Anoka County history: The pioneers of Oak Grove in 1855

Oak Grove lies between Nowthen and East Bethel, south of St. Francis and north of Andover, in the northwest quadrant of Anoka County, and covers about 23,000 acres.

It was first carved out of the pine forests and swamps in 1855, when claims were filed by three hearty pioneers, Moses S. Seelye, Jarvis Nutter and John M. McKenzie.

Their family names are still familiar to locals today.

They clustered together on the west side of the Rum River, and the following year, they were joined by another group on the east side- a group that historian Albert Goodrich called “a substantial settlement”.

They broke the sod and planted the first crops, augmenting their produce with game and fish in order to survive, while much of their energy went into building.

The very next year, 1857, only two growing seasons since the establishment of the first farm, there was a real community here.

Religious services were being held by Rev. Lyman Palmer and a Baptist church was organized.

Miss Nora Orton was busy teaching the first school and Mrs. John C. Smith gave birth to a little girl, Rosalia B. Smith, the first white child born in the fledgling settlement.

The area was organized as a town and the first town officers were elected. Yes, 1857 was a busy year!

By 1860 the population had grown to 231.

In the next decade, other equally promising areas may have lured away a few of the less stalwart pioneers, and the population had declined to 198 by 1870.

The numbers rebounded, and in 1880 Oak Grove had 305 people, a few less in 1890 and by 1900 a population of 494.

During this same time, while Oak Grove was building a town on both sides of the Rum River, another little community, located a little to the east, was beginning its life as Cedar.

The Potato Famine in Ireland caused the immigration of Irish Catholic families, including the Flaretys, the Kellys, the Gillises, and the Gallaghers.

They were joined by the Mahoneys, the Flynns, Greens, Gilligans, Lees,and Ryans.

All were accomplished potato farmers. The area’s swampy peat soil was perfect for their needs.

The huge swamp just east of Cedar was home to furbearing game and grew cranberries and wild rice, which the hungry immigrants soon learned to utilize.

Now, over 150 years later, I suspect the early pioneers would be delighted with the community their descendents have built.

On Saturday, April 13 at 2 p.m., the Anoka County Historical Society and Anoka County Library will present a program on the history of Oak Grove at the Rum River North Shelter Building at 23100 Rum River Blvd. in St. Francis.

Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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