The Central Minnesota
Sustainable Development Plan

Cass Lake


Our Story

Population:  770                      

Median Age:  31.8

Median Income:  $24,063

Area:  1.14 square miles

Most Common Industry:  Healthcare & social assistance, Information, Construction



The City of Cass Lake has a rich and interesting history. The area was inhabited for thousands of years by succeeding cultures of indigenous peoples.  During these historic times, the Ojibwe/Chippewa moved west and south from the Great Lakes region, settling across present-day Minnesota.  Native people lived in the area for centuries before white settlers arrived.  When non-native settlers first arrived is not known, but they were believed to have been fur traders and missionaries. 

The first trading post is believed to have been established prior to 1760, by a Canadian businessman.  A fort was built at the same site and was garrisoned by French soldiers, but the fort was abandoned shortly after 1763. Early records indicate that the Hudson Bay Company then took over the post, and in 1821 it was sold to the American Fur Company, owned by John Jacob Astor.

The Cass Lake Chain of Lakes was part of the Red Lake-Leech Lake Trail, a series of interconnected waterways used as a water “highway” by Native Americans, trappers and traders.  The trail ran from the southern point of Leech Lake to Cass Lake, on to Red Lake and finally to the Red River of the North.

When the area was first explored, Cass Lake was thought to be the source of the Mississippi River.  It was not until 1832 that a party led by Henry Schoolcraft discovered the true source, Lake Itasca. 

Missionaries, as well as trappers and traders, played a great role in the early history of Cass Lake. Probably the first missionaries to work among the native Tribes of Minnesota were the Jesuits, though no individual names have been preserved. 

In 1898, the Great Northern Railway was built through the northern section of Minnesota. Through a series of changes in the right-of-way of the railroad, Cass Lake became an important rail staging area and more densely populated settlement.  Logging and sawmill operations became the backbone of the Cass Lake economy in the late 1800s. The village was established in 1898 with the construction of the Great North Railway and the post office was established in December 1898.

Forest products have historically been an important part of the local economy.  Beginning with the Glenmont Lumber Company which opened a sawmill in the autumn of 1898. The Northern Pine Crating Co. opened a wooden box factory in the autumn of 1907, operating until the mill burned c.1950.

The forest industry has historically supplied many jobs, but has been susceptible to boom-and-bust cycle. Between 1898 and 1923, the city was dependent on lumber mills utilizing pine from the surrounding forests.  Depletion of the pine resource was followed by utilization of lower value species at a box factory which operated until 1950.  From 1983 until 2009, Potlatch Corporation and its successor Ainsworth operated an oriented strand board plant in nearby Farden Township, which provided employment to many residents.  Cass Forest Products, an employee-owned company, operates a sawmill that has been in operation since 1939, and is one of the largest forest product producers in Minnesota.  A former wood-treating plant operated by Wheeler Lumber within the city limits has been designated a Federal Superfund site, due to soil and groundwater contamination by the wood treating compounds creosote, pentachlorophenol, and ammoniacal copper arsenate. 

Tourism has been an increasingly important component of the local economy since the earliest days of the community. Numerous resorts and campgrounds in the area cater to sport fishing, hunting, camping, and watersports. Due to the cold winters, tourism is highly seasonal. 

The Federal Government has been an important local employer since 1902, when the Minnesota Forest Reserve was established. Cass Lake was selected as the location of the Forest Supervisor's Office. Following passage of the Emergency Conservation Work Act of 1933 and establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Cass Lake was the headquarters for the Chippewa Sub-District, responsible for management of over a dozen camps. Among the CCC projects completed in Cass Lake were the monumental log-construction Forest Supervisor's Office (1936) and establishment of the Lydick Nursery (1934), which produced millions of seedlings for reforestation work. 

In 1922, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the Consolidated Chippewa Agency to serve all the Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, with the exception of Red Lake. It selected Cass Lake as its headquarters. Later, the Indian Health Service opened a hospital and clinic (1937) to serve the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

Following passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and establishment of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, tribal headquarters were located in Cass Lake. Cass Lake is also location of the headquarters of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which operates the Palace Bingo and Casino.



Be sure to visit Cass Lake’s many historic sites. Whether exploring the history of camps at the Cass Lake Museum and Lyle’s Logging Camp (HWY 371 and HWY 2) or experiencing the spirit and pageantry of native culture at an area Pow-Wow, you are sure to uncover something fascinating. 

Cass Lake is unique in that 66.8% of the population is American Indian and 24.2% is white.  The city is located within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. In addition, the median age is 31.8 years in Cass Lake compared to 43.1 for the State of MN. 

One of Cass Lake’s proudest moments was in the late 1990’s when a Christmas tree was requested to be sent to the White House and Washington D.C.  School children also made native decorations to send along to adorn the tree. 

Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School is located within the city limits and the High School and Middle School are located approximately 1 mile south of town. Elementary school classes began in 1899 and the high school opened in 1904. Students also attend the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in nearby Bena, a Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded elementary and secondary school established in 1975. Leech Lake Tribal College, a two-year tribal college, is located approximately 3 miles northwest of town. 

Due to the culture the environment is important to the people in Cass Lake.  A “super fund” site is located on the southside of town and it has been an ongoing project to clean up and rebuild the former rail yard site and wood processing plant locations of years ago. 

 In 2005, Elaine Fleming was the first Native American to be elected as mayor of the town.

Residents identified these specific assets in CASS LAKE

Natural Assets:



Chippewa National Forest

Quality of life based on nature

Ricing season





Cultural Assets:


Anishinabe History

Native homeland

Pow Wow


Archeological Division


History/white & Indian

Camp Rabideau



Human Assets:

Strong cultural groups

Diverse population living together

Many highly skilled people

Healthcare workers



Large labor force/trainable youth

Resourceful-can live off land w/minimal funds

Generational population living together



Social Assets:

Community itself

Boys & Girls Club


Pow Wows

Leech Lake Tribal College


Norway Beach

Miracle Group


Political Assets:

City government

Reservation Tribal Council


State Representatives

2 Lions clubs

Federal Representatives

MN Chippewa Tribe



Financial Assets:

Casino/Leech Lake Gaming

Individual donors

Western Bank

Outside grants

Region Five Development Commission

Outside gaming

Initiative Foundation

Shakopee Mdewakanton/other tribes

New businesses being built

Other business donations


Built Assets:

Hwy 2 and Hwy 371 junction

Cass Lake Museum &Lyles Logging Camp

Fishing pier

Pow Wow grounds

Dream Catcher Park

Ball fields



Parks/National Park

Local businesses



School-new tribal office building

Hospital/medical center

National Parks buildings          

Wayside rest and picnic area

Fox Creek Apartments

Municipal buildings



Participants would like to see the community come together as a whole instead of divided by issues. They would like the community to support and embrace education to increase high school graduation and college entrance rates.    

Community Goals

1. More community development and involvement-community could be self- supporting and keep the dollars in town.  Consider upgrading the existing parks, provide activities and recreation for youth such as art club and t-ball and invest in new housing starts in the community.

2. Find more economic development opportunities and build relationships.

3. Better exchange of information/coordination of information to groups

4. Housing


For more information on the City of Cass Lake and all it has to offer, visit the Chamber at:

Or the city hall: