Anoka County History: The dam birthplace of Anoka

From May through Halloween my fellow docents from the Anoka County Historical Society and I guide brave and curious souls through the darkened streets of Anoka relating the history of the homes and places of business we encounter during our 1 mile walk — and speculating about some of the unexplained phenomenon that has occurred within those premises.

One of my favorite stopping places is the scenic overlook of the Rum River by city hall on First and Main. At this newly renovated vantage point you can see the one surviving Halloween medallion embedded in the pavement. It was commissioned Bernard Witte, a druggist on Main Street during the forties and designed by Alyce Vick, a high school student. And, as Halloween approaches you can also see an 8-foot pumpkin atop city hall keeping a watchful eye, albeit a winking one, on the city below. Crafted by Ron Lueck, a glass blower, the pumpkin was a gift from the city of Blaine in 1972. But probably the most spectacular sight is that of the Rum River Dam aglow with lights and this, I think, we can agree, is where Anoka began.

The dam was instrumental in the development of Anoka’s early economy which revolved around lumbering and milling. The first dam was built in 1853. Being an earthen dam it didn’t last long. It was swept away in the spring floods. A more substantial dam was built the next year. It was used to power the saw mills and flour mills being built along the banks of the Rum. One of them, the Reed & Sherwood Lumber Mill was located on the west bank just south of the railroad tracks. Another, the Washburn Saw Mill was located on the east bank, just north of Harrison Street. And there were many smaller operations as well.

Both saw mills and flour mills were periodically destroyed by fire and spring floods. The last flour mill was built on the site of our present day city hall by the Washburn Company in 1880. Named the “Lincoln Mill” in honor of President Lincoln, it was destroyed by the great fire of 1884 which also destroyed much of the city. The mill was immediately rebuilt with improved machinery and in 1890 it was sold to the Pillsbury-Washburn Flour Mills Company. It survived for over 50 years until another disaster hit Anoka, the Father’s Day Tornado of 1939.

Anoka’s present-day city hall was built on the site of the former Lincoln flour mill along the banks of the Rum in the mid 1950s with funds provided by Federal Cartridge, a major munitions factory on the outskirts of Anoka.

If you use Google Earth or fly over the building you can see that city hall resembles the shape of an army pistol; the “grip” once housed the police department, the “trigger” is the entry into the building, and from the observation point on First and Main you can look right down the “barrel” of the “gun.” City engineer at the time, Bob Johnson, said this is just a coincidence. But city hall was built with funds provided by Charlie Horn and Federal Cartridge and, if you lift up the mat in front of the receptionist’s desk, you will see the brass image of an army pistol embedded in the terrazzo.

June Anderson is a volunteer member of the Anoka County Historical Society. Join her had other docents this month for more history and mystery in the Ghosts of Anoka Tours. If you have a story to share, please contact her at [email protected]

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