“The Shell Prairies are an ideal place for any man to live. The most beautiful country I ever saw.” – Squire S. McKinley, Osage MN 1905*
Most Minnesotans today would be hard-pressed to identify where the “Shell Prairies” are located. They actually stretch across fertile sandy soil west of present-day Park Rapids. This flatland is traversed by the Shell River and the Straight River that make up the major headwaters of the Crow Wing River Watershed that eventually flows into the Mississippi. This area was first settled in the 1880s by several pioneers coming up from Iowa looking for free farmland and the opportunity to build a community.
One of the early pioneers was industrious Civil War veteran Squire S. McKinley. “The Squire”, as his friends would call him in around Osage, Minnesota, was born in 1840 at Geneva, Illinois. His parents would later settle in Mitchell County, Iowa around 1854. At the outbreak of the Civil War, The Squire joined the Third Iowa Regiment of Volunteers where he served under Grant’s Army of the West. He would participate in some of the fiercest battles of that theater, including Vicksburg. He was mustered out in the summer of 1864 with only 16 of his fellow Regiment members that survived.
The Squire was elected Sheriff of Mitchell County, Iowa in 1865, but 15 years later the lure of free fertile land in the Shell Prairies of northwestern Minnesota proved to be too attractive. In addition to farming, he placed the dam across the Straight River where it flowed out of Straight Lake to power a lumber and grist mill. He and his fellow Iowans started the community of Osage with big dreams of a thriving farming community.
As The Squire related in 1905, soon before his death, these prairies were a beautiful mix of pine and hardwood forests and pristine clear waters, but they did not turn out to be an ideal place to farm. This is due in part to its sandy soil. The soil has produced many clear cool freshwater springs resulting in some of the best trout fishing in all of northwestern Minnesota.
Unfortunately, the sandy soil made early farming a challenging gamble that depended on the whims of the weather. As forests were cleared from the prairies, the promise of farming wealth and a thriving community never fully materialized for Osage. That is until recently when several farmers discovered this sandy soil and cool climate of the Shell Prairies was ideal for the growing of potatoes. Now, in just the last couple of decades, the Shell Prairies have become one of the largest potato growing regions in the nation with significant processing plants in nearby Park Rapids.
This potato boom has come with a significant price to the groundwater health and the fisheries of the region. The sandy soil that has produced clear and productive coldwater springs is not much of a barrier for pollutants getting into the region’s groundwater. At its hearing last Monday, the Minnesota House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee took a close look at recent reports of excess nitrogen from agricultural fertilizer that has been appearing in the drinking wells of Park Rapids and Verndale. On several occasions the Department of Health has noted the levels have exceeded that which is safe for drinking water. Excess nitrogen is extremely dangerous to infants in that it can cause what is known as the blue baby syndrome.
The solutions to this pollution problem will be challenging for the residents of the Shell Prairies. The potato farming industry has produced several jobs in the Park Rapids area, but at what is now turning out to be a significant cost. What has been beneficial for them is the fact that they now know the cause of the problem, thanks in no small part to the commitment of Minnesota voters who adopted the Legacy Amendment. State officials addressing this problem testified last Monday in front of the committee that it was the Legacy Amendment investments that made identification of this problem and the beginning efforts to solve the pollution a reality. It’s good to see the Legacy Amendment making a difference. Maybe eventually The Squire’s assessment will be correct that the Shell Prairies will become “an ideal place for any man to live”.