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McGregor History

A Short History of McGregor

By Robert O. Harder

How McGregor came to be called “McGregor” has always been a bit of a puzzle, even in the minds of long-time locals. Just for fun, let’s have one more look at what we think we know about good old ‘gregor. 

There wouldn’t have been a McGregor at all if it wasn’t for the Northern Pacific railroad. Chartered by Congress in 1864 (during the Civil War), the line’s objective was to connect the Great Lakes with the Pacific’s Puget Sound (near Seattle). It wasn’t until 1870, however, that the first groundbreaking occurred at Carlton, MN. Not many months later, the track laying crews reached the vicinity of what was called Sicottis Station (now Tamarack), named after an opportunistic Scotsman who discovered there was both ample firewood (the surrounding tamarack swamps) and water (Sicottis quickly sunk a well) at just the right geographic interval for feeding and watering the always voracious steam locomotives of the day. Interestingly enough, there are specific references to “Sicottis” on early 1870s maps of the region, while most of northern Minnesota remains a blank. 

Research conducted by Clifford Greer, circa 1940 (as recorded by local author, Eileen Keen, in her book, “Footprints of Early Backwoods Settlers” – available at Minnestalgia in McGregor), confirmed that during the 1870s there was precious little activity around the future site of McGregor. The locomotives had just finished building up a head of steam out of Sicottis and by the time they reached what is now McGregor, there would have been no reason to slow down. By 1881, however, lumbering had picked up dramatically along the Sandy River, to the northwest of the future town site. One Billy Rogers was operating a lumber camp along the Sandy River by that date. He had joined an even earlier operator named Davis; both camps were headquartered on what was known even then as Davis Lake. Davis apparently had a large enough operation to ensure that Sandy Lake’s southernmost bay would also bear his name (Davis Bay). Greer said “the Fletcher & Bly Store and the A.C. Campbell Store were both located on Davis Lake on Sandy River near a Steamboat Landing [which was at the head of navigation].” Greer also noted that the first permanent settlers in the immediate area were probably Alfred & Enoch Johnson, brothers who homesteaded in 1890 in Section 30 [in what became Jevne Township], followed by Ole Jevne in 1891.

Recognizing this increased economic activity, the Northern Pacific decided it needed another station nearby. In 1940, Clifford Greer described how that decision came about, as told to him by Mr. G.H. Jacobus, then Division Superintendent of the NP, to wit: “The railroad siding and station at the future McGregor was constructed in 1880. Our [the NP’s] information indicates the location was named after a hunter and trapper by the name of McGregor who came from New York several years before our line was built. In those early days, [Jacobus added as a personal aside,] when he [McGregor] had occasion to go to St. Paul, he traveled by canoe via Sandy River, Sandy Lake, and into the Mississippi River [then by steamboats downstream to the Twin Cities].”  Mr. Jacobus went on to say “it is possible also that the [McGregor] station might have been named in honor of Major McGregor, who was with General Rosser on an expedition to the Missouri River in 1870 in connection with the extension of our [the NP] line, this later information secured from . . . our field notes.”  

With this evidence in hand, we can safely conclude that, as was the custom along rail lines, the name of our community, McGregor, was taken from the NP station name, with that name coming from the early hunter/trapper McGregor and the esteemed Major McGregor. The coincidence of  the two “McGregors” must have made both the station and village name choice a foregone conclusion.  

By the 1890s, McGregor station and town had become firmly established. In addition to the local pioneers named earlier, there were the very early Italian immigrants – the Spicola and Memmola families (another story by themselves). Then came such settlers as C.A. Maddy, the Farah Bros, O.L. Johnson, Isedore Iverson, Jim Murphy, Joe Hudson, and many, many others. In 1903, the city of McGregor was officially incorporated; today the Greater McGregor Area, serving the Sandy River’s “chain of lakes,” Minnewawa, Round Lake, Horseshoe Lake and Big Sandy Lake, is the most important and largest community in eastern Aitkin County.