In March 1853 Goodhue County was created by Minnesota's territorial legislature. It was formed from the original Wabasha County, which lay between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
The Mississippi River borders Goodhue County to the northeast. Its neighbors are Dakota County to the north and Wabasha County in the east. Dodge and Olmsted Counties are to the south and Rice County, west. Red Wing is the Goodhue County seat.
Goodhue County land had long been home to American Indians. Eight Late Woodland era villages were located near the junction of the Cannon and Mississippi Rivers, from roughly 1050-1300 CE. Lasting traces of some of these communities are found in the Red Wing Archaeological Preserve.
Over the next five hundred years, Indians continued to live in the area. Around 1814, Mdewakanton Dakota leader Tatankamani, known to whites as "Red Wing," settled with his followers at present-day Red Wing. The town was named after him. The band would remain there until 1851 treaties forced a reluctant move west to the Minnesota River valley.
Immigrants moving to the territory after the Dakota left often landed first at Red Wing. During the 1853 and 1854 land rush, newcomers, mostly farmers, settled in Goodhue County. Many of those arriving later moved south, southwest and west from Red Wing to settle Zumbrota, Pine Island, Cannon Falls and Kenyon. Soon immigrants occupied nearly all of the county's land.
In April 1861 the Civil War broke out. By 1863, Red Wing's Colonel William Colvill commanded the Union army's First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, including Goodhue County's Company F. At Gettysburg, the First Minnesota was crucial to the northern victory.
By 1870, Goodhue County was one of Minnesota's leading wheat growing counties. The state's "King Wheat" era was underway. More than sixty-one percent of Minnesota's cultivated land was devoted to the grain. Red Wing was the world's largest primary wheat market by 1873.
Small farming towns sprang up in Goodhue County. Sixteen of the twenty-three towns had flour mills. Cannon Falls, Stanton, Zumbrota-Forest Mills, Kenyon and Red Wing were milling centers. Pine Island farmers became Minnesota's leading cheese producers. In 1880, farm families made up seventy-two percent of the county's population.
The county built a diverse industrial base as well. Limestone quarries in Red Wing, Cannon Falls and Frontenac provided quality building stone. Red Wing also was the state leader in lime production. The county's clay-mining industry centered on Goodhue and Belvidere, while clay product production occurred in Red Wing, Minneola and Zumbrota.
Railroads further boosted the county economy. By 1871 the first tracks ran along the county's Mississippi River border. Smaller railways served the county's south and west.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a massive national anti-liquor movement, was a force in Goodhue County. Red Wing residents Julia Bullard Nelson and Harriet Duncan Hobart ranked among the WCTU's leading state and national reformers. Many townships went "dry," banning alcohol. The United States outlawed the making and selling of alcohol in 1919. U.S. congressman Andrew J. Volstead, a native of the county's Holden Township, introduced the law enforcing the ban. It became known as the Volstead Act.
Goodhue County took advantage of new ideas and technology to connect to the rest of the world at the onset of the twentieth century. In 1899, the county had Minnesota's first regularly scheduled Rural Free Delivery (RFD) mail routes. Telephone systems were also available. Construction of the 1895 Red Wing wagon bridge over the Mississippi linked the county to Wisconsin.
Power was important too. Kenyon, Zumbrota, Pine Island, Cannon Falls, and Red Wing featured small electric-power plants before 1900. In 1910, work crews built a 1,125-foot-long hydroelectric dam at Cannon Falls. This Cannon River facility produced power for thousands in Goodhue County and nearby districts.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought challenges to Goodhue County. Farmers and laborers alike went through lean times, but mostly without the suffering found elsewhere. Plants mostly stayed open and thrifty, self-sufficient farm families got by. The county's industrial base survived intact.
The small Dakota community on Prairie Island also battled through the long Depression. In 1936, the band established its own government under terms of the Indian Reorganization Act.
The United States' massive effort to win World War II (1941-1945) consumed the nation and its people. Goodhue County sent 2,689 men into the American military. For the first time, the government organized military units for women. At least sixty-seven county women volunteered.
Goodhue County residents contributed to the nation's post-war baby boom. A University of Minnesota study reported the county's population rose to 35,505 between 1950 and 1957. It was a greater increase in seven years than in the preceding seventy.
The county economy still had an agricultural base in these years. However, fewer people were living on farms. During the 1940s alone, the rural population declined 2,307 or sixteen percent. By 1950, farm families made up just thirty-seven percent of the county's populace.
Cities and villages grew. Cannon Falls, Zumbrota and Pine Island averaged a population gain of twenty percent during the 1940s. Red Wing, the largest community and manufacturing center, had 10,645 residents in 1950. Cannon Falls (1,831), Zumbrota (1,686), Kenyon (1,651) and Pine Island (1,298) followed. The population of the rural townships of Holden, Belle Creek, Warsaw, Cherry Grove and Featherstone was cut in half.
More change was coming to county agriculture and industry, however. By 1960, just twenty-five percent of the county residents farmed. The number of factory jobs was also shrinking. Small local companies found it hard to compete with large American and international firms.
County residents took new jobs, some in larger urban centers. Minnesota's fast-growing corridor between St. Cloud and Rochester brought economic growth to western Goodhue County. Some workers in increasingly suburban Cannon Falls, Pine Island and Zumbrota commuted to employment in the Twin Cities and Rochester. In 1971 Red Wing annexed Burnside, the county's fastest growing township, adding some 2,500 to its population.
Creation of the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant in 1973 produced both electric power and controversy in the region. The facility was built on land close to the Prairie Island Indian Community. Plans to store nuclear waste at the plant site brought complaints from Indian leaders and others concerned about possible danger. Storage of waste onsite has remained an issue.
The Prairie Island Indian Community was among ten Indian bands that forged a gaming agreement with the state of Minnesota in 1984. Its small bingo parlor grew into Treasure Island Casino, a modern entertainment complex. The casino was Goodhue County's largest employer in 2012 with a 1,500-person workforce.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Goodhue County continues to grow. The 2010 US census showed the county's population at 46,183. The home ownership rate from 2007 to 2011 was 78.5 percent, with median household income $56,099.
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Leaf, Julia Wiech. "A Woman of Purpose: Julia B. Nelson." Minnesota History 47, no. 8 (Spring 1964): 302–314.
Kunau, G.J. "The Agriculture of Goodhue County." Goodhue County Historical News 4, (February 1970): 4.
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Meyer, Roy W. The Ghost Towns & Discontinued Post Offices of Goodhue County. Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society Press, 2003.
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Nelson, Lowry and George Donohue, "Social Change in Goodhue County, 1940–1965." St. Paul: University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, 1966.
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Register of Sioux Half-Breed Scrip, 1857–1861
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: An abstract of land entries made in the Red Wing district with Sioux half-breed scrip, issued to mixed-blood Dakota Indians to extinguish their title to land originally reserved to them by the Treaty of Prairie du Chien.
Red Wing League of Women Voters. Nuclear Power Plant Next Door: The Prairie Island Nuclear Plant and Its Influence Upon Our Community. Red Wing, MN: The League, May 1981.
Taylor, Lee, Marvin J. Taves, and Gordon Bultena. "Changing Goodhue County, 1946–1958." Sociology of Rural Life no. 1 (January, 1959): 1–14.
Tribal State Negotiating Committee. "Report to the Legislature on the Status of Indian Gambling in Minnesota." [St. Paul: N.p. 1991].
Goodhue County is created from a reorganization of territorial Wabasha County in March, 1853.