558 E. Maple and the Powell family – the most important family to ever live in River Falls, Wisconsin! The definitive history here

This week’s River Falls Journal has an article about the Historic Preservation Commission honoring 558 E. Maple. That home is one of 4 homes still standing that were once homes of members of the Powell family, the founding family of River Falls. While Joel Foster was here earlier than the Powell family, he did not put together the village of River Falls. River Falls would not be what it is today without this family.
The Powell family in River Falls initially consisted of two brothers Nathaniel and Oliver S. Powell who came to the St. Croix Valley later in 1849. They initially looked at land in Saint Paul near Ford Parkway, but ultimately made a pass at that land and bought 180 acres where core of the city of River Falls stands today. That year they brought by steamboat the first threshing machine ever operated north of Prairie du Chein, Wisconsin. The farm they threshed on was located two miles south of Stillwater, the Fisk or Fiske farm (depending on the source). The brothers were born in Madrid, Saint Lawrence County, New York. The Powell family were descendants of a Welsh family who came to the colonies in 1730. Their father, Deacon William Powell was born in Lansboro, Massachusetts in 1784. In 1805 he married Lucy Newell in Charlotte, Vermont. They then moved to northern New York, then a frontier. In 1843, after the death of his wife Lucy, the family moved to Augusta, Illinois where it was also frontier territory at that time. There was the father William and his five children: Amy age 31, Rhoda age 29, Lyman age 21, Nathaniel age 15 and Oliver S. age 12. The daughters stayed in Illinois while Lyman and their father William all came to River Falls just after Nathaniel and Oliver did. It was said that the father William Powell, when he was 65 in 1849 just missed the last steamboat of the season down the Mississippi. He had business to attend to so he bought a rowboat at Prescott and he and Oliver took the boat to Keokuk, Iowa, pretty much all unsettled territory at that time.
It is unclear what exactly happened with the Powell brothers in River Falls during the year of 1850. They lived in a log shanty up on the Mound at that time. By 1851 they built the first real house in River Falls, which would have been located on the southeast corner of Main and Maple today where the Drewkie Building is holding the corner saloon. They then decided to put in a stock of goods for a store, which was called the Pioneer Store appropriately.  It was built by Osborne Strahl and Charles B. Cox from lumber cut at Cox’s saw mill in Clifton Hollow. Horace A. Taylor hauled the lumber through Mann Valley with two yoke of oxen. There were a few families like the McGregor, Mapes and Foster families among a few others, but their homes would have been located outside of what became the original village limits. This building was the center of River Falls for its earliest years. The first church service was held there in 1853. The first white child born in River Falls was born there on January 26, 1854, Nathaniel Powell’s daughter Eva Lucille Powell.

Eva Powell – the first white child born in River Falls, Wisconsin

The first post office was started in that building in February 1855, Charles Hutchinson post master. After the great influx of settlers into River Falls in 1854, the store took in $20,000 worth of business during 1855. The records of this store are located at the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul. There is huge amounts of material there relating to the Powell family and early River Falls. It is well worth taking a look at if ever studying that early period of River Falls history. After the business became too much for them they rented the store to William W. Patterson, William Powell (no relation), Joseph Bowron, Benjamin Vannatta, Gwilym ApRoberts, Fred Darling, Gwilym ApRoberts again, then finally sells to George Mapes in May 1866. Mapes closed the general store in November 1874. A bakery then a harness shop moved in after that, but the building ultimately burned down in a fire that burned the entire block during April 1878.

In 1852 the Powell brothers built the first sawmill in River Falls, which would be located where the railroad tressels are today. They had to get the materials for this mill from Chicago. The mill dam gave them trouble early on and broke during August 1853. It ultimately burned down in 1876. In 1854, the village of Kinnickninnic, was platted by the Powell brothers 80 acres on the east side of the Kinnickinnic. This plat included the upper waterfalls, which were donated to Charles B. Cox to induce him to put a flour mill, the Prairie Mill on that site and move from Clifton Hollow. The other mills started by Cox, the Greenwood Mill and Junction Mill would not have been possible without the support of the Powell brothers selling the land there for a cheap price. During 1854, the Powell’s built a second home on what is now 3rd Street – 107 S. 3rd Street. The brothers then platted out 120 acres on the west side of the River in 1856. One block was set aside for River Falls Academy square, where the first higher educational institution opened later that year. This has been continuously used as an educational facility and is where the River Falls Academy is today. They also donated land for the first Congregational church, which they were a part of and the Methodist Church. In 1856, their older brother Lyman Powell moved with his family to River Falls with his wife, Lucinda Taylor (sister to Horace and Lute Taylor who started the River Falls Journal in 1857) and five children all under age 10. Their children at that time were Frances age 9, Alice age 7, Ida age 5, and William an infant. This necessitated building another home, this time on the West Side. Nathaniel and his wife and daughter built a home at what is now 421 N. Freemont Street. Although highly modified from those years, it also still stands today and I think is the oldest home on the West Side.

