Otter Tail County
Location within the U.S. state of Minnesota
Minnesota's location within the U.S.
|Founded||March 18, 1858 (created)|
12 September 1868 (organized)
|Named for||Otter Tail Lake and Otter Tail River|
|Largest city||Fergus Falls|
|o Total||2,225 sq mi (5,760 km2)|
|o Land||1,972 sq mi (5,110 km2)|
|o Water||252 sq mi (650 km2) 11%%|
| o Estimate |
|o Density||29.8/sq mi (11.5/km2)|
|Time zone||UTC-6 (Central)|
|o Summer (DST)||UTC-5 (CDT)|
Otter Tail County comprises the Fergus Falls Micropolitan Statistical Area.
Native Americans used the area for hunting and fishing and had permanent dwelling sites. Two Native American tribes were in constant conflict. The Dakota (Sioux) were being pushed from their home area by the Ojibwa (Chippewa) during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Burial mounds and artifacts can still be found. Some of the oldest Native American remains were found near Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. The remains, nicknamed Minnesota Girl, were dated at about 11,000 B.C.
The first white men to enter the county were French and British fur traders. Efforts were made to set up trading posts on the Leaf Lakes and Otter Tail Lake. In the late 19th century most of the towns were built along the railroad lines. Lumber and agriculture were the major industries in the county at that time. The pine and hardwood forests, transportation system, and markets were instrumental in the development of Fergus Falls into a lumber center. The Wisconsin Territory was established by the federal government effective July 3, 1836, and existed until its eastern portion was granted statehood (as Wisconsin) in 1848. The federal government set up the Minnesota Territory effective March 3, 1849. The newly organized territorial legislature created nine counties across the territory in October of that year. One of those original counties, Dakota, had a section partitioned off in 1851 to create Cass County. On March 18, 1858, the outgoing territorial legislature created Otter Tail County from areas partitioned from Cass and Pembina, another of the original counties created in 1849. The county was named for Otter Tail Lake and the Otter Tail River. The county was not organized in 1858, nor was a county seat specified. On September 12, 1868, the Minnesota legislature completed the county organization, and specified Otter Tail City as county seat.
Otter Tail City began as a waystation on a fur-trade route between Saint Paul and the Red River valley. The settlement was of sufficient size that when the Minnesota Territory established a US Land Office for this part of the territory, the office was sited at Otter Tail City. Thus the city was named as the seat when the county was organized. But people had begun settling the future Fergus Falls area in 1857, and it grew sufficiently that in fall 1872 the vote was taken to move the county seat there. The Northern Pacific Railroad had initially planned to run a line through Otter Tail City, but complications caused the line to be placed in Fergus Falls, which precipitated the county seat move. The Soo Line later made plans to run a line through Otter Tail City, but when townspeople couldn't agree on the routing, another route east of the city was constructed. Thus a new city plat was generated, with the settlement name changing to Ottertail.
The people of Fergus Falls organized a new county named Holcomb. In 1872, a legislative act abolished Holcomb County, added additional townships to the west, and established Fergus Falls as Otter Tail County's seat.
The Otter Tail River flows south and west through the central and western parts of the county on its way to form the Red River in Wilkin County. It is joined by the south-flowing Pelican River west of Fergus Falls. The Leaf River rises in the county and flows east to its confluence with the Crow Wing River in neighboring Wadena County. The Redeye River flows southeast through the county's northeast section toward its confluence with the Leaf in Wadena. The county terrain consists of rolling hills, heavily wooded through its center section, dotted with lakes and ponds, and carved with drainages and gullies. The available area is devoted to agriculture. The county terrain slopes to the west and south. The highest point on the county terrain is attributed to two different points: Inspiration Peak, at 1,750' (533m); or an unnamed rise located 1.3 miles (2.1 km) WNW of Perch Lake, at 1,790' (546m) ASL. Satellite data supports the probability that the point WNW of Perch Lake is higher. The county has a total area of 2,225 square miles (5,760 km2), of which 1,972 square miles (5,110 km2) are land and 252 square miles (650 km2) (11%) are covered by water. Otter Tail is one of 17 Minnesota savanna region counties with more savanna soils than either forest or prairie soils. According to its website, the county contains over 1,000 lakes.
As of the 2000 United States Census, there were 57,159 people, 22,671 households, and 15,779 families in the county. The population density was 29.0/sqmi (11.2/km²). There were 33,862 housing units at an average density of 17.2/sqmi (6.63/km²). The racial makeup of the county was 97.11% White, 0.29% African American, 0.51% Native American, 0.44% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 0.84% from other races, and 0.78% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.67% of the population. 35.5% were of German and 31.2% Norwegian ancestry.
There were 22,671 households out of which 30.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 60.1% were married couples living together, 6.1% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.4% were non-families. 26.6% of all households were made up of individuals and 13.30% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.46 and the average family size was 2.98.
The county population contained 24.9% under the age of 18, 7.2% from 18 to 24, 24.2% from 25 to 44, 24.7% from 45 to 64, and 19.0% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 41 years. For every 100 females there were 100.4 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 97.8 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $35,395, and the median income for a family was $42,740. Males had a median income of $30,151 versus $20,930 for females. The per capita income for the county was $18,014. About 6.7% of families and 10.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 12.1% of those under age 18 and 11.1% of those age 65 or over.
In US presidential elections, Otter Tail has mainly been a Republican county. It has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1936. Since Minnesota's statehood in 1858 the only Democrats to win the county have been Franklin Roosevelt, and unsuccessful candidate William Jennings Bryan (1896).
During the Great Depression, there was a communist faction within the county. The areas where the movement was centered are quite desolate today, but during mid-1932, the worst possible time for farmers, over 900 people were involved in one of the state's communist organizations. The members of the communist party were very active in the New York Mills area of Newton, Leaf Lake, Blowers, Deer Creek and Paddock Townships. They held meetings, recruited members, placed candidates on local and state tickets, and distributed propaganda. They held dances in Heinola, Menahga, and Sebeka where the Soviet hammer and sickle was proudly displayed and ran a summer camp on East Leaf Lake.
By the time President Roosevelt implemented his New Deal programs in the county, the communist movement began to lose steam. In addition, the Winter War in Europe between Finland and the U.S.S.R. soured many Finnish immigrants on communism (Finns had been a large proportion of the local communists). Carl Peltoniemi, a former local communist, said, "The communist movement within the Finnish community basically ended at the start of the Winter War in 1939-1940."
In the Minnesota House of Representatives, Otter Tail County is divided into two districts, 8A and 8B. They are represented by Republicans Bud Nornes (8A) and Mary Franson (8B). Districts 8A and 8B make up Minnesota State Senate district 8, which is represented by Republican State Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen.