This is the second article of a series on ghost towns in Morrison County. Next: Gravelville.
Back in 1908, the small town of Vawter was planted in Bellevue and Little Falls townships. Located along 103rd Street near Iris Road in Little Falls, what was once considered a booming town is now farm fields surrounded by wooded areas and the Soo Line Trail.
Several people were instrumental in the growth of Vawter. While Thomas F. Callahan, a farm boy of Irish immigrants living in Stearns County, is often credited as the founder of Vawter, it is believed that it was the enterprise merchant, John Schmolke of Buckman, who named the town — by accident.
According to a testimony by John Dickson in documentation at the Morrison County Historical Society, the name derived from a dispute by Schmolke about Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Railway’s (Soo Line) choice of location for building a train station.
Schmolke, who owned a lot of land near Vawter, wanted the train station to be built on his land, not on his neighbor William Zimmerman’s land.
In a broken English with a German accent, he told the railroad officials, “It is not goot to build on this land, too much vasser,” said Dickson’s testimony.
Somehow “wasser,” the word for water in German, was written down by the railroad officials and sent to Washington, D.C. as the name of the village.
Whether the name was changed to Vawter by a misreading the handwriting, misspelling of the word or officials in Washington, D.C. simply not liking it, remains unknown.
In 1908, the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railway (Soo Line) leased the Wisconsin Central line.
The train stop in Vawter made an enormous impact on farmers in the area as it gave them an opportunity to buy and sell at markets in Duluth and Morris.
Thousands of head of cattle were transported north from Vawter until 1922 when the local cattle association began shipping animals to St. Paul instead. At that time, St. Paul had become one of the prime livestock auctions in the country.
In 1908, Callahan built a general store in Vawter. As the railroad was nearby, he also started shipping 75 train car loads of meadow hay and about 2 1/2 loads of potatoes.
A lot of grain was hauled by train from the town’s elevator, which was owned by Schmolke. Business was booming.
“Most of the hay and grain was sold to the numerous logging camps in northeastern Minnesota. As horses were the main source of power in those early years, every small hamlet or town had a livery stable (Royalton had four),” said Dickson’s testament.
Besides managing a flourishing business, Callahan was also a believer in education. In 1910, he founded School District No. 133 with the assistance of Richard Dickson, John Duerr and Rev. J.R. Peterson of the Vawter Community Church.
The Soo Line was also used to receive and deliver mail. Before that, from 1908-1920, the mail had been delivered by rural service.
Over the years Vawter had a post office, it had all in all five postmasters, all of whom were storekeepers. Ross Bethel was the town’s first postmaster from 1920-1923, followed by Andrew Kainz from 1923-1925, Lois Boisvert from 1925-1928, George Kuschel, from 1928-1930, William Neils from 1930-1935 and Grace Adams from 1935-1940.
In 1940, the post office was closed and mail delivery was moved to the post office in Royalton.
In the 1923 Morrison County Plat Book, D.M. Brown of Milaca advertised property he was selling in Vawter, which also gives somewhat of a picture of what the town had.
The ad said, “‘Townsite Farm’ on which the townsite of the village of Vawter is located, a station on the Soo Line, contains unsold lots and unplatted ground amounting to nearly 58 acres. The young and growing village of Vawter contains a general store, post office, milk station, lumber yard, elevator and public school near by. Public worship and Sunday school are conducted here. The location of this farm is in the northeastern corner of Section 6, Township 39, Range 31.”
A newspaper clip dated June 6, 1936, tells of some random items that were found near Vawter. The clip said, “Two curios came in this week from Gregers Nelson’s farm near Vawter. One was an ear of corn, shelled, that is almost an exact replica of a human hand. The other, a coin dated 1760, with A.F. in large letters was turned up in the field by Walter Nelson. It looks like a foreign make or possibly American colonial.”
But as the Great Depression plagued the United States in the 1930s, Vawter and many other towns were affected. It ultimately disappeared in 1943.
Located near the intersection of 123rd Street and Haven Road in Little Falls is Gregory. It was a very small community that was planted along the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1882 after several people in the area requested it as many used the rail service in those days.
May 4, 2007, Lenny and Betty Rutz visited The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum and shared their experience of living at the Gregory Train Depot from 1950-1952.
After the couple married in June 1950, they first moved to Little Falls with their 14-foot trailer to work the night shift at the Little Falls Depot.
But about a month later, he heard about a job opening at the Gregory Depot and was hired. Before the moved into the depot, they sold their trailer to a school teacher.
The Gregory depot living quarters had a pantry, a bedroom and a combined living room, dining room and kitchen.
“We had no electricity in the living quarters, so we bought a gas refrigerator and a two-plate gas burner. We had a moveable small oven you could set on the burners if you wanted toast, warmed rolls, etc. The walls were an ugly tan, made from wainscoting that ran horizontally instead of up and down. We had to use the laundromat in town for our washings. The bathroom was an outdoor toilet, two seater,” the Rutzes said.
Lenny said sometimes they used the depot to hang dry washed clothes as it was warmer in there and the clothes dried quicker.
As they were acquainted with the train crews, it wasn’t unusual for crews to stop by from time to time. He recalled an incident one evening that left his wife quite embarrassed.
“One day my wife had handwashed some of her lingerie and had it draped on a wooden clothes drying rack we set up in the depot. All of a sudden, the train stopped and the crew started coming into the depot. I think we could have made the Guiness Book of Records for clearing a rack full of lingerie. My wife refused to come into the office and meet the crew,” Lenny said.
Another incident Lenny remembered was an incident that occurred while he had gone uptown and a bus with 30 or more men enroute to Ft. Snelling stopped by to use the restroom. Only Betty and her sister were at the depot.
“Of course most of the men couldn’t wait for the long lineup, so they used the back fence. The women didn’t dare to show their faces until after the bus took off,” he said.
Living in the depot was a unique experience. After a while, they became used to living so closely to the railroad.
“We got used to the train whistles and the rumbling and the shaking of the depot as the trains went by. One day our Corningware carafe, which had a metal top stuffed with cork, fell off the shelf as the train rumbled through, but didn’t break as it landed on the cork filled top,” he said.
While the couple was living at the depot, their son Bill was born in April 1951. Since a baby meant adding another dresser, a bathinette, a crib, and shelves for bottles, baby food, diapers and more, the Rutzes purchased a home in Little Falls.
About a month after they had moved, a position at the Royalton Depot opened up, which Lenny was hired for. He commuted back and forth from Little Falls for nine years until the old depot in Royalton was closed and a new one was moved in.
While living in Little Falls, Betty worked at Munsingwear for a while, but hated it. She then started working for Northern Pines, which was located above First National Bank in downtown Little Falls (now U.S. Bank). Northern Pines later moved to St. Gabriel’s Hospital.
“Betty liked her work with Northern Pines, along with the people she worked with,” Lenny said.
Lenny worked with the railroad for 21 years as a depot agent. Besides Little Falls, Gregory and Royalton depots, he also worked at the depots in Sauk Centre, Grey Eagle, St. Cloud and at five or six different depots in North Dakota and South Dakota.