A forgotten founding family of Forest Lake

Photo from “Reflections of Forest Lake”
J.L. Simmons and his nephew Tom ran a grocery store and dry goods store (pictured) in Forest Lake in the early to mid-20th century.

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series about the oft-forgotten influence of the Simmons family on the Forest Lake area. Information for this story was taken from the files of the Forest Lake Times, the writing of Elsie Vogel in her 1993 Centennial books, “Reflections of Forest Lake,” Simmons family records, and plat books shared by the land surveying firm of Widseth Smith Nolting of Wyoming.

Look around Forest Lake these days and nary will you find a sign of a family that once played a prominent role in the development of the area. It has been that way for decades.

While signs of the Simmons family have vanished from the landscape, explore historical archives and family research and you’ll find evidence that points to the importance one family can have in a community. There was a time in Forest Lake in the first half of the 20th century when the Simmons name was seemingly everywhere.

There is no question that the Simmons family played a prominent role in the development of Forest Lake for nearly a century before time and the changing face of the city saw the name fade from everyday awareness. It was a family that got its start here in late 1855 or early 1856 as the land north of St. Paul began to open for settlement.

The opportunity for a new life led George and Rebecca Simmons to homestead land in Chisago County just north of the Forest Lake chain of lakes. The Simmons settlement party included Rebecca’s brother and wife, Jeremiah and Mary (Cartwright) Poston. The Branson Stipe family also made the trek north to find land and build homes near a territorial road that extended from the northeast corner of Forest Lake to Wyoming in the vicinity of what is Goodview Avenue today.

The pioneer families were among the thousands who came to America from European countries and made their way west, making various stops before reaching Minnesota. George Simmons, according to family records, came from England in the late 1830s when he was not yet 35, seeking a better life in America. After living for a time in Ohio and Illinois, Minnesota was the final stop for Simmons, who came here with four children. In all, 10 children – nine boys and one girl – would be part of the Simmons family.

Three of the children would die at an early age, but a number of the surviving siblings would leave their mark on Forest Lake as business owners and holders of large tracts of land in Forest Lake and what is today Wyoming.

Many firsts

History has recorded a number of major accomplishments for George and Rebecca Simmons. It was the same for Jeremiah and Mary Poston.

When Rebecca Ann Simmons was born to George and Rebecca on April 24, 1856, she became the first white child born in Forest Lake, although the actual birth may have been in Chisago County.
When George and Rebecca’s fourth son, Richard Wesley, married Josephine Marsh in June 1872, it was recorded as the third marriage in Forest Lake. It also linked the Simmons family with another power family. Josephine was the daughter of Capt. Michael Marsh, an early business owner in Forest Lake who owned a grocery store near Clear Lake and the Marsh Hotel in Forest Lake on North Shore Drive east of Highway 61. Capt. Marsh was also Forest Lake’s first postmaster in 1868 with the arrival of the railroad line that connected St. Paul and Duluth.

When Methodist/Episcopal church services were first held in Forest Lake, the congregation met at the Simmons home during fall and winter. In the spring and summer, church goers sat on benches assembled near lakeshore property owned by Simmons. Along with the Simmons family, the congregation included Postons, Vieths, Bantas and other early settlers.

Some of the Simmons children attended the first area school in 1861 and were taught by Mary Poston, long credited as Forest Lake’s first teacher. It was a “blab” school in those days, as students learned to read from listening to the teacher speak because books were not available. School terms were for three months in the early years. Forest Lake’s first school was organized in 1874.

The Simmons and Poston families are also credited for providing land for one of the area’s first cemeteries. Cedar Hill Cemetery, located north of North Shore Trail and just off Heath Avenue in Chisago County, is the resting place for more than 20 members of the Simmons family. George Simmons, who was born in 1805 and died in 1880, was laid to rest there. The burial ground was for many years known as the Simmons Cemetery.

Getting started

For families like Simmons and Poston, life could not have been easy.

After months of travel, families faced long days of breaking land, clearing forests for home sites and crop land, and building log homes. Early settlers most certainly eked out a living while planting roots.

In the case of George Simmons, the planting is now eight generations deep on U.S. soil.

In addition to the long days of labor, early settlers were also in the middle of an American Indian tribal conflict. The border between the Chippewa and Sioux tribes ran just north of Forest Lake from west to east. Settlers had numerous friendly contacts with tribes during the early years, according to family tales.

George and Rebecca Simmons welcomed life in this new America. George Simmons embraced his new country with a sense of patriotism and pride.

That sentiment was clear in the names the couple chose for their children. Many carried middle names of the nation’s founding fathers and presidents. There was Benjamin Franklin Simmons, George Washington Simmons, William Jackson Simmons and Joseph Lincoln Simmons.

The sense of pride was also intense in the Simmons children. A number became entrenched in the development of Forest Lake through business and land ownership endeavors.

When the government called for men to serve the country during the Civil War, George Washington Simmons stepped forward. He was not yet 16 in August 1862 when he enlisted and was assigned to Company C of the 7th Minnesota Infantry Regiment as it formed at Fort Snelling.

