Feb. 5, 2007

The Dassels: shedding light on a founding father

By Amy Wilde
Assistant Museum Director, Dassel Area Historical Society

In Oscar Linquist’s 1941 history of Dassel, “Those Were the Days,” Dassel’s namesake, Bernhard Dassel, is described as a railroad pay clerk originally from Dassel, Germany, who was a friend of railroad magnate James J. Hill.

Recent historical research by Dassel native Paul Johnson, Elk River, demonstrates that this statement is not complete and perhaps not totally accurate. There is more to the story.

Bernhard Dassel was undoubtedly of German origin, but it was his parents who immigrated to the US from the German province of Einbeck (Dassel, Germany, is located in that province). No record has been found of his parents’ given names, but his father was said to be a doctor and rumored to be a baron or count of high social standing, who emigrated to America for “political” purposes.

The 1870 census of Ramsey County states that Bernhard, then age 20, was born in New York “of German parents.” He first came to St. Paul in 1859, and was working for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad by 1868, and living with that railroad’s treasurer and land commissioner, Hermann Trott. Trott was in charge of the sale of land along railroad right-of-way. Hill did not own the railroad at that time; he became an investor later.

There are records that Dassel owned property in his namesake village in 1869 (the railroad was completed to Dassel in June of that year), and that he resided here briefly, but he is not in the 1870 or 1875 county census. A social column in the Litchfield News Ledger reports that “a birthday party was thrown at Mr. Dassel’s” in November, 1875. However, Bernhard’s principal residence during the 1870s appears to have been St. Paul. Johnson’s research states that he rented an apartment in St. Paul in 1873.

As a clerk, Bernhard assisted in drafting and laying out the railroad route, and “Dassel Station” was named to honor him or his family. Linquist’s book refers to Bernard as a “paymaster” in charge of the pay car drawn by the steam engine “Wm. Crooks Engine No. 1.” St. Paul census records list him as a clerk, promoted to assistant secretary in 1873, and serving as secretary of the Land Department from 1875-1878. It is quite possible that, during at least part of his time as a clerk or secretary, he had responsibility for paying railroad employees.

During the late 1870s, the railroad was under bankruptcy for a short time and, in 1879, was sold to a group of four investors that included James J. Hill of St. Paul. The new owners reorganized the railroad under the name of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad, with Hill, who became renowned as “The Empire Builder” of the Great Northern Railroad, as general manager.

Although it may have been true that Dassel was acquainted with Hill, he and Trott do not appear to have been employed by the new railroad company. Instead, Bernhard Dassel moved to Ortonville in July, 1879, with his bride, Caroline Brooks Peasley of Iowa, whom he had married in 1878.

The Dassels became prominent citizens of Ortonville. With $10,300, Bernhard founded the Bank of Ortonville as majority stockholder. He helped organize the new village and was named its first trustee. From 1881-1886, he was clerk of the District Court at Ortonville.

Frank B. Lamson’s “Meeker County History” states that Bernhard was a traveling paymaster for the railroad until 1883, but that appears at odds with the records Paul Johnson uncovered in Ortonville, where Bernhard was at Big Stone County’s District Court at the time. Lamson’s history also notes that Bernhard was involved with a failed banking venture at Brown’s Valley sometime after 1883.

Dassel had a younger sister, Minnie, born in New York in 1852, who resided near him when he lived in St. Paul. Minnie received at least part of her schooling while residing with a wealthy aunt in “the old country.” She was a teacher of shorthand and bookkeeping in St. Paul. She never married, but apparently had a lifetime fondness for another German immigrant, a former army officer, George Mueller. He became a judge of probate court at Willmar. When Mueller died, he left his modest home and other property to Minnie. The two are buried side-by-side in Willmar.

Johnson also found reference to a younger brother of Bernhard and Minnie, who was faulted with unwisely investing his and Minnie’s inheritance from their parents and losing it, but his name and occupation are not known. The loss left Minnie dependent on her teaching income until she inherited the property, not long before she herself died, from Judge Mueller.

The Dassel family appears to have been prominent among the German immigrants and even St. Paul society at one time. Minnie’s obituary reflects that she had been a friend of Governor and Mrs. William R. Merriam. She taught at the Hess Business College and Nichols Expert School. She appears to have been a very generous person. Her obituary in the Oct. 20, 1925, St. Paul Pioneer Press states that “her personal charities were more important to her than her own needs.”

In 1996, the DAHS received inquiries from a Virgil Dassel of Columbus, Ohio, regarding his ancestors, another German immigrant couple, Hartwig (b. 1856 in Ludingworth, Germany) and Caroline Hopf (b. 1861 in New York) von Dassel, who resided in New York about 20 years after Bernhard and Minnie left there. The von Dassels had six children. Virgil thought they were related to Dassel’s Dassel, but the connection is obscure.

The 1885 census reports Bernhard’s residence in Big Stone County, at Ortonville. Within the next year, he contracted consumption and died Jan. 31, 1886, at age 37. At the time of his death, he was residing with a brother-in-law, Chas. E. Brooks, in Ortonville. The only surviving relative listed was his sister, Minnie, of St. Paul, so it appears that Caroline was gone by then, as well. There is no record of surviving children born to them. Since Bernhard Dassel had been younger than originally thought — only 19 — when our village was named in 1869, some earlier local researchers thought that the young man, “Bernhard Dassel,” who died in Ortonville in 1886 must have been his son.

Bernhard’s obituary in the Big Stone County Herald, Feb. 4, 1886, states, “Mr. Dassel came here at an early day, when the future of Ortonville was problematical, but by his energy, and the liberal expenditure of his time and money, did much to solve the problem in our favor. First and foremost in all public enterprises, warm and generous in his feelings, he succeeded in surrounding himself with a host of friends, whose number was only commensurable with an acquaintance with him, and whose heavy and saddened hearts today bear mute testimony to his merits. As a public officer, his life was above criticism or reproach. As a friend and companion, his genial, whole-souled, lovable nature will cause his memory to be cherished by his friends…”

A large tombstone in Ortonville marks his final resting spot; the city’s “Dassel Avenue” memorializes him forever.

Although the Village of Dassel was only a brief sojourn in Bernhard Dassel’s short life, Dassel citizens can be proud that their town was named after a bright young man of good and generous character.

The main bed of one of America’s most successful rail enterprises, the Great Northern Railroad (now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe), was built using his skills. Every day, a dozen engines still sound their horns as they rumble through the town which bears his name.

The Dassel Area Historical Society encourages anyone with further information about Bernhard Dassel or his family, or other “Dassel” or “Von Dassel” descendants, to contact the Dassel Area Historical Society, (320) 275-3077, or mail copies of documents to: DAHS, PO Box D, Dassel, MN 55325.

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