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Large sawmill once marked site of proposed Frazee park

The Nichols-Chisholm Lumber Co. operated this sawmill near Frazee, one of the largest of its kind in the country, from 1904 until 1918. Photo courtesy of the Becker County Historical Society.1 / 4
An early sawmill located on the proposed site of a regional park near Frazee. Photo courtesy of the Becker County Museum2 / 4
A drone's eye view of the proposed park area, with the Ottertail River winding through it, near the city of Frazee. Photo courtesy of Becker County EDA.3 / 4
This covered bridge is on the scenic property near Frazee that would become part of the regional park. Photo courtesy of Becker County EDA4 / 4

The site of a proposed regional park near Frazee was once the location of one of the largest sawmills of its kind in the nation. And the covered bridge on the site was originally connected to the dam and sawmill operation there.

The city of Frazee, in fact, was named after Randolph L. Frazee, who owned the first big lumber mill there and also platted the original townsite.

Frazee, born in Ohio on July 3, 1841, came to Minnesota in 1866. In 1868 he moved from St. Cloud to Otter Tail City, and built a sawmill in 1872 where New York Mills is now. This was first called Frazee's Mills.

These were the lumberjack years, when acres of old-growth white and Norway pine trees were felled by hand, hauled by horses and floated downstream to mills when possible.

In the fall of 1872, Frazee bought the Campbell-Chilton mill at Frazee (then only a few months old) and a year later had added a flour mill in northern Minnesota. These mills burned Oct. 14, 1889, according to the city of Frazee's website.

Frazee sold all his mill property in 1890 to A.H. Wilcox, who repaired the dam, rebuilt the sawmill on the old foundation the same year, and operated it until January of 1897, when he sold to the Commonwealth Lumber Company.

Seven years later the Nichols-Chisholm Lumber Co. bought it and built it into one of the largest sawmills in the country. From that time until 1918, when the firm began closing down its operations in the area, most of the important white and red pine was logged off in Becker County.

Last month, the Becker County Board agreed to let Economic Development Coordinator Guy Fischer apply for state and federal grant funding to buy the property. Greg Ness of Denver recently purchased the property for about $500,000. A previous story incorrectly put the purchase price at over $700,000. The land is currently assessed at $203,500.

"I bought this property to help protect it against further development and ensure that it had a fighting chance to become a city, regional or state park," Ness in a letter to Frazee City Administrator Denise Anderson. "I am originally from Moorhead, and as a youth I spent every summer at Rose Lake near Frazee. The area there is still dear to me, and our family spends considerable time each summer at our seasonal home on Pelican Lake."

Because the proposed park lies along a scenic stretch of the Ottertail River — complete with a private covered bridge — it has "considerable potential to be a magnet for recreation, economic development, and to serve as a springboard for promoting the various major trails that currently, or will soon, intersect near this location," Ness added.

The county acted after the city of Frazee asked for support in the city's efforts to create a state or regional park on the three parcels owned by Ness.

With scenic acreage for trails, picnic areas and camping, "this property has the potential to be developed into a prime recreation area," Anderson said. The North Country Trail, the Ottertail River state water trail and the Heartland Trail will all meet in Frazee, she said in a letter to commissioners.

"The city will be constructing a 10-foot wide multi-use trail that will stretch from the Big Turkey Park to the high school along Highway 87 (Lake Street)," she added. "So as you can see, there is potential here to add further recreational opportunity by creating a state/regional park."

Ness told Frazee officials he will hold onto the land for park purposes for several years, as long as there is momentum towards that goal, but will look at developing the land if it becomes apparent a park is not in the works.

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