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The Village of Burkhardt: Bustling Then and Now

Amidst several new construction projects in downtown Burkhardt, the new Redeemer Lutheran Church set to open this year or early next is one of the unincorporated village's lasting legacies.

If you drive through unincorporated Burkhardt, you can’t help but notice the growing “downtown.” There hasn't been this much activity since the 1980s when Josie’s closing time was later than Hudson bars, and townies flocked to what is now the Willow River Saloon between 1 and 2:30 a.m. I digress, but anyone remember those days?

This summer, the Cenex/Consolidated Energy Coop—where you can buy everything from gas and grub to live bait and Miller High Life—remodeled and expanded. Bob & Steve's BP convenience store/gas station opened this fall at the site of the former Rustic Hut restaurant, and a at the nearby Willow River State Park opened earlier this year.

The Willow River Saloon, which in recent years added a full restaurant to its mainstay menu of live country music, overlooks the construction of Redeemer Lutheran Church, a new home for the congregation of the original 1904 church down the street and around the corner.

And there’s already an offer from a small businessperson for the old church, says David Montbriand, a former Burkhardt resident and a member of the congregation since 1965.

“I’ve been surprised at the number of artists and art-type businesses that have inquired about the church,” says Montbriand.

I was surprised to learn about Burkhardt’s interesting history from Montbriand, 73, a retired 3M scientist and Marine Corp. veteran. He shared some history of the village, church and his summers with relatives near Burkhardt after his father died when he was a youngster. His father, Pete, was a large-scale moonshiner in the county during Prohibition until competitors blew up his operation housed in a barn.

Anyway, in the mid- to late-19th century Burkhardt was a bustling burg with a dance hall, cheese factory, several stores, a blacksmith, power company and flour mill, with much of it run by the town's namesake, Christian Burkhardt. 

Historian Willis Miller, in the publication “Historic Hudson,” wrote that Burkhardt, who moved to the village in 1868, bought his first 160 acres, founded the flour mill, and became postmaster. In 1894 he purchased the real estate of the Willow River Milling Co., converted it into an electric light and power plant, and was thought to bring the first electricity to the region, including Hudson and eventually as far east as Knapp and Hersey. He expanded into other business endeavors and helped establish the Redeemer Lutheran Church.

A Utopian Vision

What almost happened to Burkhardt after Mr. Burkhardt died is intriguing. An article by the Associated Press in the July 24, 1944 New York Times outlines plans for a cooperative community by Midland Cooperative Wholesale of Minneapolis. The article claimed that the unincorporated village had been slowly dying since the 1931 death of Mr. Burkhardt.

When Midland became interested in the mill, Miller wrote, the Burkhardt family would only sell the mill if the cooperative purchased the “whole town," apparently excepting the power plant.

In 1944 Midland purchased the village for $29,500, including the mill, seven houses, a duplex, the Burkhardt family mansion (which is now Burkwood, a chemical dependency treatment center) plus a two-story building and meeting room, barn, and 140 acres of farmland. (The following year the family sold its power company to Northern State Power; the bygone hydroelectric power operation was in what is now Willow River State Park.)

In the New York Times article, A. J. Smeby, Midland general manager, announced on the centennial of Rochdale, England’s cooperative model, that Burkhardt would be made into a “model cooperative village.” (The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, founded in 1844, was the first modern cooperative; its legacy is the Rochdale Principles, a set of ideals for cooperatives of buyers and sellers and a model for modern-day energy, farm and other cooperatives like credit unions.)

The article outlined a somewhat utopian vision: Smeby said Burkhardt was “ideally located as a center for cooperative activities to serve more than 300 local units in Wisconsin, Minnesota and northern Iowa. Buildings are to be erected for use as a general Midwest center and to provide a meeting place for conventions, youth institutes and retraining of members of cooperatives who are now in the armed forces.”

The article continued: “Mr. Smeby explained that the purchase of the village would not affect the ordinary rights of local residents, to whom Midland would simply be the new landlord. Village taxes will be paid by the cooperative, and since Burkhardt is unorganized, there are no problems of government.”

“Burkhardt, The Family, The Village,” a book assembled by Gordon and Doris Fouks that includes writings of the Burkhardt and Beer families, Miller, and other newspaper reporters, noted that: “Despite all the publicity, the Midland venture was short-lived, and in May 1948 the Burkhardt mill was sold…” In addition, homes and farmland were sold to local residents in 1947, and a local cooperative, organized by Midland in 1946, purchased the mill from Midland in 1949. The mill burned in 1975.

A Lasting Legacy

While the vision for a cooperative village foundered almost immediately, the “little church with the big heart” that Christian Burkhardt helped found back in 1904 has remained steadfast throughout the village’s various incarnations.

The new church is set to open its doors to parishioners by Jan. 15 when Bishop Duane Pederson, of the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, oversees the dedication ceremony.

“We hope to occupy our new church sooner than that, but we will be in it for the dedication ceremony,” says Pastor Marilyn Thurber, who has led the congregation since 1996.

Some history will be transferred to the new church. A small stained glass window over the original church entrance has already been installed in the same place in the new church, built by Glen Johnson Construction of Hudson and church volunteers. A burnt-wood decorated baptismal, made by Christian Burkhardt’s daughter Lina, will go to the new facility as well.

Burkhardt’s other daughters conducted the church’s Sunday school from the late 1800s in private homes and churches in Stillwater and Afton, MN, until the church opened in November 1904. They remained Sunday school teachers through the 1930s.

A gothic stained-glass window in memory of their mother, Ernstine Beer Burkhardt, who died in 1902, was installed at the time of the original church construction by John O. Lee of Hudson.

“The gothic stained glass window will be going to the new church too,” says Montbriand. “It will be backlighted behind the altar.”

Cheryl Sykora November 22, 2011 at 12:31 PM
nice article. It is nice to talk about something besides politics.
Donna Mae Seim November 22, 2011 at 01:06 PM
I grew up in Burkhardt. My dad,Harold Ostendorf, drove the Burkhardt Girls around & my mother was a maid in the Burkhardt Home. I still have the doll I got from them at Christmas time. I remember when my parents worried as to how we would buy our house. Donna Mae Ostendorf Seim
Brenda Bredahl November 22, 2011 at 02:33 PM
Hi Donna! Did your parents buy their home from Midland Cooperative? Such an interesting history in Burkhardt!
Brenda Bredahl November 22, 2011 at 03:07 PM
Thanks Cheryl! And if I might add to your comment, something besides politics and crime, too!
Donna Mae Seim November 25, 2011 at 01:16 PM
I believe Christian Burkhardt told everyone renting from him they would need to buy their house or move. My Dad borrowed money from Andy Benson to buy our house. Donna
Shannon Materka December 16, 2013 at 08:08 PM
I realize it's been two years since these comments were written, but I wonder if anyone has more memories of the Burkhardt family? Christian Burkhardt was my great-great-grandfather and I'm trying to collect anecdotes about him and his family. My email address is smaterka@gmail.com. Thank you!

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