History of Backus/AB

Koochiching County

Soon after 1870 a few hardy individuals namely Alexander Baker, Joseph Baker, Henry Metcalf, David Reedy, Thomas McKinstry, Don Campbell and possibly others ventured into the county when it was a vast wilderness. Most of them came via Lake of the Woods and up the Rainy River or over Indian trails. Being impressed with the country, these sturdy pioneers squatted on lands along the river, built log cabins and began to clear land for gardening, hay and small grains. They hunted and trapped, possibly for the Hudson Bay Company. 

Construction of the AB school began

Construction of the AB school began in 1912 and was completed in 1914.  The building was named after early settler Alexander Baker, who first settled in the area in 1870. 

Who was E.W. Backus?


Edward Wellington Backus (1860-1934)

Is the man most closely linked to the development of the International Falls area. Born in Jamestown, New York, he grew up near Red Wing, Minnesota. After completing three years of study at the University of Minnesota, Backus entered the lumber business in Minneapolis in 1882. 

Three years later ...

He purchased the company and by 1889, the E.W. Backus Company was the second largest lumber company in Minneapolis. By the turn of the century, Backus was focused on the Border Country with its vast timber resources and the tremendous potential for hydro-electric power which lay below the yet unharnessed Koochiching Falls. 

Acquiring 127 acres

Adjoining the falls in 1900 was followed by completion of a massive dam and powerhouse in 1910. The Minnesota and International Railroad reached the area by 1907 which helped facilitate construction. A paper mill began operation in 1910 and a modern sawmill, employing 300-500 men went into operation in 1911. The development of Insulite followed with production in full swing by World Wary I. Backus' holdings eventually included mills in Fort Frances, Kenora and even Finland. Timber and water rights, as well as dams, were acquired and built on both sides of the border. 

In 1900 the village of Koochiching had 256 inhabitants

Due in large part to the developments engineered by E.W. Backus, the city's population increased to 6,431 by 1910 and rose to 13,520 by 1920. Much of the expansion of the Backus companies was achieved through borrowed money. With the market crash of 1929, the weakening economy and severe decline in newsprint prices, Backus' principal company, the M & O Paper Company, was forced into receivership in 1931. E.W. Backus struggled to regain control of the empire he had built but died abruptly in New York on October 29, 1934. His personal loss was estimated at $50 million or more. 

The Oberholtzer - Backus Connection


By the mid-1920's Oberholtzer and Backus found themselves engaged in a long and bitter controversy over use of the boundary waters. The Backus plan involved building a series of power and storage dams stretching east from Lac La Croix across the Rainy Lake watershed.

Opponents claimed this would spoil the natural scenery and constitute a misuse of natural resources. The campaign to stop Backus was led by Ernest Oberholtzer and colleagues Frank Hubacheck of Chicago and Sigurd Olson of Ely who formed the Quetico-Superior Council in 1928. Their efforts were finally successful, with the support of public opinion, and the passage of the Shipstead-Nolan Act in 1930, which prohibited further developments in the Superior National Forest. In 1933, the International Joint Commission soundly rejected the Backus plan.

Nairne W. Fisher


Backus Community Center was designed by

Architect Nairne W. Fisher in the Art Deco style and constructed using P.W.A. funds in 1936-1937. At a cost of $391,000 it was the most expensive public works project in Koochiching County. Named the "E.W. Backus Junior High School", it served the educational needs of area students for decades until closed by the school district in 1991.

Serving the community

Each year over 30,000 adults and children patronize the building. In 2002 there were five proposed rental opportunities and now the Backus building is home to 12 various businesses serving the community in a central location.  Hundreds of people use the facility on a regular basis making Backus Community Center a vital part of International Falls and the surrounding areas. Today the building sees new life as a home for the arts, culture, youth programs and community services. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. 

Saving the buildings

In 1994 Jim Lemieux put a blurb in the Borderland Briefs in The Daily Journal asking for other community members who wanted to save the buildings.  The group met regularly discussing possibilities, strategies and ways to convince the school board, city officials, county officials and local citizens why the buildings should be saved rather than demolished.

Finally after over eight years of struggle, the grass-roots group convinced the school district to sell them the building complex rather than demolish it.  Cost of demolition would have been almost $1,000,000 to the county. 

The keys were finally handed over to Citizens for Backus in August of 2002.  
The Alexander Building offers 38,472 square feet of space.  
Backus Community Center has 72,801 square feet of space. 

Chronology of Alexander Baker/Backus Building Projects

  • 1912 Construction begins 
  • 1914 The Alexander Baker School is dedicated in June
  • 1936 The E.W. Backus School is constructed directly to the south of the Baker School
  • 1978 In response to energy concerns the windows in the Baker and Backus Schools are down-sized and partially filled in with insulated panels 
  • 1983 The Alexander Baker School is tuck-pointed
  • 1987 The Backus auditorium is refurbished
  • 1988 School District #361 offices move into the Alexander Baker School from Falls Junior High School and all classes move out of the School
  • 1991 All traditional classes move out of the Backus School, but portions of the building remain in use for other school district purposes
  • 1995 The School District offices move to the Backus School from the Baker School, and a sprinkler system is installed in part of the complex
  • 1996 Hail damages the roof of the Alexander Baker and Backus Buildings
  • 1999 Alexander Baker and Backus Buildings are placed on Preservation Alliance of MN’s list of “10 Most Endangered Historic Buildings”
  • 2002 Citizens for Backus/AB, Inc. purchases the Alexander Baker and Backus Buildings for $850
  • 2004 Alexander Baker and Backus Buildings are placed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • 2005 A market analysis of housing potential for the building is conducted
  • 2008 $180,000 is raised to replace the roof 
  • 2012 SJA Architects develop plans for repurposing the Alexander Baker building for a KOOTASCA service center and apartments 
  • 2016 Environmental testing is conducted
  • 2016 The Voyage Forward "Quality of Life" Destiny Driver Team tours the Baker Building. The potential for affordable housing becomes apparent to KOOTASCA and Backus staff
  • 2017 Asbestos is removed from a 3rd floor classroom and other areas encapsulated and secured
  • Boards of Directors of Backus and KOOTASCA sign joint resolutions to work toward the reuse of the AB School
  • Original 1912 Boiler Refractories are re-built
  • Koochiching Co. Housing Collaborative is organized by KOOTASCA and Backus. 24 stakeholders join the table to discuss housing issues and solutions for the community
  • 2018 Koochiching Co. Housing Collaborative raises more than $35,000 to conduct a housing study
  • Community Partners Research begins work on a comprehensive housing study 
  • Site visit by the Preservation Alliance of MN
  • KOOTASCA is awarded a “Strengthening Rural Communities” grant for technical assistance for the Alexander Baker project from MN Housing Partnership
  • Backus receives a MN Historical Society grant award of $10,000 to conduct a “Conditions Assessment” of the Alexander Baker Building 
  • 2019 Backus and KOOTASCA apply to participate in the American Institute of Architects Search for Shelter Design Charrette
  • Two architectural firms submit proposals to conduct a “Conditions Assessment” of the AB School
  • Community Partners Research completes the housing study and makes significant recommendations for addressing housing challenges in Koochiching County. The study recommends the rehabilitation and re-use of the Alexander Baker School as affordable housing