A SHORT HISTORY OF PINE CITY, MINNESOTA
By Richard Olsenius, in his book MINNESOTA TRAVEL COMPANION, published by Bluestem Productions, Wayzata, Minnesota 1981.
As you drive north towards Pine City, the soil changes from a sandy loam to a sandy clay, and the oak, elm and maple trees become more interspersed with pine, spruce and tamarack. Years before the whites settled in this area, the Ojibwe maintained a village here which they called “Chengwatana,” or Pine City. When trading started with the Indians, several posts were maintained here and at Pokegama Lake by the Snake River. Even though the British had lost the Revolutionary War, The Northwest Fur Company, a British company, traded here with the Ojibwe in 1804. Today a replica of the post is maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society.
When the military road was built through this region in 1854, a station for changing horses was constructed, giving added importance to this town. Chengwatana became the county seat in 1856. But when the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad passed on the west side of Cross Lake, a new town formed with an English translation of Chengwatana (Pine City) as its name. It was only a short time before the county seat was moved from Chengwatana to Pine City. By now the Ojibwe had been transferred to the White Earth Reservation and Chengwatana faded away.
By 1880 the lumber companies were cutting the huge white pine forests that stretched across the Snake River basin. For years, the Snake carried the logs down the St. Croix and fed the mills of Stillwater, Winona and beyond. Pine City became an outfitting center for the hundreds of men working in the forests. In the fall, the city filled up with a rough crowd of lumberjacks waiting for the ground to freeze so they could begin their work. The lumber industry believed these expansive forests were inexhaustible. By the late 1890s, however, the logging industry was moving north, looking for the trees they thought would never disappear. The problem now was what to do with the cut over, decimated land they left behind.
The railroads, with their own interests in mind, began promoting this area as a farming region. This promotion attracted a number of Bohemian immigrants who came here to farm. Tourism started to affect Pine City and the nearby lakes. By 1900 it became a fashionable weekend retreat for people from the Twin Cities and St. Cloud. They came here to dance and dine at places like the “Tuxedo Inn”. Steamboats even carried resorters around Lake Pokegama. Pokegama is an Ojibwe word meaning, “water which justs out from another water.” This is in reference to the closeness of Pokegama lake to the Snake River.
Up until the 1960s, almost everybody in this country used a bit of mussel every day: They wore clothes with buttons made of mussel shells. Beginning in the late 1800s, mussels were commercially harvested to make mother-of-pearl buttons. It was a multimillion-dollar industry. Thousands of people collected or sold mussels or worked in button factories. Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River and the Snake River near Pine City were important button producers. Overharvest and pollution reduced the mussel population. Plastic eventually replaced shells for buttons.