A Trip to Key West–Minnesota

There wasn’t much left of Key West when we visited in 2002, just a ramshackle elevator with a faint “KEY WEST, MINN.” on one side.  

Key West had one house,  a kind of community hall, and that’s about all.

The area is as flat as my grandmother said it was. She said it was so flat that when she and her siblings were introduced at their new school back in 1903, the teacher told the class that the new Goff children had seen hills. Leora, the oldest Goff at 12, was puzzled that the Minnesota children, mostly Norwegian, acted jealous of this.

The huge Agassiz glacier is why that area of Minnesota is so flat.  Even the 1910 plat map of Polk County shows canals or ditches every mile or so.  The canals and rivers all run west, so water runs off into the Red River, then north all the way to Canada’s Hudson Bay.

The canals are still there–County Ditch 126 goes right through Key West–but the train tracks aren’t there anymore. Neither are the east-west line nor the branch that ran north and south from Key West.

MNCanal (2)

The Goff family moved there from Iowa by train. Sherd and his father took livestock up first. The day after they left Iowa, his wife Laura–pregnant again–and her mother-in-law started out with the eight children. By the time they got to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to change trains, everyone but Laura had come down with colds.  

1897 Galbraith railway mail service map. Library of Congress

The Northern Pacific Railroad ran right through Key West, which was 13 miles east of Grand Forks. By the time they were met there at the station–by Grandpap Goff driving horses and pulling a cutter loaded with comforters–a blizzard had come up. Their new home was only half a mile north, but Leora said that arriving that way mixed up her sense of direction the whole time they lived in Minnesota.

MN2 (3)

MN1902 (2)
1902 plat map

That first September, Perry Goff was born in Polk County, Minnesota.

1904 – Ruby, Perry, and Willis Goff

Besides raising grain and turkeys, Sherd Goff ran a threshing machine.  The school children who were wary of outsiders evidently learned it from their parents. Sometimes metal objects had been secreted in the pile of grain to be threshed, in hopes that the machine would break down.

Leora described their house as being a half mile north of Key West in a grove of trees, where Sunday School picnics were held.  

The grove is still there, but north of where I suspect the old one was, there was a new house with a dog and a swingset. No one came to the door when I knocked, hoping to learn where the old house had sat.

Google Earth shows that even the Key West elevator is gone now.

Sherd moved his family at least 13 times, seeking greener pastures. His wife was pregnant nearly every time time they moved, including to and from Minnesota. Goffs moved back to Iowa after only two years. 

Has hunting for old family homes taken you to surprising places?


  1. I am sure learning a lot about a part of our country I knew nothing about; like there was a KeyWest in Minnesota. If only the family at the newer house had answered the door…darn it!

  2. I recognize the buildings in the last two photos. My family has owned that land for many years and has farmed around Key West for well over 100 years. The old house was torn down about 40-45 years ago. The barn was torn down within the 20 years. My brother tried to save it but it wasn’t safe any longer. If you have questions, maybe I can help.

    • Kathy, how nice of you! I wish I could have met you when we were up there. We even found an older couple in the neighborhood, nice and friendly, but not much help. Leora Goff Wilson’s memoirs are what sent me there (from central Iowa). She was born in 1890 and her family moved up there in 1902. The women and children followed on the train, as the men had taken some livestock ahead of them. “My father had come to meet us [at Grand Forks] from Key West, Minnesota, a little place 13 miles east from Grand Forks, and Grandpap Goff came in a bobsled in a blizzard to meet us at Key West, one-half mile south of the farm where we were to live, covered us with quilts to go, as there was snow and blowing–a blizzard, in other words. I was always turned around there by ‘landing’ in that manner.” She wrote quite a little big about living there, although they moved back to Iowa in 1905.

      Leora later married and had 10 children (2 sets of twins), 7 of whom grew to adulthood. All 5 sons served in WWII. Only 2 came home. “Leora’s Letters: The Love and Loss of an Iowa Family during World War II” was published just a year ago, and the brothers are featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn, Iowa.

      I’m working on “Leora’s Dexter Years: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression,” to be published early next year. Leora’s early years are mapped out and I’ll be working on that book next year, finally getting around to sharing her Polk County, Minnesota, stories! Grandma Leora lived to age 97, still living in her own home. If the Lord gives me that many good years, I’ll get the writing done!

      I’m so glad to sent your note!

  3. Loved reading about this family. My 91 year old mom just told me a story about her childhood working in a field by Key West.I had never heard of Key West Mn. I looked it up and stumbled upon this story.

    • Your mother lived up there? Not much around anymore, but we did stop and talk to an older couple who lived near there. I just finished the manuscript for “Leora’s Early Years,” which includes four chapters about when they lived in Minnesota. The last winter, they moved into Fisher. Thank you for your note!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.