As the economic and social center of the growing West Newton community, the Harkin Store and the family that ran it saw years of both prosperity and hardship.
In 1850, Alexander Harkin left his homeland of Scotland for North America at age 22, following his two brothers, who had left previously. There he met Janet Crawford, another Scottish immigrant. In the spring of 1856, while still newlyweds, the pair departed for the Minnesota Valley to seek their share of the bountiful farming opportunities that Alexander’s brother Barney had told him about in letters. They arrived in West Newton, a tiny farming settlement on the north bank of the Minnesota River, and set to work establishing their 130 acre farm.
The town of West Newton grew dramatically. By the 1870s, the town boasted a hotel, a livery stable, a brewery, a sawmill, a wagon works, two blacksmith shops, three saloons, and many dwellings that made the town an important shipping center. With an influx of German-speaking Catholic immigrants to the community, the population nearly tripled from 1860 to 1870. As one of the few men in the area with a knowledge of common law and who could fluently read and write English, Alexander found himself appointed or elected to virtually every administrative position in the township. At one point or another, he held the title of coroner, overseer of the poor, school board treasurer, and justice of the peace. Although his success in politics may have started as a matter of community convenience, in time it became an expression of community trust; Alexander’s neighbors kept him in office as justice of the peace for over twenty years.
The Harkins’ financial success also contributed to their social standing. Compared to the other farmers in West Newton, Alexander and Janet seemed to have prospered almost immediately. Agricultural production figures reported in the 1860 census show that the Harkins surpassed the mean production of their township in 14 of the 17 categories listed. Their personal real estate was the second highest in the township, exceeded only by that of the sutler at Fort Ridgely.
In the fall of 1867, Alexander was appointed postmaster for West Newton. He built a new log cabin for his family on the Fort Ridgely Road and opened a combination general store and post office in one of its rooms. His first years as a retail grocery merchant proved so promising that by 1870 he had moved his store and post office into a new frame building adjoining his cabin. That same year he further expanded his business by building a grain warehouse opposite his store on the bank of the Minnesota River.
While the Harkin Store fulfilled an important economic role in West Newton, it also served as a social center for the community. Farmers and their families gathered here not only to buy or barter for supplies, but also to exchange news and gossip. A few chairs around the stove and an open cracker barrel offered a welcome opportunity to spend a few moments in pleasant conversation before getting back to work. Announcements of town meetings and church picnics were tacked to the walls, along with the latest advertising circulars for the patent medicines that claimed to cure everything. On election days, the store became a polling place, where voters expressed their candid opinions before casting their ballots.
The town had prospered during the 1860s largely because it was located on the only two shipping routes in the upper Minnesota Valley: the Fort Ridgely Road and the Minnesota River. And as long as the town prospered, so did the Harkin Store. But in 1873, the railroad completely bypassed the town in favor of New Ulm. The steamboats, unable to compete with the more efficient railroad, were forced to curtail their services on the upper Minnesota River, and West Newton was deprived of both river and rail shipping routes. West Newton saw its role as a commercial center come to an end.
The subsequent years brought additional misfortune. For four consecutive years, locusts devastated the state’s crops and gardens. The West Newton area was hard hit by the plague, with the Harkin Store account books furnishing a unique chronicle of the disaster.
Before the locust invasion, Alexander generally sold about $3,000 worth of merchandise a year. As was typical of farming communities, his customers purchased goods on credit and then paid them off with cash, services, and produce after the autumn harvests. But in the second year of the grasshopper invasion, his total sales dropped to about $2,300, of which he received only $550 in payments. A year later, sales plummeted to about $1,750 and collections came to a virtual standstill.
While he attempted to collect on the debts owed him, Alexander felt a genuine compassion for his neighbors’ distress. To infuse new economic life into the West Newton community, Harkin helped the farmers organize a trade in ginseng. Ginseng roots, which grew wild in wooded areas of southern Minnesota, were highly prized by the Chinese. This effort helped carry many farmers through the plague.
Finally, in July 1877, the grasshopper population gathered into a giant swarm and migrated out of the state. With the end of the plague, Harkin found himself one of the major creditors in the West Newton area. Unlike many other creditors, he seems to have taken no legal action against his debtors. While he gradually collected most of his outstanding accounts from the plague years, his business at the store never again reached its 1870 level. In 1880, sales were only about $1,800. By 1890, sales fell to a mere $350 a year, and his steady customers dropped to only about 35 families.
In January 1893, Alexander’s daughter Catherine married Rudolph Massopust; for a wedding present he gave the newlyweds his store in West Newton. The Massopusts kept the store open until their post office was replaced by Rural Free Delivery in 1901. In 1907, Alexander Harkin died in St. Peter at the age of 79.
For nearly four decades, the store was quiet, no longer the bustling social center that it once was. Then in 1938, Janet Harkin Massopust, granddaughter of Alexander Harkin, reopened the store as a museum, keeping many of the original goods on the shelves.
In 1973, the Minnesota Historical Society bought the Harkin Store. Today, restored to its 1870 appearance by the Minnesota Historical Society and managed by the Nicollet County Historical Society, the Harkin Store offers a glimpse of a time when river towns prospered.