where “modern” improvements mean added railroad tracks and telegraph lines. Division Street boasts a few stone and brick buildings, but most are wooden structures with extended awnings to lessen the summer heat. In the countryside, wheat is king. In town, businesses cater to the needs of townspeople and the area’s farm-based economy.
Taking an imaginary trip back to 1876
If we could magically walk into an old photo of Division Street before the September 7th raid, what businesses and activities would we find? Imagine our first steps onto the dirt packed thoroughfare, suddenly aware of oncoming horse-drawn buggies and wagons. No longer holding a sepia tinted photograph, we find ourselves inside it–surrounded by color, movement and warm sunshine. Our feet safely planted on wood-planked sidewalks, we glance up at the closest building, the Dampier House Hotel. It bears no resemblance to the brick edifice housing today’s Rare Pair.
Among the few recognizable sites, we notice other differences. To the south, we spot a farmer moving towards the limestone storefront at the corner of Fifth and Division Streets. It’s not Bierman’s Furniture, however, but Bjoraker’s General Store. Across the way, Mayor Hiram Scriver strides into the First National Bank, a place we recognize as the Northfield Historical Museum. Several stores to our left, a smiling child and her mother step into the Eldred Confectionary shop. It is in the same area as our Hideaway Coffeehouse with its equally delicious sweets, but in an older structure.
We also see buildings with no modern counterparts. In the place of The Measuring Cup sits a cigar factory. Up and down the street, we stroll past a string of forgotten businesses like the Julius Revier Feed Store, Robert Silk Harness and Saddles, Skinner and Drew General Store and many others.
Imagining the smells and sounds of Northfield
In museum photos, a younger Division Street appears less tidy and one ponders if it was somewhat smelly, especially on a hot summer’s day. Historical research provides us with more clues. Through these sources, we might conjure up an odorous mix of saddle leather, dust and horse dung. More pleasing to consider, we might imagine aromas of stewed meat and potatoes emanating from the Onstad & Svien Restaurant. Near the present site of Witt Bros. Automotive Repair, research tells us a blacksmith once fired hot coals to forge horseshoes and mends broken harnesses. We may certainly wonder what smells originated from that outdated process. Easier to imagine is the clanging sound of the smithy’s anvil resonating up and down the street. Farther away, we can almost hear the moos, bleats and cock-a-doodle-doos from farm animals living in sheds, pens and coops, all within walking distance of Division Street.
Of course, there are also human sounds to imagine. There might be men’s boots tapping against the wooden sidewalks, women’s ankle length dresses swishing back and forth or conversations drifting in and out of reach. Friends might also be discussing the current presidential race, favoring either Rutherford B. Hayes or Samuel J. Tilden. Just behind them, we might hear the owner of a millinery shop greeting customers from her doorway, hoping to sell one of her fancy hats. Conversations among foreign born residents would easily stand out. Speaking Norwegian, German or Swedish, they might be sharing good news from “the old country” or merely discussing the price of goods. (257 words)
Imagining former leisure activities
If we move from onlooker to participant, we could choose from one of many activities. Next to Eldred’s Confectionary, the Lockwood’s Opera House offers everything from classical concerts to popular shows. There is a small but growing library that also invites lecturers to Northfield’s oldest surviving structure, the Lyceum Building. We would certainly celebrate America’s Centennial on July 4th with a “basket picnic,” a parade, sack races and a “splendid display of fire-works” as proclaimed in the Rice County Herald. If a sports fan, we would cheer for the Northfield Silver Stars as they play against the Hastings Crescents–in the still evolving game they spell “base ball.” (107 words)
Imagining Northfielders 140 years from today and their view of us
Northfield’s buildings, streets and activities have clearly evolved since 1876 and change will continue. In 2016, 140 years from today, what locations will we still recognize and what will be beyond recognition – or even astonishing? How will future residents view our contributions to the Northfield they experience? One measure may be our efforts to preserve important aspects of Northfield’s history, whether through restorations of the Northfield Depot, its Armory or future projects. Ideally, such commitments can one day link historic buildings with ever new enterprises. Certainly, the future will offer its share of surprises, even as we hope Northfield’s historic roots remain visible.