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Asher Murray: a generous, adventurous workaholic

Asher Murray

Sept. 21, 1858 -

April 5, 1928

As the son of a New York State judge who had a strict Scotch Presbyterian upbringing, Asher Murray inherited his father's seriousness and workaholic traits. Yet there was a sense of adventure in the 22-year-old who began a new life when he moved to Wadena, population 300, in the fall of 1879. Murray had a good mind for finances and land development and was key in establishing the foundation for both industries in Wadena. But he also loved agriculture. He raised quality livestock and enthusiastically embraced new technology. When other farmers resisted change, he found ways to get them to take notice.


Murray's grandparents, William and Jane (Black) Murray immigrated from Eskdalmuir, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, to Andes, N.Y., in 1818, where they raised eight children. Their third son, William Jr., was their first child born in the U.S. He became an attorney, then became justice of the peace in Delhi, N.Y. He married Rachel Merwin. William Jr. served 18 years as a New York State Supreme Court justice. The family home is known as Murray Home, a National Historic site.

Asher was the third of the couple's four children. He graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick, N.J., where he was elected Phi Beta Kappa, in 1879. He studied law and was admitted to the bar, but never practiced law in New York. He took a trip overseas with his father -- exploring Europe and the family's native land, Scotland.

When he arrived home, he headed west in 1880 to Wadena to join his cousin, Charles Peake. In 1882, he and Charles started a banking business, known as the Merchants Bank, Peake and Murray in a building located in the upstairs of the land office at 112 South Jefferson later moving to 123 South Jefferson. They operated this bank until 1892 when it was sold to a group of Wadena business men and the name changed to the Merchant's National Bank. Peake also opened a grocery store and Murray started a real estate and insurance business. He helped many immigrants get their homesteads.

In 1882, he was admitted to the Minnesota Bar Association and became a probate judge and practiced law. In 1905, he served a term representing Wadena county as a state legislator.

Family life

Susan Ophelia Merwin, a distant cousin on his mother's side, moved from New York to Minnesota in 1881. Murray met her and two sisters, Bessie Anne and Minnie at the train in St. Paul. In a 1938 Pioneer Journal newspaper article, Susan recalled the sight of blanket-clad Indians on the station platform.

"My first impression, when I could take my eyes off the Indians," she said, "was scattered dwellings and stores set in what seemed to be endless prairie."

Murray and Susan married before heading home to Wadena by wagon. Home was a cottage with a big potato patch near the center of town (currently the Cozy Theatre), Susan recalled that she worried about her children's safety because of the tangled brush, scrub oak and poplar trees south of the house. She felt better when the Murrays got a dog "treacherous with persons he did not know." She worried again when Asher had to shoot the dog after it bit a neighbor. Asher later commented that he never told her about the bullet hole in the front door, furnished by a bullet from the saloon across the street.

As the family grew, the Murrays moved to a larger home at 3 Emerson Avenue SE. They needed the space, not only for their own five sons and three daughters but also for other children they raised. Susan's brother and sister-in-law were killed in an accident and the Murrays took in their children, George and Anna Merwin. His own children were Arthur C., Nan, Harold, William, Whitney, Sue, Sam and Ethel.

Then in 1918, the flu epidemic hit. William (Bill), the Murrays' fourth child, died Dec. 7 after a bout with influenza-pneumonia. He was a healthy man with a wife, Mary Elizabeth Richter, and two young children, Frances and Asher. The whole family had influenza, but Bill, who ran his father's farm, was the only one not to survive. Because of the infectious nature of the disease, Bill's body was not taken to St. Ann's Church for the funeral. The Murrays helped support their son's family and when relatives, Harold Murray and Frank Richter, who were serving in the "American Expeditionary Forces in France" (World War I), came home, they helped on the farm. The farm was located just east of Fifth Street SE, Wadena.

Asher and Susan were generous to others too, providing food and necessities to families. Asher was known to take children to the store to buy them shoes. Perhaps that reflected a story passed down from his father. In New York, William Jr., and his brothers Robert and John carried their brother, David on their backs 6 miles to school. David was sickly and had a crippled foot. The brothers walked barefoot to make their shoes last longer.

At the lake

Murray loved to travel around the state and as a young man enjoyed primitive treks. In an 1894 letter to his sister, Annie, he wrote about a vacation to East Battle Lake and then to Itasca. He sent her a piece of birch bark and described how he and some friends made the 38 mile trip to Itasca Lake in a lumber wagon. When the tire broke, the men had to walk much of the trip. He marveled at the scenery, the depth of the lake and the remarkable echo of a pistol shot. "Camping agrees with me and I do not know that I ever felt better," Murray wrote.

Seventeen years later, Susan purchased two pieces of property totaling 4 acres for $51 on West Leaf Lake in Otter Tail County. The Murrays built a cabin on the hill and every spring, would move the household from Wadena to the lake -- often by bobsled as snow was still on the ground. Susan stayed there with the children until school started in the fall. Asher lived in Wadena and came out to the lake on some weekends.

The man who loved camping didn't spend as much time at the lake as his wife did.

"I remember Grandpa was quite a workaholic," remembered granddaughter Frances L. Murray. "He was seldom home on time for meals. Often he would show up some time in the afternoon for a quick meal, then go back to the office, working 12 or 14 hours a day. Grandma and her sisters ran the house. In the spring Grandma, Aunt Minnie, Aunt Ba and the children would move to the Leaf Lake cabin for several months. Grandpa mostly stayed in town, but would go for visits, which usually were spent talking business anyway."

Grandpa Murray was generous, however.

"Sometimes we children would visit him briefly (in his study), and he would give us some money, but always with the admonishment to save it," Frances recalled.


Agriculture intrigued Murray, who loved to take excursions in the countryside, with someone else driving so he could look at the crops and livestock. Granddaughter Frances Murray recalled how going to the lake with him seemed to take forever. It was just a trail to begin with, but she remembered one long, bumpy trip that took all day, as Murray stopped at several farms along the way.

He was a firm believer in new crops -- clover and alfalfa. According to an August 14, 1930, Pioneer Journal article looking back at Murray's life, the businessman gave 200 farmers a quart of clover seed one spring. According to family stories, if farmers weren't interested in trying it, he scattered clover seed in the ditches next to their fields.

According to the PJ April 12, 1928, article after his death, Murray was one of the largest land owners in the region -- Wadena, Todd, Cass, Hubbard and Becker counties -- and he conducted several farms. He was interested in purebred livestock. His son, Bill, shared his interests, took some Minnesota Agricultural school courses and raised Shorthorn cattle, purebred Percheron horses and Poland China hogs. After Bill died from influenza complications, Murray's other sons helped with the farms and other businesses.

Left his mark

Asher Murray left his mark on the land, through development -- including platting Hackensack, Minn. -- and agriculture. The April 12, 1928, PJ article after his death said, "Unselfish to the extreme, self was secondary. He was always striving to help his fellow men, and in all his thousands of dealings was four square, winning an enviable reputation for integrity, honesty and up righteousness. Quiet in his manner he went about his daily work unpretentious, yet ever on the alert to promote anything that had for its purpose the betterment of the community."

He was one of the best of the early movers and shakers that made Wadena a thriving community and headed for a prosperous future.