The Ox Cart on display at GCHS is the oldest and crudest ox cart known to exist in Minnesota. This cart, dating to the 1820s or 1830s, is made entirely of wood including the axle, and has solid wood wheels.
William (Bill) Goetzinger, one of the original promoters of the Museum, in visiting with a professor from Carleton College, learned that this ox cart was housed at Carlton College but they were open to letting someone else have it. Since the Grant County Museum had just become a reality, Bill worked with Carleton College and the Minnesota Historical Society to have the Ox Cart become a prize exhibit for the Grant County Historical Society.
Although this specific cart may not have been used on the Red River Trails around Douglas and Grant County, it is an original ox cart, not a reproduction.
Ox carts have a prominent place in Minnesota’s history and even before statehood. These carts transported furs from Canadian trappers and trappers in the northwest area of Minnesota to St. Paul.The ox carts were built to traverse bogs, ford rivers, and travel up and down rock-strewn hills. The carts were made of oak, and used buffalo hide to lash the axles to the cart. The wheels would rub against the wooden axle creating a deafening screech. Some drivers used grease or fat from frying foods or from animals such as frogs or even a skunk as Gilman notes. An ox cart “train” could consist of 120 carts up to 300 carts. Distance covered in a day could be eighteen to twenty miles, although another source suggests eight to fifteen miles a day.
Goods transported by the ox carts were furs, pemmican, dried buffalo meat, moccasins and skin garments from the northern area of Minnesota, North Dakota and Canada. Gilman lists the goods transported from St. Paul to those northern areas as groceries, tobacco, liquor, dry goods, clothing, tools, hardware, guns, ammunition, and farm implements.
There were several Red River trails going between St. Paul and the Red River Settlement at Fort Garry, which later became Winnipeg. Gilman maps the main trails as the Manitoba, North Dakota, Minnesota Valley, Woods, Middle, and Metropolitan trails. From these main trails were other trails.The Trail passing through Grant County was the Middle Trail, going through Elbow Lake, to Lightning Lake on a southeast to northwest angle. Fort Pomme de Terre,in the northeast corner of Grant County, was on another trail called the Stage River. Gilman’s book has several good maps illustrating the many trails used.
Not only did the oxcarts develop the means to transport goods, in later years, many of the trails became stagecoach roads. Yet later, roads and highways followed the ox cart trails or were built parallel to some of parts of the ox cart trails.
By Linda Westrom Updated 4.11.22
Photo by Tom Grout
Gilman, Rhoda R, The Red River Trails. Minnesota Historical Society, 1979.
Goetzinger, William M. “Bill”. Trails. This spiral bound softcover book was compiled by Bill Goetzinger of articles written for the Grant County Herald. It was originally published in 1934. It is available for purchase at the Grant County Museum.