Sarah Chapman was one of three white women living in Crow Wing County in 1866. She built the fifteen-room Merchants Hotel at the corner of Sixth and Laurel streets in Brainerd.
Written by Julie Jo Larson | Photos courtesy of the Crow Wing County Historical Society
THE BRAINERD LAKES AREA HAS A RICH HISTORY, highly peppered with the names of strong, intelligent men who are often credited with founding, building, and growing our communities. But what of the women of those days? Besides being the daughter or wife of Mr. So and So, did any of them make it to the history books? For this issue, the MsStorians dug deep into local legends and lore to uncover pioneer women who made their marks on the lakes area and earned a sentence or two in history books, right next to the men of their times. For these tenacious women, life was more than chores and children.
Once again, we begin our story before Brainerd was officially named Brainerd, it was simply referred to “The Crossing” on a railroad survey map. In June of 1870, claim jumpers pretended to be part of a hunting party and closely followed railroad surveyors while they staked out land for the new town. Once the surveyors completed their work and left, the so-called hunters sprang into action. They staked a large claim (which encompassed much of current Brainerd), recorded it in Little Falls, and raced back to build several temporary dwellings. The land was then divided and sold as parcels. This is where our first woman pioneer, Mrs. Hester Cronk Gillman, crept into history.
Hester’s name appeared on several of those parcels of land which were sold to the Lake Superior and Puget Sound Company on August 13, 1870. Hester was married to Charles A. Gillman, who was Register of Land Titles in St. Cloud and at one time, Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. It has been speculated that Charles filed the choice parcels under his wife’s name to outwit the claim jumpers, however no one knows this for sure. It is also possible that Hester was a shrewd business partner with her husband. Either way, Hester’s name is forever recorded in history books as one of the land owners who sold to the railroad.
Hester Cronk Gillman’s name was listed as one of the land owners who sold the land, which later became the city of Brainerd, to the railroad in 1870.
Mrs. Sarah Chapman was one of three white women in Crow Wing County in 1866, the year her husband David died. Sarah took over the day-to-day management of their hotel in Old Crow Wing Village until moving to Brained in 1872. Once in Brainerd, Sarah wasted no time in building the fifteen-room Merchants Hotel at the corner of Sixth and Laurel. The two-and-a-half story hotel was one of Brainerd’s first and finest; it welcomed many visitors to the area.
In 1881, Sarah sold the Merchants Hotel to a Mr. J.H. Smith for the impressive sum of $4,100. Mr. Smith had some creditor issues, which slowed the transaction, but he was able to open the hotel in late July. Little is known about Sarah after that point, however she remained in her home at 223 North Broadway until her death at the age of 94. The area newspapers reported that Sarah was the last of the early women settlers of Brainerd.
The Merchants Hotel, at the corner of Sixth and Laurel streets in Brainerd, was one of the city’s finest in 1872. The hotel was built by Sarah Chapman, an early pioneer.
Emma Forsythe was married to George, the first foreman for the Northern Pacific machine shops. Emma was an unusual business woman in the 1880s. She is credited with platting the Farrer and Forsythe Addition to Brainerd, thus putting northeast Brainerd on the map. At one point, Emma was considered the areas premiere real estate agent and developer, owning two hundred houses in northeast Brainerd alone. Emma also owned a livery with thoroughbred horses. She was considered a charitable woman who would fill her carriage with food and supplies and distribute them to the needy, often venturing into the wild countryside to do so.
Emma’s love of the community was evident in her civic and charitable activities. She planted dozens of maple trees on Ash Street to beautify the neighborhood. She was one of the organizers of the Eastern Stars and was elected “Worthy Matron.” Emma helped form the Women’s Relief Corps and was a Minnesota Sixth Congressional District delegate to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where she was named to the Board of Lady Managers. It was quite an honor for a woman from northern Minnesota.
The MsStorians are interested in learning about more pioneer women of the northland. If you would like to share your family story, please email Julie Jo Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org.