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History of St Croix Falls
Early History of St. Croix Falls
St Croix Falls was settled by people of European heritage beginning in 1838. Click below to read more….
St Croix Falls was settled by people of European heritage beginning in 1838. It has three sites on the State and National Registers of Historic Places: the 1882 Cushing Land Agency (Baker Building); the 1882 Thomas Thomas Thompson House; and the 1917 St Croix Falls Civic Auditorium.
It should be noted that Native people have inhabited the St Croix Valley for the past 700 years. In 1800, Indian tribes firmly controlled the middle of the continent, and white men feared to travel into these lands. Dakota and Ojibwe lived on the land now called Minnesota and Wisconsin before the European settlement, and they are still here.
In 1838 the United States Congress ratified the 1837 Land Cession Treaties with the Dakota and Ojibwe (Chippewa) Indians. This coincided with the collapse of the fur trade. This treaty opened the St Croix River Valley for permanent settlement and the harvesting of the rich, virgin pine forest. The St Croix River has been a trade route linking Lake Super to the Mississippi River.
The river that made this valley also brought the men who lived its history. It carried the canoes of the Native Americans who fished and wandered on its banks, and lured the white trappers and traders who noted in their journals and letters the beauty of this deep, swift-running river. Later it brought the Eastern money-men who bought up land and river rights for speculation; and it gave passage to the settlers who flocked here after the mid-nineteenth century to farm the rolling land.
The river was transportation, supply line, and communication in those days before the railroad and highway; a fluid trail that connected these towns with the outside world. The river also brought the lumbermen to the northern pines, and it floated countless millions of pine logs down to their voracious sawmills.
The river was blockaded by big log jams in 1865, 1877, 1883, and again in the infamous 1886 log jam. Iconic photographs of these log jams were taken by local photographer, S.C. Sargent (Sanford Church), who had a photography studio in Taylors Falls.
In 1878, the Taylors Falls Reporter lamented that “ruin and stagnation” were being forced upon the St Croix River by the loggers monopolizing the river thoroughfare. The sawmill at Marine, the last one to survive above the Stillwater boom, was forced out of business after the gigantic jam of 1883, when the narrow been at the Dalles held back millions of feet of logs for 57 days.
It was clear to the prosperous, enterprising lumbermen at Stillwater that their headlong race to strip the pine forests in the north would be hampered unless they built a dam to regulate the flow of logs and the level of water in the river. Their answer was Nevers Dam. The end of Nevers Dam came in the floods of May, 1954, when sections of the structure were washed away. Since it was unusable and a potential hazard on the river, it’s owner, Northern States Power Co., had it torn down by a wrecking crew in the fall of 1955. Huge bonfires on the shores consumed the wooden remnants.
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The following letter was written by St. Croix Falls resident, Mary Lovila Baker, to her husband, Major J.S. Baker, during her stay at the state-of-the-art Battle Creek Sanitarium. Major Baker was sent to St. Croix Falls in 1874 to manage the land holdings of U.S. Attorney General Caleb Cushing. Cushing was granted 36,000 acres and natural resources in the St. Croix River Valley by the United States Government under the 1862 Morrill Act and started the Cushing Land Agency. This Act alone expropriated over ten million acres of Indigenous land throughout the U.S. The intention of this land grant act was to provide opportunities to thousands of farmers and working people previously excluded from public education with the profits from the land sales. Opportunists often misused or loosely interpreted the terms of this system, and oftentimes, these land grants never benefited the establishment of public schools. Major J.S. Baker later bought Cushing Land Agency and continued to run the business as Baker Land and Title Company, located at 106 S. Washington Street. Mary Lovila Baker was the second wife of Major J.S. Baker and the mother of his four youngest children.
