Stillwater Courthouse

County Seats

Like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, this post was conceived last spring in an ExcedrinPM and caffeine influenced dream after experiencing a migraine headache while driving west from the Twin Cities to visit Willmar and Olivia, Minnesota (as a test-run for a possible cross-country automobile trip with 3 children. The test was extremely valuable in that it proved the infeasibility of such a venture). It seemed it was going to be a brilliant post at the time, but I could not record all my racing thoughts quickly enough, so this is what remains.

There are 3143 counties and county-equivalents in the United States. Presumably there are a similar number of County Seats (or equivalents: parish seats in Louisiana, borough seats in Alaska, or shire towns in Vermont). County seats are geographically dispersed, older, mostly small towns, an intermediate station on the Central Place Hierarchy, providing local government services to the mostly rural areas they serve, and often central commercial services (banks, food processing, transportation, insurance, vehicle sales, etc.) for the smaller towns in their jurisdiction. They are often, though not always, the largest town in the their county.

Because governments are slow to move, and tend to establish county seats as the first thing they do, these places embody many of the physical ideals of small-town life so praised in American culture. Their heart is often a dense street grid anchored by a Courthouse, a government building, a police station, a jail, a hospital, and all of the other public and private services that are associated with County governments. Due to their early founding, they are disproportionately on rivers and railroads compared to newer, 20th (and 21st) century places. The rivers may now be scenic (as opposed to their former role as transport mode and water intake and sewage outlet). The tracks present the opportunity for freight and passenger rail services to larger hubs.

The first county seat I became aware of was Ellicott City, Maryland, which is important in the history of transportation as the end of the first segment of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, just across the Patapsco River from Baltimore County and downriver from Baltimore City. [It is also apparently the largest unincorporated county seat in the US, since Maryland favors county-level government, beating Towson, MD]. It was founded as Ellicott Mills, and the founding family member Andrew Ellicott was a surveyor (and thus planner) of a number of US cities, notably Washington DC. Ellicott Mills is however much more organic, having started as a landing on the Patapsco. One needs to cross the Appalachian Mountains to see the street grid in all its regularity and ubiquity. Ellicott City was devastated by floods and fire, a location convenient for milling in the 18th century and for rail construction in the 1820s was relatively low ground, so few people live in the Main Street area, most are in suburbs at least a mile from the center of town.

In contrast with the east coast, the county seat in Minnesota, and much of the midwest is a bit formulaic. I will discuss a few from the aforementioned road trip west on US 12 from the Twin Cities. Highway 12 is an old US highway, I-94 and I-394 cover much of its purpose through the metro, but where I-394 ends, US 12 resumes. It has been upgraded in many places (especially Orono and Long Lake), with overpasses, and reconstructed in others. It is not a freeway, but in many places it is no longer just a two-lane either.

Litchfield, the seat of Meeker County, Minnesota, is a regular grid transacted by a diagonal railroad tracks and Highway 12 (named Depot Street, so it seems the RR came first). In places, there is a frontage road on Hwy 12, serving local businesses. The town is about 15 blocks wide and 20 blocks high. The numbering scheme for the city with numbered EW streets north of the Railroad tracks, named south of the tracks, and named NS streets, after places or famous Minnesotans (which I guess are the same here). The town is near Lake Ripley, and has a municipal airport to the south. It is not terribly remarkable, certainly not at 45 MPH. I did not intend to stop there, and aside from refueling and separating cranky children, did not spend much time. Sorry Litchfield.

Willmar, the seat of Kandiyohi County in South Central Minnesota, 2 counties west of the Twin Cities region out US Highway 12, has changed radically in its outward appearance. driving through we saw evidence (storefronts and like) of a large Somali and Hispanic population, yet it retains the historic architecture of 150 years of style changes. Willmar is important as a railway switch, as well as the many lakes on its northern end. It like many such county seats, is a cross-roads of 2 US Highways (12 and 71), which mostly, but not entirely adheres to the local grid. The local grid here is in fact not strictly orthogonal to the larger grid, instead being oriented by the railroad tracks and waterways, so it has to bend where it meets the traditional NS grid both north and south of the center of town (shown).

The town possesses a needlessly complicated street numbering system for such a small town, with 1st street being unique, but 2nd street (and subsequent numbers) appearing twice to the east and west of 1st street. The EW streets seem to be named after places, though eventually become numbered avenues, including other county seats and counties, but there is no obvious system. The town is roughly 20 blocks wide by 30 blocks high, though it is very irregular, and includes a set of big-box blocks, as well as parks

The downtown commercial areas are a mixture of buildings and surface parking lots, and probably differs very much from its appearance 100 years ago. I suspect the surface parking lots have been added over time, as older building become obsolete and the value of access to the center of town diminishes. The residential neighborhoods typically have original structures, and while the buildings may have learned, they appear largely to be the first structures on those parcels. The town has an airport.

[One would think Kandiyohi would be the seat of Kandiyohi County, and it was until 1871, when the county merged with the now defunct Monongalia County, since neither county could afford a Courthouse on their own.]

Olivia the Corn Capital  3

Taking Highway 71 south brings you to Olivia, Minnesota (the crossroads of 71 and 212. Highway 212 will return us to the Twin Cities). Olivia, Corn Capital of the World, is the Seat of Renville County, and is also on the railroad. Its streets also follow the grid (though here, the NS streets are again numbered, but this time in one direction only, increasing from the east, while the EW streets are named after trees. The town is much smaller than Willmar, roughly 13 blocks wide and 13 blocks high. It too has an airport.


Chaska, the seat of Carver County is just across the River from Shakopee, the seat of Scott County. They are now indirectly connected by a bridge over the Minnesota River, on which both were once ports. Both Chaska and Shakopee are thus now part of the 7-county metro area. Chaska has its own suburbs in addition to the old town, which has lost the fine-grained grid (though seems to have maintained the 1 mile grid of arterials). I should also praise Tommy’s Old Fashioned Malt Shop which provided sufficient caffeine to kill a headache, though I did not eat the food, it looked really good.

The Broadway area of nearby Carver, another historic river landing, which we found due to a wrong turn, is blessed with many places to satisfy a need for alcohol. Carver is disconnected from the main part of Chaska, though they are fairly close on the map. Carver also possess a grid askew to the larger patterns, but somewhat aligned to where the River must have once flowed.

Shakopee, to complete our circuit has a more significant relationship with the Minnesota River, which still seems to matter from an economic perspective. With Canterbury Park and Valley Fair, the town has grown beyond its historic scope, and again as it expanded it lost its regularity. The old town is in part along old First Avenue with lots of smaller store fronts. Railroad tracks run down Second Avenue, and indicate how the economy used to work. Parking is now a prominent feature through the town though, with parking supply well in excess demand at most times.

Can any of these places be restored to their relative significance and functionality they had at the turn of the twentieth century, when they were still regionally important with rail and water transport both good and frequent (and road transport poor)? That is, can local county seats resume the relative position they held before they became subsumed in the larger metropolitan system?

We are asking for genie-bottle insertion. Streets not on a grid will be difficult to retrofit. Subdivided parcels with single-family homes will be difficult to densify. The rest of the metro cannot be simply unmade. But while relative significance may be impossible, absolute significance, serving more people than ever, is certainly still possible.

But as we move from the 20th century paradigm of one person-one car-three parking spaces with new technologies and new prices, we can probably refill the parking-marked “old towns” and “main streets” and make them practical, and charming. Places people not only work, shop, govern, and play, but are happy about it. A seven-county Twin Cites metro area should be able to support an even more vibrant Stillwater, Anoka, Hastings, Shakopee, and Chaska, in addition to Minneapolis and St. Paul, for starters. Places not just for day-trippers, but also for the daily needs of locals. The same is true of the exurban and non-urban counties.

Within what seems a continuous and uniform suburbia or rural landscape lies an old hierarchy of places created in the 19th century, as ports, county seats, and railroad stations and termini that can provide the nucleus for a more diversified, more pedestrian-scaled built environment. These are natural nodes of development, geographically advantageous with the historic transport network, and still somewhat privileged.

Before we started this voyage, my wife joked about traveling to all 87 county seats in Minnesota. My OCD is limited. That I think is impractical in the short run unless inexpensive child care comes to pass. However Buffalo, Elk River, Cambridge, and Center City remain on the agenda.