Railroad Town Hub City and Main Street Commercial Development
Since its founding in 1881, Aberdeen has been the dominant regional commercial center for northeast South Dakota and the Aberdeen Commercial Historic District is the commercial core of this regional hub.
Main Street is a homogeneous collection of brick buildings built between 1884 and 1983, with special emphasis on the 1908-29 period. The district conveys a strong feeling of architectural cohesiveness with design elements such as corbelling and geometric brick and concrete patterns as distinguishing features that reinforce the feeling of time and place.
General Characteristics the Aberdeen Commercial Historic District extends six full blocks on either side of the predominant commercial street in town, Main Street. All eighty-two buildings were built for commercial use, except for the recent brick Sherman Apartments and the 1899 Masonic Temple. As befits a railroad town, the linear district emanates from the source of Aberdeen’s establishment, the Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad tracks, then continues south to Sixth Avenue – Highway 12.
The commercial development of Main Street has been continuous and the break in construction between 1938 and 1951 offers a distinct end to the period of significance, 1884 to 1938. The lengthy, four-decades-long period provides a significant continuum that illustrates the initial and unbroken economic vitality of Main Street. Within this fifty-four-year period of significance is a notable cluster of construction dates. Fully forty of the eighty-two buildings were built between 1908 and 1929, reflecting the boom years of Aberdeen’s and South Dakota’s commercial development.
Aberdeen was born of railroad construction and the related Dakota land boom of the 1880s. The selection of a site reflected the economic motives behind its creation. Representatives of the Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad were responsible for the town’s founding and based their selection on the best chance for maximum economic return. They chose this site at the expense of the existing settlement of Columbia, favoring an intersection point with the North-Western Railroad, fully recognizing the economic dividends of a location at two intersecting rail lines.
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The site was very flat and low. Sloughs and marshes greeted the actual surveyors in the fall of 1880. A town plan, named for the home town of Milwaukee Road president Alexander Mitchell, was filed on January 3, 1881, and the first lot buyers arrived that spring. The first train stopped at the station at the north end of Main Street on July 6, 1881, and from then on building after building was erected in rapid succession, according to contemporary reports by pioneer merchant T. Clarkson Gage. By that fall there were reportedly 250 residents.
Lots on Main Street sold for $125 for a 25-foot frontage, $150 for corner sites
The early buildings were small, hastily constructed wood frame stores with boomtown fronts. With the highly advantageous position at the crossing of two rail lines and the resulting converging travelers, merchandise, and commodities, Aberdeen was immediately a locus for commercial enterprise in Brown County. The county grew from just 353 people in 1880 to 12,241 five years later, approximately 2,000 of them in Aberdeen.
By 1886 the eminence of Aberdeen was assured. Now three railroads served the community, giving the city the sobriquet, the Hub City. The U.S. Land Office opened an office there, and all manner of commercial enterprise served the growing hinterland. An 1889 city directory, for example, lists no less than eleven farm implement dealers, six banks and eight mortgage companies, seven dry goods stores, twenty hotels and boarding houses, six newspapers, and ten saloons
Depression and Rebuilding 1890s-1929. The late 1880s also brought the end of the initial and speedy prosperity of the heady settlement era. Crop failures, then a nationwide financial depression in the 1890s ended the construction boom and stilled commercial development in Aberdeen. None of the extant buildings along Main Street apparently were built between 1893 and 1898. At the turn of the century came another cycle of plenty which continued unabated into the 1920s. Again, a land boom triggered speculation; rising crop prices brought a return to prosperity. Population mushroomed from 4,087 in 1900 to 10,150 a decade later, a 160 percent increase.
The further development of Main Street reflected the newfound abundance in Aberdeen, both in its expansion and in the quality of construction. Larger and more permanent and costly brick- veneered replacements dotted Main Street; every decade brought a spate of new buildings. Aberdonians gained the largest steel and concrete building in the state, except for the contemporary State Capitol. Built the following year, the McDiarmid & Slater Building occupied a pivotal corner site on the south end of block five, west side. Its distinctive tan brick with contrasting red- brown brick, corbelled cornice and lively geometric patterns exemplified Aberdeen commercial buildings from the early twentieth century. In 1926 the elaborate five- story Capitol Theatre opened, its exotic Moorish and Gothic Revival motifs and immense neon sign a beacon on Saturday nights.
The 1920s marked the arrival of national chain stores in Aberdeen. Kresge and J.C. Penney Company
The Great Depression 1929-41. Following WWI and the related slide in farm product prices, agricultural areas such as northeast South Dakota suffered an economic decline. In 1929 the boom period ended in earnest nationally with the dramatic end to high stock market prices. Aberdeen was still the largest town on the Milwaukee Road between Minneapolis and Butte, Montana. With its large trading area extending from Roberts County west to the Missouri River and from the North Dakota border south to Redfield, it still could count on retail and wholesale sales, but at a diminished rate.
Design Sources for many of the Main Street buildings are likely the product of presently anonymous practices–contractors, pattern books, local architects. During the rebuilding years of the early twentieth century, it is known that architects flocked to booming Aberdeen. Little has been identified about Aberdeen architects, but the 1910 city directory listed no less than seven architects.