So you’re driving down either Minnesota State Highway 71 or 72 and you see ditches similar to small canals that run vertical to the highway. They go out of sight and most times seemingly explore and drain our most rugged terrain. They are now recognized as Judicial Ditches, but how did they there get there and why? I am also curious about what your opinion is of what our landscape would look like if they were not there? Would there be more or less wetlands?
Do you know that the Judicial Ditches that crisscross our area that seemingly were platted by the proverbial mad-hatter, were driven by the incessant immigration in the United States from east to west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Many of our civil servants felt that Minnesota was bypassed during the exodus of immigrants to the Western U.S. and multiple Minnesota Governors, and even the President of the United States, were told that according to then current exploration, if you would (not could) drain the vast worthless swamps of Northern Minnesota Territory you would create a mecca for agriculture only seen in the historic valleys of the Nile River system. They thought it a swell idea. There are literally thousands of miles of these ditches across the upper tier of Northern Minnesota and indeed hundreds of miles in both LOW and Kooch Counties.
However it was not without a first class “kerfuffle” before the idea was abandoned; but it was a good show for a while. You see our local government officials, even those with a dose of trepidation, thought it an outstanding proposition with the prospects of extended settlement creating vibrant commerce. The adventure went poorly because the grand idea and the premise behind it was that settlers would flock to our area, prosper and bring needed human interaction to facilitate growth and enlarge the tax base. Our local units of government, short of ready cash, borrowed the needed capital to dig these ditches through the public bonding process with the idea that when the area was homesteaded the new property taxes garnered would pay off the bonds. It happened. The settlers came, some misinformed, but they came. It did not take to long for many to realize there may have been a smidgen of bamboozlement and conditions were such that in many cases they left resulting in lower than anticipated revenue for the local units of government and the northern counties ultimately defaulted on the bonds. The State of Minnesota intervened and as a requisite acquired the lands by paying off the bonds, but it was not without some drama and contentiousness as the Governor eventually ended up removing some County Commissioners from Kooch. In the end Minnesota became owners of vast tracts of land that proved to be less than the center and hub of their stated goal of creating a world class agricultural paradise.
There was gossipy speculation that many were hoodwinked. A promotional pamphlet from the Rulien Land Company in Baudette was circulated to would be settlers following the passage of the Volstead Act in 1908. The company iterated that they had mapped this area for the State of Minnesota, that they themselves resided here and had engaged in locating tracts in our area for several years and indeed had prime acreage available. The charge for locating parcels was $100 with $50 due on completion of a contract and the balance to be paid when the final certificate of ownership was issued from the United States. It stated that there were over 300 miles of ditches already completed on the project and more underway. They opined that if you were interested it was absolutely crucial that you should act at once before it is too late, prospective folks were told that there would be good access as when the ditches were dug the soil was piled up and leveled into passable roads where you can even run an automobile. Rulien’s promotion pointed out that there were great differences in the value of various quarter sections, some with merchantable timber on them such as cedar, spruce and tamarack while others had already been sufficiently drained for cultivation. The history of this endeavor partially explains why some lands were later involved in a significant resettlement program in the 1930’s that added tens of thousands of acres to the Beltrami State Forest.
So whattya think? What would our landscape look like without the apical public ditching saga? If ya really wanna get the inside scoop check out your historical museums literary memorabilia.