St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Rainy and Windy June

The evening sky turned red; the wind gusted to 40 mph 

In the morning the yard was strewn with small branches as well as a big dead one on top of the 1950s play house--already being take over by grape vines

The coleus, begonias and miscellaneous seedlings are beginning to grow

Lettuce, radishes, a handful of strawberries and peas from the garden

Friday I break out the apple sprayer and mix up some Sevin insecticide and spray the apples the first time.  I am a little late starting this year, but the apples have just set and have started to show there may be a few this year. 

Sunday is the 76th Sterling Old Settler's Picnic, now the Sterling Picnic, noon potluck at the Cushing Community Center.  It is a chance to recognize those who have made it over 80 years old as well as to visit with our neighbors.  It is open to anyone who is in the area or passing through.   Sterling, founded back in 1855 as a township in Polk County (1853), initially covered all of northern Polk, Burnett, Barron and Washburn counties and as the vast woodlands were cut off and settled, the current towns and counties were divided off leaving Sterling a double township since the 1870s.  
The first settlement was along the St Croix River and the old River Road, the "waggon trail to the pineries" as the old maps describe it.  Rest stops for the logging crews and suppliers on the way from the head of navigation at the Falls of St Croix to the pine woods in Burnett county sprang up along the road, from Spangler's bay, Wolf Creek, Ives, Rogers, Rice, and dozens more on the branching roads, often strategically placed at the distance an oxen team could drag a bobsled on a short cold winter day. 

The Sterling Barrens along the St Croix was burned over prairie and easy to break and grow wheat, oats, Indian corn and other food for early farmers who sold their surplus to the logging crews.  

From the 1850s through 1890s the area was completely settled and farmed.  In the bad droughts in the 1890s, the thin topsoil over the sand, fertility gone by years of wheat crops, began to blow--a local dust bowl.  Farmers abandoned their farms, often leaving nice frame or log houses and barns, and moved east to the hardwoods where they cleared land and farmed new, better clay based loam soils. 

In 1939, a few of the old timers who had lived on the Sterling prairies (now mostly abandoned and the old fields planted to trees) decided to once again meet at their favorite local gathering area in the Evergreen Community; next to their old cemetery and church, their town hall, post office at the junction of Cowan Creek and Trade River.  

   For the next 30 years or so, each Sunday after Father's day, they met in the same place.  Then the Wild River designation; the meeting place bought by a private owner with no-trespassing signs, and a move to the Town Hall on the corner of Evergreen and River Road.  That sound and plain 1880 building burnt down by a forward looking Town board of new settlers to make way for a pole shed and the picnic moved to the Cushing School (closed down by a forward looking School Board determined to not be bothered by local schools any more).  And that is where it is now.   

When you ask the current crop of old settlers about having an outdoor picnic in the woods, they mention bugs, rain, flush toilets, kitchens and so on.  And sometimes I agree.  
Aaron Lundquist, whose parents homesteaded in West Sterling, dips some fresh strawberry sauce onto a dish of ice cream, out on the junction of Cowan and Trade River at the old picnic grounds.  Northern States Power (Xcel) owned the property and made it available for a Boy Scout Camp and picnic grounds.  The horse riders came in and messed it up every summer with the destruction of hooves, hay, manure and browsing--went from a scenic scout camp to barnyard.  We had to spend the week cleaning it ahead of the picnic from the horses.  Now they have their own contained park up the road and seem to keep that habitable.  We were all kicked out in the early 70s when, at Dad's urging, the rest of the Sterling Town Board refused to buy it for a pittance to make it a community park.  
   Recently, it was purchased from private ownership to be put back into public land with the Scenic and Wild River area -- at a cost of something like 1/2 to 3/4 of a million dollars according to the local rumor.  It is now all brush and trees.