History of Benson, MN Area

This region was the disputed land of the Chippewa and Sioux Indians. Raiding parties of each tribe made life quite perilous for any person. The first white man to travel across the future Benson area was Gideon S. Pond, an Indian Missionary who accompanied an Indian hunting party up the Chippewa River in order to study their habits and customs. However, it was not until after the Great Sioux Uprising that western Minnesota was made safe for white settlement. The first white settler in the Benson area is thought to be Ole Corneiliusen, a Norwegian who arrived in 1866. By this time the railroad had been extended from Minneapolis to Delano. This resulted in more rapid settlement in western Minnesota.

Early development of Benson and the rest of Swift County was strongly related to the railroad. A.W. Lathrop and W.V. Lathrop opened the first general store in Benson in 1869 in anticipation of the arrival of the construction of trackage through the area. The railroad continue laying tracks in the westward direction and by 1870 they had reached the site that they had determined to be a trading center named "Benson" in memory of a prominent politican from Anoka.

Boom Time

After the tracks reached Benson, no additional tracks were laid for over a year. As end of the tracks, Benson became a lively trading center. It was the exchange point to the Red River Ox Carts. These two-wheeled carts were built entirely of wood and raw hide and pulled by a single ox. They usually traveled in a train and the squeak of their unoiled wheels could be heard for miles. The Red River Ox Carts carried goods from Benson to about 15 miles downstream from the present-day city of Wahpeton, North Dakota. During this time Benson served as a market for the territory 100 miles to the north, south, and west. Prices were high at this time with a barrel of pork costing $40.00, 100 pounds of flour for $5.00, very poor butter was $0.50 a pound, eggs were a luxury, and potatoes were very scarce.

Within five years the population of Benson had grown to 300 with four general stores, two drug stores, two machinery houses, three hotels, one bank, and two saloons. In one of the general stores, A.N. Johnson & Co., the sales ran up to $60,000 in the last eight months of 1875. It was distinctly a boom period.

Early Life

Early life in Benson also included some hardships such as the smallpox epidemic of 1872, the grasshopper plague of 1876, and the fire of 1880. The fire was started by a cigar butt which was dropped and rolled through a knothole in the floor of Joe Fountain's saloon. The smoldering cigar soon burst into uncontrollable flames that resulted in severe losses to 20 concerns, destroying an entire city block. As a result of the fire, a volunteer fire department was organized by the Village Council on June 18, 1881.

The Public Library was established in Benson in 1911 through a $7,500 donation from Andrew Carnegie and many generous gifts from local citizens. The following year the Swift County Hospital was constructed at a cost of $15,000 and had an original capacity of 20 to 25 patients. In 1949 a new City-County Hospital was constructed at a cost of $400,000. In 1971 a million dollar addition was added to the hospital and now offers Benson a modern 32 bed facility. The Benson Medical Center, a well-staffed group of family physicians, and Harley Clinic, a mental health clinic, are also housed in the facility. The Swift County-Benson Hospital celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 1987.

The first hotel, known as the Emigrant House, was constructed by the railroad company to accommodate railway workers and travelers. In 1876 an addition was made on the hotel and it was renamed the Pacific House. In 1900 the structure was moved to a lot behind the light plant and called the Columbia Hotel. The three story brick, 45 room Paris Hotel was then constructed on the previous site. This building remained as a landmark until it was destroyed by fire in September of 1976. The First Federal Savings Bank and the 1st American Financial Center now stand on that site.

Modern Conveniences

Public utilities and services have been available to Benson residents for many years. The waterworks was constructed in 1895. Cement sidewalks began to be constructed in 1901. The first telephone operated between the office and home of Dr. C.L. Scofield in 1893, three years before the original Bell patent expired. The power and light plant was built by private investors just before the turn of the century and was purchased by the City of Benson in 1902.

The turn of the century also saw the first "horseless carriage" in Benson. J.B.A. Benoit, who had been in the bicycle repair business, became interested in the new invention. In 1901 he purchased a lathe and began to build an automobile, completing it in April of 1902. This open two-seated rig was equipped with a five horse Dyke engine which could propel the car at the rate of four to twenty miles an hour. Its first run to Clontarf, a distance of about six miles, was completed in only 28 minutes.


The first school classes were held in the Emigrant House in 1870. The following year a one story frame structure was erected on the northeast corner of the courthouse block to serve as the school. This original school house of Benson has been restored and is open to the public. It is located at Ambush Park on West Highway 9. The first graduate received their diploma from Benson High School in 1890. In 1904 the Northside School (now the Junior High School) was constructed, following by the Southside School in 1913 and the Northside Elementary School in 1958. The new high school was constructed in 1965 and a major addition housing the vocational facilities and an indoor swimming pool was completed in 1976. An all-school reunion was held in 1990 to celebrate the Centennial of Education.