Part one: The Meighen Family
The Meighen family who settled Forestville had been in the United States since 1792, when James Meehan (the spelling of his last name was changed sometime before 1820) emigrated from the village of Inver, County Donegal, Northern Ireland. He and his wife, Susan (McClosky), eventually settled in Green County, Pennsylvania, and raised a family of three sons and two daughters. One of the sons, William, eventually had two sons, William and Felix, who moved west and eventually settled in Forestville. He had two other sons, Dennis and Peter, who traveled to Minnesota, but Peter returned to Pennsylvania.
William Meighen was the first to leave the family home in 1843, after several financial reverses left him bankrupt. His purpose for going west was to recoup his losses and make good on his Pennsylvania debts. He did not return to Greene County until 1852, when he had the money to settle these obligations. An adventurous type, he settled in Galena, Ill., for several years working as a surveyor and lead miner, before leaving for the California Gold Rush in 1849. In the spring of that year, he and 25 others departed St. Louis for the prospect of making it rich. Two years later, William returned home with $4,000 in gold dust. Once back in Galena, he was soon joined by his older brother Felix and Felix's young wife, Eliza Jane Foster.
Two of Eliza Jane Foster's brothers, Major and Robert, were good friends of the Meighens, and all wrote letters to one another frequently. Major Foster, who had also settled in Galena, urged Robert to join him there. Robert moved to Galena, thinking of it as a temporary move until he had the financial resources to move on. The summer of 1853 found him in Minnesota Territory. Traveling on foot from Decorah, Iowa, he bargained for a claim that lay just north of the south branch of the Root River in Southeastern Minnesota. The seller was Levi Waterman, who had registered his claim on an oak tree in the fall of 1852. This claim embraced part of what became Forestville, although at that early date the area was known as "Watertown" after Waterman. While there, Foster scouted land for himself, his brother Major, and brothers-in-law William and Felix Meighen.
Felix Meighen was the first to join his friend, and quickly assessing the need for a general store, he erected a double-pen log building with a stone chimney, to serve as a general store and residence. Before the building was completed in October 1853, both men returned to Galena to purchase $700 in goods to stock it. With two hired men to help him, Foster began the arduous journey back to Watertown. The goods were moved by oxcart to East Dubuque, Iowa, then transferred to a steamboat heading up the Mississippi River to Lansing, Iowa. From there, they traveled overland to Decorah, Iowa, finally reaching Watertown 50 miles later. Along the way it rained the entire time, while the men and oxen attempted to plod through the rutted, muddy "roads."
With the crudely built log store in operation, both families began to flourish. Other enterprising people flooded into the territory and brought with them businesses which pioneer communities needed, such as a blacksmith shop, a cabinet shop, saw mills, farms, stores, grist mills and hotels. William Meighen went into partnership with his childhood friend Major Foster in 1855 and soon owned a hotel named the Fremont House built by Foster. Next to it they built a more permanent brick store and house in which the Felix Meighen family lived. It was completed in 1857. In this house they raised seven children: Susanna, Catherine, Joseph, Maria, Thomas, Eliza Jane and Martha. Forestville boomed.
Of the Meighen children, Thomas' name became the most synonymous with the town of Forestville. Thomas was the first child in the family born in the new Minnesota Territory, and lived most of his life in Forestville or in neighboring Preston.
Thomas showed the most promise for carrying on with the many family businesses. By 1868, 13-year-old Thomas had left the rural Forestville school to work full time for his father, gradually acquainting himself with his farming and business operations, for which he displayed a passion. At 15 he was taking trips to Milwaukee and Chicago to buy store stock at wholesale markets. It was during one of his trips to Chicago at age 16 that he witnessed the great Chicago fire in October 1871. Remembering his favorite hotel, the "Commercial," 57 years later, he wrote:
I suppose a wooden building cannot be found within miles of that location now. Then it took between one and two hours to ride on a street car (horse-drawn) out to Lincoln Park and there was no city around the Park at all. It was out in the country. ... I arrived at my old headquarters (the Commercial) and registered on hotel register 'E.M. Rivard, St. Louis,' being my 'nom de plume.' Reasons: (I) do not care to be shook by the hand by 500 runners which is the amount that visits this House daily.
The store prospered for many years, with business slowing after the initial rush of settlers moved past Forestville or went to participate in the Civil War. Thomas Meighen and his sisters all helped clerk the store, which could be either very busy or dull, depending on the season. When not clerking, the entire family kept busy with farm chores. Ice had to be harvested from the Root River and stored in the ice house; grain had to be seeded, gardens planted; and the crops harvested. All but the youngest children pitched in.
Part two: "The Boom is Over"
Part three: "The Company Town"
Part four: "The End of Forestville and a New Beginning"