FORESTVILLE, Minn. ― Where a couple farm buildings and a general store are left, thousands of people used to live and work.

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, Forestville began as a bustling town, "evolved into a company town, and eventually became a ghost town."

Matt Eidem, site manager of historic Forestville, said that Dakota people lived in Forestville before a treaty was signed in 1851 that shifted the Dakota to reservations and opened up Minnesota to settler colonialists.

Forestville, founded in 1853, then became one of the earliest towns in southeast Minnesota.

"The town was the center of trade in Fillmore County, because it was on the stagecoach line," said Eidem of the town, located about halfway between Dubuque, Iowa and Fort Snelling.

The historic town of Forestville still includes a fully-stocked general store, farm and homestead with original artifacts. (Photo by Rebecca Studios, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)
The historic town of Forestville still includes a fully-stocked general store, farm and homestead with original artifacts. (Photo by Rebecca Studios, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)
Eidem said Forestville was booming with new business and farming operations until 1868, when the Southern Minnesota Railroad bypassed the town and took its line north.

"And the town started its decline," Eidem said.

In order to keep the town going, the owner of the general store at the time, Thomas Meighen, turned Forestville into an "industrial farming town", Eidem said.

Along with owning the general store, Meighen was involved in banking, and he began to loan Forestville farmers money. When farmers couldn't pay him back, Meighen would foreclose their land and take the operations over. This led to the family owning the majority of Forestville.

"The story goes that he could walk from Forestville to LeRoy without ever leaving his land," said Eidem. "Which is about 25 miles."

Thomas and Mary Meighen, 1897 (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)
Thomas and Mary Meighen, 1897 (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)
By around 1870, Eidem said the people who were left in Forestville were people who farmed and worked for Meighen. That lasted until about 1910 when Meighen closed up shop and moved to Preston, Minn., to pursue a career in banking.

"The buildings that are left in Forestville reflect its farming past," he said.

That includes a large barn that Meighen's dairy and horse operation ran out of, which Eidem said was the largest building in Fillmore County when it was built in 1894.

The Forestville townsite and general store are now located on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The general store is kind of our hook for people, because when Meighen closed it down in 1910 he left all the stock inside, so we have a lot of the original patent medicines and original clothing and stuff like that," Eidem said.

Lessons learned from a ghost town

Eidem said that the history of Forestville teaches a good lesson in persistence.

"(Meighen's) town essentially died when the railroad went north," he said. "People who didn't own farms and just lived in town moved."

But by doing what he did, Meighen was able to keep the pioneer community going.

"We use it to kind of show people what happens when your hometown isn't thriving," Eidem said. "How do you make that choice to move on, or keep going?"

Restoring the history

The site of historic Forestville, which spans a total of 19-acres, is undergoing what Eidem calls a "huge restoration project," funded by the state with a budget close to $1 million. It came at a time when the site would've been shut down anyway from COVID-19.

"If we were going to close down, this was the summer to do it," he said. "We're restoring the barn, and we're restoring the brick work on the store."

He expects the construction to be done by the fall, and ready for visitors again by next spring. During regular hours, the site is open seasonally, from May to October.

People are still allowed to check out the historic site on weekends when the construction is not going on, said Eidem. They just won't be able to enter any of the buildings.

And anyone with a Minnesota State Parks permit is allowed to visit Forestville State Park. Eidem said the footprint of the town can be seen throughout where the entire state park sits today.

"When you hike the state park, you can see evidence of foundations of where the wagon road used to go," he said.