Ard Godfrey House
In the spring of 1848, from a primitive camp near the falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi River, new settler Ard Godfrey wrote home to his wife Harriet back in Maine:
"We have had a very cold, dry winter here, it is quite cold today the wind blows pretty hard."
Godfrey was a skilled millwright (a forerunner of the modern mechanical engineer) from the East Coast who had been recruited by early settler and entrepreneur Franklin Steele for $1,500 a year to build a dam and lumber mill at the falls of St. Anthony (now part of the city of Minneapolis) in what was then called the Wisconsin Territory. It would be another two years before the area was designated the Minnesota Territory, and another decade still before the Territory was admitted to the union. Godfrey's letter home continues:
"I have got the dam most done and have built some piers for the boom, and in short, I have got along with the work much better than I supposed last fall. I have got along better since Mr. Cheever went off than before for I have no one to bother me on my assignment."
Six months later, Godfrey oversaw the construction of the first lumber mill at St. Anthony (with or without the irksome Mr. Cheever), and lumbermen drove the first logs down the river. With a new source of power and a wealth of building materials, Godfrey traveled back to Maine to fetch his wife and two small children. The return trip proved arduous, and while Godfrey persevered, returning to St. Anthony in late fall on horseback to commence building a 1½ story wood-frame house for his family, his wife and young children stopped to overwinter with relatives along the way.
The following spring, Harriet and the children finished the journey to Minnesota, arriving in St. Anthony by riverboat in April 1849. Ard was 35; Harriet was 32 and eight months pregnant. A month later Harriet gave birth to a baby girl they called Hattie. The young family settled into their new house where they would live until 1853, when their growing family (they would go on to have ten children) and new economic opportunities took them to Minnehaha Falls, where Ard would build another dam, then a saw mill and the first known flour mill in Minnesota.
Did You Know?
A succession of pioneers lived in the house until 1905, after which it became a historic museum for the Hennepin County Territorial Pioneer's Association. The house has been moved four times and now stands on Chute Square in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, at University Avenue and Central Avenue S.E., just two blocks from its original site on the Mississippi River.
Godfrey’s dam powered a succession of sawmills and flour mills that gave rise to the economic success that led to the city of Minneapolis. In 1976, as a gift to the city in honor of its bicentennial, The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis undertook the restoration of the Ard Godfrey House and--some 10,000 volunteer hours later--opened it to the public on weekends during summer months. Today, the Godfrey House is the oldest remaining frame house in the city and has been designated a Historic Treasure. The house has been impeccably restored by the Woman's Club and is filled with furnishings and household artifacts authentic to the 1850s--some original to the house, including baby Hattie’s walnut cradle and the Chickering rosewood piano that graces the drawing room. Club volunteers in 1850s period costume give tours.
While the Godfrey family prospered, frontier life was a constant struggle. In 1862, 12-year-old daughter Hattie wrote in her diary,
"The farm was mortgaged the work in the sawmill suspended on account of the Civil War so many men called away that father was obliged to resort to desperate measures in order to save his home. He decided to go with an expedition overland to the mountains, led by a man named Fiske, his first expedition of a number, to what is now Idaho. Father fitted up a covered wagon, with provisions for a year, got a team also and left home June 18th, 1862, for this dangerous and arduous journey.
Abner [Hattie’s 18-year-old brother] went with him to town to see him off. We children rode as far as the school house with him — a wonderful experience for us, not realizing how long it would be before we saw him again … Mother left at home with seven children to care for, only $60.00 in money and the crops that Abner was to harvest."
The Ard Godfrey house is open to the public Saturdays and Sundays in June, July and August, from 1:00 – 4:00 pm. (The last complete tour is at 3:30 pm.) Bring a lunch and enjoy it at one of the picnic tables in Chute Square. Admission to the Godfrey House is free; donations are welcome. Special tours for groups of ten or more may be arranged year round for a minimal fee by calling 612-781-8791.