It's governing in your back yard
March 10, 2023
One of the oldest traditions in the history of Minnesota carries on Tuesday, March 14 in the annual township meetings.
The township system of government was established as part of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which included the northeast portion of today's Minnesota as a territory. Areas of land were divided into 36-square-mile units called congressional townships.
Today, the term "township" refers to organized but unincorporated areas of the state usually governed by a three-person board of supervisors and a clerk and a treasurer.
The chief responsibility for the boards lies in the upkeep of township roads and bridges. Boards also deal with joint participation in fire protection services and, in areas close to cities, shared municipal services such as water and sewer.
There are 1,780 townships in Minnesota - 19 in Carlton County - compared to 853 cities in 87 counties. There are more than 900,000 people who live in Minnesota townships, about 16 percent of the total population.
In Carlton County, they are a much larger percentage. The 2020 U.S. Census recorded 36,207 residents in Carlton County, with 17,440 people living in townships or unorganized areas, or 48 percent. There are unorganized areas in the county - in the Pine Knot News coverage area, four of them are west of Cloquet in Sawyer, Corona, Progress and Red Clover. Those areas are governed and taxed via the county.
As seen in the variety across the state, Carlton County townships run from sparsely to relatively populated. State figures show that 53 percent of townships have populations of 300 or fewer people. The smallest organized township in Carlton County is Beseman, with 139 residents. The largest is Thomson, which includes Esko, with 5,520 residents.
The annual meeting - always held on the second Tuesday of March - is a chance for residents to discuss issues, especially the levy amount they will be taxed for services. The meeting has traditionally also been an election day. Today, many Minnesota townships have opted to have elections in the November cycle, chiefly to cut down on polling place costs and to add convenience for residents.
Residents are encouraged to bring up any relevant issues at the meetings, which begin at 7 p.m. unless, as in Lakeview, there is an election, with the meeting beginning after the polls close at 8 p.m.
The main item on annual meeting agendas is setting a preliminary levy. These budgets remain fluid until levies are set in the fall.
The Minnesota Association of Townships reports that townships control approximately 39 percent of the roads in Minnesota - more road miles than any other level of government.
The association said road and bridge expenditures are by far the largest expense for townships, about 60 percent of total expenditures.
Local property taxes are the greatest source of township revenue, about 74 percent. The association notes that townships tend to be frugal in budgeting, with little change from year to year.
Here is a rundown of townships in the northern part of the county, with population numbers from the 2020 U.S. Census. All meetings begin at 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted. If the historic nature of these proceedings weren't enough, the meetings often include homemade treats and refreshments.
Located in the far northwest corner of Carlton County, there are about 139 residents here. It was named after aGerman settler, Ernst Beseman.
Located on the western edge of the county, the city of Wright falls within its borders. The township, with a population of 209, was named for its handful of lakes, including Tamarack.
It will hold an election Tuesday for one supervisor and a treasurer position. Polls will be open 3-8 p.m. The annual meeting begins after the polls close.
Located west of Cloquet and bordered on the north by the city of Cromwell and the unorganized Red Clover Township, the population here is 537. The township shares its name with the prominent lake within its borders.
Perch Lake Township
Bordering the Cloquet area on the west, this is home to a large portion of the Fond du Lac Reservation. It has a population of 1,021.
Located just southwest of Cloquet, it was named after early settler John Atkinson, a land examiner for the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad. Its population is 399.
The township includes the town of Mahtowa, southwest of Cloquet, and is named after indigenous names for "bear," mahto and makwa. The population is 561.
Named after the Ojibwe translation of the lake and creek that runs through it, the population here is 992.
Twin Lakes Township
Located just south of Cloquet, this is the home of Carlton County's meager beginnings as the first place with non-native inhabitants along the Military Road. The town of Twin Lakes was once the county seat. The township has 2,077 residents.
Home of the historic towns of Thomson and Esko, this is the largest township in the county by population, with 5,520 residents. That concentration of people is second in the county to neighboring Cloquet, a city of 12,637.
Silver Brook Township
The township surrounds the city of Wrenshall and has a population of 623.
Located south of Silver Brook and the city of Wrenshall, its population is 445. The name comes from C.C. Wrenshall, a bridge maintenance worker on the Northern Pacific rail line.