Barnesville lies on the southeastern edge of the Red River Valley. It is just inside the boundary of what used to be the glacial Lake Agassiz, making the soil in this area a rich, black loam with a clay subsoil. This was very attractive to businessmen, farmers and the railroad.
In 1877, James J. Hill, the railroad tycoon who built the Great Northern Railroad, completed the first track to the city and the days of being a railroad town began. At the same time, George I. Barnes, the city’s namesake, moved his store, originally a boxcar near Downer, to a site just north of the present city limits. Two years later, yet another rail line reached Barnesville and George moved his store into the present city.
In 1880, the rail line was completed to Moorhead and Peter E. Thompson bought Barnes’ business. In 1882, Thompson platted the town. By 1890, the City of Barnesville had grown to 1,069 people and had repair shops and a roundhouse. At one time, the railroad employed 75 to 150 men, largely immigrants from Germany, Sweden, and Norway. By the turn of the century, there were five hotels, five churches, two breweries, and the City Hall and Opera House was newly built.
In 1907, the railroad shops were moved to Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, and the Golden Era of the railroad in Barnesville came to an end. Barnesville, however, continued to flourish, supported by a thriving agricultural economy. Wheat was the dominant crop not only for the south-central portion of Clay County, but for the Red River Valley as a whole. In fact, the 1898 Pictorial Barnesville declared that “Barnesville enjoys the reputation of having the best grain market in the district.”
Despite early success in wheat, it became clear that crop diversity was needed. Ohio seed potatoes began to be grown in considerable numbers around Barnesville about 1908.
So much so, that the potato crop did become and continues to be very important to the city of Barnesville. It was at a special meeting on the 17th of June, 1938, a group of local citizens decided to honor the potato by having a celebration, the forerunner of today’s Potato Days Festival which attracts over 21,000 people from around the country.
While growing, Barnesville grappled with the problems that every other town, whatever its size, faced in the late nineteenth century: sanitation, transportation, water, lighting, safety and the need for culture. In 1900 a steam heating plant was built and in 1901 Barnesville became the first community in Minnesota to operate a municipal telephone system. Today the Barnesville Municipal Telephone Company is still operating as only one of two municipal phone companies in the state. As early as 1904 Barnesville had its own physician, community medical service continues today with the Barnesville Area Clinic.
Education in Barnesville began in 1870 with a private school. The first public school building was eventually purchased by the Assumption Church and a second was built in 1891. In May 1895 a high school department was established, and in 1899 it was decided by the school board to build another high school building. In 1914, this structure was torn down and a new high school building was erected. Today the citizens of Barnesville continue to support education by approving referendums that have resulted in a new addition to the high school and improvements to the elementary school.
Entertainment in early Barnesville came from a variety of sources much as today. Sports were very popular. The performance of a town’s sports teams was a topic of great public concern and taken very seriously. In 1886, entertainment was boosted by a roller rink, and ten years later by a bowling alley beneath the Catlin Bros. drugstore. On a more refined note, the Opera House was built in 1891. It was always featuring music, comedy or drama. Barnesville also had a movie theater up until the late 1970’s.
The Clay County Fair first came to Barnesville in 1914, when a group of Barnesville men formed the Clay Country Fair and Agricultural Association. The first fair was held November 23-25, 1914 in downtown Barnesville. Over the years the fair has added many attractions, one of the most popular being the Demolition Derby which was started in 1968.
Barnesville has come through many eras with its great resources and adaptability. Over the past decade Barnesville has positioned itself as a bedroom community for the Fargo-Moorhead metropolitan area. Many local businesses continue to provide a wide variety of goods and services to the residents. Agriculture remains as a major part of the local economy. Today, Barnesville, with a population of over 2,600 continues with many great traditions, but also looks to the future for all the possibilities to come.