This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Woods or Crow Wing Branch of the Red River Oxcart trail through Wadena County. You can't follow this path today without some guessing and extensive consent from private landowners, but new signage allows those passing by to at least remember that oxcarts full of important items once rambled through this region, seeking safe passage to prosperity.
Other than Native Americans, the oxcart trail brought the first people into Wadena County with the Meti people who drove the oxcarts from the Winnipeg and Pembina area through here on their way to Fort Snelling. Once there, they sold the furs, the carts were taken apart and the wood sold. The Meti turned around and walked back along the trail to Pembina and Winnipeg, returning again the next year.
Recently Wadena County Highway Department staff installed new signage marking the locations of the trail. Old Wadena Society member John Crandall supplied the historical research for the locations. The new signs are in place of wooden signs erected in the early 1970s by members of the Wadena County Historical Society. Those early signs have mostly disappeared. Old Wadena Society President Thomas Crawford said there were a few that felt it important to erect the wooden signs years ago, and he felt it was still an important marker of the area history.
"Those three or four early WCHS people were real heroes in preserving and promoting the county’s early days. We felt if they had put in the time to mark the trail through the county, the least we could do is repeat their project, but use signs that hopefully will last forever," Crawfard said.
Crandall said the new signs are likely within 30 feet of the original ox cart trail and are located on four major highways in the county including:
- County Road 29 where the trail exits Old Wadena County Park,
- County Road 26,
- County Road 23
- Count Road 4, near Wards Auto in Wadena.
The trail then heads into Otter Tail County towards Detroit Lakes, according to Crandall.
Crandall said the project was able to come together thanks to a generous donation from the Duane Lund estate. Lund passed away in December 2016 and was a well-known historian, author and former Staples School Superintendent.
"We thought it would be fitting," Crandall said of using a portion of the funds to preserve this piece of history.
Using those funds, signs were purchased and Wadena County donated use of sign posts and time to install them. Crandall was not sure how he might locate the trail crossing at first, but soon ran across some old survey maps he had requested years ago when he was working on a history book. Working with the county, he laid those maps over modern-day maps and was able to get very close.
"As close as we could get," Crandall said. "We just wanted them close enough for people to go by and know it's there."
Crandall is not aware of any signs of visible trail remaining. The closest would be in Old Wadena Park just north of the sign indicating the old ferry crossing. There was once a visible cut in the river bank where the oxen and carts would work their way up and out of the cool waters of the Crow Wing River. If you don't mind a bit of an adventure, you might be able to spot the remnants of this trail, not used for some 150 years.
The ox cart trail enters Wadena County’s eastern boundary by crossing the Crow Wing River and climbing the bank at Old Wadena. The trail is a major part of the park’s history.
Crawford said he hadn't heard of the trail until he moved to the Staples area.
"What has intrigued me are stories of how the oxcarts, which had no grease or oil, squeaked with every inch that it traveled," Crawfard said. "A whole train of carts must have raised a noise that could be heard for miles. Today people complain about the sound of trains waking them up at night. Wonder what anyone along the trail thought about the noisy train of ox drawn, wooden carts. that’s just another piece of the history that we don’t want to lose."
Learn more about the signage and the Old Wadena Society at http://oldwadenarendezvous.org/redriver.php.