The largest artifact that the Sartell Historical Society has in its collection is something that cannot be on display because of its size. When we can obtain a permanent location, the artifact will be on display.
This huge item is an original safe made by the Hall’s Safe and Lock Company of Cincinnati, Ohio. Hall’s had branches throughout the United States including one in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hall’s Safe and Lock Company was incorporated in 1867 by Joseph Hall. During its peak time it was the largest manufacturer of vaults and safes in the world1. In a notice published in The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper on October 24, 1876, the office of Davis and Haden of Kentucky wrote the attributes of their Hall Safe, “The bricks and stone were burned into ashes and lime, and it was the hottest fire ever known in Louisville. The safe was buried several feet under the bricks and ashes for two days, and after being dug out of the ruins was opened, and we are proud to say the books and papers were found uninjured, not even discolored, or scorched. Several gold watches and some valuable jewelry were found untarnished”2. On Chicagology.com there are testimonies posted to the effectiveness of the Halls Safe from the great fire of Chicago in October of 18713.
The safe that the Sartell Historical Society has in their collection measures 56 inches tall, 36 inches wide, 34 inches deep and weighs in at 1,000 pounds. The color has faded on the metal which at one time was a shiny black. There are decorative painted embellishments in the corners and the center. In the middle of the double doors is a painting of a red barn surrounded by large oak trees. Below the barn painting is the name “Hall’s Safe” next to the combination dial and two handles. On the top of the outer frame stamped into the metal are two words in capital letters, “SARTELL BRO’S.”.
This safe was donated to the Sartell Historical Society after being stored outside under a lean-to building for years. Why would such a large heavy duty safe be needed in the newly settled village of Sartell? How did they transport this large safe? When did the safe arrive in Sartell? Did the risk of fire affect the need to have a safe? Did “The O’Connor Agreement” have a part in the reasoning?
The safe found its home in the Sartell Brothers Grocery store which was located on the corner of Riverside Avenue and Sartell Street. The store was built around the 1880’s and run by a Sartell family member until the 1970’s. The Sartell family ran several businesses in the area besides the grocery store. There was a flour/grist mill located on the Watab Creek, a lumber mill4 located on the Watab at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and the ice making business5. Having four businesses meant a lot of paperwork would need to be protected, as well as the cash that was needed to operate these businesses.
One of the dangers of living during this time was the threat of fires. Homes were heated with fire or coal and food was cooked on log stoves. On the east side of the river with the railroad tracks, fires were a fear with the steam trains. The Sartell Volunteer Fire Department was not established until 19206 so there was no big red fire truck with a clanging bell, fire hose and fire men to come to your aid. More than likely, you would need to get a bucket brigade or a human chain with buckets filling them with water from the Watab Creek or Mississippi River.
These are some of the documented fires in Sartell that were recorded:
The first log schoolhouse met its demise in a fire6
1882, J. B. Sartell lost his home to fire7
Perry’s General Store & Post Office burned down8
The ice making business burned down twice9
1909, the flour mill burned down10
Watab/Alpine Hotel burned down9
Sartell Lumber burned down11
So having a safe that was touted as being the most fireproof safe would sound like a necessity. When the businesses burned down, their records would have burned as well. The logging business was one that had many fires because of the saw dust and wood chips that were a part of the business.
How did this 1000-pound safe that is 56”x36”x34” get transported and delivered to the Sartell Brothers store? We know that the railroad was on the east side of the Mississippi River so the safe probably came from St. Paul on the train to Sartell. The metal bridge in Sartell was not built until 1914 so if the safe came after the bridge was built it makes sense that it was transported over the bridge12. J.B. Sartell died before the bridge was built and so did 2 of his sons that ran the businesses with him, so perhaps the safe came to Sartell before the bridge was built13. To get the safe from the east side of the Mississippi River to the west side where the grocery store was, the safe would need to have been transported on the ferry that the Sartell Brothers operated. Maybe they timed the delivery so that it was winter, and the river was frozen so then they could use their logging sleds and horses to transport the safe across the river. They must have had a whole crew of their men from the logging business to help with this move. They would have needed to use pulleys and hoists to move it and logs to roll it to the sled. It would have taken strength and planning to lift the safe off and out of the train box car onto the sled, then down the embankment to the river, across the river, up the embankment on the west side and finally up the stairs outside the store, through the door and into the office.
The years between 1880 and 1930 had a lot of activity in Minnesota. Some of the activity that was written in the St. Cloud, Little Falls, Brainerd, Minneapolis, and St. Paul newspapers was about the increase of robberies around Minnesota, including Central Minnesota. This era also saw World War I, the 1918 deadly fires and flu epidemic, prohibition, the stock market crash, and the beginning of the Great Depression.
One of the topics covered in Matt Reichers’ article “O’Connor Layover Agreement” describes the Layover Agreement which was put into action in 1900 by St. Paul Chief of Police, John O’Connor, and continued for more than 35 years. The agreement had 3 conditions for any criminal that wanted to live in St. Paul: 1- “they checked in with police upon their arrival” 2- “agreed to pay bribes to city officials” 3- “committed no major crimes in the city of St. Paul”14. The Minnesota Historical Society has an in-depth article written by Sharon Park titled “Gangster Era in St. Paul, 1900-1936” which chronicles the gangster activity in Minnesota during this time. Several well-known gangs and their members moved into Minnesota: The Barker-Karpis gang (Ma Barker), John Dillinger and gang, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, and Tommy Banks all lived in and around Minnesota, mainly St. Paul15.
