Hastings, Minnesota: The Last City on the Mississippi
Early History of Hastings
Hastings is one of the oldest towns in Minnesota. It was established during the 1840s, and buildings from its early years still line Main Street. In fact, Hastings has more than 60 structures on the National Register of Historic Places.
Its history extends even further back than its buildings. In 1820 a keelboat moving upstream from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to re-supply a military encampment at what would later become Fort Snelling, was forced by encroaching ice to encamp at the point which later became Hasting. The men spent the winter there, and brought the supplies further upstream in smaller, more manageable amounts as they were needed.
In 1853, two years after the Dakota had ceded their land west of the Mississippi to the government, Hastings was officially platted, and it grew rapidly. Four years later it was incorporated as a city. Its location on the river made it a very convenient place to live, and the location was further enhanced by the fact that in many years, due to the shifting channel currents, it was the last town on the Mississippi to which the river boats could navigate.
The Vermillion River and Milling in Minnesota
Across the heart of Hasting runs another river. The Vermillion is a tiny but ferocious river that few notice during a drive through town. During the city’s early years it provided more than enough hydro power to run the many flour mills that sprang up to supply the needs of the farmers on the rich farmlands to the west, and also the lumber mills to cut the massive rafts of timber being sent downriver from the pine forests on either side of the St. Croix River.
The Growth of Hastings
Blessed with so many natural advantages, and with ample supplies of local commodities moving through town to be processed and shipped to far-flung places along the river, it is no wonder that Hastings swiftly grew into an affluent town. At one time, it could boast of ten hotels, four breweries, and saloons almost beyond number. As you drive through town, it might be worth taking a spin down a few of the side streets to see some of the elegant Victorian mansions that remain from the era. The city hall, with its classic dome, which you may notice looming above the trees as you enter the city, is also worth a look. The building served as the Dakota County Courthouse for more than a hundred years. It was purchased by the city and renovated in 1993. You can visit during normal business hours and examine the many works of art on display there that celebrate the city’s culture and traditions.
A Trip through Hastings
As you pass south through the city, you will undoubtedly notice a magnificent mansion set well back from the street on your left-hand side. That’s the LeDuc-Simmons mansion, built in 1865, and recently re-opened for tours following a lengthy period of renovation. The house has 15 rooms, nine fireplaces, servant’s quarters and a third-story chapel. The home was built by General William LeDuc, a local luminary and civil war hero who eventually became secretary of agriculture to President Rutherford B. Hayes.
The Le Duc-Simmons Mansion is sometimes referred to as the most romantic example of Gothic Revival architecture in the nation. Well, who can say? In any case, there is no doubt
that the designs Le Duc used in building his estate were heavily influenced by the writings and philosophy of architect Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing’s books on country architecture were widely read and consulted in those days, and did much to spread the “Carpenter” Gothic and Hudson River Bracketed architectural styles among Victorian builders. We might consider him the Martha Stewart of the 1840s.
What makes the LeDuc mansion especially pleasing to the visitor is that not only the house, but also the grounds–including barn, ice house, and outbuildings—are still standing. In fact, it may be one of the few remaining Downing-inspired estates left intact in the nation.
Inventions in the Milling Industry
Just down the way from the LeDuc Mansion, on the same side of the street, you may happen to spot the ConAgra mill. That mill, though not that building, was established in 1853 by Harrison Graham, whose family invented Graham Crackers. The mill was later owned by Stephen Gardner, famous as the inventor of the milling process that produces “patent flour.” LeDuc himself once owned the mill too. It is still in operation, and is widely thought to be the oldest continuously operating mill in the state.
If you liked this post, please subscribe to our blog.
If you really liked this post, please purchase one of our MN Tours. Our audio driving tours guide you along scenic highways in Minnesota while relating stories like this one about the areas you’re driving through, right as you’re driving through them.