If there were a hospitality gene, it must have careened down six generations from Mahala Felton to Rita Walker.

Considered the first white woman settler in the Mississippi River town of Hastings, Felton ran a boardinghouse in the pre-statehood 1850s — feeding and housing as many as 43 people a night in a cramped log cabin.

Her great-granddaughter (three times over), Rita Walker, is 81, lives in Edina and volunteers three times a week at one of the information desks at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — welcoming visitors 160 years after her ancestor’s inn keeping. Walker greets folks 25 miles northwest of Hastings, which was called Oliver’s Grove or Olive Grove in Mahala’s days.

“I’m so proud of that woman,” Walker says, recounting a family story passed down through the generations.

“They called their place the Buckhorn Hotel and there were no police back then,” Walker said. “Mahala kept the stove going with wood and always kept a tea kettle hot. She was the only woman around and if any of the men got fresh, she threatened to scald them — that’s how she kept the peace.”

Mahala was born in 1805 along the Hudson River in Dutchess County, N.Y., near Poughkeepsie. Some records spell her maiden name Denny, but an 1881 “History of Dakota County” book says she was born a Dana. Either way, she moved as a child about 140 miles west to Susquehanna County, Pa., in 1812. She married her husband, farmer William Felton, in Pennsylvania on Aug. 18, 1825.

They’d been married 26 years, raising four daughters and two sons, when they boarded a new, side-wheel riverboat named the Ben Campbell on the Pittsburgh docks in 1852 for its maiden voyage down the Ohio River. Turning north up the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill., they arrived in Wabasha in June and made their way upriver to Hastings that September, 1852. By then, Mahala was about to turn 47.

“They embarked on the Ben Campbell, and were going, they scarcely knew where, only that it was ‘west,’ ’’ according to Edward Neill, author of an 1881 Dakota County history book and a Civil War chaplain who founded Macalester College in 1874. “Mrs. Felton claims the honor of being the first white woman settler at this point.”

Dwight Chamberlain, a 78-year-old retired pastor and Walker’s cousin in Eden Prairie, said he’d heard stories since childhood about his matriarch being the first white woman of Hastings.

“We also heard how her best friend was an Indian woman with two children,” he said.

In August of 1852, Dakota tribal Chief Wabasha met one Sunday morning with Felton and Alexis Bailly — an early American Fur Co. trader in Wabasha and what became known as Mendota. The chief had floated down on a steamer from St. Paul, reporting that settlers were “wild and hurrahing,” as soon-to-be-broken treaties opened up Indian land for white settlement.

Bailly encouraged the Feltons to cash in on their head start and stake a claim in what became Hastings. William Felton became Dakota County’s longtime coroner and built the first wharf for a Hastings ferry in the mid-1850s. Charging a dime a ferry ride, he didn’t make much money at first.

“But the tide of immigration setting in strongly soon afterward,” Felton was soon clearing $15 a day as white settlers flocked into the region, Neill wrote. The Feltons converted a deserted trading post into their boardinghouse, where Mahala took charge.

“Mrs. Felton, after much hunting and difficulty, prepared a supper, and soon introduced such civilized comforts into Olive Grove, as only a genuine woman can bring to any community,” Neill wrote. “She made butter from the cows, cooked for the men, and later on for all new comers, by whom her hospitality was thankfully acknowledged and long remembered.”

Mahala Felton’s ornate tombstone sits atop a hill in Hastings’ Oakwood Cemetery, showing her life spanned all the decades of 19th century — 1805-1892. Her legacy is carved in more than stone. Less than a mile west of Hastings High School, an old barn still stands.

Chamberlain, the descendant, explains that the Feltons’ daughter, Caroline, and her husband Theodore Chamberlain, came to Hastings a year after her parents. Their son William was just a toddler.

Another of the Felton’s daughters married a guy named Graham, who went down to Louisiana and became a lumberman. William Chamberlain’s son Edgar had two boxcars of his uncle’s cut southern pine shipped up for the barn and house construction in the early 1900s.

“The southern pine is much harder than the soft pine up here — it’s like concrete,” according to Bea Westerberg, who purchased the farm, with her husband, Larry, in 1986. “We’re the first nonfamily owners and the barn is indestructible — once we shoo the pigeons out.”

Before her family sold the place, Rita Walker says her father, the second Theodore Chamberlain, opened up the farm to the general public for pony rides and other rural activities. School buses from the Twin Cities, packed with kids on field trips, regularly made the trek to Hastings and the Felton-Chamberlain farm.

The barn and the old tombstone aren’t the only existing reminders of Mahala Felton’s early presence in Hastings. Both Rita Walker and her cousin, Dwight Chamberlain, are grandparents — meaning that we’re now eight generations deep from that first white woman of Hastings.

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.