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The Hotel Minnesota was the premier lodging destination in the village of Detroit. As part of an advertising circular, it printed a plat map showing downtown businesses. Recently rediscovered, it has been a gold mine for the Becker County Historical Society. Photo courtesy of The Becker County Historical Society

Historical Treasure: Long-lost plat map shows businesses of early Detroit Lakes

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Historical Treasure: Long-lost plat map shows businesses of early Detroit Lakes
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

The early history of the town that was to become Detroit Lakes is full of surprises.

As to be expected, the booming frontier town of Detroit had its share of saloons and billiards halls, but it was also home to the first woman doctor licensed to practice in Minnesota — and she shared space with the first woman pharmacist.


There were a surprising number of hotels, several blacksmith, wagon and harness shops, and even a bowling alley — perhaps with just one lane, judging by the long, skinny shape of the lot.

There were several churches, grocery stores (including one called Central Market), attorney offices, a photography shop, and a newspaper, the Detroit Record.

A wealth of information about the town’s early business life resurfaced recently with the discovery of a long-lost plat map at the Becker County Historical Society.

The 1883 plat map was apparently an advertising piece put out by the city’s premier lodging destination of the time, the beautiful Hotel Minnesota, which opened the same year.

The map shows not only the location and type of business, but in many cases also the name of the owner.

 It was found glued to the inside cover of a turn-of-the-century U.S. atlas — part of the county historical society’s effort to categorize and organize its map collection.

“Like lots of people do, they just glued it in there — that’s probably why it stayed in such good condition, it was dark inside the book,” said Amy Degerstrom, director of the Becker County Historical Society. The plat map-advertisement was not designed to stand up to the years, it was printed on very thin newsprint. So Degerstrom just electronically scanned it and left it in there.

The plat map helped staff at the historical society fill in some of the missing pieces of the historical jigsaw puzzle that is the town’s early business life.

“Prior to this, I might have known, OK, this business was on Washington Avenue somewhere,” Degerstrom said. “The really wonderful thing about this is it names the proprietor, and we can pin down the address, which we couldn’t do before.”

Typical plat maps of the time might show the location and simply label a store as “general merchandise,” or some such ting, with no name attached.

This plat map gets specific. The “Mrs. J. Ayer Jewelry and Ice Cream” shop (“what a great combination,” Degerstrom said with a laugh) was located where the Veterans Memorial Park is today.

It would have been a prime location back then, too. Not because of Highway 10 — it didn’t exist yet — but because of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was the focal point and lifeblood of the town.

After the railroad came through Becker County in 1871, the village of Detroit grew rapidly.

The 1883 plat map shows several businesses on the old Pioneer Street, most of which was lost to Highway 10. Only the short stretch in front of the Graystone Hotel still exists.

Back then those three long narrow blocks held the Northern Pacific Elevator, the Detroit Manufacturing yard, a farm machinery dealership, a grocery store and the engine house of the local fire station.

The other part of the fire station, the hook and ladder truck house, was located about a block away.

“Maybe that’s why they had so much trouble putting out fires,” Degerstrom joked.

One store, the OK Day Store Co. and General Store (located at the site where Whitney Sleep Diagnostics now is, below Godfather’s Pizza) burned down a half dozen times and was rebuilt each time by its determined owner, she said.

In 1914, a major fire swept through downtown, destroying 22 buildings that held 26 businesses, and drastically changing the landscape of the downtown business community.

That’s part of the reason this early plat map is so important to the historical society.

It was already known that Emma Ogden, the first woman doctor in Minnesota, had an office in Detroit from 1880 to 1887. The map shows she shared it with the first woman pharmacist in Minnesota, Emma Combacker, at a site about where Glik’s in the mall now stands.

The plat map “gives a good idea of how the community was laid out,” Degerstrom said.

The most important businesses for travelers tended to be near the railroad line, while businesses and government offices that catered more to locals were further away.

The plat map and other plats made before the city voted in 1926 to change its name to Detroit Lakes will be the focus of an informal brown bag lunch at the Becker County historical society.

It’s set for noon on May 14. Everyone is welcome, and Degerstrom is hoping surveyors and mapmakers will attend.

“They can probably read some of these plats better than me,” she said. People are encouraged to share their historic knowledge. “We often learn as much as we teach at these things,” she said.

Bring your own lunch or order a $5 box lunch from the historical society by 10 a.m. that day and pay when you get there.