150th birthday party included ‘mock’ attempts to relocate county seat from Fergus Falls to Pelican…or Perham…or somewhere else

One of the most famous stories of Otter Tail history revolves around the allegation that Fergus Falls “stole” the county seat from Ottertail city. Portraying Ottertail mayor John Bishop is Rick Schara, along with dancers and singers, including Pelican’s Deb Bruns and Annie Wrigg, back center.

It was a blues-jazz song called “Sneaky,” with lyrics that accused Fergus Falls of sneaking down to Ottertail and stealing official county records under cover of darkness in 1872.

“Otter Tales: The Musical” brought to life various stories from the county’s history, including a outdoor, riverside presentation in the Pelican Rapids city parks on Sept. 15.
County residents, on Sept. 12, attended an outdoor “under the tent” mock commissioners meeting facilitated by Chris Schuelke, executive director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society pictured here. Current county commissioners took part.
At right, John Dinsmore, county administrator addresses the board during the humorous skit written by Schuelke.

By Tom Hintgen and Louis Hoglund

County board members, on Sept. 12, turned the clock back 150 years to 1868 when the county was established.

The board held its 9:30 a.m. business meeting at Old Clitherall, site of the first non-Native American settlement in Otter Tail County.

The first county board meeting was held in Old Clitherall on Sept. 12, 1868. Marcus Shaw and Chauncey Whiting were the first county commissioners, 150 years ago.

Previously a state legislative act formally organized Otter Tail County, on March 16, 1868, ten years after Minnesota became a state.

The Sept. 12 festivities on the shores of Clitherall Lake gave county board members and officials the opportunity to be “actors,” as a humorous script by Historical Society director Chris Schuelke was read and dramatized.

Theatrical script to move county seat played out by county officials

Though Clitherall was the first settlement, the first official county seat was Ottertail city, proclaimed by the state legislature in 1870.

Political powers moved the central government to Fergus Falls in 1872, but there were several county seat controversies over the first half-century.

The script included a mock resolution to again, in 2018, move the county seat.

Historical Society director, tongue in cheek, proposed moving the county seat to a more centralized location: “In commemoration of Otter Tail County’s 150th anniversary, be it resolved that the county seat should be removed from Fergus Falls and be relocated to the geographic center of Otter Tail County which is the intersection of 370th Ave and County Rd 1 in Amor Township. Since the closest public land is Amor Park, and since the Otter Tail County Historical Society held their first organizational meeting at Amor Park on July 31, 1927, the new county seat location will be Amor Park. Construction of a new government services complex should commence immediately. Call for a motion…”

Pelican Rapids proposed as county seat…tongue in cheek

Of course this stirred a humorous debate, with West Otter Tail County Commissioner Wayne Johnsons objecting: “Pelican Rapids is the future of Otter Tail County. We are the most diverse town in west central Minnesota. What other community has both Mexican and Somali markets?

It hasn’t been easy, we’ve had our challenges and had to make adjustments, but Pelican Rapids is stronger for that. We’ve come together, we truly are a melting pot.

“That being said, I would like to offer a motion to move the county seat to Pelican Rapids!” concluded Johnson, who represents the greater Pelican area.

East Otter Tail official argues for Perham county seat

Of course, East Otter Tail Commissioner Doug Huebsch had a different idea: “If we’re going to move the county seat, which now that I think about it is not such a bad idea, it should be moved to a larger town – like Perham!”

There was even attempts to move the county seat to Tordenskjold Township, in 1870; and an attempt to break away entirely–by forming a new county in New York Mills, in 1920.

Finally, after the dust settled with the humorous sketch, county board chair Wayne Johnson ordered all motions rescinded–and the Otter Tail County seat would remain in Fergus Falls.

Religious freedom was motivation for first settlement in Clitherall–by break-away Mormons

The special 150th birthday Otter Tail meeting Sept. 12 was held on “hallowed ground” in Old Clitherall.

Chauncey Whiting led the “Cutlerites,” move from Iowa to Old Clitherall, east of Battle Lake, where they established their settlement in May 1865. The Cutlerites were a splinter group from the Church of Latter Day Saints, known commonly as the Mormons.

Whiting and other church leaders met with local Native American chiefs and made a private treaty to preserve peace.

The Old Clitherall site is a short distance west of what later became the present-day Clitherall.

The township of Clitherall took its name from the lake, which took its name from Civil War veteran, Major George B. Clitherall. He was an employee of the United States land office at Ottertail City from 1858 to 1861.

The township of Clitherall was organized on Oct. 24, 1868.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s residents of Old Clitherall headed southward and hunted deer in what’s now Leaf Mountain Township, home to Inspiration Peak.

“I remember the first deer that I harvested,” wrote Lurett Whiting, whose account is recorded in “Old Clitherall’s Story Book” compiled by the late Hallie Gould.

She was a descendant of two early pioneer families who were part of the first non-Native American settlement in Otter Tail County, in 1865.

Gould’s book includes diary accounts from several Old Clitherall settlers, including Whiting.

“I had not gone far until a big buck jumped and ran past me,” Whiting said. “I drew my rifle up and fired a shot. The buck made a few more jumps and fell.”

Many of those early settlers at Old Clitherall are buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, just south of Highway 210. The cemetery sits high atop a hill, overlooking Clitherall Lake.

County officials posed in front of the “Cutlerite” church, established by a splinter group of Mormons who traveled north to create the first “white” permanent settlement in Otter Tail County in the 1860s.
The church and surrounding property was sold over the past couple years for resort development on Clitherall Lake, thus ending a nearly 150-year connection of the religious group to Otter Tail. The church is being preserved, much as it appeared when it was built in 1912 by the Mormon group–most of whom left the area for Independence, Missouri, by the 1930s.
The church will continue to serve, as an event center for receptions, weddings and gatherings at the Clitherall resort site.
Front row, from left, Michelle Eldien (Co. Attorney), John Dinsmore (Co. Administrator), Wayne Johnson (Co. Commissioner- Chair), Kathy Domholt (Board Secretary).
Back row, L to R: Doug Huebsch (Co. Commissioner), Lee Rogness (Co. Commissioner), John Lindquist (Co. Commissioner) Wayne Stein (Co. Auditor/Treasurer).