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Tour historical Wheat Trail on May 16

Local history buffs can explore the Wheat Trail that once blazed a path to the county's first economic boom during an all-day tour on Saturday, May 16.

The tour begins at the end of the Wheat Trail in Verndale and will proceed north through Wing River Township, North Germany Township, Nimrod and follow a slightly northwest line to end in Shell City, a boom town that went bust.

Pioneers created the trail to transport wheat from recently discovered prairies.

"I think part of the romanticism of it was that it was an incredibly difficult and arduous journey," Wadena County Historical Society Board Chairman Richard Paper said about four-day trip across the 40-mile trail.

A lot of the traveling was done by sleigh in the winter because the trail runs mostly through wet land, Paper said. Traveling in the summer would have been just about impossible. A log pattern called corduroy was laid to prevent sleighs from sinking through the ice and mud, he said.

Farmers wanted to plant wheat because it was the main cash crop, Paper said. Otherwise, it was primarily a barter economy.

"The big impetus was to get cash," he said.

When Wadena, Verndale and Aldrich were founded in the 1860s and 1870s no one knew that three huge prairies -- Shell Prairie, Hubbard Prairie and the Osage Prairie -- existed just north of the Shell River, Paper said.

"So the news of these three enormous prairies would have been really big news," he said.

Supposedly, Howitt, an Indian trader, told a man named Broadfoot who lived in Leaf River about the prairies and word spread, Paper said.

"When news got out, in a very short order ... many families were in that area tilling up the area and planting wheat," he said.

Verndale, Wadena and probably Aldrich all competed to get the wheat, Paper said. The only way the wheat could get to mill was the rail line which ran through these towns. There was very little rail north of here, he said. Verndale developed its wheat trail along old Indian trails, which were the most logical to follow, he said. But the trail did shift around according to conditions. Verndale decided to create a more direct route and surveyed along what is now County State Aid Highway 23, he said. Wadena used part of the Red River trail and extended it and cut into the Wheat Trail to divert some of the wheat. Ultimately, Wadena joined with Park Rapids to build the precursor to U.S. Highway 71, Paper said.

Shell City, located on the north bank of the Shell River, became a boom town due to the Wheat Trail. The town didn't prosper for long, though. Eventually the railroad expanded from the Eagle Bend area up to Bemidji and even Canada, he said.

"That was the end of the Wheat Trail," Paper said.

Shell City was abandoned and buildings were dismantled and rebuilt in Menahga, Sebeka and even Fargo, N.D.

Local historians Richard Paper, Clarence Horsager, Bob Zosel, John Crandall and Mary Harrison will lead the tour of the historical trail. The tour includes looking at some of the corduroy trails, lunch at the senior center in Nimrod and a visit to Shell City, although the tour will not cover that area as extensively as it has before, Paper said. The visit to Nimrod features a presentation by Joe Graba, a descendant of a man who ran a halfway house, which is kind of like a hotel, along the trail.

There is a cost for the tour and Paper recommends people make reservations because there are only 44 seats on the bus. There was a waiting list when the tour was last held in 2003 and Paper expects this tour will be full as well, he said. The bus will leave at 10 a.m. from the Burlington Northern Park in Verndale and will return by 4 p.m. or earlier. Reservations can be made by contacting WCHS Director Sandi Pratt at (218) 631-9079.