In 1849, when Minnesota became a territory and people were going to California to strike it rich, the land on which the city of Benson is now located was the home of the Dakota Indian. No other settlement had occurred in the area even though the Santa Fe Trail, first traversed in 1821, and the Oregon Trail in 1842 were used by thousands as they sought out new homes in the west.
On March 3, 1857, Congress gave extensive land grants to aid in railroad construction to the Territory of Minnesota. The right of way and the odd numbered sections within six miles on each side of the tracks were to be given to the railroad company completing the various projects. Since railroads were absolutely necessary for future prosperity, strenuous efforts were made to get construction work started. The Minnesota & Pacific Railroad Company was authorized to build a road from Stillwater (by way of St. Paul and St. Anthony) to Big Stone Lake in the western part of the state. The company was unable to carry out the contract. In 1862, the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company built 10 miles of railroad between St. Paul and St. Anthony (Minneapolis). Then work ceased. In 1866, the DeGraff and Company was given the contract for construction of the road. The next year, the western terminus of the line was changed to Breckenridge. By locating sites at intervals of approximately eight miles, the railroad company determined the number of future trading centers, one of which was Benson.
N. P. Strom, who had established claims bordering the Chippewa River, negotiated for the establishment of Benson on his claims. The railroad company considered that the price demanded was too high and therefore declined. The chosen site for Benson was on the southwest quarter of section five, township 121 north, range 39 west. Benson was surveyed and laid out in the spring of 1870.
Benson served as a market center for a 100-mile radius from 1870, when the railroad reached Benson, until 1871 when the line was completed to Breckenridge. During that time the Hudson Bay Company had a warehouse in Benson making the small village a stopping point for the famous Red River Ox Carts. Goods, which consisted mostly of choice wines, brandies, whiskies, teas, tobacco and hardware, were transported from Benson to Fort Abercrombie, about 15 miles downstream from Wahpeton, North Dakota, and shipped on the Red River to Fort Gerry Winnipeg.
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. Sales had run up to $60,000 in one of the general stores. During the same period there were sold in Benson almost one and one-half million feet of lumber; 1,260,000 shingles; 170,000 laths; 380 reapers, mowers and harvesters; 240 seeders; 10 threshing machines; 160 plows; 137 wagons; and 61 sulky hay racks.
In 1876, the legislature made Benson the county seat for Swift County and authorized the construction of a courthouse to be built there. This frame building served the county until 1898 when the present courthouse was constructed just north of the first courthouse. In 1877, one hundred carloads of gravel were put on the streets and a system of drainage to the Chippewa River was completed. That same year, on February 14, the village of Benson was incorporated.
Benson continued to expand more rapidly than the other trading centers in the county. In 1880, its population was 457 with business interests numbering 30 stores and shops. That same year, a fire started by a cigar butt dropped through a knothole in the floor of a saloon, destroying all the businesses located on the 1300 block of Atlantic Avenue. A fire department had not been organized at the time of the fire nor ample water supply to fight the fire. As a result, the Village Council organized a volunteer fire department in 1881 and installed cisterns within the village. The firefighting equipment was kept in the newly constructed City Hall, located on the west end of Atlantic Avenue.
In 1893, Dr. Scofield had the first telephone in Benson. It operated between his office and his home. In 1904, after ten years of development as a local exchange, the Benson Telephone Company incorporated, taking the name "Swift County Telephone Company". Improvements to the city occurred in 1894 when 4,000 feet of sewage pipe were laid and waterworks installed in 1895. The power and light plant was built by private investors just before the turn of the 20th century and was purchased by the city in 1902. Streets in Benson were paved in the 1920's.
The first school classes in Benson were held in 1870 in the Emigrant House Hotel. The following year, a one-story frame structure was erected on the northeast corner of what became the courthouse block. This building is now preserved and is one of Benson's attractions located at Ambush Park. In 1879, Benson School District built a school of Chaska brick, two stories high, for $4,994 on 13th Street North. This building was torn down and a new school built in 1904. An addition was built at a cost of $135,000 in 1929. In May of 1963 construction began on the present high school. The 1904 building was torn down and work began on a new complex that included an indoor pool in 1975. Residents living on the south side of Benson felt that the school on the north side was too great a distance for their children to attend school there. A two-room wood frame building was built on the south side in 1888 with an addition made in 1891. The frame building was torn down in 1913 and a new brick building was constructed in its place. The brick building used for elementary students, kindergarten through 3rd grade, was demolished in 1995. Students were transferred to the Northside Elementary School, which is located west of the courthouse, built in 1958. An addition to this school was completed in 1994.
A public library was established in Benson in 1911 through a $7,500 donation from Andrew Carnegie and many generous gifts from local citizens. A new library, featuring 6,154 square feet, was built in 1992 when the city recognized the fact that the Carnegie building did not serve the needs of the community as it was not handicap accessible and had limited space. The historic library building was demolished in 1994.
