A BRIEF HISTORY OF LAKE OF THE WOODS COUNTY
(Portions reprinted from A Brief History, Lake of the Woods Historical Society)
Lake of the Woods County was organized on November 28, 1922 when a vote by area residents separated the northern townships from Beltrami County. On January 1, 1923, the county officially began operations at its county seat in Baudette.
The history of the Lake of the Woods region began in 1688 when Jacques De Noyon came from Three Rivers, Quebec to become the first white man to view the waters. Prehistorical evidence dates back more than 5,000 years, perhaps extending back 10,000 years to ancient people who followed the retreating glacial ice into the area.
Following Jacques De Noyon’s arrival in 1688, there are no known expeditions to the Lake of the Woods area until Pierre La Verendrye came with a party of more than 50 men in 1732. La Verendrye found northern Minnesota populated by Cree, Monsonis, Assiniboine and Sioux Indians. The Ojibwe had not yet pushed as far west as Lake of the Woods. The La Verendrye party was a victim of Indian warfare when Father Aulneau and 19 other men were massacred on an island in the lake by the Sioux war party which had set out to attack a Village of Cree. Today there are two islands on the lake which are identified as Massacre Island. Each has its supporters for being the site of the Massacre. History for the next 75 to 100 years was characterized by the onset of the voyageurs and rivaling fur trading companies.
In 1823, members of the International Joint Boundary Commission arrived on the lake. They had been appointed to establish the border between Canada and the United States as it had been designated in the treaty which ended the Revolutionary War. One of the most difficult points of contention was the establishment of the most northwesterly point on the Lake of the Woods. The Commission found a point which they claimed was the most northwesterly spot. However, the surveyors from the two nations differed on just where they had located the spot. The dispute continued for the next century and the final agreement was not signed until the 1920’s. The end result was that the U.S. retained possession of the Northwest Angle. As the United States’ most northerly point (before the admission of Alaska), the Northwest Angle became Lake of the Woods County’s most famous piece of real estate.
In 1885, the county area got its first permanent settler when Wilhelm Zippel settled on the south shore of the Lake of the Woods at Zippel Bay. He was a German immigrant who worked as a fisherman. Later in that same year, Alonzo Wheeler settled at Wheeler’s Point at the mouth of the Rainy River. Thomas Cathcart came to the border area in 1891 and later joined Joe Beaudette, a trapper who would later give his name to the town of Baudette. In 1901 William Mason and George Williams followed the railroad track roadbed to stake claims at the site which would grow into the community of Williams.
Baudette and Spooner became incorporated villages in 1906. Spooner, informally referred to as East Baudette, took its name from Judge Spooner of Bemidji, who had been instrumental in obtaining the incorporation papers for the town.
On October 4, 1910, a disaster struck the Lake of the Woods area. A forest fire which started east of Williams burned most of the northern half of the county and left 43 people dead. After recovering from the fire, the county experienced another settlement boom. Within the decade following, nearly every 160 acre plot was claimed. Most of these settlements have now disappeared and have been reclaimed by the wilderness.
In November of 1922, the vote for separation from Beltrami County was carried. Local residents had been dissatisfied with the services they had been receiving from Beltrami County in exchange for their tax dollars. The difficulty in making the two or three day train trip to the county seat contributed to this feeling. However, a small population, combined with the Great Depression a few years later, caused financial problems from the start.
Spooner and Baudette combined in 1954, and the courthouse was moved across the bay to the old Spooner school, ending years of squabbling over which town should be the county seat. The courthouse continues to be housed in this building today, with the addition of a new Law Enforcement Center in 1983.
The attractions of Lake of the Woods County are much the same as they were when the pioneers came to settle – fishing, hunting, forest, water, clean air and land. The pioneer spirit which enabled people to overcome the hardships of a wilderness still survives today. May we be wise enough to recognize those factors which make for the quality of life in Lake of the Woods County and prudent enough to preserve and expand them.