From Dell Rapids' Attic - History
Founding fathers wrangle over business district site
Where should the business district be built? That was the question of the day in the early 1870s. The mill was built in 1871 where the present-day dam is located – west of Dell Rapids. Some of the early business leaders, including the Rice brothers, wanted the downtown businesses to be located at the same site. But, others weren’t so sure.
The following Tribune story (printed August 12, 1976) introduces the names of new settlers and business leaders to the area. It also gives another perspective as to the events that lead to the beginning of Dell Rapids’ history, including the building of the settlement’s main business center.
In 1874, a man who would later be called “almost the father of Dell Rapids” ambled into this area astride a pony. Spying a man sawing wood, he rode over. “Where is Dell City?” he asked. In replying, the wood sawer must have had a hard time restraining a smile. “You’re right here in it.”
The rider was Gus Uline. He was carrying with him the $700 with which he would soon purchase the Cowan store near the Rice brothers’ mill. He would later build a new store when a final compromise was reached on where the town’s business section was to be located. The 1867 Swedish emigrant would also organize one of the town’s first banks, the Dell Rapids State in 1892.
Gus Uline was not, of course, the first settler to establish himself in Dell Rapids. According to newspaper files, the first was Peter Morse, who came here in 1871 from the Osage, Iowa, area. So impressed was Morse with what he saw, that he hurried back to Osage to persuade Rice brothers, Dennis and Frank, and B.D. Graves to join him in settling here.
Arriving in July, the Rice brothers, who had done the same kind of work at Osage, began building a mill, paying $800 for the land and water rights. Using brush and logs, they dammed the Big Sioux. At first, the mill was a sawmill, but later, after they were sure the arriving farmers could provide a continual supply of wheat, they converted it to a flourmill. Dennis Rice, convinced that this was the place for him, was also quick to start work on a house, one of the two to be completed here before “the long winter of ’71-‘72.
The fall months following brought other men to what was then know as “Dell City.” Many of them were destined to have a big influence on the town’s development. Included in that group was Albion Thorne. A native of Maine, he would spend the first winter in Dell City with only three other English-speaking white men – Dennis Rice, E.F. Metcalf, and R.S. Alexander. In fact, the only other English speaking white man in the area was William Melvin, who lived seven miles south of here.
The town’s population began to grow steadily the next spring, and 99 people celebrated the Fourth of July in the dells. When the ice melted, the people depended, as in 1871, on a boat to cross the Big Sioux. By 1874, there was a ferry service, run by a man named Tommy Lyons.
Although a number of people had already located here, as late as 1876 the influential men of the town were still trying to decide exactly where the business section should be. There were actually four different ideas on the subject. Dennis Rice thought it would go along the river by the mill. But Alexander and J.C. Ervin had another idea, Metcalf another, and Peter Morse still another. A compromise placing the business section approximately in the middle of the four choices was achieved by 1876, and Gus Uline immediately set to work on a new general store.
A later South Dakota Senator, a man named Richard Pettigrew, also had some ideas about where the town should go. John Huntimer, the town’s first blacksmith, had some 1925 recollections of Pettigrew’s disappointment at the eventual selection. His initial disagreement had apparently been with Dennis Rice, and according to Huntimer, his dissatisfaction led him to use his influence to get Dell Rapids excluded from Moody County, where he said it had a good chance of becoming the county seat.
Choosing the actual town site had to be the fundamental step to moving Dell Rapids from settlement status into that of a recognized town. The first meeting of an official governing body followed in March 1879, and the village of Dell Rapids was organized in December 1881. Railroad service had come the previous year.
Progress in the early years of Dell Rapids was not without its setbacks. The flood of 1881 washed out the new bridge completed over the Big Sioux only a couple of years earlier. The flood also took with it a portion of the early Rice Brothers Mill now under new ownership and called the Van Epp’s flourmill. Another serious setback came in 1888, when a disastrous fire destroyed almost the entire business section on the south side of Main Street.
By the 1880s, the population had reached 1000 residents. They were too committed to living here and would not allow any setbacks drive them away. And so, the story continues. . .