Chuck and Tim, a couple of Bone Lake friends, have been asking to take a guided trip down a stretch of the St. Croix River since last year. Everything finally came together last week and we took a short run down from Hwy O to Sunrise, about eight miles. We used my old aluminum canoe, the last of the Grumman’s manufactured at Minong for the Links. I got it cheap after the wind picked it up and impaled it on the point of a pontoon boat. A little body work and some marine epoxy has made it riverworthy for 25 years. It is totally lacking in a keel—a wonderful river rapids canoe, but skitters like a leaf out on a windy lake.
Tim took the bow paddle and Chuck the stern as I filmed and narrated from cushions in the bilge. As the pilot, captain and guide and story teller, I didn’t have time to help. I did give plenty of canoeing instruction—you know my great great grandpa was a whaler back in Norway and I inherited the sea in my blood. They wanted the full historical account of the river, so I passed it along from my firsthand knowledge.
“The 1837 treaty with the Ojibway opened the area to logging and settlement. The first logging was by John Boyce in the winter of 1837-1838 just upriver from where we put in on the Snake. The Indians hadn’t heard about the treaty and hindered his efforts; then the rapids at St. Croix Falls broke up his log rafts and the old accounts says he left the area discouraged, not getting his logs downriver.”
“Well, Mom’s cousin, Mae Carnes, who lived here on the WI river bank, married Rex Boyce of Sunrise, MN just across the river from their ferry business. I don’t know if he was related to John Boyce—likely was as the name is pretty uncommon. Rex’s father, Silas, married Prudence Clover, one of the Clover’s from Sunrise and the Barrens. Her brother was one of the Sunrise boys who walked back home from the deep south after they were mustered out of the Civil War in 1865. I think they took most of a year for the walk—guess they thought it would be a chance to see the country! Probably a good way to get rid of post traumatic stress.”
“Down river a little farther, near where Wild Mountain is, my grandpa’s Uncle Clint Beebe farmed pretty close to the river. Grandpa lived just south of Nevers Dam on the Wisconsin river bank—where Duane Larson lives now. At that time you could use Nevers dam as a bridge so going to visit back and forth across the river was quick. You could cross at Nevers, Sunrise, Highway O (Rush City Ferry) and of course the toll bridge at Grantsburg or the free bridge at St. Croix Falls. Minnesota and Wisconsin folks weren’t so separated as they are now.”
“Nevers Dam was built at the head of about 6 miles of rapids to the south. Originally, there was a ferry across the river there. Charlie Nevers lived on the Wisconsin side. His wife was one of the missionary school educated Ojibwa women. They are buried over on Hwy 87 at the cemetery south of Eureka—Pleasant Hill. The loggers bought up all the river banks from St. Croix Falls way up river so they could flood it and run their logs down. John Robinson told me his grandpa owned to the bank near Wolf Creek. Had to sell when the loggers built Nevers and flooded the area.”
“Normally we would have put in at Hwy 70 by Grantsburg. Didn’t want to spend all day on the river, so we jumped in where the Rush City Ferry went across on Hwy O. I talked to LeRoy Hedberg last week. He said the Grantsburg bridge toll bridge was bought by the state in the early 1950s. He was the very first driver and vehicle to go across free. He was working for Shoholm in Grantsburg—made chicken egg crates and later snow fence. He had a load of egg crates—you know those wood kind that fold down flat, and happened to be there when they had the ceremony to open it as a free bridge. It was in the paper—his 15 minutes of fame! Reminds me—Don Davidson was one of the last trucks to go over the Osceola bridge before it dropped into the river I think. He hauled cattle to South St Paul.”
“Great Grandpa Carnes and two brothers homesteaded in West Sterling on the sand barrens near the river. They called it the barrens because it was mostly open and easy to farm. The little topsoil over the sand dunes soon wore out and blew the farmers farther east. Grandpa did a little farming, some logging and some preaching. His family took over the Sunrise Ferry and ran that until it closed. During the Prohibition and for some years after, there was a steady business hauling the moon-shiners big cars loaded with booze across the river at night as they made their runs to the Twin Cities.”
“Another Grandpa owned 260 acres of land just up from the river at the county line. A couple of creeks came out of springs further up along the shore—Davis and Lagoo creeks named after old settlers. Big springs boiling out of the bank one going north toward the river and one south. Grandpa sold it to some sportsmen in the 1940s, Milard and Shepard, I think, and they called it Lagoo Camp after the old creek and loggers. I think they sold most of it to the DNR last year, maybe except where the trout ponds are.”
“Dad and his brothers lived there and trapped the east bank just south of the county line during the Depression winters; along here where all the little creeks and springs tumble down into the river. There were few jobs in the winter and trapping gave them adventure, some money and something to do when they weren’t needed on the farm. ‘I can work all day long for a farmer and make a buck; I can catch a muskrat and get 50 cents, a skunk for a dollar, and be my own boss,’ said Dad.”
