Contributed photo
After the Frazee City sawmill burned in 1889, R. L. Frazee sold the water rights to the Wilcox & Co. lumber company. Wilcox rebuilt the sawmill on the old foundation in 1890. Pictured is the new Wilcox mill in 1890.
R. L. Frazee was influential in the early days of Otter Tail and Becker counties. He was instrumental in the creation of Ottertail City, New York Mills, Frazee, Pelican Rapids, and Detroit Lakes. He came to Otter Tail County as a lumberman in 1868 and expanded into flour milling, banking, real estate, and politics before his death in 1906.

By Paul Gubrud

Special to the Forum

When the H. E. Frazee Flour Mill in Pelican Rapids burned on May 3, 1923, it wasn’t the first major fire experienced by the Frazee family. Thirty-three years earlier on October 14, 1889, R. L. Frazee’s sawmill and flour mill in the town of Frazee had also burned.  

R. L. Frazee first came to Ottertail City in 1868 establishing a steam-powered sawmill on the shore of Otter Tail Lake. His lumber business was brisk as many new settlers had anticipated the coming of the railroad. Ottertail City transformed from a quiet Chippewa village with a handful of whites into a boom town with 36 saloons almost overnight. 

When it became evident that the Northern Pacific was going to take a more northern route bypassing Ottertail City, Frazee moved his sawmill to the head of the railroad in 1872, a place we know today as New York Mills.

That same year, the Chilton and Campbell brothers built a dam and sawmill on the Otter Tail River at a place called Third Crossing. Shortly after the Chilton-Cambell sawmill began operation, they lost their enthusiasm for the lumber business. Frazee purchased the water rights and sawmill and sold his sawmill in New York Mills. He also bought a large amount of land on the north side of the railroad tracks and proceeded to lay out the future townsite of a village that would bear his name. 

On May 3, 1923, the Frazee Flour Mill in Pelican Rapids also burned. It was the most devastating fire in the town’s history. Townspeople turned out to help the fire department but were only able to empty the office and part of the warehouse. The gas station in the foreground survived.

The Northern Pacific had an insatiable appetite for railroad ties, bridging material, and lumber, so business was brisk at the Frazee sawmill. Frazee expanded the sawmill and built a flour mill in 1873. That same year, he also built a house in the fledgling village of Frazee City. 

On October 14, 1889, a devastating fire destroyed both the Frazee City sawmill and flour mill, as well as the adjoining Wilcox lumber yard. The Detroit Record newspaper of Oct. 18, 1889; tells about the fire:

“Complete Destruction of the Frazee City Mills” 

“The most destructive fire ever witnessed in Becker County occurred at Frazee City last Saturday evening, resulting in the loss of R. L. Frazee’s flour mill, which was one of the largest and best equipped mills in the state; also the sawmill, the large flour warehouse, and contents. some 20,000 bushels of wheat, a portion of the dam, and also of the new county bridge, and about ninety thousand feet of the best lumber in the yard of C. P. Wilcox & Co. The fire originated early in the evening in an unaccountable manner in some refuse below the sawmill, near the river, and there being no fire company in the village the flames made rapid headway and soon the work of destruction was complete, and in a few hours the valuable mill property, together with the surrounding sheds, storehouses, and outbuildings were reduced to ashes. It was with great difficulty that the entire town was saved from destruction, and indeed nothing could have saved it had there been even a slight breeze in that direction. Mr. Frazee’s loss, we understand, will figure in the neighborhood of $75,000, partially covered by insurance. C. P. Wilcox & Co.’s loss on lumber was fully covered by insurance. The fire was a severe loss to the village as it was the main industry of the town. But we are informed that it will be but temporary, Mr. Frazee having already resumed the purchase of wheat, and will take immediate steps towards clearing away the debris, preparatory to re-building. The dam will be repaired at once in order to preserve what is left of it, and during the winter Mr. Frazee will get out timbers for and begin the erection of a new mill, with the expectation of being in full blast again early next summer. Wilcox & Co. have lumber camps started on the upper Otter Tail and will get out a large number of logs during the winter. It was their intention to have them cut at Mr. Frazee’s mill, but now. they will doubtless find it necessary to build a mill of their own.”

In the spring of 1890, R. L. sold all his mill property in Frazee to A. H. Wilcox who repaired the dam and rebuilt the sawmill on the old foundations that same year. R. L. Frazee also moved to Pelican Rapids shortly after.

Shortly after building the mills on the Otter Tail River, R. L. Frazee saw a business opportunity in Pelican Rapids. He purchased the water rights and sawmill on the Pelican River as well as much of the land surrounding it. In 1878, he expanded the sawmill and built a flour mill. The Pelican Rapids flour mill remained in operation until it also burned in 1923. R. L.’s son, H. E. Frazee rebuilt the Pelican flour mill with concrete the following year.