There’s something intriguing about a “lost town.”
Across America, small towns that were once centers of commerce are no more, long gone and forgotten in the annals of history. In McLeod County, there are several communities that now exist in memory alone. Communities such as Lake Addie, Karns City, Cedar City and Koniska are some of the often-remembered lost towns, yet there are many more. One such town, Sumter, has a particularly interesting story that is worth sharing.
The story of Sumter begins in the 1880s. Across Minnesota, railroad companies were building grades and laying down track. It was a significant time in the state’s history. The railroads meant an ushering in of a new era, a modern era where goods and travelers could move from city to city in a flash, eliminating the need for stagecoaches and freighting rigs. Not every town was fortunate enough to accommodate a railroad, however, and of those that would not have a railroad, many turned into ghost towns.
By 1880 the rail lines had made their way into McLeod County. Glencoe played host to the Hastings and Dakota Line that was built through town, and farther north, in Meeker County, the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba lines were built through Litchfield, Darwin and Dassel. The community of Hutchinson, however, was left without a line. Rumors that a line from the Twin Cities to Hutchinson or from St. Cloud to Hutchinson persisted, but they were only rumors and provided no relief to the worried residents of the community. Folks were beginning to fear that they would be left behind and that the rail lines would bypass the community that once had such a promising future.
Two Hutchinson men, Charles Goodnow and Warren Ives, feared that the absence of a railroad would eventually be the ruin of the town. The two men purchased 20 acres of land from Jeremiah Nobles in Sumter Township and then met with railroad executives from the Milwaukee Road that ran out of Glencoe. At the meeting, Goodnow and Ives petitioned the Milwaukee to build a depot between Glencoe and Brownton. The petition was granted and the town of Sumter was born.
Sumter would be an agriculturally driven community, and thusly a firm from Hutchinson came in and built an elevator. A year later, a hotel and post office were erected by Charles Barnum, who also served as the town postmaster. That same year, Sumter became home to a lumberyard and a general store.
With Sumter on the rise, rumors began to swirl that another railroad line was to be laid through the town. The rumor spurred the town into growth and a second elevator was built, along with a bank, a livery, a blacksmith, a tavern, a feed mill, a stockyard and a city hall. It would seem that Sumter was officially “on the map."
The future looked bright for Sumter in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1940, however, the demise of Sumter as one of the county’s premier communities could be seen on the horizon.
As with many rural communities of the time, the town lived and died with the railroad that ran through it. By 1940, as highways became improved and automobiles and delivery trucks became more prominent, the use of the railroad as a main mode of transportation began to decline. With the communities of Brownton, Glencoe and Hutchinson being on main travel routes, businesses began to leave Sumter in favor of the busier communities. Within two decades, Sumter was little more than a historical cliff note.
Today, a drive past Sumter reveals little resemblance of what the community once was. A road sign that simply reads “Sumter” is one of the last reminders of the town that once stood nearby.