There’s a mystery with an elusive marker

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 1, 2002

Freeborn County has 15 historic markers, according to an old pamphlet issued by the historical society, and one of them appears to be part of an interesting mystery.

This particular metal plaque mounted on a large boulder was intended to mark the site of the first community in Freeborn County. It was placed at what then was a prominent place near the south shore of Albert Lea Lake in 1925 by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. This patriotic organization created what was called the county’s first historical marker to indicate the site of St. Nicholas, a pioneer settlement started in 1855. The town with the Christmas-like name was the county’s first village and actually established a few months earlier than Albert Lea.

In the early spring of 1855, Jacob Lybrand and Samuel M. Thompson from Green Bay, Wis., laid out a lakeside village they called St. Nicholas. Other pioneers soon settled in what they thought would be a community with future potential for growth.

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A plat filed on Nov. 26, 1856, shows a village with eight named streets and a park. By this time St. Nicholas had the county’s first trading post (general store), first post office (opened 1855, closed 1858), first hotel, first blacksmith shop, first sawmill, and what an information sheet says is the county’s &uot;first seaport.&uot; That last item can better termed as the first boat landing or dock.

Lybrand and Thompson thought St. Nicholas should be the logical place for the Freeborn County Courthouse. However, other new nearby towns named Itasca, Bancroft and Albert Lea also became involved in the intense competition for the county seat location.

When Albert Lea finally won the county seat honors in an October 1857 election, St. Nicholas started to fade away as a community. Today, farm fields, woods, several nearby residences, a county park, boat landing, and the DAR marker occupy the site of the former pioneer village of St. Nicholas.

One of the logical places to look for the DAR marker could be in St. Nicholas County Park. This acreage between South Shore Drive (County Road 19) and the lake has two entry driveways. Connecting these two access points is a trail through the lakeside woods which is about .2 miles long.

At the west end of this county park is a shelter structure, several picnic tables, and a small parking lot. Just to the east of the shelter structure is a freestanding bulletin board with information about St. Nicholas village and the reported location of the DAR marker. Information on this board clearly indicates the marker isn’t located within the county park. A typed message says the 1925 DAR St. Nicholas historic marker is &uot;near the present boat landing.&uot;

To the east about a thousand yards, according to one estimate, is the Albert Lea Lake Boat Launch area and parking lot with two entry driveways which has been provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Several of the concrete slabs used for the boat launch and take out ramp have the date of 1988 on them. This could be the date the lakeshore facility was installed.

However, despite the suggestion made on the bulletin board in the county park, the marker isn’t in or very near the boat landing area.

The large boulder or rock weighs about a thousand pounds, according

to one former resident of this neighborhood. Thus, it and its attached metal plaque should still be somewhere on the south shore of Albert Lea Lake..

In reality, the marker has never been moved. It’s located west of the boat landing and just beyond a curve sign next to South Shore Drive. Through the years the boulder seems to have developed a tan-like tint which has helped to camouflage the roadside marker between the roadway and the lake.

The shoulder for South Shore Drive at this particular location is very narrow. It would be more logical to park at the boat landing and walk about one-tenth of a mile to the marker for those who want to have a closer look at the reminder of the county’s first village.