What's In A Name?

It is 1914 and the Northfield Commercial Club is sponsoring a contest to find the perfect slogan for the town. Northfield is known for its mills, wheat, and award winning flour, Holstein cows, milk and butter. It is a charming town with not one but two colleges and many fine businesses, and is populated with a caring community who know how to protect each other from bandits like Jesse James.

Have you ever panted past the Headley House during a run on the Carleton College campus and wondered who lived there? Maybe you happened upon the Marston Headley Research Room while investigating the Northfield Historical Society and wondered why a library research room would be named for anyone?

It has been said that the only thing that you can count on is change. And so it is in Northfield. The latest winds of change swept over two elementary schools—Sibley and Longfellow. In October 2020, the school board considered changes in policy regarding the naming of school buildings and facilities.

Northfield may be known now for cows, colleges, and contentment, but its history is first and foremost that of a milling town. John North began his development of Northfield with a wooden mill dam in 1855, and he followed with a sawmill and a gristmill just a year later. He sold the gristmill, located on the East side of the river near Bridge Square, to Charles Wheaton in 1859, and Wheaton in turn sold it to Jesse Ames in 1865.

There are 12 Northfields in the United States, somewhere between two and five Red Wings (depending on how finicky you are about spelling and adjectives), three Dennisons, four Dundases, four Hazelwoods, at least 13 Waterfords, 15 Stantons, and a whopping 23 Randolphs. But there’s only one Cannon Falls in the world, at least as far as the internet seems to know.

Living in Northfield with two small boys, questions about the Cannon River are inescapable.  “Why is it called the Cannon River?” asks my 6-year-old, probably hoping that the answer has something to do with gunpowder and large projectiles.

Small towns and rural communities abound in Minnesota.  Each one has its own unique story, of settlement and growth and change, and how they have come to make Minnesota what it is today.  Rice County is full of stories of adventure and beginnings, populated by hardy, colorful characters—your ancestors, if your family hails from these parts.

We people are funny creatures.  We like to order our world, from A to Z, from soup to nuts, from small to large and back again.   Everything has a name, a meaning, and a theme.

Every place tells a story because that is who we are. We explore our world every day, we name, we create, we re-create, we forge ahead. We add to the stories of the millions of people who have gone before us while we try to make sense of what they have left behind.

A town square by definition is a space in the center of a town set aside for community events.  When is a square (a town square) not a square (the shape)?  When a river runs by it, such as Bridge Square.  Squares, the kind you find in a town, generally are rectangular in shape but, when Northfield’s founder John Wesley North, met with the surveyor to plot out the town, they considered the placement of the two existing mills along the Cann