Polk County History

Wisconsin was admitted in 1848 as the fifth and last state of the old Northwest Territory, set up by the Ordinance of 1787. When Illinois achieved statehood in 1818, Wisconsin lost 61 miles off the southern border, a band that extends West from the shore of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River and includes Chicago, Freeport, Rockford and Galena. Again, in 1848, when Michigan was admitted to statehood, the whole Upper Peninsula was included with Michigan against their will. It had been pledged to Wisconsin by an artificial boundary. In 1848, when the St. Croix River was fixed as our Western State line, as well as the Western border of St. Croix County, we lost to Minnesota the large triangular tract between the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, an area that today includes most of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

St. Croix County was founded in 1840 by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature. It was comprised of an area north and west of a line beginning at the mouth of the Porcupine river on Lake Pepin, running up the Red Cedar River, following an old canoe route to Lac Court Orielle, and then over to and down the Montreal River, the present Northeast Wisconsin boundary to Lake Superior and up to the Canadian boundary which is the line drawn through the center of the lake. The boundary definition was created by Willis H. Miller and Harold Weatherhead who included a historical sketch when they compiled the 1850 Census of St. Croix County.

In 1853, St. Croix County assumed its present proportions when the legislature created Pierce County to the South and Polk County to the North.

In March, 1853, Polk County was established and named for James Knox Polk, former president who had died in 1849.

On April 15, 1853, voters met in St. Croix Falls to organize Polk County, which then included all of Burnett County and more. Following is a list of the officers elected at that first spring meeting: 

  • Isaac Freeland, Clerk
  • E. C. Treadwell, Sheriff
  • William A. Talboys, Register of Deeds
  • William Kent, Treasurer
  • Nelson McCarty, District Attorney
  • Robert Kent, Clerk of Court
  • O. A. Clark, Surveyor
  • Harmon Crandall, Coroner

The first meeting of the Polk County Board of Supervisors was held in 1853 in the house of F. W. Abbott situated on the flat below the present Osceola Medical Center. Next, the meetings were held in the C. H. Staples house on Main, now Cascade Street, where Larry’s Hair Den is situated. Afterwards, meetings were held in a house built by Rice Webb where Koch’s Store stands today. Mr. Webb sold to William A. Talboys in 1858, where the county offices remained for several years until that house was moved onto County Trunk M, present Third Street, where it stands today as the residence of Dale Bebault. The courthouse moved into a 2 story building on River Street, built in 1854 by Kent Brothers as a Ladies Seminary, which never was used for this purpose. The Courthouse remained in this building until 1882. This building stood unwanted and was temporarily used as a cooperage which went up in flames around 1898.

The Courthouse was then relocated to the stone Geiger building at the top of the river hill. Veit Geiger, its’ builder, a native of Wurtemburg migrated to America from Germany in 1854. He developed an eighty in Farmington, WI, and established a brewery in Osceola in 1867, which he operated until 1881. The Geiger building was used as a saloon. When the county took over the premises, the basement where the beer barrels had stood became the county jail. The Geiger building continued as the Polk County Courthouse until after the fall election of 1898 when, by county-wide vote, the county seat, by a majority vote of 387, went to Balsam Lake.

This was not the first time the location of the county seat was voted on. At the first general election in the fall of 1853, a vote was taken to locate it at either Osceola or St. Croix Falls, and is recorded as 42 in favor of Osceola, 0 for St. Croix Falls. The county records were then moved from St. Croix Falls to Osceola. A year later, at the general election of 1854, another vote was taken to move it back to St. Croix Falls. The votes stood 46 in favor of the move and 58 in favor of leaving the county seat in Osceola, where it remained without contest until 1894.

At the April 6, 1894, meeting of the Polk County Board in Osceola, the 28 members were presented a petition bearing 1410 signatures, requesting removal of the County Seat from the Village of Osceola to the Village of Amery. The battle of technicalities began. 2540 voters cast ballots in the previous election. 164 signatures on the petition were immediately disqualified by a check of the polling lists. More signatures were questionable. The Board adjourned without voting to put the matter of relocation of the County Seat before the voters at the next general election. Petitioners carried their case before the Circuit Court in Chippewa Falls and to the October, 1894 session of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. But, by the time another election rolled around in the County, so many legal voters had withdrawn their names from the document that the required 2/5ths of names of certified voters were not obtainable. At the end of another 4 years, voters declared Balsam Lake to be the County Seat with a majority of 387 votes.

At the County Board session, a few days after the election, a committee of 5 supervisors was appointed and bid letting for the construction of a Courthouse, sheriff’s residence and jail to be built in Balsam Lake was pursued. It recommended the issue of $25,000 in bonds at 4% to defray the cost of construction. A building committee of 3 was appointed; J. W. Park of Balsam Lake, T. H. Thompson of St. Croix Falls, and H. P. Burdick of Osceola. Fred C. Norlander of St. Paul got the general contract for $17,487 with the subsidiary contracts for heating, plumbing, sewer and lighting going separately to smaller bidders. The several contracts totaled the cost of building at $19,272.

By September 7, 1899, the Courthouse, sheriff’s residence and jail were complete, except for the utilities let on separate contracts. The building committee accepted the contracts at an overall cost of about $30,000. The bonds had readily sold to the Minneapolis Trust Company for $26,000. The moving of offices and records from the Balsam Lake Village hall, where temporary quarters had been established, began immediately.

