Storied and scenic property on St. Croix River bluff set to change hands

Large tract of undeveloped land along lower river will soon have new owners after decades of private stewardship.

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Merrywood bluff. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

More than 300 acres and a quarter-mile of St. Croix River shoreline in Somerset, Wis. may soon be sold to a new owner, despite multiple efforts over the past 20 years to acquire the land for preservation and public use.

Merrywood, as it’s been called since the 1950s, is a stunning landscape with great habitat for wildlife and benefits for the river. Once farmed by a descendant of early Somerset settlers, it has been stewarded by one family over the last six decades.

Today, there is a contingent offer on the land, with few other details available. It’s not known what the potential buyer’s plans are for the property. The real estate listing advertises it as possibly “the last large acreage site on the federally protected St. Croix River.”

For the past several months, a small group of neighbors and community members calling themselves the Friends of Merrywood has been mounting a third attempt at protecting the land. (Disclosure: I am one of those folks.)

The group was working on the complicated issues of such a real estate deal, seeking funding from public and private sources, figuring out who might own the land — A local government unit? A nonprofit? — and how volunteers could maintain trails and other infrastructure for the long run.

Merrywood is located on the shores of broad Rice Lake, the big sheet of shallow water, wetlands, and floodplain forest where the Apple River joins the St. Croix.

It’s silent and wild, dramatic and subtle. It boasts steep bluffs — including vertical sandstone faces — and seeping springs, and more than 100 acres of uplands that would make wonderful prairie habitat. 

The bluffs offer a view worth walking for. Perched over the river, there are vistas of a mile or more, across four or five square miles of wild water and woods.

In one area, Native American mounds still stand a thousand or some years after construction. It is hallowed ground, claimed by ancient memories as much as any deed.

Wild bergamot (bee balm) growing in historic prairie on the edge of Merrywood. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

On summer days, birds and butterflies flit among the grasses and flowers of prairie that has never been plowed. Although nearby fields have recently been planted with corn, they are great candidates for restoration, with clean water benefits for the St. Croix River below.

The 100-foot slopes down to the river feature big white pine and oaks, and the open understory is often blanketed in pine needles. At the north end, a big hardwood forest dropping toward the river will make most anyone merry.

It is nearly surrounded by other public lands — owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and National Park Service. The channels and islands around Rice Lake are part of the St. Croix Islands State Wildlife Area, with a more protected State Natural Area is at its heart. The Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway owns most of the other nearby riverlands, including a large prairie it has restored in recent years.

If Merrywood was preserved, it would help form more than 1,300 acres of connected public land and wildlife habitat. That’s the same size as Wisconsin Interstate Park. It would be a big piece of a beautiful puzzle.

Great blue heron in Rice Lake on the banks of Merrywood. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

The Friends of Merrywood are people who love this land, and hoped for time to protect it once and for all. (Disclosure: St. Croix 360 received financial support from a private citizen to help publicize the opportunity.)

The odds have been against the effort from the start. Twice before, people had attempted to acquire the land and put it in public hands. No one could fault their efforts. One deal fell apart when a key group experienced unexpected financial difficulties. 

The second time, the cost was prohibitive for a purchase by St. Croix County. When the new Stillwater bridge was built, it included funds to offset the impact on the Wisconsin bluff. St. Croix County received about $3 million to spend, and evaluated several properties along the river to possibly protect. Merrywood was one, ranking highly according to the county’s criteria. 

After being stymied trying to buy Merrywood, the county instead purchased land north of Hudson that is currently being developed into the Eckert Blufflands park.

Water lilies in Rice Lake adjacent to Merrywood. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

Merrywood was left adrift, seeming to be a case study in the challenges of conservation. There is never enough money, never enough time. 

Everyone does what they can — and several new tracts have been successfully protected along the St. Croix in just the past few years. More is always in the works. I love sharing the news about new acquisitions, but I think it’s important to also report on the difficulties, which are often obscured.

It’s important to note that money for land conservation has been harder to come by the past few years. Funding for land protection in Wisconsin has been falling for the last 10 years, while Congress let the federal government’s main public lands program lapse as well. Just this year, both Wisconsin and the federal government finally funded these programs again. 

Perhaps it would soon be possible to get a grant that could help give this beautiful place back to the public. But such things move slowly. Too slowly.

Merrywood during spring migration. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

I’ve paddled past Merrywood many times, before I knew anything about its protection potential. The high, steep bluff is a dramatic backdrop in all seasons. During spring and fall migration, the slow-moving waters below are home to mind-boggling numbers of waterfowl. Ducks, geese, and swans swirl above a human visitor’s head.

