Enterprise: Once Minnesota’s longest—and most bustling--town

TCR/LAURA DEERING Pictured is the Enterprise, Minn., Bakery in its current state. The bakery was once used for bread baking for guests of the Whittier Inn hotel, and it also served as a hiding spot for outlaw Jesse James, allowing him to elude capture.
By : 
Laura Deering

If Jeopardy had a category about Enterprise, Minn., would you be able to correctly respond to the following?

-He discovered Enterprise and was the son of a famous US explorer

-The length in miles of what was the longest town in Minnesota

-Enterprise, Minn., was larger than this capital city

-This famous outlaw hid out in Enterprise, Minn.

Let’s see how you scored.

Question 1: Who is Nathan Boone? In 1836, an Army expedition forged northward from Iowa. A member of that discovery team was Nathan Boone, the youngest son of Daniel Boone. The party included Minnesota notables such as Lieutenant Albert Lea. With such impressive company, it must have been difficult to admit they were lost in this steep rugged valley. Given his ancestry, Nate’s comrades thought he should be able to smell a route.

Apparently discouraged, Boone responded he was unclear where life was taking him. It was then Lt. Lea regained military order and commanded the squad to pitch their 150 white tents and rest the 300 horses for the night. This 24-hour layover of disoriented men marked the distinction of the “discovery of Enterprise.”

Question 2: What is Two Miles? The area rapidly grew once Winona started as a steamboat-docking site in 1851. Enterprise became a jumping-off point for ambitious settlers venturing beyond the Mississippi shores of Winona. Most of them were seeking fortune - some by farming, mining, or supplying those driven by their “dreams and schemes.” Eventually Enterprise supported over 60 business and residences. Due to the narrow valley with towering sheer limestone bluffs, the community spread itself thinly along Rush Creek, making it into the record books as the state’s longest town at two miles in length. It later had a match factory and a limestone factory, which increased its reach further.

Question 3: What is St. Paul, Minn.? Recall from the previous paragraph of “dreams and schemes?” Those who called Enterprise home were brilliant, as they knew all those west-ward heading farmers and miners would need to return east-ward to Winona to sell the fruits of their labor.

Enterprise was a natural pathway due to its location in the region, while also having three bridges to cross the twists and 45 degree turns of fussy Rush Creek. They literally made money, as they say “coming or going.”

During its heyday, Enterprise was larger than the capital city of St. Paul. Its enterprising citizens contributed to the settling of greater Minnesota and the Dakotas via the oldest road in Minnesota, known as the Territorial Trail. Later, farmers drove their oxen, laden with wheat on the Territorial Trail returning to Winona, making it the fourth largest wheat port in the world. If lost, Nate Boone only knew what he discovered and its impact of settling the Wild West.

Question 4: Who is Jesse James? If you check the previous clues and the date of this newspaper, you will know this part is not an April Fools joke. In his fascinating book, “The Town that Was, Enterprise, Minnesota” Thomas B. Ronan documents the outlaw dash from authorities, which included a sympathetic Enterprise sheriff who apparently let James get away. Other resources record Jesse escaping via a “wheat trail.”

Adding to the story are current Enterprise residents, Gale and Ruth Ann Rasmussen. Both graciously accepted this writer during an unplanned visit to Enterprise. While enjoying the sun and conversation, I asked  the Rasmussens if they had any local knowledge to share, Gale brought up Jesse James.

Local legend had it that Jesse hid in the bakery and successfully eluded capture. The bakery still remains and may have been used for baking bread for guests at the nearby Whittier Inn, which would often fill up their 100 vacancies with all that “coming or going.” The hotel was another record-setter, with its three stories being the tallest building in Minnesota.

Still residing at this slice of heaven is the general store, which is now the Rasmussen home. A short stroll from the house takes you past a well-tended garden to Enterprise’s blacksmith shop. Pausing to reflect upon the labor and heat of the smithy, the bustling crystal-clear spring water of Rush creek brings one back to present day.

Double Jeopardy: Where is Enterprise? When transportation of goods changed from oxen to train, Enterprise slowly lost its hold and now is private property of several landholders, making it significantly more difficult to locate.

Here are some tips: It lays roughly between Fremont, Minn., and Lewiston,  Minn. Still not sure? Neither was I. Gratefully, former resident Dixie Brown generously brought me to this Shangri La and shared much of its fascinating history.

If you are on I-90 driving west, past the Rushford exit and before the Lewiston exit, you traveled past it. One could say it is right beneath your nose.

Lying tucked beneath the impressive I-90 Bridge is Enterprise. This encapsulated gem of history and beauty was best captured by Ronan, “Focus your attention on the trail. And wait. You shouldn’t have to wait long. Then a deep sigh as the stirring of the wind. Next a succession of sounds. The rasp of iron tires sliding and scraping over the surface of obstinate stones. The tread of an army of hooved feet. The grab of leather brake shoes on revolving hubs. As you raise your eyes to hills before you the stark bluffs disappear. The alien sounds continue, the wheat wagons are descending the tired old hill and crosses the bridge into Enterprise.” I know it’s true, I tried it.