By Bruce Claflin,
Raise your hand if you haven’t been to Stillwater. Most boaters have visited Stillwater on many occasions, and most others have ‘made a day’ out of drifting through Stillwater’s picturesque streets and quaint village shops. What makes Stillwater such a great day trip? It’s easy, and it’s proximity to the St. Croix River is unequaled. Whether you come by car or by boat, you arrive only a few steps away from outstanding shopping, and a variety of restaurants and watering holes — many with amazing river views. Whether you stay for a day or just a few hours, enjoy a classic sundae or dine on the waterfront al fresco, you will most certainly enjoy a memorable day. In the past, traffic has been the only issue in gaining access to Stillwater. Last month’s historic new bridge opening has alleviated much of that pressure and Stillwater is once again wide open for business.
Stillwater is considered the birthplace of Minnesota as it opened its doors a year before Minnesota was entered as a “Territory” and several years before it was granted Statehood. Stillwater was home to the first school, a one room facility located on Olive St., between Second and Third. Stillwater had the State’s first prison which housed Cole Younger who had ridden with Jesse James. Stillwater was home to one of the earliest swing bridges in the State, and is the birthplace of the pop up bread toaster which was invented there.
Stillwater’s roots are entangled with the St. Croix River. The river has been the provider of almost all good things since the town became official in 1848. Booming markets for lumber brought work, prosperity, and settlement to Stillwater. The river here was lined with Lumber Company offices where executives could keep an eye on their workers and their operations. Most of the lumber was collected at Stillwater’s Boom Site just a few miles north of town. At one point in Stillwater’s history there were 10 lumber mills operating here, providing jobs for many, and great wealth for others. Stillwater quickly became Minnesota’s commercial center. Mills here were capable of cutting 100,000 board feet of lumber in a 12 hour shift, most of it white pine. Stillwater was so prominent as a commercial center that it was one of three cities considered to become Minnesota’s State Capitol, before the selection of St. Paul.
Boom leads to bust and this was certainly the case for Stillwater’s lumbering days. Sixty years of prosperity led to bust as the supply of lumber dwindled and fortunes were lost. Stillwater’s population, which had grown from 500 to 20,000 by 1914 retreated to 7000 by mid-century. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that Stillwater recovered and began to grow again. Their latest growth spurt wasn’t built on the backs of lumbermen, but rather by the tourism industry.
Stillwater today boasts a bustling downtown with a very energetic nightlife. It’s a destination for day trippers, weekenders, and boaters looking to spend some time on land. When you visit Stillwater, you won’t need to look far to discover it’s past. The Lowell Inn is a historic building, as is the Water Street Inn and several others. The Freight House used to be visited by over 30 trains a day, but now is the home to throngs of visitors looking for lunch and dinner out on the deck. The folks in Stillwater have even come up with reasons to visit them in the winter with their hosting of ‘Hockey Day in Minnesota’, and last winter’s building of an Ice Castle. Stillwater today is not just a tourist destination. It turns out that Stillwater is also a pretty amazing place to live. Stillwater’s population is growing and the City has received numerous awards and mentions as a ‘Great Place to Live’.
Stillwater is continually working to shape it’s future, but a couple of things are evident. Stillwater is both a great place to take your family, and a great place to raise one.