“Anyway, you see these two islands ahead in the River. They mark where Polk County starts. Dad told me that he and his brother Lloyd trapped on them back in the 30s up to 1940—last year was the big Armistice Day Storm. He said the islands were actually just big piles of logs and trees that had jammed on some rapids and gradually sand covered them over and these silver maples grew on the sand. He said they trapped down in holes between the old logs to catch beavers, mink, otter and muskrats. Clarence and Elias Blair trapped the land to the south of him.”
“They called the muskrats, ‘bank rats’ because instead of making a house of cattails, they made holes in the river bank. The fur buyers paid a premium for the St. Croix muskrats over regular pond ones. A little bigger or better fur I think it was. The beavers live in holes in the bank along the river too rather than brush houses.”
After Nevers washed out in 1954, Uncle Lloyd helped with the demolition of the old pine dam. He bought some of the old logs and sawed them to build his house up the River road. He said they were still sound. When Uncle Alvin was living on the river I the 1930s, he pulled out some of the waterlogged pine deadheads and dried them and sawed them for lumber too. Turned out to be good lumber. Lots of them were floating out there when we swam at Sunrise in the 60s.”
“Back in the late 1960s when Senator Gaylord Nelson and others were pushing the Wild River concept, the St. Croix was considered for inclusion. It was pretty much wild as most of the land immediately along the shore was owned by Northern States Power company—left over from when the loggers built Nevers Dam and had to buy up the shoreline above the dam so they could flood it. When the dam washed out in 1954, NSP held onto the land. Darn nice of them to give it to the government for a park!”
“Well, there were hearings in Sterling at the Town Hall to inform the local people about what was being planned and to get their opinion on whether it was a good idea or not. Dad was chairman of the Town during that time – or at least part of the time. After some meetings the general opinion was expressed by one of the local people who said ‘if Northern States sells it, the rich folks from the Twin Cities will buy it all up and put up no trespassing signs and all of us who have enjoyed fishing, hunting, swimming and boating will be shut out. If the Feds take it over, it will probably get more crowded, but we will still be able to enjoy it.’ Sterling went along with the idea and even traded some land the town owned closer to the river for some further away. At that time, the state still owned most of section 16 in east and west Sterling—the school sections. I think they traded some of that. The county traded land too.”
“When we used to come out swimming at the Sunrise ferry area after a hot day of haying, Floyd Harris was still pasturing the area—rented it from NSP. Everybody called it ‘Floyd’s big pasture.’ The place was open and like a mowed park when the cows kept it grazed and the brush and trees in check. We had the idea that the Wild River area might end up with the whole thing looking like a mowed park—didn’t have much idea of what wild meant, I guess. Anyway, it was disappointing at first; the beautiful open areas became brush as the pastures grew over; the beautifully mowed Nevers area turned to just brush. Few scenic river vistas from the road anymore and very limited car access. But it does look pretty nice from a river canoe. Just takes a while to get used to—the idea of wild. Even the Indians didn’t like it too wild, they helped keep the barrens open by burning it if nature didn’t do it often enough. They liked some prairie animals in the big woods.”
“Nevers Dam went in about 1889 or so and out in 1954. I remember it pretty well. To understand the need for it, just think of a flush toilet. To get the big logs through the rapids at St. Croix Falls, where they jammed, you backed up water and logs at Nevers and flushed them down. Exactly like a toilet!”
“One of Grandpa’s cousins, Violet Beebe—the family that lived over by Wild Mountain, married Rupert Fisk. I think Rupert’s dad, Chester, worked on both Nevers and the St. Croix Falls dams. Violet’s sister, Marie, married a Colby from Taylors Falls. That family, if I remember it right, was one of the first to build a house in that town. If you live in an area very long, you get connected to most of the other people around too.”
With the trip over in just a few hours, and some time to spare, I took Chuck and Tim for a tour of the Sterling Barrens. We drove up to the DNR’s Sterling Firetower on Fox ridge where I spent the summer of 1970 honing my philosophy of life during the long damp summer where we had no fires at all in our district that season. You got paid for looking for smoke out the window 100 feet above the top of the high ridge. I set a record for distance viewing, reporting the black smoke from Penta Wood Products smokestack 25 miles away at Siren. My philosophy of life came from Satchel Paige, the great black baseball pitcher; “Don’t look back, they might be gaining on you,” although while in the tower I changed it to “don’t look down…”
I took them to the Old Settlers Cemetery at the mouth of Cowan where it joins Trade River. George Williamson was mowing the cemetery getting it ready for Memorial Day. The little chapel looks great after having been burned and then rebuilt a couple years ago. The Sterling Homemakers are planting some flowers and shrubs out there this year. George has repaired some of the old pipe fence that had rusted out. It looks pretty inviting for eternal repose, although out there the abundance of bugs, mosquitoes, deer flies and ticks convinced people to be buried eight feet deep. George—I printed out a copy of the few old church records—just have to remember to give them to you to put in the church.