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Wadena County's 'lost towns'

Although it's still home to several residents and a church camp, there are abandoned buildings and vehicles throughout the lost town of Oylen on the eastern edge of Wadena County.

During its heyday in the late 1800s, Shell City was a bustling community along the banks of the Shell River in northern Wadena County.

The town - also known as Kindred - boasted a post office, hotel, school and several stores. A factory produced buttons from the abundant clams at the bottom of the river, and a stagecoach line transported wheat to the railroad at Verndale, 40 miles to the south.

But when the Great Northern Railroad chose a route seven miles to the east, Shell City's fate was sealed.

These days, the ghost town in Huntersville State Forest is a popular spot for canoers, campers and horseback riders. The cemetery remains, although there's little trace of the abandoned community amid the pines trees which have reclaimed the land.

Shell City is one of the 135 faded communities Rhonda Fochs features in her new book, "Minnesota's Lost Towns." In this volume, the first in a planned series, the author focused on the 40 northernmost Minnesota counties.

"It's really fascinating, it's history that's in our own backyards," said Fochs, a retired Freshwater Education District history teacher who lives in Lincoln, a lost town in Morrison County. "There are such great stories of all these places, I want them to be remembered ... These places are kind of special and that's why I wanted to highlight them. I wanted to preserve the history of these places, the history of these people."

Although she made sure the book was true to the historical record, Fochs said she wasn't trying write an academic history. "It's written in a really fun-to-read narrative."

Friday night at the Wadena County Historical Society, Fochs will explain the several categories of lost towns, their life cycle and the reason they disappeared. She'll end her talk with a look at the five Wadena County communities she included in the book: Oylen, Central, Bluegrass, Huntersville and Shell City.

Fochs defines a lost town as a "once-thriving community that's been pretty much abandoned. The name may live on, but the commercial center of the town is gone."

Each community emerged and declined for different reasons, she said.

In the early days of settlement, when transportation was difficult, towns sprouted up every few miles to provide basic services to rural residents.

As roads improved, people could travel further to get a better variety of services, reducing the need for so many towns.

Another common reason: The introduction of rural delivery led to the closure of many post offices. "That's why a lot of towns didn't make it," Fochs said.

Over time, successful communities became shadows of their former selves - to varying degrees.

A Methodist church is all that remains in Central, an easy-to-miss lost town along County 4 northeast of Verndale. With its creamery and cheese factory, Central - named for its location - was a hub for dairy farmers. At its peak in the early 1900s, there were several stores, a post office and a blacksmith shop. It hosted auto races and dances, Fochs said.

Huntersville, another stop on the stagecoach line to Verndale, also threw dances, along with a large Fourth of July Celebration and traveling medicine shows. While it's declined from it's peak and no longer has a post office, the community maintains an identity, largely due to its bar, canoe rental shop and the surrounding state forest that bears the same name.

"That area was always considered a hunter's paradise," Fochs said.

On the eastern fringe of the county, the town of Oylen is still home to a church camp and a handful of residents. Once a hub for sawmills in the area, commercial activity rapidly dwindled when that industry declined.

The dilapidated, abandoned buildings and machinery give Oylen the "feel" of a classic ghost town much more commonly found in the drier western states, Fochs said.

Located along County 23 north of Verndale, the community of Bluegrass, which was settled in 1879, has transformed from a center of commerce - with a post office, creamery, cheese factory, grocery store, gas station and tavern - into a quiet residential hamlet.

"It just slowly started disappearing," resident Tim Flagg said. "We don't get much excitement up this way."

Except on Sunday mornings. There are still two churches - one Cathlolic, one Lutheran - in town.

Flagg bought a vacant grocery store across from both churches 13 years ago. Over time, he restored the building and installed old gas pumps for decoration. He and his girlfriend, Debra Hammer, made Bluegrass their permanent home in December, moving from north Minneapolis.

Compared to their neighborhood in the city, "it's kind of a little slow," said Hammer, a former block watch commander.

Much like in Huntersville to the north, Bluegrass remains a widely recognizable community, despite its relative decline.

Flagg has a Sebeka address, but he writes still directs his mail to Bluegrass.

"The mail still gets here," he said. "If it makes it this direction, they know where Bluegrass is."


If you go ...

What: Rhonda Fochs discusses her new book, "Minnesota's Lost Towns"

Where: The Wadena County Historical Society, 603 Jefferson St. N.

When: 7 p.m., Friday, June 6