Shell City: a tale of a town that went away

The people of Wadena have a lot to learn from the abandoned townsite of Shell City along the northern edge of Wadena County, according to Richard Paper, chairman of the Wadena County Historical Society Board.

The people of Wadena have a lot to learn from the abandoned townsite of Shell City along the northern edge of Wadena County, according to Richard Paper, chairman of the Wadena County Historical Society Board.

The WCHS is holding a tour of Shell City May 8 and Paper encourages people from Wadena to sign up. Shell City was an important townsite, Paper said. Founded by William Kindred in 1879, it developed in the same time frame Wadena did, but with a very different outcome.

"I think it gives insight into the fact that even our town hasn't always remained the same," he said. "Businesses have come and gone owing to different circumstances. The town has remained principally because it's the crossroads of three highways and on the main line of the railroad where Shell City didn't have any of those advantages. But the people that came there came with the same spirit as people in Wadena."

The development of the local transportation system played a role in the fates of both towns.

The original townsite for Wadena was along the Crow Wing River in what is now Old Wadena County Park. It didn't thrive because transportation routes went elsewhere, Paper said, but was able to rebuild itself here.


"Shell City was actually much more advanced than [old] Wadena ever was," he said. "It looked like it was going to be a really viable town."

Hotels, blacksmith shops, a school, a livery, a sawmill and homes once dotted the town that served as funnel point for wheat harvested in the large prairies by Park Rapids, Paper said. However, there was only one access to the town and that was the Wheat Trail, which went through wetlands and too much bad terrain towards Verndale. It was really only possible to traverse the trail in winter with sleighs, he said.

Eventually, a road was completed from Park Rapids to Wadena and the railroad come through Eagle Bend and up to Bemidji and beyond, Paper said.

"And Shell City had no access," he said.

Shell City's greatest risk-taking adventure was probably its navigation company, Paper said. Citizens built a steamboat called the Lotta Lee and had a great celebration for its launching. Unfortunately, the Lotta Lee was unable to make it back up the Crow Wing to Shell City, he said.

"Had the Crow Wing River been a viable means of transportation for wheat they would have been in great shape, because they could have gotten their wheat, their agriculture product to market," he said.

The story of Shell City is very instructive of how towns are subject to change, Paper said.

"Shell City was a very successful town for about 10 years," he said.


He finds it remarkable that once people realized the town wasn't going to happen they decided to take it apart. Material from the dismantled town was used to build Sebeka and Menahga and some pieces of Shell City even made their way to Fargo where they were used in two houses, he said.

Foundation pits are mostly what remains of the townsite now, Paper said. There used to be the remnants of a boardwalk, but even that is gone. There is still plant life indicative of settlers such as asparagus and flowers that are generally found around dwelling places, he said. The town is almost invisible now to people who visit the nearby Shell City campground.

"Maybe thousands of people camp there every year and they have no idea that within a few hundred yards from where they're enjoying their camping there once was a very thriving town," he said.

The tour May 8 will be led by archaeologist Amanda Gronhovd, owner of and principal investigator with 10,000 Lakes Archaeology in St. Paul. Her husband, Tim Tumberg, also an archaeologist, will accompany her on the tour. Local historian John Crandall will lead the history portion of the event. Crandall wrote "Silhouettes of Time," a history of Shell City.

"Basically [we're] going to try to give people the images and ideas of what was there," Paper said.

Those interested in going on the tour should contact WCHS Director Sandi Pratt at (218) 631-9079. They will meet at the historical society in Wadena at noon and carpool up to Shell City, Paper said. He expects they will arrive by 1 p.m. If about 45 people sign up by May 3 they will get a bus to take people up to Shell City at a cost of $10 a person, he said. People from Sebeka and Menahga can also sign up for the possible bus ride. People can also meet at Shell City if they know where to go, he said. The tour itself is free.

A tour of Shell City was last held in 2006, Paper said.

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