My Dear Major,
Am well settled in a comfortable and pleasant room after an easy journey. Soon after my arrival a nurse came to my room and requested me to call on Dr. Mosher at 4 o’clock (Dr. Mosher is a woman) for a physical examination. They require this if one takes the baths and rubbing and one of the nurses piloted me into the basement where there were long rows of little rooms for dressing. I entered one and disrobed putting on a sheet and blanket: then into bathrooms, then into a room where I laid on a cot on my stomach and hot applications were placed on my back then into a warm bath, then rubbed and spotting all over. I felt good after that for a while, then I was wrapped in a sheet and taken to the Doctor’s office where she put me through a rigid examination. Sounded my lungs, rolled and pinched my stomach. She says my stomach is badly dilated and out of place. The muscles of the abdomen are weak and need strengthening. I must have manual Swedish movement every day, electric, and massage treatments. These are all extras and an extra charge is made for these treatments. Sunday there is to be a gastric test and my blood will be examined. Then I suppose she can tell my whole condition. I knew my stomach was not normal but I did not know the difficulty. The doctor makes out my bill of fare for every meal. She wants to try and get some flesh on me – says I am not properly nourished. Of course, the diet is very simple and no drink at meals for me. The mechanical Swedish movements are very queer. I was not strong enough to take but a few this morning. It exercises all your muscles. I laid on my back and it felt like something was kneading me all up and down my back. I was quite surprised when the doctor told me I was torn. Tho’ I’ve had bad feelings there occasionally, I laid it to the change of life. It must have been when Florence was born for Dr. Arnold said I was not torn at Winnie’s birth. You know I was sick only a short time with Florence and she was large. Doctors ought to be more careful. If he had told me at the time it could have been fixed all right. Very few women but are torn and it is cause of much poor health. Saturday is kept as their Sabbath. No treatments are given on that day. Doctor Kellogg is still performing operations. He sometimes performs between 30 and 40 a day. I should think he’d be too old. One lady said he’d spent so much time learning how to cook, she didn’t see how he could know much about surgery. My expenses will be so high I won’t care to stay very long tho’ the doctor said I had neglected myself too long. I will know sometime Sunday what she thinks and will let you know. My room is a front one, very pleasant on third floor $28 a week. It is a very lovely place with every appliance for ones comfort so I suppose that is the cause of the great expense. I must close now and rest. I feel as tho’ I’d been put thru’ a good deal this pre-noon.
With much love, Mary
Mary Lovila Baker (1860-1913), a resident of St. Croix Falls and wife of Major J.S. Baker, wrote this letter during a three-week stay at the nationally famous Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Sanitarium is best remembered for its notorious Director and head surgeon, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.
A man obsessed with bodily cleanliness, Dr. Kellogg coined the term “sanitarium.” He was the inventor of a philosophical wellness movement called “biological living,” which combined science and principles from his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs. The doctor was typically dressed in an all-white suit and a white cockatoo perched on his shoulder. He believed meat, salt, sugars, and fats were to blame for American society’s physical and moral decline. For Kellogg, breakfast cereal was the remedy to keep Americans from mortal sin. He is best known as the inventor of cornflakes, which he created as a part of his diet regimen for patients.
Dr. Kellogg was also a prominent leader of the eugenics movement and believed it was yet another way to save American society from itself. In January of 1913, he organized the First National Conference on Race Betterment held at the sanitarium. During this conference, “experts” held “mental and physical perfection” pageants where children were tested and evaluated. The winners received medals. As a part of this movement, Kellogg was also a strong supporter of forced sterilizations. Because of his influence, the local college in Battle Creek defined “race betterment” through eugenics as its primary focus and there was an expectation that all students and staff support the theory.
Dr. Kellogg became the Director of The Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1876 and quickly implemented cutting-edge wellness treatments. The sanitarium itself was part health spa, hospital, and luxury hotel. A stay there meant a rigid schedule of treatments, a personalized vegetarian diet, and abstaining from smoking, alcohol, and sex. The treatments are what we would consider today as experimental and highly unusual. Dr. Kellogg used hydrotherapy, phototherapy, electrotherapy, open-air and cold-air therapy, enemas, physical exercise, a patented slapping machine, and surgeries performed by Kellogg himself. Dr. Kellogg’s way of living was applauded by affluent Americans, and his sanitarium was visited by those of the upper echelon like Mary Todd Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and C.W. Post, the inventor of Grape Nuts.
In the remainder of Mary Baker’s letters, she writes about how she regularly attended Dr. Kellogg’s evening lectures and was” learning lots of things here that will help me take care of my family. I want them to be healthy and firmly believe in Doctor Kellogg’s methods.” Many of her treatments involved being wrapped up like a “mummy” and being made to sit outside in the January air for two or three hours a day. Mary wrote to Major J.S. Baker about the wonderful breakfast foods served there and hoped to have some cereal shipped back home to St. Croix Falls. However, her stay at the Sanitarium ended somewhat abruptly when she feared Dr. Kellogg was going to operate on her without her husband’s consent. By January 26th, Mary packed her trunk and took the train to Lansing against her doctor’s wishes.
