Hugo, Minn., first got its name in 1882 — the same year that France's pre-eminent wordsmith, Victor Hugo turned 80, and English-born, Canadian-bred engineer Trevanion William Hugo emigrated to Minnesota aboard a Great Lakes steamer.
In Paris, a street was renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo and a massive parade celebrated the life of the author of "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" and "Les Miserables."Trevanion Hugo, then 33, would go on to become chief engineer at a grain elevator, two-term mayor of Duluth and a nationally-known Masonic leader.
For years, a namesake debate has simmered in Hugo, a Washington County city of 15,000 people about 18 miles north of St. Paul: Was the town named after the venerated French writer Victor, or the civic-minded engineer Trevanion?
A new 39-page research project, piloted by Hugo Historical Commissioner Craig Moen, makes an air-tight case that the community that began as a railroad refueling stop with French Canadian immigrants in the 1870s was named for Victor Hugo, the writer from the ancestral homeland of its first white settlers.
But in the research process, a David vs. Goliath clash of Minnesota history buffs emerged — and the underdog won.
Moen, 75, is a retired musician and salesman of appliances and lawn and garden supplies. He went up against the late Warren Upham — a geologist, archeologist, surveyor, librarian and superintendent of the Minnesota Historical Society — who in his 1920 book, "Minnesota Geographic Names: Their Origin and Historic Significance," wrote that Hugo was named for Trevanion.
The Minnesota Historical Society Press rechristened the book "Minnesota Place Names: A Geographical Encyclopedia," updating it in 1969 and 2001. It calls the book a "classic reference for place-name information" and "a remarkable achievement and classic of Minnesota history." Washington County Historical Society director Brent Peterson said Upham's book "is as gospel as anything."
In his book, Upham recounts Trevanion Hugo's journey from England to Ontario and Minnesota, and says he is the town's namesake. Moen calls that into question, tipping the scales to Victor Hugo.
"Unfortunately there is no historical document that I found which irrevocably proves the correct namesake for the City of Hugo," Moen writes. "If you wanted something chiseled in stone, you won't find it here."
Moen is being modest. His first piece of evidence is an 1882 federal government application form to establish a post office at the spot where the train dropped the mail — Centerville Station, easily confused with the city of Centerville three miles to the west. The area was then in Oneka Township, the Dakota word for wild rice harvesting.
In flowery penmanship, "Hugo" appears on the form, which also shows three crossed-out options. The paperwork was submitted by Mitchel Houle, a French Canadian miner and Union Army soldier who came to the area in 1870 and served as Hugo's postmaster from 1882 until he died four years later at 54 from either a lightning strike or while battling a hay fire.
The Parisian parade and street renaming for Victor Hugo happened in 1881, less than eight months before Mitchel Houle applied for the Hugo post office. "Such a celebrated Frenchman would be well known in the French Canadian settlement of Oneka," writes Moen.
He presents several examples of how Hugo then became a commonly-used local name, from an 1883 classified ad selling hay to an 1887 plat map and an 1895 newspaper story about a fatal thresher boiler explosion. When the city incorporated in 1906, the postal name stuck.
Moen and fellow researcher Justin Brink point to the 1900 census and other records showing that the other Hugo — Trevanion — arrived from Canada three months after Houle had already submitted the Hugo postal paperwork. "He most certainly was unknown to Mitchel Houle," Moen writes.
Trevanion Hugo was an active Mason leader in Duluth and nationwide, and here things get a little intriguing. A Stillwater Messenger story in January 1906 says Trevanion served as grandmaster of a local Odd Fellows lodge ceremony, putting him in the area just nine months before the newly-incorporated city of Hugo held its first council meeting. Could Trevanion Hugo's recent appearance have led to the city's name?
Doubtful, argues Moen. Hugo was a predominantly Catholic community, and the church prohibited membership in Masonic organizations on pain of excommunication.
Delving deeper, Moen traced the sources Upham used in compiling the Hugo entry in his book. The county auditor and judge from Stillwater who helped Upham both were active in masonry — making it likely they knew Trevanion Hugo.
"The sources for Upham's book felt a need to pay homage to Trevanion Hugo by crediting him as a namesake," Moen concludes, saying the whole thing might have been "a practical joke played on a bunch of Catholics by a couple of Masons."
Now the joke is over, he said: "Victor Hugo is our city's true namesake."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.