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 engineer from the East Coast who had been recruited the year before for $1,500 a year to build a dam and lumber mill in the Minnesota Territory (it would be another decade before it was admitted to the union) by early settler and entrepreneur Franklin Steele. 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 built a one-and-a-half story frame house and then went back east for his wife and two young children.
They arrived in April, 1849. Ard was 35; Harriet was 32 and eight months pregnant. A month later she gave birth to their third child, a baby girl they named Hattie. The young family lived in the house until 1853, when their growing family (they would go on to have ten children in all) combined with economic opportunities took them elsewhere in the area.
Did You Know?
A succession of pioneer families lived in the house until 1905, after which it was made a historic museum. The house has been moved twice 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 renovation 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 remains as the oldest frame house in the city and a Historic Treasure. The house has been impeccably restored 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 picnic 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.