St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The St Croix River Road

The earliest settlers moved in along the River Road that enters Sterling at Wolf Creek and follows the creek northeast. When the township boundaries were first surveyed in 1847 it was listed as "road to the pineries" and "waggon road". Supplies from St Croix and Taylors Falls to the white pine areas north of Sterling had to travel by wagon or sled because the St Croix River had rapids up to Wolf Creek.

 The earliest loggers used oxen in the woods. They were slow, powerful and could live on the wild hay from the local marshes unlike horses who needed better feed. Almost everything in the logging camps had to be hauled up the River Road. The earliest Sterling farmers moved in along the River Road to meet the need for rest stops on the way. Every few miles was another pioneer providing food and shelter for man and beast.

 The area along Wolf Creek had hay marshes, prairie to the west and timber to the east making it ideal for quickly getting established as a farmer. The route probably followed old Indian trails.
Many accounts of traveling the route from St Croix to the white pine woods have been written in the early days. A few are excerpted below.

 The St Croix Union reporter from Stillwater wrote about his trip winter trip in March 6, 1855. “Arrived at Wolf Creek that evening. It is named so by reason of the continual howling of the wolves during the night. There is a kind of stopping place at the creek for the accommodation of teamsters and their horses. There being a number of teams there, as a matter of course, the evening passed off with all the hilarity imaginable [Wolf Creek has been associated with liquor sales all of its life so we can guess about the hilarity]. Next day, found that one of my friend’s horses gave out, and we were kindly invited to a seat in the sled of Hartwell Lowell, and gladly accepted of it . we determined to visit Lowell’s Camps on Wood River. The day was very cold, and we preferred using our trotters to sitting in the sled much of the time. We came into another species of timber. Half grown pine trees were abundant until we reached Trade River, a small but deep river about ten feet wide. After leaving Trade River, we went through alternately , pine openings until we left again for a by road when we commenced an uninterrupted series of mammoth pines until we reached Wood Lake, two miles in length.

“ Maggie Orr O’Neill rode up to her father’s logging camp from their home on the River Road. She was interviewed by Helen McCann White in 1955 for the Forest History Foundation about working in her father’s camp in the early 1880s. "Well, the first winters we had two ox teams and one four horse team. We took [the logging equipment] up mostly on wagons. The latest we ever went was the 15th of November. Then we went on sleds. We took loads of hay and loads of feed and paraphernalia for our camp and or the men's camp, and the big wanigan boxes, 6x8x8 size."

 Lucy Orr Johnson also of Sterling wrote many columns in the Inter-County Leader in the late 1930s. "This may seem to be too many stopping places and too close together, but it was neither. There was not enough stopping places and not enough barn room to take care of all of this woods traffic, and beds were often short. There were times when a woodsman with his whole outfit of horses and oxen, and crew of perhaps a hundred men would have to camp in the yard at some of these places. Hundreds of horses and oxen; lumberman and lumberjacks as well as river men just swarmed into these stopping places."

 Worthy Prentice of Osceola published a booklet "Reminiscences of Early Pioneer Days in Polk County". Mr. Prentice relates a story from his trip in the summer 1867 headed north to cut marsh hay for the winter logging camps. He says: "We started about the middle of July. It was very warm and we got as far as Wolf Creek, a distance of 18 miles. After leaving St Croix Falls, we were forced to fight flies, deer flies and big horse flies. The men had to walk on each side of the team and with large brushes of evergreens, we would brush the flies off the horses or they would not move. Mr. Godfrey made up his mind if we were going to make the trip, we would have to lay up days and travel nights, so we tried it and it worked fine. The roads were mere trails, used only to haul supplies for logging camps."

 Good roads made a difference then as they do now. Continuing Emil Florschutz's early history of Sterling "The settlement of the town did not increase very much for many years. A great many of the first settlers were not satisfied with the country, and they left, reducing the population to merely a handful. One great difficulty to newcomers was the fact that roads leading up river at that time passed through the sand barrens, which discourage nearly every stranger at first sight. About 10 years ago [1866] many people came here and went a few miles east from the road where they found the land was more encouraging - with the best of soil and timber. From that time, the town was settled quickly and now the hard timberland is all taken and dotted with fine farms. Even a great deal of the sandy pine land has been also settled, as both kinds of land have proven to be good.”

 In the early 1960s the River Road was black topped. My brother Everett was hired to walk up and down the road with five tine fork to pitch the beer cans from the road surface into the ditch so they wouldn't interfere with the pavement. He and Maurice Swenson spent several days on the "All Can" stretch north of the Wolf Creek bars.

This is an excerpt of a larger book that can be purchased at St Croix River Road
 Or you can read it free at St Croix River Road Ebook