Saturday, November 27, 2021

Hometown history had an English twist

| August 1, 2021 12:00 AM

My hometown of Hawley, Minnesota, has begun the planning for its sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) in 2022, and there’s already buzz on social media about the celebration.

I attended the town’s 140th anniversary celebration, and little old Hawley really pulled out all the stops for that one. It culminated with a spectacular fireworks display over the rodeo grounds.

A Facebook group I happened upon recently called Hawley Minnesota Then & Now has been taking a real trip down memory lane and revealing information about historic events and town leaders that I never knew about. Facebook participants last week started talking about “Journey Back to Hawley,” a 348-page detailed history book about Hawley’s history put together by the longtime editor of the Hawley Herald, Bob Brekken, my first boss. I remembered I had grabbed my parents’ copy of the 1972 book (written for the town’s centennial) when I was back in Minnesota in April for Mom’s funeral, so I began poring over the town’s very interesting history.

As it turns out, Hawley had a real twist in its very beginnings. If things had worked out differently for a group of English colonists our town likely would have been named Yeovil.

Hawley came to be largely inhabited by sturdy Scandinavians, like most small towns in that part of Minnesota. But in 1872, when the town was platted and in its infancy, the Scandinavians were only one of three groups seeking to settle the area, Brekken pointed out in his book. The others, he noted, were “the Yankees from the East Coast (many of whom were of English ancestry) and the Yeovil colonists who came directly from England.”

Incidentally, one of those “Yankees” was Joseph Roswell Hawley, a soldier, governor of Connecticut and U.S. senator. Hawley was named after him.

Things didn’t go so well for the Yeovil colonists. For starters, the area had been completely misrepresented to them.

“They had prepared for a paradise and arrived in a Minnesota blizzard, which convinced many of them to move elsewhere as soon as possible,” Brekken wrote. A thousand quarts of soup were doled out to the English colonists each week by Hawley townsmen to keep them from starving.

They arrived in what might be called a perfect storm of bad breaks. The weather was just one factor.

Some of the Yeovilites had trades and crafts that were better suited for larger cities so they left. Then the panic of 1873 put a halt to development along the Northern Pacific railroad, depressing what had been a promising economy. To top it all off, the Northern Pacific, which had promised the Yeovil colonists land at Hawley, lost a dispute with a rival railroad company that wasn’t sympathetic to their cause, according to “Journey Back.”

It wasn’t long before most of the Yeovil colonists dispersed, but there were at least five Yeovil families who stayed and became part of the fabric of Hawley, including the Lewis, Blakeway, Perkins, Weaver and Whitrow families. I went to school with some of the Lewises and Blakeways.

After studying our town’s history book at length, I’m so thankful for the effort that went into it. Brekken put it all together, but many contributed information and artifacts. Knowing the adversity those early settlers faced gives me new appreciation for their perseverance that gave me a town to call home.

News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or