The first hospital in Benson was built in 1912 at a cost of $15,000. It had an original capacity of 20 to 25 patients. The Swift County museum was located in the building before it was demolished in 1969. A congregate housing facility, Scofield Place, was built in its location in 1996. The Swift County - Benson Hospital was built in 1949 at a cost of $400,000 with a million dollar addition built in 1973. The top floor of the 1949 building is used as a Medical Center. Extensive remodeling and an addition for emergency rooms and entrance were completed in 2002.
Early industries in Benson, like today, were mostly agricultural related. The Benson Woolen Mill opened in 1880 and was located next to the Chippewa River. It manufactured wool into rolls of yarn and cloth. The Benson Roller Mill was erected in 1881 and made three grades of flour, much of which was shipped to the Twin Cities and the east. For a time, tobacco was grown in Swift County. Benson is reported to have had more than one cigar factory. There also was a brick factory in Benson. Some of the brick used in the construction of the1898 courthouse came from this factory
In 1958, Loren Tyler founded Tyler manufacturing and two years later constructed an 80 x 80 ft. building on the east edge of Benson to mass produce a trailer spreader to distribute fertilizer on ag. fields. These spreaders are shipped across the United States and to other countries. In 1995, under new ownership, a $5 million state of the art 130,000 sq. ft. addition was made. In 1998, Case IH purchased Tyler Industries and added the production of cotton pickers to the Benson plant in 2003. Herman Lorenz began manufacturing the original hydraulic driven grinder mixer in Benson in 1962. Since the original incorporation, the plant has been moved just east of Benson and several products added to the Lorenz production line. Lor-Al Inc. was founded in 1975 and expanded into a new building on the southwest edge of Benson in 1980. A 21,000 sq. ft. expansion was added in 1995 by Ag-Chem, Inc. whom had purchased Lor-Al in 1990. Lor-Al manufactured Easy Eider high flotation fertilizer applicators until it closed in 2001. Custom Ag Products (CAP) began business in 1984 in the lower level of a downtown Benson office building and moved to its current location in 1990. CAP manufactures and distributes the Redball brand liquid application monitor equipment as well as other ag. equipment. In 1995, CAP constructed a 22,500 sq. ft. expansion to its plant. A ground breaking ceremony for the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company (CVEC) was held in 1995. The 15 million gallon ethanol plant was created to give added value to the corn produced in the Swift County area. Since it's opening, CVEC has expanded its plant and added the production of vodka, "Shakers", in 2003. Other industries in Benson include Future Products, a garment manufacturing plant. Don Lenz, current owner and manager, began working in Benson as a manager of Wiman Manufacturing when it opened in 1966. The plant made coats. Wiman became Fingerhut Corporation in 1971 and produced luggage. Custom Roto-Mold's 60,000 sq. ft. plant opened on the west edge of Benson in 2001. One of the products it manufactures is kayaks.
Early pioneers to Benson enjoyed music and social activities. The Benson Opera House was built in 1895. The entire second floor was used as a theater with room to seat 400 people. The Opera House featured local talent as well as theatrical performers and medicine shows from the eastern states. A motion picture theater opened in Benson in the Aldrich House in 1916. In 1925, John DeMarce purchased the theater. Today, the DeMarce Theater, operated by Larry DeMarce, is the only movie theater in Swift County.
The Cotorie Club, a women's study club, was organized in 1895 and is still active. The Benson Golf Club was organized in 1923. The addition of nine holes in 1978 made the club one of the finest 18 hole golf courses in western Minnesota. The Benson Outdoor Swimming Pool was a WPA project and one of the largest and most modern pools in the state at the time of its construction. Construction started on a new pool in May, 2003. It will feature a water slide that drops into a plunge pool, a large open swimming area and lap pool, a diving area, and kiddy pool. The pool is located across the river from Ambush Park. The park is surrounded by some 200 acres that form a natural setting for people and wildlife. It includes miles of hiking trails; two accesses to the Chippewa River for canoeists, anglers and tubers; and camper pads with electricity and water. The Benson Civic Center was constructed in 1994 and provides an indoor hockey arena for the Benson Hockey Association.
Among the events hosted by the Benson community are "Kid Day" which began in 1930 and the "Pioneerland Band Festival" in 1988. Each year on June 14, thousands of people come to Benson to watch the best high school bands in Minnesota compete in Benson's band festival.
By 1900, Benson's population had grown to 1,525. It made it over 2,000 in 1920 and over 3,000 in 1950. Benson's highest record population was in 1960 when it reached 3,678.
The History of Benson tells the story of pioneer life, of hard working people, and a community that endeavors to meet their needs--a community of people working together to create the quality of life they truly cherish.
History submitted by the Swift County Historical Society, Marlys Gallagher - Director.