One day this summer, I kayaked across the river from Minnesota and hiked through the DNR land to get to a meeting of the Friends of Merrywood. It made for a popular blog post, capturing some of the magic of Merrywood.

The meeting was at the Martell farm, adjacent to Merrywood, where Bruce Martell and his wife Heidi Haugen live today. Bruce’s ancestors emigrated from the Acadian region of eastern Canada, landing less than a mile from where we sat. His great-great-grandfather, Ambrose Martell, built a log cabin at the mouth of the Apple in 1855. It still stands (and Bruce has made his career as a carpenter).

The upland parts of Merrywood was farmed by Bruce’s father, who had to sell it after a farming crisis in the 1960s. The new owners kept it preserved and left the farmland in fallow grasslands, full of bird and insect life.

Bruce and Heidi’s daughter Emilee has been a leader of the latest effort to protect it, with help from neighbors including Corey Mohan and family friend Anthony Howe. 

Having grown up surrounded by Merrywood, Emilee now wishes everyone could enjoy it.  “The land belongs to someone else, but we belong to the land,” she says.

White pine on the Merrywood bluffs. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

Yet in a world where billions are spent drilling and digging, dumping and destroying, there hasn’t been enough to buy a few hundreds acres we might never get back. The river is fragile, and needs all the natural buffer it can get. The parks have been packed this year with everyone enjoying outdoor recreation. 

We only need more space.

And Merrywood is magnificent. From its highest point in the prairie, you can see grasslands, woods, the vast valley and a distant hazy bluff. Bald eagles and vultures soar in between.

In September, I paddled back across Rice Lake from Minnesota, past the beautiful bluff, and rendezvoused with Friend of Merrywood Corey Mohan. The water was low, and beginning to feel fall’s cool.

Kayaking through the lake and the channels, I saw a half dozen bald eagles, most in pairs. Three sandhill cranes poked their beaks into the water on a sandy beach, looking like nothing so much as gazelles at a watering hole on the savanna. A solitary sandpiper passed by me and landed in sandy shallows ahead.

And the Merrywood bluff towered over me, just another reminder of how small we all are in the grand scheme of the St. Croix River.


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10 responses to “Storied and scenic property on St. Croix River bluff set to change hands”

  1. Peter Gove Avatar
    Peter Gove

    Wonderful article Greg! Perhaps something good will still happen for this land. Fortunately the bluff segment has an NPS river land easement. My occasional history with this property reminds me of the dynamics within legacy families to protect vs maximize value. Using Bridge $ was the best shot to protect this land. Unfortunately it did not happen.

  2. allison mcginnis Avatar
    allison mcginnis

    So another housing development? Just what we need. Too bad.

    1. Emilee Avatar

      Hopefully not! This is such a special place – fingers crossed that whoever buys it will do so because they fell in love with it.

  3. Lee Lewis Avatar
    Lee Lewis

    Thanks for bringing this to the public’s attention—let’s see where the seed lands…..

  4. Wendy ward Avatar
    Wendy ward

    Good article, Greg

  5. Kathy Wettig Avatar
    Kathy Wettig

    Thank you to all who have put much energy into this project. It is a must!!!!

  6. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    There’s enough public land. It you all feel so strongly about it spend your own money not mine. I visit 10-20 State and county parks each year. Except for perfect weather weekends they are empty!

  7. Betty A Miller Avatar
    Betty A Miller

    I attended some of the meetings at the Festival theater SCF, that turned the St Croix into a National Wild River. I have lived on or near this beautiful river for the last 60 years of my life. How blessed am I

  8. Todd Johnson Avatar
    Todd Johnson

    Interesting that the people that live on the river now don’t want any new neighbors. I would assume that inland wildlife would be just as important but am sure none of the people fighting the sale of this property would be attending any of those meetings.

    1. Greg Seitz Avatar

      Who lives on the river that doesn’t want new neighbors? Nobody involved in this article or effort lives on the St. Croix. The river is an amazing refuge for many types of wildlife, it’s very important habitat and expanding it helps pollinators, birds, game and other species. The surrounding land is open to hunting and there’s a good chance this land could be too if it was preserved. And as far as I know, everyone cares very much about “inland wildlife,” and we’ve all advocated for the preservation of habitat throughout the region… Crex Meadows, the St. Croix Wetland Management District, the various Scientific and Natural Areas and Wildlife Management Areas… Please don’t base your criticisms on what you imagine other people think!

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Storied and scenic property on St. Croix River bluff set to change hands