Winifred Herberg, a descendant of the Baker family, transcribed letters from Mary. Herberg did not edit or correct mechanics, so the letter is exactly as it was written in 1909 when Mary was writing home to St. Croix Falls.
Earlier this year, the Editor of the Ramsey County History publication recommended that I read the biography of Fredrick L. McGhee: A Life on the Color Line, 1861-1912 written by Historian Paul D. Nelson. The book, published in 2002 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, details the life of Fredrick Lamar McGhee a progressive figure in local and American history with a fascinating connection to Polk County.
Fredrick McGhee was born into slavery in Mississippi during the Civil War to Sarah Walker and Abraham McGhee. The family escaped slavery and left the John A. Walker Farm in 1864 with help from Union troops. From Mississippi, they traveled north to Tennessee.
McGhee’s educational career started at a Freedman’s school in Tennessee and in 1885 he earned his law degree from Knoxville College. He began practicing law in Chicago before moving to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1890- becoming Minnesota’s first Black lawyer. Some historians believe McGhee was the first Black lawyer west of the Mississippi River. In the Twin Cities, McGhee and his wife Mattie became community leaders, influencing intellectual, social, and political circles. Beyond practicing law, McGhee was a prolific writer, speaker, and pioneer in early desegregation and civil rights cases. He was highly involved and sought after in national racial and social equality discussions.
McGhee represented Minnesota in the National Afro-American Council (NAAC) and through his participation in this organization he befriended W.E.B. Du Bois. His friendship with W.E.B. Du Bois, an early American civil rights activist, sociologist, and historian, led to the formation of the Niagara Movement which was the forerunner of what we know today as the NAACP- founded in 1909. W.E.B DuBois stated in McGhee’s 1912 eulogy that,” the honor of founding the organization belongs to F. L. McGhee, who first suggested it.”
While McGhee’s work and social life were central, his friendships and family life were equally important. As early as 1889, he enjoyed many angling adventures on lakes like Sturgeon and Pokegama in Central and Northern Minnesota. He often traveled with a close friend, Dr. Valdo Turner, Minnesota’s first Black doctor. This love of spending time in nature led him and Mattie to Polk County, Wisconsin. In 1909, they purchased thirty-nine acres along the Apple River near Amery for $1,500. The couple quickly settled into their summer home and acquired farming equipment and some livestock. Nelson’s research states the land, “came with a little rustic frame house, and the McGhees spent most of their summers there.” The McGhees playfully called this place “Camp DuGhee” a combination of the last names Du Bois and McGhee. DuBois visited on more than one occasion along with friends and colleagues from the Twin Cities, Chicago, and even some international acquaintances.
In a 1933 remembrance of McGhee, W.E.B. Du Bois stated, “I remember camping with him one summer on the Apple River, Wisconsin, and his clients swarmed over the countryside and with boats invaded the lake where he was fishing in order to consult him. Around the campfire, he used to tell us extraordinary stories of his adventures.”
Unfortunately, Fredrick’s years at Camp DuGhee were few and in September of 1912, Frederick L. McGhee died from complications from a blood clot. He was only 50 years old. McGhee’s memorial service was held at Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul. The auditorium overflowed with friends, colleagues, and admirers of all socioeconomic backgrounds. At the resolution of the service, the audience stood and sang “We Shall Meet Beyond the River” to honor their friend, lawyer, and community leader.
From reading Nelson’s biography of McGhee, it is clear that critical discussions on race, politics, and the perhaps early principles of the NAACP were a part of the time spent fishing, farming, and relaxing at Camp DuGhee. It is incredible to learn that one man’s connection to Polk County enhances our understanding of local history and the St. Croix River Valley’s significance as an influential backdrop for progressive American thought leaders.
I’m not originally from St. Croix Falls. I grew up in River Falls, Wisconsin, another small town south of here. When I visualize what is unique about my hometown, I think about the historic buildings and homes there. My grandparents lived across the street from the Ferris White House when I was a kid. Built in 1903, the mansion was home to a family of lawyers, a judge, and a state senator. Later, the widow, Helen White, rented rooms in her home to students attending UW River Falls. However, as residents came and went, the house remained the same, save for a few kitchen renovations. I was lucky enough to have played in it whenever I stayed with my grandparents, and it felt like entering another world. The late Queen Ann-style home had ornately carved oak woodwork, unusually shaped stained glass windows, and an extensive library that smelled like pipe tobacco. And most importantly, to a child anyway, the house was rumored to have secret passages throughout. The house felt magical because it was unlike any of my friends’ modest homes in planned developments with names like “River Hills” and “Golfview.” It was easy to imagine it as a castle compared to the small single-story ramblers surrounding it.
