What is Esko, anyway? How townships, cities and all little communities in between are defined

About 5,000 live in the community of Esko, which has a school district and post office. So why is it not a city?

The census-designated place of Esko in Thomson Township. (Katie Rohman /

How many people live in the city of Esko? The correct answer is none. The subject has confused newcomers for many years and possibly a few residents as well.

The explanation in the Esko and Thomson Township history book by Davis Helberg, "Esko’s Corner," says: “Residents, new or lifelong, when asked, 'Where do you live?,' always say they live in Esko. They don't reply, 'Thomson Township.' They identify with the name of the community and school district, not the township.”

While there are no legal boundaries for the community of Esko, there are many buildings bearing the name of Esko. In the early days of the small community, the Esko family donated land for the current schools. The elementary school is Winterquist and the high school name is Lincoln, but they are part of Esko School District and the sports teams are the Esko Eskomos.

Yet, on the property tax statement, it states that the properties are in Thomson Township, which does have legal boundaries set. The residents inside Thomson Township have different mailing addresses. Some are Cloquet or Carlton, while others are Proctor, depending where they live in the township.


080119.N.PJ.ESKOORTHOMPSON original PO app cr .jpg
This copy of the original application for a post office to be located in the community of Esko located in Thomson Township is dated April1, 1935. It is signed by Hjalmer Mattinen, the first postmaster at Esko Post Office. The application was approved a few months later and the first mail came to the office on August 16, 1935.contributed by Senior Research Analyst in Postal History, Steve Kochersperger in Washington DC.

There are about 5,000 residents in the 39.9-square-mile Thomson Township. According to "History of Thomson Township," by A.L. Winterquist, Emil Johnson, Selin Lanninen, Edgar Olson and Art Smith: “When Carlton County was organized in 1857, Thomson Township was one of the townships organized. The first school district organized in Carlton County was Thomson Township School District No. 1. The first school built was on the farm of Isaac Raattama."

According to an article at the Carlton County Historical Society, the first school built in Carlton County in 1885, Thomson Township School District No. 1, was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt. At the time of the 1918 fires, all eight schools in the township burned.

After the fire, only two schools were built, both of brick. Washington School, which is now an apartment building on the corner of Canosia and North Cloquet Road was built in 1919 and Lincoln School was built in 1920. A.L. Winterquist was the first superintendent at the time and who the elementary school is now named after.

The first church was built in 1892, the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church. It was rebuilt on the same spot in the 1930s to replace the original building. Sermons were given in Finnish as well as English for many years and records were kept in Finnish until about 1950. St. Mathews National Lutheran Church came along in 1902.

080119.N.PJ.ESKOORTHOMPSON rebuilt of original 1st church cr .jpg
The first church was built in 1892, the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church. It was rebuilt on the same spot in the 1930s to replace the original building. Sermons were given in Finnish as well as English for many years and records were kept in Finnish until about 1950. The model of the rebuilt church still sits in Pastor Bruce Bergstedts office at the church. Later the name was changed to Esko Apostolic Lutheran Church. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

Esko is defined as a census-designated place, meaning it's an unincorporated designation of population, house and commercial structures, identifiable by name.


The simple explanation between a township and a city comes down to how and why they are governed. The rules of both governing bodies are set up by the Minnesota Legislature.

Cities are governed by a city council and the county by a board of commissioners. The governing bodies make the decisions for the residents in their area. For example, city council members set the property tax levy for their residents.

A town is defined in Minnesota as the organized governmental unit; a township is its geographic area. Town residents are governed by a local board of supervisors. Unlike city residents, town residents have the ability to set their property tax levy.

Every second Tuesday in March is Township Day. A town hall-style meeting is held and the voters can let the township board know their opinions about the property tax levy.

According to Minnesota Association Townships website: “Residents of the townships will meet to voice their opinions about local issues with other township residents and also vote directly on their annual tax levy: direct democracy in action.”

080119.N.PJ.ESKOORTHOMPSON vintage SS class cr.jpg
This vintage photo was probably taken in the late 1800s. It's the first Sunday school class in Thomson. There is no explanation of why it was taken with this train. contributed from Carlton County Historical Society

Back in the fledgling days of the country, town meetings gave residents a way to exercise local authority. They helped the young nation learn how to problem solve by working together.


In the earliest days of the state, there were cities, villages and townships. The villages faded away and Minnesota has cities, townships and a few unorganized territories.

There are 1,781 townships in Minnesota, and 19 in Carlton County, including Thomson. Nine communities qualify as cities in Carlton County. Esko, as well as Big Lake and Mahtowa, are census-designated places.

The county also has two unorganized territories, Clear Creek and North Carlton. An unorganized territory is defined in Minnesota as a community without an organized town government.

According to the Minnesota Association of Townships attorney, Steve Fenske said the explanation goes back to the early days when the state was still a territory.

“The Federal Government’s Land Ordinance of 1785 established the basis for the Public Land Survey System. That system surveyed Federal land into 6-by-mile segments they called 'congressional townships,' what we now call unorganized townships,” Fenske explained. “Those congressional townships were not governments, but a unit of measurement. Minnesota was surveyed between 1847 and 1911, with land surveyors dragging chains across the state and making handwritten notes as they went.”

