This past week saw the razing of a very visible and somewhat iconic house across Ninth Avenue from Volstead Field. Time has not been kind to the house. As the trees and bushes around the foundation in the front yard grew upward, the house’s visibility had gone down, receding in recent years into an enveloping jungle. The house, which in recent times had become informally known as the “antlers house” for the old full-sized moose antlers that had been hung above the front door, was at one time held in much higher regard, serving for several decades as the home of Yellow Medicine County Judge William Lee and his wife Mildred. While we’re not sure when the Lees moved into that house, we know that they lived there for many years.
William (Bill) Lee served as the Yellow Medicine County probate judge from 1937 to 1958 and was instrumental in advocating for and seeing state-wide court reform be enacted, including a uniform set of standards for justice and the rights of those who appeared before the court. His high-profile work in court reform, particularly in the area of juvenile justice brought him many plaudits and high praise in the state-wide legal community. According to “A History of Yellow Medicine County”, by Carl and Amy Narvestad, Bill and Mildred Lee both hailed from Montevideo where they graduated from high school in 1908. Bill graduated from law school in 1912 and began practicing law in Granite Falls in 1914 and soon began serving as the Granite Falls city attorney a post he held until 1933.
After high school in Montevideo, Mildred attended Valparaiso University in Indiana then taught for a short time in North Dakota, before beginning a legal secretary job for Granite Falls attorney Bert Loe. Bill and Mildred were married in 1917 and Bill interrupted his law practice to serve in the Navy during World War I. Meanwhile, Mildred was studying law and was admitted to the bar in 1923, which was rather unusual for women, at that time. Mildred followed Bill in the position of Granite Falls city attorney in 1933, a role she held until Bill become the county judge in 1937 when she began serving as his legal clerk. The Lees were active in local civic life, being among the organizers of the American Legion Post 69 in Granite and the Granite Falls American Legion Auxiliary. Mildred was also active in the League of Women Voters and the local library board as well several other organizations.
Her hobby of reading and writing were put to community use when she used writing talent to author five historical pageants; three for Granite Falls and one each for Canby and Wood Lake. The pageants for Granite Falls included one written for the “Pejihutazizi Day” (sic) celebration in 1949, honoring the Minnesota territorial centennial and another pageant written in 1958 for the local celebration of the Minnesota statehood centennial. Both of those pageants were staged across the street from the Lee’s house at Volstead Field. She was also the principle contributing writer for “The Granite Falls Story” published in1962 for the 90th anniversary of the founding of Yellow Medicine County.
One of the Lee’s sons, H. Clifford (Cliff) was also an attorney, graduating from law school and in 1949 returned to his hometown to serve in private practice. He served as the Granite Falls city attorney from 1952 to 1959 and was then elected as the Yellow Medicine County attorney, serving from 1959 to 1966. He and his family moved to the Twin Cities in 1966 and later to Florida to work as a full-time counsel to the Archie Bush estate. We’re not certain when Bill or Mildred Lee were no longer living in their nicely appointed house on Ninth Avenue but in the 1970s, with no family members living in the area, it became a rental property.
We had the opportunity to visit the house when it was rented by Jerry Patton and later by Roger and Julie Brovold. On look around the place convinced you that this was a home out of the ordinary. A string of other renters came and went over the years and the eventually the house was sold, at least twice. Eventually, over the years, and through different ownership, it fell into disrepair and then sat vacant, unused and certainly underappreciated for the history it has hosted. Not long ago, David and Sharon Cole, who live on the west end of the same block, bought the house. They had also purchased another empty, unused house on the Tenth Avenue side of that same block. Last week they had both of the houses demolished to make way for the potential development of new housing. With the razing of the Lee house, their family saga in Granite Falls is all but complete.
It’s an interesting story and about interesting people who were believers in serving their community and were not shy about rolling up their sleeves and getting involved. Details of the potential new development on the property are still being figured out but the site is in a great location, close to many services and easy to get to. It seems like a very good spot to live. We hate to see historic or significant structures go away, but the Lee house was too far gone for any reasonable fix-up plan and the possibility to build some new, and much needed, housing is a real opportunity. That new housing can serve as the start of another chapter in our colorful local history.