Ages ago volcanoes laid down much of the bedrock of the land that is now Cook County. The present-day Sawtooth Mountain Range is the heart of the mountain range that once loomed here. Lake Superior originated in a past geological age from the shell of a collapsed volcano. Glaciers scraped out it basin as they ground down the mountains and heaped rock and gravel into hills. Lake Superior and the modern landscape emerged as the last Ice Age receded.
The land now known as Cook County was probably first populated by the Dahkotah Indians (People of the Lakes). The Chippewa, also early residents called them Sioux or Foes. According to tradition, the Chippewa once lived near the eastern ocean and journeyed West over a period of time. The Chippewa developed a semi-nomadic way of life remarkably suited to the rigorous conditions here.
Probably the first white explorer to travel by canoe along the North Shore was Etienne Brule, in 1623 or 1624. The first exploration was directed on ward finding a water passageway to the West. Groseilliers and Radisson, however, in 1654-1660, are generally regarded as the first explorers of the Lake Superior region. These first explorations ultimately resulted in French sovereignty over Lake Superior.
During the 1700's most of the activity along the North Shore was involved with a lively fur trade. The center of activity was Grand Portage, where fur pelts were sold or exchanged for supplies at a trading post and stockade owned by the North West Company. In the early 1800's, this bustle of trade diminished, and in 1821 the Hudson Bay Company absorbed the North West Company, moving the majority of the trading to the northern and western parts of Canada.
Among the Chippewa, the harbors of what is now known as Grand Marais were referred to as Kitchi-bi-to-tig (Double Harbor). It was also called Gitch-be-to-beek (Big Pond). The French translated it to Grand Marais (Big Marsh, or Harbor of Refuge). In 1854, Richard B. Godfrey, an independent fur trader from Detroit, came to Grand Marais and became the first postmaster. He returned to Detroit in 1856, and the community was on "hold" until 1871, when new settlers came. Two of these new settlers were Henry Mayhew and Sam Howenstine, pioneer mineral prospectors who might be called the actual founders of Grand Marais.
This era was characterized by hopes to develop mineral resources, particularly silver. Iron ore from the Vermillion Range, however, was what led to eventual development here. As a result of a railroad being built in the late 1800's to carry iron ore from the Range to Two Harbors, many Scandinavians from Norway, Sweden, (and Michigan) came to the county. The 1880 census showed Cook County as having 65 residents; by 1900, here were 810.
Hans Engelsen, an emigrant from Norway, settled on an abandoned homestead near Carlton Peak in 1893. In 1896, he opened the post office with the name Tofte, named after a community in Norway. Tofte means, "seat of a boat" or in the Viking ship days, a "helmsman's seat." The oldest organized township in Cook County is Hovland, organized in 1894. It was the name of the place in Norway from which one of the first settlers came, a man by the name of Brunas.
Around 1900, many people came to the North Shore to get homesteads. In order to homestead they would claim up to 160 acres, clear an acre or so or a garden, and begin building a barn and a home. If this was done within five year period, the US government would present the settler with a patent title to the land.
At this time timber companies were moving around the south shore of Lake Superior from Michigan to Wisconsin and on to Minnesota, cutting timber. If a person had laid claim to a homestead, he could also file a stone and timber claim. This amounted to $1.25 per acre and was a quick, easy thing to do. Timber cruisers from the lumber companies were eager to help those homesteaders to pick out the "right" acreage, as they could turn around and buy 40 acres for $600 and start cutting timber. Many homesteaders took advantage of this way to "get rich quick" and abandoned their homesteads to go West to Montana and the West Coast.
The hospitality industry began early in Cook County, C.A.A. Nelson built a wagon trail from Lutsen Resort, following the Poplar River to Brule Lake - a good distance. He would haul guests and supplies to moose camps at Brule for a moose hunt. For $300 he would guarantee the guests a moose. Five shots however, were all they were allowed, after which the guide would shoot the moose. This was the case from the early 1890's to the time of World War I, when moose hunting was closed. Moose hunting closed, not because of over hunting, but because the deer arrived in Cook County around 1908. They had migrated around Lake Superior, following the logging cuts up to the North Shore.
The moose were driven out (or died out) because of the parasite the deer carries that infects the moose. By 1918, moose were scarce. Woodland caribou, also prevalent while moose were here, disappeared even earlier than the moose.
For many years the only supplies and mail came via steamers from Duluth, such as the" America" and "Dixon." As there were few docks along the shore, passengers and freight were transported by skiff to the ships waiting off shore. In rough weather these skiffs were sometimes overturned, or swamped, and all went into the cold Superior water.
In the winter, when the shore ice was too high to reach the ship, the only way to transport mail was by dog sled from Two Harbors. John Beargrease, a Chippewa from Beaver Bay, was one of the colorful North Shore carriers by rowboat, sailboat, or using dogs or horses, he delivered the mails faithfully from Two Harbors to Grand Marais during the 1890's.
As the wagon/sled road was built up the shore, travel increased. Fishing, logging, farming and tourism became the major industries. Through the 1940's fish caught early in the morning were iced and picked up by trucks raveling down the shore. These trucks would go to Duluth, where the fish were iced again and put on a train at 11 p.m. The next morning these fish were at the fish market in Chicago!
The fishing and farming have declined in the years since. The invasion of the lamprey in the 1950's dealt a tremendous blow to the commercial fishing industry. Few commercial fisherman remain in Cook County, though the lake is recovering from ravages of the lamprey. Farms and homesteads have grown up to brush as younger generations have moved to the cities. Logging and tourism remain as major industries now. Government may also be considered a local "industry," as much of Cook County is government owned, and many government workers live here for varying periods of time.
The Dahkotas came, and the Chippewa; the French came, and the Scandinavians, and the many since; the woods were logged over, and grew up again - and the lakes and the hills remain.