Nathaniel N. Powell 1827 – 1862 – co-founder of River Falls

Nathaniel Powell would open a new dry goods store in Charles Cox’s hall during the summer of 1859. This hall was located where River Falls Tire, Inc. is located today. It was River Falls’s first public meeting place. He would run this store until his death on February 7, 1862, age 36. It is unclear what Nathaniel Powell died of, but I always have suspected tuberculosis. His wife Martha and children Eva age 8, and Wintrhop age 2 would stay in River Falls where the children worked in downtown stores like ApRoberts store. Then in 1884  they moved to Warren, Minnesota where Winthrop became part of a large implement and hardware store business with fellow River Falls native George Clinton Winchester.
Oliver Powell married Lydia Nichols on September 27, 1860. Oliver Powell would open a second general store during 1860 in the Babcock block located today where the Tremont building is. This would be open throughout the Civil War. In 1868, Oliver purchased 220 acres of land just east of River Falls, part of which is where 558 Maple is today. The next year he built the house the Oliver Powell family would live in part until 1952, 403 E. Maple. The Prescott Journal had this to say about the home upon its completion in December 1869:  Oliver Powell has moved into his new house. Lovers of architecture should visit his cottage as it is model of neatness and good taste. The inside furnishings is nearly all one in black ash giving a fine appearance of the rooms. It is by far the finest house ever built in the village and is a fine addition to it.

The Oliver Powell home on 4th Street – bulit in 1869

On November 9, 1872 River Falls lost another founding Powell brother when Lyman died at age 50 of tuberculosis. The Lyman Powell family stayed in River Falls with their daughter Alice and River Falls first City Clerk among other things, her husband living in the home at 107 S. 3rd Street. Their granddaughter Laura Weld, born in 1872. also lived in the home and owned a bookstore downtown. John Prucha remembered Laura Weld in this exerpt from Kinnickinnic Years (1993):

One day I was in third grade I left home early enough after lunch to have sufficient time to swing down to and along Main Street as a deliberate detour enroute back to Campus School, which I attended. I did this frequently, for I always enjoyed the excitement to be derived from window shopping along the way.

On this particular day I made the mistake of taking a short cut diagonally across the front lawn of the house on the southwest quadrant of the intersection of Walnut and Third Streets.
     I had not gone far when I was brought up short by a stern and strident reprimanded from Miss Laura Weld., a prim grey haired spinster with metal-rimmed pince-nez glasses, who ran a book and stationary store on Main Street. She knew all the youngsters in town because her shop was where most of us went to buy crayons, ink and other kinds of essential school supplies.
     “Why, John Prucha, you know better than to trespass upon someone else’s property!, she shouted at me. She was right of course, but I countered, “I’m only using a path across here others had made.” to no avai! That doesn’t make any difference. You know better, and you should do the right thing no matter what someone else does,” she admonished me.
     I retracted my illicit steps back to the sidewalk and made a proper orthogonal turn at the corner, knowing full well that word of this object lesson would never reach my parents. The exchange was simply between me ant the caring shopkeeper.

107 S. 3rd Street as it looked in 1978- the Nathaniel / Lyman Powell home – perhaps the oldest home in River Falls still standing. Too bad it is a college rental now.

Oliver S. Powell became a representative to the state assembly in 1870 and stayed that way until 1872.With Allen Weld’s father also known as Allen Weld they convinced the powers that be to locate the 4th Normal School here. This is now the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. Oliver would take over the goods of Mark Sanderson in the building  where Glass Express is now in 1875, when Sanderson went Bankrupt with a partner Titus Bunnell. This would be until 1879 when Martin Wolf, a Stillwater brewer bought the building. Powell also looked into getting a railroad into River Falls as early as 1860. While two railroad efforts ended in failure, one amounted in success in 1878 when the Western Wisconsin Railroad built a branch line into River Falls that year. This railroad would run until 1966, 92 years and be a very important part of the community.
In 1880, for whatever reason Oliver Powell became interested in Sorgum manufacturing and building up his farm. The July 29, 1880 River Falls Press had this to say “Oliver Powell is putting up an extensive building upon his farm for the storage of grain and machinery, and for stabling his large herd of cattle during the winter.” In 1887, he built one of the first silos in the St. Croix Valley on this farm. At that time he had 30 head of cattle, 10 horses, and 150 sheep.

