History of Swift County

Swift County was organized on February 18, 1870 and was named in honor of Henry Swift, Governor of Minnesota in 1863. It is located in the west central part of the State and consists of 757 square miles with 3 tiers of 7 townships each.

Three citizens, C.E. Foster, A.W. Lathrop and Iver Knudson, were selected to serve on the first Board of Commissioners. These men did not realize, perhaps, the big task which would confront the Board in the future administration of the large area. Though the population numbered less than 1,000 and these widely scattered, a beginning had to be made. With people crowding into the County, it was their problem to see that the various territorial divisions had adequate representation on the Board, and efficient local governments; that school districts were equitably carved out and the work well supervised; that funds were provided for the many activities which soon became a part of the normal function of the County offices.

At their initial session the Commissioners attacked the first problem. The County was divided into Commissioner districts. The first district was organized into the town of Fairfield and included the west end of the County, the town of Camp Lake including the east end, and the town of Benson supervision over the central townships.

In addition to the establishment of town governments and the organization of school districts, the Commissioners were confronted with the problem of financing the business of the County. At this early date, there was little money that could be raised by taxation and there was little need for large expenditures; but some things were necessary. However, not before the fourth session (March 25, 1871) did the Commissioners allow any bills, and these were largely a result of the order for record books and stationery which had been moved at the first session. For the County Auditor, supplies to the value of $50 were purchased; for the Register of Deeds, $100; a seal and blank checks, $13.98; stationery and expenses incurred by A.W. Lathrop, $2.45. Each of the County Commissioners were also allowed bills for services, totaling $44.88.

On September 5, 1871, the Board formed itself into the first Board of Equalization. The assessed valuations of horses in Benson and Fairfield were made to average those of Camp Lake ‑ $68.88. Cattle were rated at $24.28 and sheep at $2.00. A few reductions in real estate values‑ were made. It was also decided to raise the following sums for the ensuing year: past indebtedness and interest, $350; current expenses, $900; and for the County Poor Fund, $100.

By 1878 the number of legal voters in the County had increased to such an extent (800 votes having been cast in the last election) that the Commissioners decided on December 2, 1878, to re‑district the County to provide two additional members on the Board. Division was made according to the number of votes cast.

The session of March 1871, the problem of better roads came up for dis­cussion. The first roads were but wagon tracks ‑ short cuts across the prairies from the homestead to the nearest neighbor and trading center. Until pressure of population became greater, it was natural for the Com­missioners to postpone any vigorous action in road building.

During the first three years, only $142.52 was used in road construction; less than the amount spent on the County poor ‑ $174.70. The next finan­cial report, however, shows receipts of $667.45 in the County road and bridge fund.

From 1875 and on, much of the time of the Board was devoted to the consideration of road petitions. Since most of the road building was done at first under township supervision with the policy in effect of allowing the poll tax to be worked out in labor, the sums expended remained compara­tively small; that raised by the County distributed equally among the vari­ous towns.

In the early eighties a movement for improved highways began to make itself felt, for many had come to the conviction that good roads would bring better times. One of the newspaper editors made the statement in 1885 that "the road question is of greater importance to citizens of Swift County than the question of who shall be President."

In the spring of 1876, the Legislature authorized the construction of a courthouse in Benson. On March 26, 1897, the Commissioners voted to advertise for bids to construct a new courthouse as the old one proved to be too small to meet the growing needs of the County. Over the years, the Courthouse has been renovated several times. It was declared a national historic site in 1976.

The citizens of the County in 1880 could view with pride the achievements of their fellow‑settlers during the first decade of settlement, for a substan­tial framework has been constructed to provide a civilization for the com­ing generations. When we consider that from a total of approximately 600 people in the County in 1870, the population had increased to 7,472 the stream of immigration must have been very strong despite the hard times. In 1900, the population had reached 13,503.

To the pioneers who first viewed this region in the 1860's, it must have presented to the naked eye a vast, flat, monotonous stretch of land, un­broken even by trees. Except for some timber to be found along the streams and in small groves on the borders of the lakes, there was nothing to stop the plow from being put to use as soon as the settler arrived in the spring or summer. Agriculture has been and still is the main industry in Swift County.

This brief history of Swift County was submitted by the Swift County His­torical Society which was founded in November of 1929. This information was taken from its archives.

Prepared by Swift County Historical Society ‑ January 1998