These infamous names are ones that have been written about and had movies made of. The Sartell Brothers may have wondered if these gangs would come to their village, and if not these well-known criminals, then others who were following or copying that path and using crime to get their money. Highway 10 was a high traffic road for motorists. At this time Highway 10 was not located where it is today but was originally located along the river on the east side which today is known as Benton Drive, and once the Sartell metal bridge was built it opened an easy access to the west side of the village and all the businesses on the west side of the river. Sartell was a small village outside of the larger city of St. Cloud, and one quick stop off a busy highway, which may have been a concern and worry for the settlers of this village that they were now vulnerable.
The Little Falls Herald newspaper, one of the local newspapers, had frequent articles written about the ongoing robberies of stores, banks, post offices, and trains that occurred in and around the surrounding area of Little Falls including the towns of Rice, Rockville, Royalton, St. Martin and Meire Grove. There must have been a heightened sense of fear of being robbed which can be felt in a statement that a farmer in the Little Falls area had said to the paper, “August Blomquist says a party wanted to buy his farm but he decided he’d rather hang onto the farm than to have the money. He was thinking of the numerous bank robberies these days.”16
The Brainerd Daily Dispatch had a bold headline in their September 16, 1929 edition stating, “Bank Robber Syndicate Working in State”. The article described how the State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was investigating bank robberies in the area17. Several years later October 27, 1933, Baby Face Nelson and his gang robbed the Brainerd Bank and got away with an estimated $32,000 which today would be equivalent to almost $700,000. After the gang robbed the First National Bank of Brainerd, “Nelson fired his machine gun into the ceiling, ran out to the getaway car, and sprayed the building with gunfire. They simply sprayed up and down the street as they left to make sure that no one was going to bother them.”18 This bank robbery left such a mark on the city that in 2018, 85 years after the bank robbery The Stage North Theatre put on a play reenacting the robbery called “Baby Face”19.
The people in Sartell must have felt great concern when reading all these notices of robberies that were occurring all around their village especially after the report about how the Sartell authorities helped the Little Falls authorities capture auto thieves by alerting them that the thieves had stopped in Sartell asking for directions20. That incident brought the reality of robberies right in their backyard. At this time the village of Sartell did not have a police force and would not for another 40-50 years. What the citizens had to rely upon was a mixture of, “constables, town marshal’s, part time officers and the County Sheriff’s departments.” 21
This safe may have given the owners a sense of security. It was solid enough to withstand fires and heavy enough that it could not be carried away. The safe must have meant enough to the owners that they had their name stamped into the metal and a picture painted on the front that perhaps reflected one of their barns. Every time the owners opened and closed the safe, they saw their name at the top perhaps as a symbol that it was protecting what was inside.
The safe may have preserved the important documents for the businesses that its owners were involved with, family mementos that may have been locked up, the money, and some of the first, original documents recorded of the Village of Sartell. This safe has lasted longer than the original buildings of Sartell: the village hall, school, paper mill, fire department, all the hotels, the train depot, gas stations, sunset lodge, original homes on both sides of the river, and the grocery store. This last existing original historical remnant of the city of Sartell deserves to be on display and tell its story by letting people see and experience what life had been like on the frontier of a new village and to protect the safe’s future like it protected the keepsakes and documents of the Sartell citizens.
1. United States Circuit Courts of Appeals Reports: With Key-number Annotations ... V. 1-171 [1891-1919]. United States, West, 1907, 362. https://www.google.com/books/edition/United_States_Circuit_Courts_of_Appeals/5-9NAQAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=
2. The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper of Kentucky on October 24, 1876, page 5
3. https://chicagology.com/rebuilding/rebuilding114/ testimony of halls safe, retrieved 10-15-2022
4. City of Sartell Centennial Historical Publications Committee, Introduction to Sartell, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 2
5.Thomas Sartell, The Mississippi River: Ice Making, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 138
6. Marcella “Zinda” and Claude Dingmann Jr. The Village: Fire Department, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 40
7. William Bell Mitchell, History of Stearns County, Minnesota, Volume 1, Chicago H. C. Cooper, JR. @ co. 1915. 584
8. Thomas Sartell, Businesses: Scattered Commerce, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 187
9. Rip Sartell Jr., Businesses: West Side of River, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 149
10. Thomas Sartell, The Crick: The Watab Creek Bridges, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 142
11. Thomas Sartell, The Village: Fire Department, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 39
12. Thomas Sartell, The Mississippi River: We Had Bridges, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 130
13. William Bell Mitchell, History of Stearns County, Minnesota, Volume 2, Chicago H. C. Cooper, JR. @ co. 1915. 1279
14. Reicher, Matt. "O'Connor Layover Agreement." MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/thing/oconnor-layover-agreement (accessed October 23, 2022)
15. Park, Sharon. "Gangster Era in St. Paul, 1900–1936." MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/event/gangster-era-st-paul-1900-1936 (accessed November 1, 2022).
16. Little Falls Herald, May 7, 1920, pg. 6.
17. The Brainerd Daily Dispatch 9-16-1929 Bank Robber Syndicate. pg.1.
18. Bob Collins, The Day Baby Face Nelson Came to Brainerd, 5-31-2013, https://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2013/05/the_day_baby_face_nelson_came/ retrieved 11-1-2022
19. Anthony Scott, Stage North Theatre Relives the Infamous Baby Face Nelson Bank Robbery, 6-13-2018,https://lptv.org/stage-north-theatre-relives-the-infamous-baby-face-nelson-bank-robbery/retrieved 11-2-2022
20. Little Falls Herald 2-25-1921 “Auto Thieves are caught here” pg. 1.
21. Kaye Wenker, Jerry O’Driscoll, Jim Hughes, The Village: Police Department, Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress. City of Sartell, 2006. 47