New information has been found about the stone house of the fur trader Benjamin F. Baker, located above Coldwater Spring from the 1830s to the 1850s. The house, which was the site of many firsts in Minnesota history, was destroyed by fire in March 1860. The new information shows that the house was built as early as 1836, prior to the Henry H. Sibley house in Mendota, which makes the Baker House the first recorded private residence made of stone in Minnesota. It later housed other traders, merchants, missionaries, a hotel, and the first public school in the region of Minnesota (in 1837-38).
The site of the Baker House is on a hill just to the west of Coldwater Spring on the Bureau of Mines-Twin Cities campus property. It is likely that it was located near the current site of the long metal building known as Building 11. Missionary Samuel Pond stated that the Baker House was the “first stone house erected in Minnesota except those belonging to the Government.” On the other hand, Henry H. Sibley, in his later years, stated that his own house in Mendota was “the first and oldest private residence, in all of Minnesota, and Dakota,” though he may have meant that it was the first such residence still standing.
The new information about the Baker house comes from notes taken by the French geographer and mapmaker Joseph Nicollet, who, on October 10, 1836 visited Coldwater Spring at mid-day to take some barometric readings, first near Benjamin F. Baker’s trading post, above the spring and the stream that flowed from it. Then he climbed up to the “summit of the hill on which is the new house (built of stone) of Mr. Baker.” On the same occasion Nicollet noted other information on the spring and the area around it. He noted that the “the beautiful spring [la belle Fontaine] at Mr. Baker’s, has a temerature of 46 [degrees], while that of the air was 56 [degrees] today at 2.” He also noted the formation of the ground above the spring, stating that “the deposit of sand which forms the summit of this hill and which rests on the limestone formation which begins at the level of the spring [fontaine] of Mr. Baker is 18 feet thick, the first layer made of limestone mixed with shells, the second without shells. The whole rest of the height from the level of the stream is filled with sand.”
One of the failures of the archaeological survey done on the Bureau of Mines property in 2000 was that it provided no new information about the location of the Baker House. The later historical study done for the Park Service around the same time discussed the later history of the house, but there is a great deal more information available about the house’s history and important events that occurred there. In the weeks ahead we will put more of this information online.
Note: The date of the destruction of the Baker House was supplied by Bruce McKenzie, who has been doing a great deal of new research on the later history of the house.