No better time to come home

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a series of stories focusing on area cities celebrating 125th anniversaries this summer

COTTONWOOD – There’s 125 years of history to celebrate in Cottonwood this weekend, and an equal amount of hometown memories and pride went into planning the quasquicentennial. For example, take the efforts of current and past community members to update the town history books, said anniversary committee member Joel Dahl.

The plan was to focus on the past 25 years of local history and add chapters to the books commemorating Cottonwood’s 50th, 75th and 100th anniversaries.

“It was going to be a little booklet,” Dahl said. “It ended up being bigger than we thought.”

The new book is just short of 300 pages long and even chronicles some events that were missing from the earlier books. Members of the group that researched, wrote and published the book, including Pat Aamodt, Greg Isaackson, Steve Lee and Dana Yost, said the quasquicentennial celebrations will be a good time for past and present Cottonwood residents to look back.

“So much has happened in the past 25 years,” Yost said. “These are stories that need to be told now.”

One of the most meaningful parts of Cottonwood’s town celebrations, Isaackson said, “is just having to do with people you come across, who you haven’t seen in a while.”

Like many southwestern Minnesota cities, Cottonwood’s beginnings were closely linked to the development of railroads in the region. While settlers began farming in Lucas Township in the 1870s, it wasn’t until 1888 that a town was founded along the Willmar and Sioux Falls Railroad, a branch of the Great Northern Railroad. The railway station was named Cottonwood, after the trees on the nearby lakeshore.

The trees and the lake are among the things that have helped define Cottonwood, Dahl said – even now, there are plenty of spots in town that get covered in white cottonwood fluff every spring and summer.

For a time in the 1930s, Lee said, Cottonwood Lake actually dried up. The construction of a dam at the lake outlet has helped keep the water levels more steady since then.

“In summer, there’s a lot of boaters, and in winter, the number of fish houses is phenomenal,” he said.

Agriculture has also played a key part in Cottonwood’s history, especially the earlier parts.

“When we were growing up, the town was geared toward the farmers,” Lee said. In time, Cottonwood has become less of a farming center and put more emphasis on light industry and other businesses.

“Cottonwood has been fortunate in having (Mid Continent Cabinetry),” Lee said.

Other major businesses like the North Star Mutual Insurance Company and the Cottonwood Co-op Oil Company have also helped keep the town strong.

There have been a lot of changes in Cottonwood’s downtown area over time, Aamodt said. She did the research for that part of the history book.

“I’m a collector,” Aamodt said. “I had a lot of clippings and things, and I was working on the history of each building downtown.”

At its peak, Cottonwood had cafes, three grocery stores and two implement dealerships, residents remembered.

“When I was growing up, there were two pool halls, right across the street from each other,” Isaackson said.

Saturday nights were busy on Main Street, Lee said.

“It used to be, the farmers came into town on Saturdays,” Lee said.

Even compared to the town’s centennial in 1988, Lee, said, “A lot of those businesses and buildings are gone now.”

“The nature of the celebrations in Cottonwood have changed considerable, too,” Lee said. At the annual Coming Home Days festival, there used to be much more emphasis on community history. There used to be a lot more families around who had lived in the area for several generations.

“I used to be able to walk around town and know just who lived there,” Lee said. Now the makeup of the town is changing, he said.

But at the same time, community groups, like the American Legion and the Lions Club, have remained active, and Cottonwood’s population has continued to grow.

There were plenty of developments within the past 25 years, too, community members said. There have been a lot more houses built along the lake, especially on the north shore.

One big change was the creation of the Lakeview School District and the construction of the current Lakeview School. The new school has been a positive place for the communities of Cottonwood and Wood Lake, as well as area residents, Yost said.

The strength of the school, local organizations and businesses through the years is representative of the town’s character, Yost said. The Cottonwood area community tends to pull together, even in hard times.

“There’s not only a good group of leaders, but the entire community, I think, believes in the place,” Yost said. “It’s a town worth celebrating.”