Over one-hundred years ago the City of Wilton was founded. With only three or four buildings and a half dozen residents at its start, the community eventually grew into a town of both numerous residential and commercial properties and over 800 people.
The community has been a melting pot of Ukrainians, Germans, Scandinavians, and other nationalities.
It all began in 1898, when General W.D. Washburn, a former U.S. Senator and surveyor-General from Minnesota as well as a principal owner of the Washburn-Crosby Flour Mills, purchased 113,000 acres of Northern Pacific grant lands for the purpose of developing its resources and promoting settlement.
Washburn was the brother of C.C. Washburn, a Wisconsin governor and congressman, for whom Wilton's neighboring city of Washburn was named.
To manage the area and to investigate the persistent rumors that the land was underlain with huge coal deposits, Washburn chose W.P. Macomber, a native of Maine, with whom he had been associated in business for years.
Gen. Washburn, Mr. Macomber and Mr. Cassidy came from the Twin Cities to investigate the newly acquired lands in the early spring of 1899. Then on May 10 of 1899, Washburn selected a town site with four blocks in Burleigh County and eleven in McLean County. He named it Wilton; for a town in his home state of Maine. On October 18th the plat for the town was filed.
Washburn realized that if he wanted to populate the area and develop the coal mines, it would be beneficial to have a railroad cross his land. Therefore, he began immediately to organize the Bismarck, Washburn and Ft. Buford Railroad Co. (later the Bismarck, Washburn and Great Falls Railroad Co.) which was completed in 1900. The coming of rails meant Wilton was no longer isolated. In 1904 the railroad was sold to the Soo Line. Today, the railroad is owned by Dakota Missouri Valley and Western Railroad, Inc.
Wilton's Soo Line Depot still stands in the community only as a testament to its past, three blocks away from its original site. The depot is on the National Register of Historic Places and has always drawn attention for its unusual construction, with the upper story shaped like an oriental pagoda. It is thought that Mrs. Washburn, after accompanying her husband to china, was influential in its architecture. It is now used as a railroad and mining museum.
Soon after its birth, the community slowly began to spring to life when a business office to accommodate land seekers was erected. Cots and blankets were placed in the building, with area resident Mrs. Kilian preparing meals for Macomber, who stayed on, and the hordes of would-be landowners.
In the summer of 1899, construction began on a 60,000 bushel grain elevator, one of Gen. Washburn's investments in his new town. H.L. Michelson (sometimes spelled "Michaelson"), a successful Bismarck merchant, also began erecting a small frame building for use as a general store. P.K. Eastman a young businessman from Wadena, Minn. brought his bride to this new settlement, and helped operate the store. The Eastman's became the first permanent residents of Wilton.
Then came a livery and feed stable. The Wilton News, the local newspaper, made its first appearance in December 1899 from the presses of the Bismarck Tribune. The paper was edited by M.L. Hanson. The town began to take on more residents. A restaurant was built in February of 1900 -- a rough wooden structure covered with tarpaper that was so cold that patrons sometimes ate their breakfast wearing overcoats, caps and overshoes.
On Jan. 10, 1900, a post office was established with Mr. Eastman as the first postmaster. By April over 50 people received their mail at the Wilton Post Office and there were 10 buildings. By mid-1902, the population of the town was estimated at 235.
In 1909 when Wilton celebrated its 10th birthday, there were five general stores, five elevators, two drug stores, two banks, three land companies, an attorney's office, two hotels, two blacksmith shops, a barber shop, a livery stable, a meat market, a millinery shop, a restaurant, confectionery store, a grocery store, a boot and shoe shop, a hardware store, a lumber yard, two dealers in farm machinery and two doctors. By the following year, Wilton's population was at 450.
In 1914, Wilton was the largest city in the county with a population of 1,000 people. That year also saw Wilton send off its best and brightest to service in World War I. Louis Ousley became the first war casualty from North Dakota. He died while carrying a wounded officer to shelter. In its 100 years, Wilton would send its boys off to five wars.
In its early days, Wilton sat on the rim of one of the largest lignite deposits in the world. In 1901 the mine, located one mile east of town, began full operation. By 1907 it was the largest underground lignite mine in the world. Many of the early miners were Ukrainians, Austrians and Hungarians who brought with them their talents, customs and religion.
At times the mine had more than 900 men on the payroll, which was as much as $90,000 a month.
Because of the coal mine, Wilton had electric lights before almost any other small town in the state, as the coal company strung a line into town from its plant in the mine.
When Truax-Traer took over the mine in 1930, they used open pit stripping done by large machines, thus putting many miners out of work. In the mid-1940s Truax-Traer moved their equipment to Hazen, leaving behind huge ridges of spoil piles as evidence of their existence.
The first baby to be born in Wilton was Edwin W. Aune, son of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Aune. The birth took place in a tarpaper shack near where the N.P. Depot stood on Feb. 14, 1902. It was the first delivery for young R.C. Thompson the town's first doctor. The baby was given the middle name of Wilton in honor of the town. Except for a short time spent in Chicago, this was Edwin's home until be bought a farm a mile north of his parents' home where he lived with family until his death in 1982.
In 1901, the first school with one teacher was built. It was located in the middle of the block where the Presbyterian manse now stands, with playgrounds on both sides. In 1911, a large brick structure was erected. By 1952 it was-necessary to expand so a new gymnasium with showers and some high school rooms were added. By 1966, it was apparent that more room was needed so a high school was built. In 1978 the old brick structure was razed and a new brick elementary school replaced it. The school is often the hub of activity in the community, with its basketball, football, track, dramas, concerts, proms and other programs.
The community is now situated on U.S. Highway 83, a four-lane thoroughfare, connecting the city with Bismarck, the state capital of North Dakota. In recent years, the community has become a "bedroom community," for some who live in Wilton but work in Bismarck.
Today Wilton has much to offer. It is also only 10 miles south of the Painted Woods Golf Course. The community is also in the midst of an excellent game hunting area, with deer, pheasants, grouse and partridge being plentiful.
Wilton boasts four parks -two with shelters, picnic tables, electrical hookups, modern playground equipment, rest rooms and garbage receptacles.
Wilton also has the important assets of a volunteer ambulance and fire department, that are on call 24 hours every day.
The business community includes a bank, post office, convenience store/gas station, cafe, bars, basic care facility, greenhouse, etc.
The community has a big and colorful past. It's a good place to live - where neighbor knows neighbor.
(Information for the story was obtained from the Wilton Centennial History Book and a story written by the late Charlotte Strand.)