Peggy Keener: Chauncey? Austin? Which is it?

Published 6:12 pm Friday, March 4, 2022

George A. Hormel gets credit for a multitude of things, all notable. Of this we are aware. But, is he also responsible for the original settling of Austin? No, he is not. That happened thirty long years before George ever killed his first hog.

The credit goes to an unlikely, cantankerous young Ohioan who was only in his mid 20s. Chauncey Leverich was a formidable man with brute strength (like Samson) and a mane of long hair (also like Samson). His bushy black beard, unkempt appearance and rowdy behavior fooled people into thinking he was nothing more than a ruffian. But, he had them all fooled for he was actually a man of high intellect, energy and unflagging determination. “Perseverance” was his middle name.

Much of what he learned as a boy came directly from his father, a man with a considerable unsavory character. Folks crossed over to the other side of the road when they saw him coming their way, especially if he had been drinking. Whiskey transformed him into the Devil himself.

The father’s name was Joel Leverich and his frightful behavior caused folks to tremble with dread. And if that were not enough, it was also rumored that he was a counterfeiter and a horse thief. With a role model like that, how could an impressionable young lad grow up to be anything else?

Twelve-year-old Chauncey moved from Ohio to Iowa with his family in about 1839. There he grew into a young man with a character as shady as his father’s. Not only was he accused of being a member of a horse-thieving gang, but he was also charged with illegal liquor sales. Escaping both convictions, he headed north to Minnesota … with all urgency.

There, in 1855, Chauncey created his own little settlement on the banks of the Cedar River. He purchased the land from a fur trapper named Austin Nichols. In time, folks began calling Chauncey’s dam and lumber operation “Leverich’s Mill.”

(Eventually this property became the site of the first Hormel plant. Hormel would go down in history as Minnesota’s first business, several years before Minnesota became a state.)

Surprisingly, with all his eccentric behavior, Chauncey was not a vain man. When it came time to name the now growing colony, he suggested that it be called “Austin”. To his ears, Austin had a better ring than did “Chauncey”.

A born entrepreneur, he was a difficult and shrewd businessman. In his eagerness to forge ahead, Chauncey began mapping out the streets of Austin. Historically he made his mark by being one of the original permanent settlers in the new village, building Austin’s first frame house with lumber that he sawed himself. Not all the towns people regarded it as the wonder that it was, however. They, the less affluent, accused Leverich of putting on pretentious airs. (Bet they didn’t do it to his face though!)

That home was located on the southeast corner of 2nd Avenue NE and 1st Street, the site where the Austin Hotel stood for many years.

As previously described, Chauncey was a foreboding man. Not only was he known by everyone, but he was also deeply feared by everyone. This was bad enough when he was sober, but when he was under the influence of the evil booze, he became a tornado of fright. Even his best friends lived with the uncertainty that he would not knock them flat without an instant’s warning. To attempt to reason with him over anything was as futile as calming the winds during a hurricane.

His long suffering wife, a patient Christian woman, was known to frequently hide away from him for days to avoid confronting his angry tirades. It was not uncommon for her to often fear that he might go so far as to take her life.

Yet it must be said that on occasion Chauncey was ironically a man of great and positive influence on the community. He was a strong partisan politician; although anyone who did not agree with him, usually cowed in defeat.

A man of much notoriety, there was one event in which he particularly stood out. In fact, it was his last event. Chauncey Leverich was murdered! Indeed, he was the first murder victim in the history of Mower County, Minnesota!

Before this took place, however, Leverich had opened a saloon. One day in 1856, two men came through the swinging doors. Their names were Silver and Oliver. After some hours of heavy drinking, the noisy, intoxicated duo was ordered by Chauncey to leave his saloon. Stumbling out onto the road, the men dared Chauncey to come out and fight them. No one, but no one, put a dare like that in front of an enraged Chauncey.

As he stepped out through the swinging doors, Silvers was waiting for him. Striking Chauncey on the head with a steel wagon spring, Chauncey was struck down.

Despite having a fractured skull and facing imminent death, the stubbornly belligerent Chauncey went a whole week before he finally succumbed to his injuries.

During that week, as he lay mortally wounded, the two miscreant customers were fined $1,000 and $2,000 each. In all haste, and knowing what was to become of them, they left town before Chauncey died … and before they were charged with his murder. Leverich was appropriately buried on the south side of his saloon. Years later his body was moved to an unmarked grave at Oakwood Cemetery.

One hundred years passed. During Austin’s 1956 Centennial, Chauncey Leverich was forever immortalized with a marble marker which read:

“Here I will pitch my tent and here I will found a city.”

A flagpole was erected on the grave site as well as a time capsule that is meant to be opened in 2056. Among the items in the capsule are pamphlets, various catalogs, fabric samples, school yearbooks, school enrollment brochures, directories, maps, church histories, postcards and photos. But, quite possibly the most poignant item in the collection is a square cut nail from Leverich’s coffin.

Someone whom you know today, may well see the opening of that capsule and will marvel, as we are now doing, over the rambunctious, violent life of Austin’s first resident.