Anoka County History: Legacy of James Elwell in county

One of Anoka County’s more interesting ancestors is James T. Elwell.

He was born in Ramsey County in 1855, so his family must have been one of Minnesota’s earliest settlers.

I suspect his family was wealthy because James was educated at Carleton College.
After college, James amassed more wealth when he invented the spring bed.

He founded the Minneapolis Furniture Company and the Minneapolis Bedding Company, but apparently he was not one to lay about on his own invention.

Instead, he moved to Minneapolis to oversee the manufacturing, and to look for ways to invest his growing capital.

He became aware of vast tracts of land in northern and eastern Anoka County in what is now Columbus, Linwood, and Blaine.

The land was not highly valued because it was low and boggy, unfit for farming and inaccessible by any existing roads.

In 1886, Elwell purchased 8500 acres from Montgomery and Morley.

He also bought all the land owned by the Great Northern, St. Paul and Duluth Railroad. (That’s one railroad — not three as the name seems to imply.)

Next he purchased the Jay Cooke estate and 6,000 acres from Parker and Johnson.  In all, he owned 52,700 acres at one point.

Perhaps his college degree was in civil engineering, or perhaps he simply couldn’t stand the idea of land lying unused.

Whatever his motivation, James Elwell decided to drain the bogs.

He simply mapped out the path across the swamp to where he wanted to go.

He dug two trenches and piled the excavated dirt into a mounded strip between the two.

When he was done, the high part was now a passable road, the ditches were filled with water and the land behind the ditches became suitable for farming.

His useless swamp was now prime real estate, fronting on the only road through the area.

So he sold it, and bought more swamp land to drain.

He built 200 miles of ditches at a cost of $1,000 per mile.

His first road was built to connect Elwell’s Oak Leaf Stock farm in Ham Lake to his Golden Lake Stock Farm in Blaine.

The road was initially called the Elwell Grade, but is known today as Lexington Avenue.

By the late 1880’s, Blaine had 350 acres under cultivation and was producing thousands of bushels of farm produce.

It was all because James Elwell created an environment where farms and businesses could grow out of the swamps.

That’s quite a legacy!

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

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