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Clay County History

Map of Minnesota with Clay County identifiedClay County, located along the west border of Minnesota, was established in 1858 as Breckenridge County, named for John C. Breckenridge, Vice President of the United States from 1857-1861.

Minnesota Governor Ramsey appointed the first county commissioners in 1861:  R. M. Probstfield, Richard Manning and George Northrup.  Today, the county is represented by five commissioners.

After the Civil War started, Breckenridge joined the army of the South.  Pressure by Minnesota residents resulted in the State Legislature of Minnesota passing a bill on March 6, 1862, rescinding the name of Breckenridge.  The county was then renamed for Henry Clay (1777-1852).  Clay was known as a statesman and orator, and called "The Great Pacificator".  

In 1871, a decision was made to have the Northern Pacific Railroad cross the Red River at the present site of Moorhead.  Photo of first Clay County Courthouse, dated April, 1873.The railroad bought Job Smith's land, platted a townsite, offered lots for sale, and named the town Moorhead.  

Moorhead was designated the county seat on June 1, 1872 and a county building was built at Fifth Street and First Avenue North.  (See photo to the right of the first courthouse which is dated April, 1873:  The building on the extreme left, which is located on the east side of 5th Street, just south of old 1st Avenue North, is the first courthouse. Today, the fountain in the Moorhead Center Mall is located in about the same spot where the first Clay County Courthouse once stood.) Photo of the second Clay County Courthouse, dated 1932.  The first courthouse was sold in 1878.  

In 1878 a second courthouse was built at Eighth Street and First Avenue North at a cost of $2,136.  Plans for this courthouse set off the fight for the county seat in 1879.  (See photo to the left of the second courthouse which is dated 1932.)  Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers tore down the second courthouse in the mid 1930s.

A third courthouse was built in 1882 on the eastern half of the present site at Eleventh Street and Eighth Avenue North.  Photo of the third Clay County Courthouse, dated August, 1923.The cost of that building was $50,000.  (See photo to the right of the third courthouse which is dated August, 1923.)

Photos and information regarding the early Clay County Courthouses are courtesy of Mark Peihl, Archivist, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

For larger photos of the early Clay County Courthouses, click on the corresponding links below.

First Courthouse
     Second Courthouse
     Third Courthouse

Cost of the present courthouse, built in 1954, was $704,000.  It is pictured below.

Photo of Clay County Courthouse

Read about the battle for the location of the county seat in the article County Seat Fight a Bitter Struggle by Mark Peihl.  This copyrighted article first appeared in the September/October 2001 edition of the Clay County Historical Society Newsletter.  It is reprinted here with his permission.  The County Seat Fight a Bitter Struggle article is available below in the Portable Document Format (PDF).  To view and print the PDF version, you need the free Adobe® Acrobat® Reader software.

County Seat Fight a Bitter Struggle  (PDF: 71 KB / 4 pages)

The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County has further information relating to the history of Clay County, Minnesota.

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