A quick count finds about 600 miles of rivers that come together above Stillwater to form the St. Croix that flows under the historic Lift Bridge there. This number reflects just some of the river’s major tributaries: the Namekagon, Kettle, Snake, Apple, Sunrise, Clam, and Trade Rivers, and misses many smaller streams that I wouldn’t doubt add up to another 600 miles or more.
Those rivers flow through the 8,000 square miles that make up the St. Croix’s watershed. They flow through wild forests, small towns, American Indian communities, parks, historic sites, and farmland in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They flow into and out of the region’s many lakes.
I found myself wondering about the miles of rivers a couple of weeks ago in Stillwater at the last of 10 workshops organized by the Heritage Initiative throughout the region since February. (I am doing part-time consulting work for the project.)
Although the workshops are now over, the Heritage Initiative still has a ways to go, just like how at Stillwater the river gets wider and deeper for the 20 or so miles to Prescott.
Casting a wide net
The Washington County workshop was held right along the river at the Water Street Inn in Stillwater. The people who came to the workshop talked about what makes this region special, and how we might leverage those things to create economic opportunity and celebrate and preserve the region.
The Heritage Initiative organized these public meetings the past few months in towns from River Falls on the Kinnickinnic River to Sandstone on the Kettle River, and all the way to Solon Springs at the St. Croix’s headwaters. The goal is consideration of potential National Heritage Area status for the region.
The workshops were an important phase of the project, casting a wide net to engage residents of the area. Attendees represented more than 10,000 years of residency in the region; stories were told of the Ojibwe and Dakota peoples, the fur trade and logging industry, the Scandinavian immigrants, the region’s unique glacial geology, its conservation traditions, and the fishing, canoeing and boating recreation that have drawn people for many years.
Making sense of the stories
The next big step in the Heritage Initiative will be making sense of all those stories, identifying the major themes and existing resources (like museums, historic sites, cultural institutions, nonprofits, etc.), and coming back together for four regional summits which will be held this fall.
How the St. Croix River region’s stories could be better promoted will also be on the agenda. In America’s 49 existing National Heritage Areas, communities work together to highlight their shared stories, drawing visitors from around the country and the world.
At the Stillwater workshop, people mentioned how tourists from near and far already come to the St. Croix region for its natural beauty and deep sense of history. People spoke about the importance of the rivers themselves, the Kinnickinnic sandbar or Lake Namekagon for example. That heritage was demonstrated by the old tourist train which used to run from St. Paul to Stillwater.
Others said people live here for the strong sense of community, like the popular Summer Tuesdays music and movies events in Lowell Park along the river. They talked about the ice road on the river from Hudson to Bayport, and a long list of the kinds of things known only to people who love where they live.
A public process
After the regional summits, a single “Heritage Summit” will be held to talk about how a Heritage Area in the St. Croix River region might be governed (often by an independent nonprofit or a nearby university) and what the vision for a Heritage Area here would be.
Only then is a final draft of a Feasibility Study put together, which will ultimately inform the decision whether or not to seek legislation in Congress to designate a Heritage Area.
It’s definitely a long process, but it’s built on the contributions of the many people who came out on Saturday mornings or Tuesday evenings or Sunday afternoons this winter and spring to offer their stories. Those stories were like the countless feeder streams which flow into the bigger streams and rivers which ultimately join the St. Croix. The river would be pretty dry without their input.
You can still contribute your stories to the Heritage Initiative on the website at www.stcroixheritage.org. After all, there are streams and rivers which flow into the St. Croix below Stillwater – the Willow, Kinnickinnic, and Valley Creek, for example.
Please share a story and stay tuned for more news about the Heritage Initiative, including the four regional summits which will be scheduled this fall.