Discovering Key West (Minnesota)

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 Grandma Leora 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 announced to the students that the new Goff children had seen hills.

Leora, the oldest Goff at 12, was puzzled that the mostly Norwegian children 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 is 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 first. The day after they left Iowa, 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 and, by the time they were met there at the station–by a cutter loaded with comforters–a blizzard had come up. Leora said (in her memoirs, decades later) that arriving that way mixed up her sense of direction the whole time they lived in Minnesota.

MN2 (3)

1902 plat map

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

MN1904RubyPerryWillis
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?

12 comments

  1. So much interesting stuff in this on which to comment! As a boy from the hills, I find it amazing that the children from the “flatlands” in your account found so intriguing the children who had seen hills! (It’s the opposite of a friend of ours from Kansas–or is it Nebraska?–who moved to the woodsy hill country of the Southeast and felt closed in and longed for openness! And so many moves in such a short time!

    • I bet that the Goffs were glad to get back to grandparents, young aunts and uncles, and the beautiful hills of Guthrie County! I can certainly see why ancestors on both sides came from states east to settle there. I still enjoy just taking a drive through Guthrie County.

  2. Fascinating tale of a bygone place and time. Good thing you clarified it was in Minnesota – sure looked like Florida.😉 I found my great-grandfather’s farm in South Dakota, but the current owners had to tear down the old house because it was crumbling around them. They did have an aerial photo of the farm and the old barn was still there. The homestead we visited in Idaho in 2019 has the good fortune of owners preserving the original house and barn.

    • We did talk to a couple in MN, but they didn’t know anything about the history. I don’t know why I decided to check Google Earth, but it showed that most of what we saw earlier has been eliminated.

      Sure interesting that we “need” to see these places, isn’t it!

      • And usually they have changed drastically. The place in Idaho used to be wooded and is now open fields, same for Indiana. South Dakota probably has changed the least, at least since after homesteading.

  3. So sad so much of our ‘structure’ history crumbles and is not preserved. For some reason here in the states we seem to want to tear down and not preserve old buildings – not like in Europe 🙁 Priceless picture of Ruby, Perry & Willis – great post Joy!

    • At least where this is, there’s no one around. I’m surprised that so many of “my own” structures are gone–hospital where I was born, grade school, farmhouse, grocery store (started by a great great grandfather), etc. Only my childhood church remains. Hmm, maybe a metaphor here?

  4. This was such an interesting post to read…lots of adventure for these folks! (No boring moments!) The picture of the kids is absolutely darling…their expressions are beyond adorable. 🙂 I have visited my great-grandparents house in Sweden many years ago. It was nice to visit and see where my family had been for several generations.

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