The regiment was deployed in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, earlier called the Sioux Uprising, from August 1862 through October 1863 with duty along the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota and in combat against the Sioux in the Dakota Territory.

In the fall of 1863, Simmons and the 7th Minnesota was dispatched south to St. Louis, where the division spent the winter. In the spring of 1864, the 7th was sent to Tennessee to fight in the Western Campaign of the Civil War.

In the decisive Battle of Nashville in December 1864, the Union won a major victory over Confederate forces in what was the last major battle west of the coastal states. However, the Simmons family paid a steep price with the sacrifice of a son in the cause to preserve the union. George Washington Simmons was killed in action sometime on Dec. 15 or 16. He was just 18 and became one of 45 men from Chisago County to die in the Civil War.

Commerce kings

George Simmons had done his part by bringing his family to Forest Lake. Two of the Simmons boys would play major roles in carrying on the family legacy.

Richard, who had married Capt. Marsh’s daughter, Josephine, acquired property along the north shore of the lake, where he lived until his death in 1941 at age 92.

They became parents to seven children: Violet, Olive, John, George Michael (Mitt), Etta (Kit), Pete and R. Tom. Three of the boys were active on main street during a period when Lake Street (Highway 61) was called Lake Avenue and today’s streets were named after trees, such as Oak, Ash, Maple, Pine and Poplar, according to a 1901 plat book of the village.

Pete Simmons, born in 1880, owned a piano store and was an undertaker in the early decades of the 20th century. He gave up his business around 1920 and moved to Buffalo. Simmons, who was born the year his grandfather George Simmons died, lived in Buffalo until his death in 1964 at age 84.

His departure led the way for the Charles Mattson family of Scandia to move to Forest Lake to take over the funeral business. The Mattsons also operated in downtown Forest Lake.

“It was a powerhouse family in Forest Lake for many years,” said Neil Mattson, a grandson of Charles and the son of Archie Mattson, of the Simmons family.

Along with the funeral home, the Mattsons also operated a dry goods store in competition with a business operated by R. Tom Simmons; Tom’s uncle, Joseph Lincoln (J.L.); two of J.L’s sons, Lawrence and George A. Simmons; and a nephew, George M. (Mitt) Simmons. J.L. Simmons ran the dry goods half of the operation while his nephew Tom Simmons ran the grocery store. The business remained on the downtown scene until the 1950s, but it was only one of the many local commercial endeavors in which members of the Simmons family became involved.

SIDEBAR: Family memories and mysteries

Darlene (Darcy) Anderson, a fifth-generation Simmons and the daughter of Bud Simmons, said she wishes her family had kept better records of the family. If other families are in the same situation, don’t wait to begin genealogy work to preserve family history, she suggested. Historical research should be done before memories fade and the trail turns cold, she says.

Darcy Anderson, the second oldest of eight children of Bud and Loretta Simmons, is a 1959 Forest Lake graduate. She says she has some memories of her grandfather, John Simmons. Memories of her great-grandfather, Richard Simmons, are from stories handed down the family chain. John Simmons died in 1955 and Richard died in 1941.

Her memories of Grandmother Emma (Boehm) Simmons are vivid.

“My grandmother was such a hard worker,” Anderson said. Emma nurtured a small peach and apple orchard and tended a large garden where corn, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets and other vegetables were grown. “She canned a lot. They were ready for the winter.”

There are several other interesting facts about the Simmons family.

Several died on holidays. Richard Simmons and Lawrence (Lorrie) Simmons both died on Christmas Day. Bud Simmons died on Halloween.

Rebecca Ann Simmons, the first white child born in Forest Lake in 1856, married three times and spent her final days far from Forest Lake. Rebecca Kane was 92 when she died on Dec. 17, 1948, in Walla Walla, Washington.

There is another Simmons involvement in American history that has family members today curious. The Simmons and Boehm family of Columbus became joined by marriage on May 2, 1905, when John H. Simmons married Amanda (Emma) Boehm, daughter of John and Anna Boehm.

John Boehm was one of the pioneer settlers of Columbus and found land west of Forest Lake in Anoka County. He was originally from Bavaria before immigrating to the United States. He was in New Orleans when the Civil War erupted, and he was conscripted into the Confederate Army in 1862. According to family lore, Boehm deserted and fled north to Tennessee, where he enlisted in the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. Although Tennessee had seceded from the Union, many in the state remained loyal and formed regiments to serve in the Union army.

Boehm served in the Nashville area and it was here that George W. Simmons, the son of George Simmons, the pioneer settler on the north side of the lake, was also serving with the 7th Minnesota Infantry Regiment. The younger Simmons enlisted in 1862 and served in the Dakota Conflict before being sent south to St. Louis and eventually Nashville.

Did the two men ever cross paths? There is no known record of the men ever meeting, but they were in the same area at the same time. Family members today can only wonder.

George Simmons was killed in the Battle of Nashville in December 1864. Boehm, after leaving the Union army, went back to New Orleans for a time before making his way to Minnesota. Forty years after the Civil War, the Boehm and Simmons families would be linked through marriage.