Why Was This Structure Built as a Fortress?

Why Was This Structure Built as a Fortress?

As we were planning a shoot that would include some Minnesota and Iowa places, we decided to visit Johnson, Minnesota, in Big Stone County, not far from the South Dakota border, to investigate one structure.

The aerial view of the structure in our mapping software seemed to indicate a rectangular building with some kind of bell tower or steeple at one corner, so we marked it and made plans to visit under the assumption we would find an old fire station, or perhaps a school or church. When we arrived in April of 2016, we were very surprised to find something quite different.

Johnson, Minnesota

This abandoned structure stands on the northwest edge of Johnson, Minnesota, and it is the first structure of its kind that we’ve ever stumbled upon. From the front, the ground floor of this building looks like many of the other places we’ve photographed, like a pioneer-era store of some kind. The corner tower, however, appears to have been constructed to provide defense against unknown assailants. Reinforced rifle slots in the north and west walls hint at ominous intent.

Johnson, Minnesota

The name J. Luchsinger on the facade of the building, with the date 1912, might be a clue. Searches reveal two Luchsinger men, John and Jacob, fought in the Civil and Indian Wars of 1861-65 (Fort Abercrombie, North Dakota is not far away, and was besieged in 1862). Another search result revealed an ad from 1922 in the Ortonville Independent which lists Jacob Luchsinger as a merchant in nearby Correll, Minnesota.

Johnson, Minnesota

Was Jacob Luchsinger the namesake of this building? Why was it built as a fortress? If you know the history of this place, we would love to hear it in the comments below.

Update: There is also a genealogy search result that shows a Jacob Luchsinger who was born in Minnesota in 1848, and died in 1916, location unknown.

Johnson, Minnesota

Johnson, Minnesota

Looking at the windows, high on the west wall, Terry had another observation… maybe it was a jail? Another possibility.

Johnson, Minnesota

Johnson, Minnesota

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media


60 thoughts on “Why Was This Structure Built as a Fortress?

  1. I grew up in Johnson born in 1956. All I have ever know it to be was a grocery store owned by Jacob and his wife Jessie. After Jacobs death Jessie married Earl Larson.

    1. The Bears Den closed down a few years ago the building is still there it’s kind of a fortress.My grandmother worked in the grocery store for a very long time Elsie Mattson. Her son John and his ex-wife Jean actually purchased the grocery store from Jessie. Elsie ran that store until it closed in the eighties. Elsie lived in the old hotel directly east of the store where she was known as the town grandmother as she babysat all of the local children. On Sundays everybody would come to Johnson after church to pick up their Sunday paper from Elsie’s freezer in her porch. The old store although at one time was a beautiful structure time has not been kind to it. My grandfather and father also owned the elevators in Johnson Roy and Larry. Olson, he had the fertilizer plant as well. I have also been told there was a cattle feedlot on the northeast side of town as well.

      1. No, my parents bought it from Jessie in 1958, Louis and Gretchen Vogt. They had it until the 70’s when your family bought it. I’ve written more in other posts here.

        1. This past summer my Aunt Jean who is the executor of Elsie’s estate wanted me to buy the property that the store is sitting on. Along with the papers that I read included the contract for deed from Jean Mattson who was married to John Mattson and Jessie so maybe somewhere in there Jesse got the store back or something because they definitely bought it from Jessie

  2. Interesting. First link below states that John was the father and Jacob was the son, and that they moved to California in 1861, having spent just 11 years in Minnesota. John passed in 1888 and Jacob was elected to the California State Senate a year later. The name of the father’s furniture making business was J. B. Luchsinger & Son, which was dissolved a year before John’s death.

    The article doesn’t mention anything after Jacob’s election to the state senate, which he served in until 1903 (second link). So this could be the same person if he returned to the state years later.



      1. had to be a different luchsinger as I remember Jake in the 50’s and believe he died while a resident of Johnson Minnesota

  3. My grandparents lived in rural Johnson, my grandma just turned 100, and has a very sharp memory. From my recollection, I also heard it was a grocery store. Not sure of anything before that though. Keep up the great work, I’ve been following this site for a few years and love the photos and stories. There’s an old stone barn just a few miles away, which is really neat too.

  4. I was born in Graceville in 1949. My father was a farmer whose farm was 2 miles north of Johnson. In my lifetime this was a grocery store and Jake Luchsinger was an active owner when I was a child. He seemed to be in his 50’s possibly I remember hearing of his wife Jesse but I don’t remember whether I ever met her or not.

