Anoka County History: St. Francis – boom, bust, and rebirth

St. Francis is not the town it was at the turn of the twentieth century. Many factors contributed to its decline as it struggled to reach the midcentury mark. In the early 1900s the railroads were punching their way north. They passed up St. Francis in favor of Cedar and Bethel. St. Francis suffered greatly from the loss of the railroad as little by little the industries of St. Francis fell by the wayside as better transportation took the trade to larger towns. The population of St. Francis reflects this decline. In 1890 it was 324 increasing by nearly half to 483 in 1900. After the turn of the century it grew only slightly to 519 in 1910, reaching 589 by 1920 then declining in 1930 to 510 which held for almost the next 30 years when the main business was still farming.

Two major fires in 1933 and 1947 added to its misfortune. These are the accounts of those fires as described in the Anoka Union.

Union – July 19, 1933: “Fire which started in a grain flue in the old Woodbury mill at St. Francis completely destroyed the mill and the dam across the Rum River July 18, 1933, in one of the hottest blazes that the county has ever seen. The fire was first noticed by Mrs. R.G Streetly who gave a general alarm by shouting to several men in the C. H. Shaw store.

“Meanwhile the fire was gaining headway and the huge flames were lapping up the dry wood until the whole building became a blazing inferno. Dense clouds of smoke were being hurled skyward, burning embers as large as an average hand floated through the air, many landing as far as 400 feet from the building. The dam, which was erected when the mill was built, caught fire from the blaze which roared its way across the river. The efforts of several men stopped it from going any further.

The fire was the hottest that St. Francis had ever had. The heat from the huge building was so intense that one could not get within 400 feet of the blazing building. Shortly after 8:30 the fire had burned the main supports from the walls and the great blazing structure slowly settled to the ground. Sparks from that fall and from the blazing dam were carried onto the bridge which began to burn. Using buckets, groups of men succeeded in extinguishing the flames before any serious damage could be done.

“The mill was built by J.P. Woodbury in 1891 and did a large business for a number of years. About 10 years ago the mill quit running and since then had just been known as an old landmark. It was situated on the west bank of the Rum River about 100 feet below the bridge. The mill was owned by the heirs of the late J.P. Woodbury who live at Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“The only contents of the four story frame building were the mill machinery which was a total loss. The flames roared for six hours before the building and dam burned out. The fire came at a very fortunate time as there was hardly any wind last evening. Had there been any great amount of wind, it is doubtful if much could have been done to save the town. The old post office building and the hotel were threatened but the home folks kept on the job and saved their town.”

In 1942 the building that once house the St. Francis Potato Factory and later served as a dance hall, a place for meetings, and a garage burned as well, and five years later, another devastating fire that could have been an even greater disaster.

Union – Jan. 10, 1947 “Fire completely destroyed the Red and White grocery store at St. Francis January 8, 1947 and threatened to destroy the adjacent garage as well as the residence of store owner Robert Leathers before Anoka firemen could get the blaze under control. The loss was estimated at over $20,000. The fire, discovered by Leathers, seemed to have originated in or around the fuse box at the front of the store and spread rapidly. Leathers sounded the alarm and called the Anoka fire department.

“When local firemen arrived the roof of the store had fallen in and the building was in flames. The north side of Leathers’ house was burning and the contents of the storage tank on the pumper were used to stop this new fire.  An attempt was made to get the pumper into position so that water from the river could be used, but access to the river was impossible and St. Francis residents were asked to form a bucket brigade.  In less than two minutes the brigade was formed and water was kept pouring into the pumper tank by men, women, and children for over two hours as the firemen battled the flames and succeeded in keeping the fire confined to one building.  Other persons at the fire carried the furniture and other belongings from the Leathers’ home into the street when it was feared that the fire might destroy the residence. However, when the danger had passed the people got together and carried everything back.

“For over two hours the people of the St. Francis community and the Anoka firemen worked against almost overwhelming odds but were rewarded at the end by saving the house and most of the garage.  Neil Bennett and Paul Morton brought truckloads of milk cans filled with water which gave the bucket brigade a much needed rest and also kept the water pouring on the fire for some time.  At 3:30 a.m. Miss Moos and Mrs. Smith of Francis High School faculty served hot coffee and sandwiches to the fire fighters.

“St. Francis had signed less than two weeks ago, an agreement with the Anoka fire department to provide the village with fire protection. However, a pumper landing or approach to the river had not been completed. The fire fighters returned to Anoka early yesterday morning and went back to St. Francis at 7 a.m. with the new fire truck to check any further spread.”

So, in the first half of the twentieth century the up-and-coming town of St. Francis suffered a triple whammy; the loss of the railroad, a decline in farming and related industries, and major fires. But like the Phoenix of ancient legend, it rose from the ashes and experienced a rebirth of purpose.

Maybe the seed for change was planted in 1914 when St. Francis built the first consolidated high school in the State of Minnesota, for now, St. Francis is the educational hub of ISD 15. It houses the high school, an elementary and middle school, the district offices, transportation garage and Crossroads Alternative School along with the businesses and infrastructure to support them.  Adding to the mélange are two St. Francis churches, Trinity Lutheran and First Baptist, which also have their own schools. Once again, St. Francis is a viable, thriving community. I wonder what the Woodburys would think of their town now.

June Anderson is a member of and volunteer for the Anoka County Historical Society. She is also a member of the Coon Rapids Writers Group.

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