Living in St. Croix Falls, it is hard not to admire the historic homes. One of the city’s designated historic homes was recently listed for sale after fifty years of one family living there. 232 N. Washington Street is referred to officially as the Palmer-Schafer House. Constructed in 1914 by Edward and Mary Palmer, the house is especially rare because it is a Gordon-Van Tine Catalog Home, i.e., a kit or mail-order home. The Gordon-Van Tine company began supplying raw materials to Sears, Roebuck, and Company in 1907 for their contemporary line of catalog homes. By 1912, they cut ties with Sears and started publishing a plan book with multiple home options.
The plan chosen by Edward and Mary Palmer was Plan No. 126 and was advertised in the 1913 plan book. The Palmers chose and likely customized this plan before the prefabricated materials and fixtures would have been delivered via train and then constructed by local contractors. This was a quick and affordable way for middle-class families to build new homes- especially in rural areas. An estimated 100,000 kit homes were built in America between 1908 and 1940- 54,000 of which were Gordon-Van Tine homes. Beyond offering plans and materials for houses, Gordon-Van Tine also specialized in barns and other farm structures. In 1917, the company partnered with Mongomery Ward to supply lumber and other materials for their line of Wardway homes.
The 1913 Gordon-Van Tine catalog description for plan No. 126 reads as follows:“For $1,327 we agree to furnish all material to build this house, including lumber, lath, shingles, finishing lumber, doors, windows, frames, interior floors and finish, nails, tinwork, finish hardware, and complete painting material. We guarantee to furnish these materials in quantities sufficient to complete this house according to plans and specifications.” For an extra $103, buyers could add a Fire King Furnace complete with pipes and fittings.
After her father passed away in 1922, Vivian Palmer lived with her widowed mother in the home. In 1933, Vivian’s brother, Earl T. Palmer of Palmer’s Grocery Store, built his house on the North end of the property, where he went on to raise his family. Earl opened Palmer’s Ice Cream Parlor and Grocery Store in 1913 and worked there until his retirement in 1959. Earl briefly left the shop to serve in WWI and was wounded in France. He received a Purple Heart for his time in the service.
Born in 1891, Vivian Palmer cared for her family, friends, and pupils her entire life. Vivian worked at her brother’s grocery store until she received her teaching license around 1920. She taught third grade for the entirety of her career. After her father died, Vivian and Mary opened their home to lodgers. Another local school teacher, Helen Huber, moved into the home and lived there through the 1950s. Helen taught Commercial Arts and Math at the high school and was known to be smartly dressed in a skirt, jacket, and tie.
Additionally, she was known for being a strict disciplinarian. Vivian’s home was a welcoming place for other single women in town. Throughout the years, her colleagues and friends from the community, like Mary Marin and Lillian Donahue, lived with her and her mother. Vivian died in 1974, having never left the family home her father ordered through the mail and built for her.
Today, buying a house costs a lot more than $1,327. Because of the incredibly competitive housing market, homes like the Palmer-Schafer house appeal more as an investment opportunity than a place to cultivate our lives and gather with family. St. Croix Falls has recently seen an increase in short-term rentals, and many family homes have turned into Airbnbs, VRBOs, etc., with property owners that lack a meaningful connection to our community. Walk through any neighborhood here. You might admire a house, imagine the interior, and who lives inside, only to find out later it is empty, awaiting the next guest. Often, we take our historic places for granted, assuming they will always be there, just as we remember them. We rely on our historic landmarks to ground us in the communities we hold dear. We are fortunate in St. Croix Falls to have adopted a Historic Preservation Overlay District, which, if administered, ensures strategic protection of historic properties that benefit both the owner and the public. While businesses come and go and properties change hands, the structures remain to tell a story to future generations.
On October 27th, The St. Croix Falls Historical Society and the St. Croix Falls Public Library hosted a presentation of research by Haley Prochnow on the Silverbrook Mansion and its time as the St. Croix Valley Country Club. The 1895 mansion that used to stand within present-day Interstate Park, served as a country club for residents of St. Paul’s Rondo Community in the 1950s and 1960s. This program provides a detailed look at this time period, the owners Annabelle and James Rideaux, as well as, the property’s construction to its demolition in 1974.