  5. I grew up in Johnson and lived on a farm two miles north from 1964 – 1990. We went to the two room parochial elementary school just a couple blocks away from the store. When I was young the store was a grocery store and we used to ride our bikes there to buy penny candy after school and ice cream treats in the summer months. Jessie was the proprietress when I was young and then it was bought by Louie and Gretchen Vogt who operated it until maybe the mid-late 1970s when it was closed. My mom said that they built it like they did because of the Native American uprisings in the Dakotas and to withstand prairie fires back in the day. My mom was born in 1940 and grew up just north a couple miles and she doesn’t remember it ever being anything but a grocery store with maybe a little coffee/meeting room in the back. Right next to the store to the south was Twisty’s Bar and then Juergans Hardware and Winter Brothers Implement dealership and the Post Office. Back in it’s heyday there were 300+ people living in Johnson. There was a grain elevator, feedmill, hotel, lumber yard and another liquor store/bar

    1. I never heard of Twisty. I remember Julius’s , Runnings and Bladows and Zimmermans owning the restaurant/bar My dad owned Johnson feed mill and the fertilizer place next to the hardware/post office

  6. This structure was build by Great Grandfather, Frank Schott for Luchsinger grocery. It was build this was because that is the way he built everything. There is a building in Chokio that was the old fire house and is built very simalr. Also the “Old stone house” in Chokio and the “Old Stone Barn” south of Chokio on the county line road are all build about the same. He also build many bridges and water tanks that are still in use today. So, a Fortress to hold off indians? no, Just buil the same way he build everything else… To last!

    1. I don’t buy it. What does putting rifle slits in the tower have to do with longevity? They’re there for a reason. Did he put rifle slits in any of his other buildings?

      1. I agree —looks like rifle slits to me—if built in 1912 there could easily have been worries about defending yourself in the plains

        1. I was so disappointed the see they boarded up the Old Stone Barn and knocked down some of he smaller out buildings around it! I’ve been hunting in that area for a quite a while a love learning about the history of the area.

    2. I agree with you Tom, I have always been told by my grandfather, Wally Wulff, it was a grocery store. I also agree with the comment about the way he built his cement buildings, they do all look very similar. The stone barn has always been my most favorite place to go when it had all of it’s structures! My grandfather also has a stone fence and water/feed all in one still standing after the tornado in 96. That fence also has the same looks at the top of the ‘grocery store’ does. Really have admired his work with cement, because I have also worked with cement for a couple years, really neat!

    3. Tom, I grew up a few miles south of “the barn” I’ve used it so many times as an example about roofing it right it’ll still be there when you’re gone! Maybe not with asphalt shingles but I was lucky enuf to do some historic tile and slate restorations! Did your great grandfather’s skills and standards make it down to the current generation?

  7. I remember Jessie running the grocery store in that building in 1963 when i was 7 yrs old and there was a hardware store and post office where i went to by traps for gophers and bb’s for my bb gun. The elevator was there and a bar. There was also a blacksmith in town. ( i was there over Easter and i see the elevator is gone now to.)

    1. No, Jessie had sold it to my parents in 1958, she never worked in there after Jake died. I helped my mom several summers. You may be remembering my mother, Gretchen Vogt. I’m pretty sure it was always a grocery store, I never heard anything about a bank. The guy, Schott that built it just liked to be unique, and he did wonderful cement work. Lots of memories and stories. So many that would remember are gone.

      1. It could have been her. I know who Gretchen was and this woman was not her. Did she work there part time after then? Because I know I have met her. Anyway thanks for the info I will have to pay another visit to the store next time I get out that way.

        1. I don’t recall Jessie working there, but I did go to the AG school in the winter. Her and my mom were good friends, but she didn’t live in Johnson, I think she was in Graceville. If she was in the store, she was just visiting. Elsie Madsen lived behind the store maybe she was there too. My husband and I drove through on Saturday, it’s just sad. There was also a dance hall a block south, Orrin and I had our wedding dance there. It had a stage and all, I remember they had community plays in it. It was really a booming little village. It was never large enough to qualify as a town. Dad was mayor for many years, we always got to go to the mayors convention at aquatennial time.

    1. Yes Bill Gray had the gas station.. It was like put a bucks worth in and put it on dads account. Way before your time and actually mine.. My moms father Carl Skoog owned a “Liquor Store” directly across from the grocery store .. And do remember Lex Mobergs shop North of the town hall? Also when olsons had the little cafe right next to the gas station.. And when Ray and Mona RIBA owned the liquor store on the highway?

      1. Oh, yes, I remember the Ribas, Em lived across from the store. Their son, can’t think of his name, got married a week before we did. And I remember walking past the blacksmith shop at night and seeing Lex playing his violin. He was actually quite good. He lived in the shop.

      2. I remember Bill Grays gas station and the blacksmith Lex Moberg–or “old Lex” as my dad called him–also the post Office—Run by Juergins at that time?? and the Town Hall or whatever it was. I remember a Halloween party being held there one year. Loved the stage—seemed like a big deal back then.

  8. I agree. It was a grocery store when I grew up just outside of town. Jake & Jessie owned it and I was born in 1940. . My parents bought their grocery their as I grew up. Gray their son was 2years older than me. There daughter Jackkie ran the resesrant after she married Ithink she was about 10years older than me.

  9. I don’t think the slits could be used to shoot through. They look too narrow to be able to pivot a barrel side to side in order to aim. And the tower is open on two sides. Seems more likely that signs were mounted in the recesses. Maybe they were modern enough to have electrically lit signs off a generator or battery bank. Or they could have just been flat panel signs with a tongue that fit into the slot and was pinned in the back.

