Rice Lake celebrates belated 150th birthday
A township-turned-city draws from its past but looks to the future with confidence.
Rice Lake, Minnesota, founded in 1870, planned to celebrate its sesquicentennial last year. But a pandemic got in the way, said John Werner, mayor of the township-turned-city.
Instead, the young city marked its belated 150th anniversary with a community picnic in August, and residents also collaborated with author Lawrence Sommer to put together a history chronicling the township’s evolution, including a number of details that provided the basis for this story.
Rice Lake took its name from Wild Rice Lake, drawing on what the Ojibwe people called the original body of water — megwundjiwmaominikan — meaning "place of the wild rice amid the hills." The shallow lake about doubled in size when Great Northern Power Co. built a dam above the Beaver River outflow in 1907.
The resulting reservoir is one of five created on tributaries to help manage the flow of water to four hydroelectric stations downstream on the St. Louis River.
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Rice Lake Township was originally much larger than it is today.
Canosia Township was once a part of Rice Lake Township, but it broke apart in 1888 when western residents voted to go their separate way. Following the split, the western two-third of Rice Lake was in Canosia and the eastern one-third of the water body remained in Rice Lake Township.
In the 1880s, Canosia went on to fracture further, with the creation of Fredenberg and Grand Lake townships.
Werner said some of the early division was stirred by lumber interests, and the ability of loggers to pack small township meetings with supporters.
Werner referred to the downsized Rice Lake as “geographically challenged.” With eight sections of land to the north often underwater, homestead settlements naturally clustered in the southern one-third of the township.
Lumber played an early role in the development of Rice Lake.
J.D. Howard had already established himself as a force in the industry with the construction of a mill on Connors Point in Superior when in 1885, he went on to build a new mill in Rice Lake. Timber from the surrounding area was hauled by teams of horses to a loading yard in eastern Duluth, where logs were transferred to train cars, making the trip to the Howard Mill in Rice lake via the Iron Range Railroad, according to Sommer. The mill continued to operate until 1912, when most of the area’s valuable stands of mature trees had finally been logged out.
The rapid logging and the waste slash it left behind helped set the stage for the deadly Fires of 1918 that swept through Northeastern Minnesota, leaving about 45% of property in Rice Lake Township burned, according to insurance reports.
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Peter Nowak, who operated the dam on Rice Lake, at the time reportedly rode out the blaze by taking his family to the spillway. But a number of other residents were unable to escape the flames and smoke, resulting in multiple deaths.
Some early homesteaders also were drawn to the area by the promise of fertile land. Joe Viele, 86, has called Rice Lake home since age 3, when he was adopted. His adoptive father, Jim Viele, immigrated to the U.S. from Italy with his family at age 8.
As an adult, Jim Viele grew produce on a homestead off Reid Road, where he earned a reputation for his agronomic expertise. Subsequent generations of his family, including Joe, continue to live nearby. Joe Viele recalled that instead of installing tiling lines, his father dug 3-foot-deep trenches and filled them with small rocks to drain excess water away from their crops.
In 2015, Rice Lake made the journey from being a township to incorporating as a city, after Duluth floated the idea of annexing a part of its neighbor.
Werner described the decision as a bit of a defense mechanism.
“We didn’t aspire to be a city, but it was the only way we could protect our future, instead of getting gobbled up by Duluth,” he said.
Don Solem, a 95-year-old lifelong resident of Rice Lake, said: “The city wanted to start with a partial annexation, which would have taken away the richest and most profitable part of Rice Lake. It would have left the other sections of the township at that time with less tax revenue to support themselves.”
Rice Lake chose to chart its own course instead because, as Solem said: “We wanted to be our own community.”
Part of the public sentiment goes to the character of Rice Lake, according to Werner, who said: “We’re self-sufficient. We always have been.”
If anything, Werner said the prospect of annexation energized residents who opposed the idea.
“It brought the township together. It coalesced around an issue that people felt very passionate about,” he said.
But Werner, 72, said people in Rice Lake don’t aspire to see a widespread dense or commercial development, except in appropriate areas, such as around the intersection of Rice Lake Road and Martin Road, where a Kwik Trip was recently constructed.
He believes Rice Lake can strike a balance.
“Rice Lake does not want to be a Hermantown. And we never will be, because we don’t have the (U.S. Highway) 53 corridor," he said.
Werner also is encouraged to see more young families moving to Rice Lake.
“I’ve grown up, and I’ve watched generations pass. And now my generation is passing. But there’s a new generation behind us. And you have to share your history. Otherwise, it’s lost,” he said.
Brandon Owen built a house in Rice Lake and moved into it with his wife, Diane, in 2016. The couple now has two children, going on ages 6 and 4.
“We wanted to find something that was fairly close to Duluth. We were both working at the (Air National) Guard base at the time. So, we wanted something with a close commute but with a little bit more of a country feel,” he said.
Jon Engel said he and his wife, Amy, grew up in Duluth and moved to Rice Lake in 2014.
“We love the Duluth area in general, and we were looking to stay and raise a family here,” he said, explaining that they wanted something in close proximity to Duluth, but with a little bit of land and privacy.
“Rice Lake just kind of fit the bill. We hadn’t had any kids yet at that point. But we were looking to the future, and kind of looking at if the neighborhood was safe and what was the school district like. You know, Homecroft (Elementary) and Duluth East (High School) were the schools our kids would be going to,” Engel said.
The Engels now have two sons, 6 and 3.
“So, we kind of had a list of criteria that Rice Lake seemed to fit. It was nice having some acreage but also being 10 minutes from the mall or downtown is kind of nice, too,” he said.
Viele agreed Rice Lake is in transition.
“The old ones are dying. You know, I’m probably one of the oldest in Rice Lake now. I know I’m in the top 10," he said.
But, as elder residents die, Viele pointed out: “There’s a lot of young ones moving in.”
Solem said the city must look to the future.
“Even though I’m not a resident there any more — because of my age, I’ve had to move away — I’m very excited for Rice Lake, particularly under the leadership that it has now. I know that can’t go on forever, and that will change. But we have to keep putting incentives out there to get younger people to be a part of it and want to be a part of it,” he said.
To learn more
Copies of "Rice Lake, Minnesota, Celebrating 150 Years," by Lawrence J. Sommer, are available for sale at the Rice Lake City Hall, 4107 Beyer Road. Cost: $25.