The cane mill was built where the Meyer Middle School is today. It is no coincidence that there was problems with the pool and foundation of that building. Powell built there because there was  a source of water unequaled anywhere else on his farm. This mill’s production varied, but in the season of 1885 11,000 gallons of sorgum were produced. His son Harvey helped him extensively with the operation and they both would attend conferences in places like Madison, St. Louis and New Orleans to find out the latest methods and techniques of sorgum manufacture. The product would be shipped out to the Chicago market where it was said demand was unequaled for it. A large article can be found on the mill in the October 13, 1881 issue of the River Falls Journal to those interested in learning more particulars of that mill. Unfortunately the mill would be Oliver’s demise. On September 26, 1888, he became caught between its rollers and the injuries were such that he died later the same day. All businesses in town closed the day of his funeral, a Saturday, a very busy day in that time period. He was respected by all. This is what the paper had to say:

As a neighbor, obliging and sympathetic, always rejoicing in the prosperity of his neighbors, he had a helping hand for all, and those lips now forever sealed, had other things than scandal to publish of his fellows.
He was not without human frailties, but in the essentials of his nature he was an honorable, earnest, reliable, generous brake, and at times heroic man. It was natural for him to e on the right side of things. In his convictions he was abiding sometimes, intense, but too broad and liberal to be a crank. His understanding of human nature was unusual; and when he chose to exert his influence he was a power. No mention is made of the public positions he held. they are often accidental and mean little, But his public spirit will be remembered as his pre-eminent quality. What a misnomer would a history of River Falls left out! Whenever there has been an enterprise afloat looking forward the material or moral good of the place, this busy man was never busy or tired; this man of rigid personal economy never frugal. With ready hand, open pocket and dauntless eye, he was ever in the forefront of the effort. There is not a protestant church here that did not have a site given it by Mr. Powell. What do not our schools owe to him? Was there ever a railroad in sight? he was the first to the front and the last to leave the field.That these words are the verdict of the community, the gloom that settled upon the city at the announcement of his tragic end full faithfully attests.

Oliver Powell’s plat at Greenwood Cemetery – His death in 1888 was a tragic loss to River Falls

This was reprinted in his Hometown New York Newspaper as well as later articles about him being one of the most important people to come out of Madrid, New York. In 1900 Osborn Strahl, who was one of Oliver’s closest confidants,  had this to say about Olvier S. Powell:

Nathaniel Powell died early leaving the Oliver the younger brother in charge of the principal affairs of the Pioneer store and as subsequent years proved he was an important factor in building up of the place and the general development of the country round about. Overflowing with energy and good will he made himself in my estimation the head man of the neighborhood worth more to this place and community than any other man who ever livd here, and when his useful career was cut short a few years ago in the cane mill it was a large loss – the place has never been filed. Where is the man that would do as much help and risk as much? is unanswered.

558 E. Maple St. in 1978- the Oliver Powell farm house – built there or moved there? More research needs to be done!

The Powell legacy to River Falls did not end with Oliver’s death. It is my opinion that the house at 558 E. Maple was moved to the Powell farm shortly after Oliver’s death. The primary source of this is a school history of the River Falls Institute which I glossed over in the other school history that I did in early 2011. Here is an excerpt that talks about this possible move:

When Cady was superintendent of schools Hiram S baker was the property owner, was with M.E. Severence and Hattie Levings for 2 years. 1876 Baker was also county superintend of schools Fall of 1877 inducements to reopen the school patrons good Normal school largely absorbed the teaching element. Professor Cady professor at Collegiate institute purchased 3 lots on corner of Elm and 4th street upon where the old school was J Lord committee for building did not charge to the institute was 40 x 60 feet 2 stories high one addition to the rear was arranged with ample study room and assembly room. Apri4, 1876 cyclone visited unroofing the incident. replace by a hip roof. square roof had a tower furnished with a bell. hip roof replaces it. This building was purchased by Mrs. Oliver Powell and moved up on the farm and rearranged for dwelling house.