  10. It was a grocery store. My parents owned it in the 50’s. I’m not sure why the tower, but there are several buildings in the area built of cement, there was a gentleman named school I believe who was known for that. There’s a home in nearby Chokio built by him as well, and a barn nearby too.

  11. I will add in here that I had heard or learned it was first a bank. That might explain the gun slots, it that’s what they are. Anyway, that’s the way I heard it, to paraphrase Mike Rowe. Oh, and it is worth it to go visit the barn even if the roof is gone.

    1. That would explain what happen to the bank then. Anyone know how long the bank was there. I can’t find any history on the town.

      1. I recognized the building immediately. Many memories of shopping there with my mother and siblings. It was always a pleasure to visit with Jake, who was a pleasant man who kept the place running when I suspect no one else could have. The nearest competitor was Graceville but it wasn’t really a draw. Most everybody turned left and drove through Chokio to Morris which had the Piggly Wiggly.
        I have no recollection of discussions about any conflict in the area. You might contact the Traverse county Historical Society. Another good source might be the congregation at Trinity Lutheran Church about 8 miles due north. There might be church members there who would be of the requisite age to have been old enough. I noticed many relatives, Bartschs and Jahnkes, in previous posts who would have had the same experiences and memories

        1. Jake died in the mid fifties, wouldn’t that be before your time? Maybe not, but aren’t you younger than me? He was a happy fellow.

          1. My memory is when I was ten in approx 1956. I remember going to the outdoor movie and raffle (they gave a car away once) and my family walked back to the store with Jake.. He was more than unhappy that the car had been won by one of the more affluent townspeople. “She needed a new car like I needed another box of raisins” he said. I had to have my mother explain it later.

          1. I am really curious about the car drawing … I remember them showing movies by Johnson school but can’t imagine them having money in the town budget to give a way a car. Who won it ? And who in Johnson was considered affluent?

          2. Don’t know who Jake was referring to but I was quite young, probably 7 or under. After all I had to have the raisins remark explained. As to the size of the town budget, I agree that it could n’ have been very big. I seem to recall that the car raffle was intended to increase town patronage. I don’t know who was affluent but Jake clearly said “she”.

        2. I recently saw this and the “Stone Barn” in Chokio, both are incredible structures in a quiet, remote, yet beautiful part of Minnesota. I have grown to love and appreciate the forgotten prairie areas of Minnesota more and more. I plan to share some photos on my website soon.

  12. Let’s bring back the Johnson Annual Memorial weekend party celebration! 7 bands & 300 kegs! A Midwest Woodstock on a farm outside town. Those were good times! Is Andy’s Pop store still around?

  13. I’ve been enjoying the comments and memories here. It occurred to me that it might be fun to start a facebook group for Johnson memories. I did start a group, just go to your facebook page and at the top where it says search, put in Johnson MN memories and search. It’s a closed group, so you’ll have to request to join. I can administer it, shouldn’t be that hard. I can accept your request. I thought it might be easier to continue the discussion and also fun to touch bases with everyone. We don’t get home very often anymore, both my sister (Jane Fuhrman) and brother and wife (Robert and Shirley Vogt) and of course, my parents are gone now. We were there Sunday for church and saw many friends. Hope you think this would be a good idea. Linda

  14. This is my Husbands home town,….what there is of it lol We have talked about this building many times as we went past to my In Laws who still live about a mile or so. from Johnson.

  15. I know this is kind of late, but, I have a guess of why it was built like that. After the Dakota War many merchants were afraid that there stores would be ramshaked, so, whomever built this may have been taking precaution for future Indian attacks since the location was historically close to many Indian reservations.

    1. I am the great-granddaughter of Jacob & Evelyn Luchsinger, original owners of the building, who moved from Chicago to Johnson. This is the information from my mother Janice (Luchsinger) Danielson: The building was originally built as a SALOON. It was a beautiful, ornate building with custom wood and a wall of mirrors behind a gorgeous huge bar. When prohibition hit, the establishment was changed to a drug store and soda fountain, which almost bankrupted Jacob & Evelyn. The establishment was changed again to a grocery store. The soda fountain in front of the mirrors remained for a long time. The grocery store was passed on to their son and his wife, Jacob Vivian Oswald Luchsinger & Jesse (Running) Luchsinger. They had 4 children, Jackie Zimmerman, Janice Danielson, Gary & Denny, who worked along side them. After Jacob Vivian Oswald Luchsinger died, Jesse continued to operate the grocery store. She then sold it to Louis and Gretchen Vogt. The Vogt’s sold it to another party (unknown names). But eventually the store went back to Jesse who operated it with her 2nd husband Earl Larson. After Earl died, Jesse (Luchsinger) Larson owned/operated the store into her 70’s. Upon retirement, Jesse sold the store to Elsie Mattson and/or John & Jean Mattson. Before Jesse’s death the store was sold to or returned to Jesse and was eventually Tax Forfeited to the state.

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