About April 20, 1863, according to an affidavit of C. H. Staples, then clerk of the County Board of Supervisors, all public records of Polk County were stolen from the building occupied by the County Officers in Osceola and were never returned. That theft accounts for any omissions and discrepancies in our early County history.

In the summer of 1974, site preparation took place to build a new Courthouse on the edge of Balsam Lake. The new Polk County Courthouse was dedicated on December 6, 1975.

( The above information was taken from the booklet entitled, “The Making of Polk County”, by Grace Bloom.)

The old courthouse that was built in Balsam Lake in 1899 and is on the National Register of Historic Places was converted into three floors of galleries in 1976. If you walk through the museum, you get a sample of life around the early 1900’s. The more than fifty galleries feature a fully equipped general store, blacksmith shop, barbershop, early kitchen, hardware store, bedroom and parlor, ethnic exhibits, military room, and the Native American room which even houses a wigwam.

History Borrowed From Polk County Website

The first car in Polk County

Frederic 1902 Olsdsmobile


It was in the summer of 1902 that Balsam Lake’s town doctor, James D. Nickelson, purchased a new Curved Dash Oldsmobile from the A. F. Chase agency in Minneapolis for $650.00. It was likely the first car ever brought to Balsam Lake and maybe even to Polk County. This is Dr. Nickelson’s original car. It was restored in 1980.

A former Milltown resident, Clarence Nelson, recalls in a December 30, 1978 interview, that one day in grade school, about 1904, they heard a strange noise outside on the road. The teacher, Martha Nelson, from Star Prairie, took the kids outside to watch Dr. Nickelson drive by in this little 1902 Oldsmobile. He remembers the teacher commenting they may never have another chance to see an automobile!

Dr. Nickelson had two daughters, Dorothy and Helen. Dorothy married Walter Anderson and Helen married Mr. Parks from Centuria. The Parks family were funeral directors. Helen’s husband was an auctioneer and hardware dealer. The doctor later became Milltown’s postmaster and lived in a converted Shell station in that town.

Clarence recalled that Dr. Nickelson had the Oldsmobile when he moved from Balsam Lake to Milltown in about 1906 or 1907. About 1908 the Oldsmobile was sold to the Milltown depot agent, Olaf Martin Lund, uncle to the man who years later founded the famous Lund Boat Works. Olaf left Milltown under some controversy that same year, driving the Oldsmobile back to his home town of Twin Valley Minnesota. In a 1985 letter, Olaf’s brother, 92-year-old Oscar J. Lund, recalls the trip across Minnesota, “The drive from Milltown must have been at least 500 miles and then mostly on dirt roads. I have gathered that my brother had driven to Wanamingo and then drove to visit my Dad’s brother, Rollof Lund, northeast of Wanamingo. I recall my brother mentioned that he had driven through farm fences and what-not to get there. Then I surmise that in doing so he had to drive over the covered bridge on the Zumbro River which has become a historical site”

Olaf Lund continued to drive the 1902 Oldsmobile until about 1912 when it was replaced with a newer vehicle. It sat in the family barn until about 1918 when it was sold to a junk dealer as part of the scrap-metal drive for WW1. His brother Oscar was not happy about this so retrieved it from the junk yard for $2.00 and put it back in the barn where it sat until 1965.

The Lund’s sold their farm and auctioned off the equipment in 1965 and the little Oldsmobile was purchased by then state Senator Norm Larson, of Ada, Minnesota, for a sum of $125. Still in deplorable conditions from old age, the Oldsmobile again changed hands and moved to Oslo, Minnesota, selling this time for $2100.

In 1977 Gary Hoonsbeen, Minneapolis, purchased the car and after 5-1/2 years of work, restored it to near original condition. In 1985, Hoonsbeen drove this Oldsmobile from San Francisco to New York, a distance of 3844 miles, over a 38-day period. The Olds averaged 12 MPH traveling about 100 miles each day, including several hundred miles on the Interstate system in the Western United States. The car was appropriately named “OSCAR” for this trip, and it has the record of being the oldest model automobile ever cross country.

The car has only 1 cylinder, 4 inches in diameter, developing 4 and 1/2 horse power. Power is transferred to the rear axle with a block chain. It has two speeds and reverse using a planetary transmission, implemented many years before Ford used it on his automobiles. The top speed is about 25 miles per hour, maybe 30 with a good tail wind. It burns regular gasoline and consumes about 1 cup of oil every 50 miles. The tires have inner tubes with a size of 28 x 3 inches. Originally, it had wooden spoked wheels but they were in very poor condition and were replaced with wire wheels, which were an option in 1902. It is steered with a “tiller,” one of the last automobiles to use this type of equipment. About 20,000 Curved Dash Oldsmobiles were built between 1901 and 1907 of which nearly 1000 still survive in collector’s hands today. It sold originally for $650. On good roads it will carry four adults but it takes several minutes to get up to “full” speed. Two or three may be required to walk going up hills.

Clarence Nelson and Oscar Lund both lived into their 90’s-long enough to have rides in the restored 1902 Oldsmobile, making the restoration work all worthwhile.

By: Gary Hoonsbeen
Minneapolis, MN
June 10, 2004

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