Once Minnesota became a state, the township form of government was created by the Legislature. Most townships continued to use the original congressional township boundaries, Fenske said.

As time passed, some townships either broke off, were annexed (Knife Falls Township into Cloquet) or decided they wanted to become a city.

080119.N.PJ.ESKOORTHOMPSON twnshp minutes cr .jpg
An original page from the Thomson Township minutes dated April 3, 1871. contributed by Thomson Town Hall

The main focus of cities is managing population density. Townships are focused on rural services, especially roads.

“Cities and townships are both general purpose local governments, but their powers and duties are aimed at different problems,” Fenske said. “Whereas cities manage population density and urban economic development, townships manage rural and agricultural communities. Their different purposes resulted in different powers and duties, but they are similar.”

Carlton County has 393 miles of township roads and 43 township bridges. Thomson Township has 64.83 miles of roads. Townships, like cities, are each unique.

Twin Lakes Township

080119.N.PJ.ESKOORTHOMPSON Twin Lakes Twnshp sign cr .jpg
This sign marks the location of the stage stop in Twin Lakes Township. There was a small community built up at the location until 1870, when the railroad came through. The only original building can be seen through the trees on the left, the Historic Scott House. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

Twin Lakes is another unusual township. The name comes from two similar lakes in the area. Twin Lakes Township was built around a stage coach station on Military Road about 1855, according to a sign at the location on County Road 4.

At one point, there was a trading post, general store and post office, and it was the county seat until 1870. The Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad in 1870 marked the beginning of the end of the small community. The only building still standing from the area is the Historic Scott House.

According to the township clerk, Sue Chapin, Twin Lakes Township has four school districts inside the township boundaries: Cloquet, Wrenshall, Barnum and Carlton.

She explained that the unusual shape of the township, which wraps around the city of Carlton, makes its boundaries a bit convoluted. Carlton is its own entity and is located inside Twin Lakes Township. The township boundaries go along the Minnesota Highway 210 business corridor and includes Black Bear Casino Resort.

She said the biggest responsibility is taking care of the 33 miles of roads encased in the 44.8-square-mile township, which has a population of 2,149.

080119.N.PJ.ESKOORTHOMPSON school .jpg
While the school district is Esko, the schools in the district are actuall Winterquist Elementary and Lincoln High School. The land the schools are built on was donated by the Esko family, according to Esko history book, Esko's Corner. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

One of the bigger road projects the township has been working on is the reconstruction of Gillogly Road, which is finished with the first two phases and nearing completion.

Thomson Town Hall has the original bound minutes from the 1870s. The Thomson Township name is on the spine of the minutes. "Town of Thomson" was also used, as was the "village of Thomson" at some point. Minnesota no longer has villages.

Thomson Township became the county seat for a short time in 1870, after it left Twin Lakes Township.

In 1919, the first store appeared on what is now County Road 61. It was financed by Alex Esko and ran by his son, Fritz. The store was named F.E. Esko and the corner became known as “Esko’s Corner." Because it was easily identifiable, Esko's Corner was used for directions in the area. The original Esko store building was demolished many years ago.

The Esko Post Office was established in 1935. The little community nestled quietly between Cloquet and Proctor was shortened to Esko, which is how most people refer to it today.


Carlton County municipalities


Governed by elected city council members and mayor.

  • Barnum
  • Carlton
  • Cloquet
  • Cromwell
  • Kettle River
  • Moose Lake
  • Scanlon
  • Wrenshall
  • Wright

Towns (townships)

Governed by elected town board supervisors, clerk and treasurer by default, but four other board options available. “Town” is the correct term of the organized governmental unit, but “township” is its geographic area.

  • Atkinson
  • Automba
  • Barnum
  • Beseman
  • Blackhoof
  • Eagle
  • Holyoke
  • Kalevala
  • Lakeview
  • Mahtowa
  • Moose Lake
  • Perch Lake
  • Silver
  • Silver Brook
  • Skelton
  • Split Rock
  • Thomson
  • Twin Lakes
  • Wrenshall

Census-designated places

An unincorporated concentration of population, housing and commercial structures, identifiable by name, but not within an incorporated place.

  • Big Lake
  • Esko
  • Mahtowa

Unorganized territories

Doesn’t have an organized town government.

  • Clear Creek
  • North Carlton

Places not recognized by U.S. Census

  • Corona
  • Duesler
  • Harney
  • Iverson
  • Nemadji
  • Otter Creek
  • Pleasant Valley
  • Progress
  • Red Clover
  • Sawyer
  • Scotts Corner

Source: U.S. Census; “Structures of Counties, Cities, and Towns,” State of Minnesota, 2017; “Classification of Cities,” Minnesota House of Representatives,” 2018

What To Read Next
There are also three Cricut 101 classes scheduled.
Moose Lake Community Education and the school science department are working on a project to improve the school forest, and their efforts recently received a grant from the Blandin Foundation.