Oliver and Lydia Powell and their children in a formal portrait at Kellogg Studio

Oliver and his wife Lydia had seven children Lucy, Birdie, Amy, Harvey, Newell, Lyman and Miriam. Their oldest daughter Lucy married Elbridge Currier in 1883. They lived on the Currier farm in Clifton until 1901 when they moved to the house at 558 E. Maple Street where they had a truck garden farm until 1934 when they moved to 207 N. 4th street across from the other Powell house where Sarah “Birdie” Powell lived and their parents lived before that. The Currier family had 5 children, one of which Margaret stayed in River Falls area and married James Allen, who living people may remember farming just outside of town. “Birdie” always stayed in River Falls and was a music teacher who taught at her home until her death in 1952. Amy married Charles Bliss who was in the insurance business in Minneapolis. She later moved to the Los Angeles Area. Amy had no children. Son Harvey Oliver Powell started a bank at White Rock, South Dakota before moving to Weyburn, Saskatachawan Canada where their home is on the local historic register. The city’s website has this to say about the home at 815 4th Street SE:
The heritage value of the Powell Residence lies in its association with its first owners Harvey and Elizabeth Powell. The Powells’, originally from White Rock, South Dakota, moved to Weyburn in 1907. It was in that year the Mr. Powell began his career as the first and only Manager of the Weyburn Security Bank, the first federally chartered bank with its headquarters in Saskatchewan. Mr. Powell’s success as a banker led to the bank’s success until the 1930s. The economic recession resulted in the Weyburn Security Bank selling out to the Imperial Bank of Canada in 1931. Initially educated as a lawyer, Mrs. Powell was actively involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was President of the Knox Auxiliary Women’s Foreign Missionary Society in Weyburn from 1909-1910.

The heritage value of the Powell Residence also lies in its architecture and location. The general symmetry of the building bears a slight reference to the Georgian architectural style as noted by the covered entrance. Constructed in 1913, the three-story house is considerably larger than other residences built during this period on Signal Hill. The building’s size is similar to the Moffet Residence, the home of Frank Moffet, a prominent member of Weyburn’s business community.

Newell Nicholas Powell started a bank in Fairmount, North Dakota before moving to the Minneapolis where he also was a director of a bank. Lyman Theodore Powell became a lawyer at the age of 19 graduating from the school at Ann Arbor, Michigan in the spring of 1892. He located at Superior, Wisconsin. The Powell’s youngest daughter Miriam married Frederick C. Miller in 1900. They moved to Appleton, Minnesota where he was a practicing doctor. She is the only one of the seven children not to buried at River Falls’ Greenwood Cemetery. In fact their are Powell family members buried at Greenwood Cemetery that never lived in River Falls at all.

One final legacy the Powell family gave to the city is Glen Park. Before 1898, there was no real park land set aside in the city limits at all. The Powell’s not only donated the land for the park, but were instrumental in developing its early look. So in summary what is the Powell legacy to River Falls in one sentence? The core of the city, the educational facilities both public and university, the church, the railroad, and the park system all owe a debt of gratitude to the Powell family, particularly Oliver S. Powell. Why is there nothing in the city named after this family except the Plat? I think mainly it is because the family did not promote themselves as something special when they lived here and there are no descendants living in the area for the last 30 years where as Joel Foster has many descendants in the area to promote his legacy. Hopefully in the not too distant future something in town could be named after the Powell family, the most important family to ever live in River Falls.

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5 Responses to 558 E. Maple and the Powell family – the most important family to ever live in River Falls, Wisconsin! The definitive history here

  1. Avatar of Don Richards Don Richards says:

    I agree that the Powell family did far more than any other to develop River Falls in several aspects. And there should be some memorial, perhaps at Glen Park and/or UWRF.

  2. Dan Geister says:

    It was too bad when the city hall was built lately that a conference room could have been named the Powell conference room. The generic Falls conference rooms would have been better named as such. I suppose it can never be changed now.

  3. Peter Close says:

    Nice article Dan. As always well researched.

  4. Ellie Baldwin says:

    Oliver Powell was my great grandfather. My grandfather was Lyman T. Powell. My family usually makes an annual visit to Greenwood Cemetery.

    Dan thank you for the wonderful article. I learned a number of things about the Powells that I didn’t know.

    It would be nice if there was something named after the family besides the Powell Dam Project. I know all Oliver’s children moved elsewhere.

    One correction: You tell of Oliver’s and his wife having 7 children. It should say Oliver and Lydia NOT Lucinda.

    Ellie Baldwin

    • Avatar of Dan Geister Dan Geister says:

      I am so glad you enjoyed the article! I made the correction. I always enjoy talking to the extended family of the Powell’s of River Falls and I too wish there was at least a street or park or something else named ‘Powell’ in town besides the Plat on many’s abstracts. If you are in town again I’d love to meet you if you’d want to meet me. You can let me know by e-mail or call me anytime. I’m in the white pages and my e-mail is riverfallshistory@yahoo.com. I tried to include as much as I could in this article about the family but have even more information complied over the years. – Dan Geister

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