Historic Forestville

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Introduction

See 19th century merchandise in the Meighen family store, discover what's cooking in the kitchen, and help the hired hand with chores in the garden and farm buildings at this once rural trade center. Area farmers came to Forestville to trade their produce for goods and services, but when the railroad by-passed the town in 1868 it struggled to survive. By 1890 Thomas Meighen, son of one of the town's founders, owned the entire village, and the town's 50 residents made their living on his farm, working for housing and credit in the Meighen store.

Background

Forestville developed as a pioneer town in the mid-1850s as the new Minnesota Territory was being settled. Located in Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota, the area attracted farmers with its good cropland, plentiful timber and water power. At its peak, the town of Forestville boasted a grist mill, school, brickyard, two hotels, two saw mills a cabinet shop, a blacksmith shop, a general store and a post office.

At the center of the town was the imposing red-brick Meighen home and store. Founded by Felix Meighen and his childhood friend Robert Foster, the business flourished in the 1850s and '60s. The men were born in Greene County in southern Pennsylvania. They and their brothers sought to better their luck and earn their fortunes by leaving Pennsylvania and trying a variety of enterprises, including working as miners in Galena, Ill., gold-mining in California, hauling coal or - in Robert Foster's case - working as a clerk which led him to an apprenticeship on the Minnesota frontier. Soon Felix joined him and they established a general store. Eventually their brothers arrived and staked land claims, and the town began to grow.

The blossoming community was hard hit by the decision of the Southern Minnesota Railway to bypass Forestville in 1868. It had already suffered a blow when, despite heated political wranglings, the nearby town of Preston was named the county seat. Soon townspeople and businesses began to move to more prosperous communities, leaving a few dwindling enterprises behind. The town was transformed during the next two decades into a large, one-family-owned farming operation.

By the 1890s, Felix's son Thomas Meighen's general store was one of the few businesses remaining in town, and by 1899, he employed everyone who still lived there, paying workers in store credit and renting them houses that he owned.

Today, visitors are transported to a simpler time where costumed guides take them back i to 1899. When they step across the Carnegie steel bridge over the Root River, they are guided through interpretive stations that include the store, house, kitchen garden, granary, carriage barn, and barn and cornfield, where they meet a variety of characters from the town. In each area, the costumed interpreters talk about their characters' lives, drawing on hundreds of the site's original significant artifacts. Visitors are invited to ask questions and interact directly with the past. Outside, visitors can move at their own pace and get a hands-on approach to 19th-century crops and field work. A reconstructed barn completed in 2001 offers a museum shop and updated restrooms.

Heirloom Gardening

Historic Forestville is dedicated to the preservation of historical artifacts as well as "living artifacts," such as heirloom garden and crop varieties. An "heirloom" is a variety that has been passed down from generation to generation over a period of about 150 years, rarely being commercially available. The historic seeds grown at Historic Forestville were commercially available in the 1890s, but are quite rare in today's garden seed market.

All plants grown at Historic Forestville are "open-pollinated." By definition, an open-pollinated plant is produced by crossing two parents from the same variety, which, in turn, produce offspring just like the parent plants. By contrast, modern-day hybrid plants are the offspring of crossed parent varieties which are genetically different. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved from year to year - they are incapable of producing plants like the previous generation. They are more expensive to produce and therefore sell for several times more than open-pollinated seeds. Because hybrid seeds are worthless for replanting, modern farmers and gardeners must return to the seed companies for new seeds every year. However, as a result of the development of hybrids, shoppers in modern-day grocery stores have many more vegetables to choose from than their 19th-century counterparts. In addition, because of better shipping and transportation, shoppers can get most kinds of vegetables, such sweet corn and tomatoes, throughout th year - something unheard of in the 1890s.

The surviving open-pollinated varieties selected for the Meighen garden and field areas are based upon the original store's stock seed packets, historical research and educated guesses. Although certain open-pollinated seeds have the same names as their counterparts a century ago, it cannot be determined how true-to-form these plants are until they mature, when they can be compared to original sketches, engravings and descriptions. About 50 percent of the vegetable varieties found in Historic Forestville's gardens were grown here a century ago.

Fun Facts
  • William Jennings Bryan came to Forestville to visit Thomas Meighen. While there he planted a buckeye tree, the state tree of his home state of Ohio, as a gift to the Meighens.
  • Today, the tree still towers over the lawn of the Meighens' home.
  • Bishop John Ireland once visited Forestville and gave communion to area residents in the local church.
  • Thomas Meighen was active in Minnesota politics and as such, became good friends with Ignatius Donnelly (a flamboyant public speaker, former lieutenant governor and Minnesota congressman). Meighen served as state chair of the Minnesota Peoples Party and Forestville became the party's state headquarters. Meighen unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1900 and lieutenant governor in 1902.
  • In 1899, Minnesota Governor John Lind dined in Forestville on several occasions with his friend Thomas Meighen.
  • For a brief time in 1864, Forestville was the home of a Civil War encampment of Minnesota recruits.
  • Thomas Meighen could have walked from Forestville to LeRoy (approximately 25 miles) and not leave his own property.
  • In the Meighen General Store of 1899, cotton flannel could be purchased at 7 cents per yard, a broom for 20 cents, a good pair of men's pants for 60 cents, and a U.S. postage stamp for 3 cents.
Timeline

Mid-1850s Felix Meighen founds a store in the flourishing town of Forestville, with his childhood friend and business partner, Robert Foster.

1868 The Southern Minnesota Railroad's decision to bypass Forestville, closely following the loss of the Fillmore County seat to nearby Preston, causes a rapid loss in population and the town gradually becomes a one-family operation inhabited by the Meighens and their employees.

1910 Thomas Meighen closes his store, leaving the contents on the shelves inside. He and his descendents continue to live and work the farm through the 1950s.

1963 The town of Forestville and the surrounding area becomes state land.

1978 The town's five remaining original buildings - the store, Meighen residence, granary, carriage barn and animal barn - and 18 surrounding acres of hilly woodland and flat pasture are acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society. The buildings are in varying degrees of preservation with the store being the only structure open to the public.

1986 The site is closed for restoration work, artifact inventory and assessment and interpretive planning.

1992 The site reopens with its structures restored to their 1899 appearance.

2002 New visitor center opens to general public.

Images

Historic Forestville Images

Historic Forestville Images

Historic Forestville bridge

Historic Forestville bridge

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Forestville store interior

Forestville store interior

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Mary and Thomas J. Meighan, 1897

Mary and Thomas J. Meighan, 1897

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