Historic home hosts stories of significant St. Croix Valley settler
W.H.C. Folsom was everything from a logger to a legislator, and documented as much history as he made.
Folsom clearly felt he was once again facing the bleeding edge of the frontier. He noted how, in the 25 miles they traveled up Lake St. Croix, they saw only a handful of rustic homes, mostly occupied by French-Canadians. He was enchanted by the primeval landscape, perhaps having watched as such natural beauty was degraded during his eight years in Prairie du Chien.
“There were gently rounded hills sloping to the water’s edge, and crowed with groves of shrubby oak, amidst which, especially at the outlet of streams into the lake, the darker pines stood out boldly against the sky. We passed on over the clear, blue expanse of water on which was no floating thing save our boat and the wild fowl which were scared and flew away at our approach,” Folsom recalled.
Then they landed in Stillwater and stepped off the steamboat. The village was diminutive but energetic: its first sawmill had started running earlier that year, the beginning of decades of a booming economy driven by denuding the valley of the very beauty that had so impressed Folsom.
To him, it was a land of opportunity. He spent the next few years working, saving, and planning.
In July 1846, 10 years after first arriving in the Northwest, Folsom was hired to cut and store hay for lumber camps that winter. He and a partner headed 70 miles up the St. Croix to the Snake River, poling a batteau, then ascended that river to near present-day Pine City. They visited the Presbyterian mission on Pokegama Lake where Rev. William Boutwell had been superintendent since 1837, then got to work putting up 60 tons of hay.
That fall, Folsom partnered with three others to build a sawmill north of Stillwater at Arcola — the chimney still stands, as well as the mansion built by his partners the following year, after he had exited the enterprise. Later, as justice of the peace, he conducted some of the first marriages in the territory. He was elected sheriff and investigated a murder committed by two Ojibwe men on the Snake River. (They were acquitted because everyone involved was drunk on illegal whiskey.) He engaged in logging near the Clam River.
It was a life of adventure like he had wanted. On his way to the Snake River for the murder investigation, he recalled fording the St. Croix, and somehow surviving.
“I crossed the river with great difficulty,” he wrote. “The water was high, the current was strong and swift, and I could not swim. I found a fallen tree, partly under water, cut a pole, waded out as far as I could into the current, and then by the aid of the pole floated down some distance, until by pawing and splashing I was able to reach the other shore.”
Folsom was clearly busy, traveling up and down the river and its tributaries, meeting other settlers, starting businesses, and helping establish a civil society. He took four years to decide where he would finally settle, ultimately becoming one of the first people to claim lots in the new city of Taylors Falls after it was platted in 1850.
He opened a store with living quarters above and then, five years later, his family moved into their new home, where Folsom would live the rest of his life.
In 1854, the Folsoms commenced construction on a stately but simple Greek Revival house overlooking the city, and moved into it the following year. It was one of the first in a neighborhood soon called “Angel’s Hill” for the white Methodist church built there in 1861, on land donated by the Folsoms (today, it’s the oldest operating Methodist church in Minnesota).
The houses found on Angel’s Hill tells the story o the specific people, including Mainers like Folsom, who brought their culture to the St. Croix Valley.
“The buildings of Angel’s Hill have an infinite variety detail but are almost all built of solid white pine frame covered with white clapboard and trimmed with green painted exterior wood blinds,” reads the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the district. “The total effect is one of unity but not monotony.”
Folsom’s house is a two-story structure on a large corner lot where there was once a barn, stable, icehouse, and outdoor kitchen. The home is an orderly rectangle, which juts out from the hillside as if its flat lines can correct the disorderly slope.
It is impressive but not ostentatious, built for the comforts and needs of a frontier family. Folsom wanted to provide Mary Jane with a much easier life than the first several years of their marriage, and the spacious residence included rooms for servants, a spacious dining room, and other amenities. There were five bedrooms, which let them frequently invite family from the east to visit.
Greek Revival was the dominant style for American homes at the time; people like Folsom believed architecture inspired by ancient Greece reflected the freedom of democracy and the dream of America. His house also featured details from the Federal style, like the symmetrical façade, simple rectangular shape, standalone windows, and unadorned exterior.
The style speaks to not just Greece, but the culture of early northeastern Americans. Two hundred years before Folsom went west, his Puritan ancestors had come to Massachusetts as colonists. They evolved over the next two centuries into a rugged and rigid culture. His grandfather fought in the Revolution.
Thrifty people, they put their mark on the architecture with pragmatism and decorum. In such northern climates, they made considerations for staying warm through harsh winters, rejecting Greek Revival’s typical high ceilings and covered porches, preferring to let as much light as possible inside.
For Folsom and his neighbors, the architecture made them feel at home, as did the St. Croix Valley’s landscape.
“In a setting of rolling hills, formidable rock outcroppings and thick forests that strongly resembled their homeland, the New Englanders built villages closely resembling those they had left,” reads the nomination.
Fixing up Folsom’s House
Folsom house exterior restoration in progress, June 2021 (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)
The Minnesota Historical Society acquired the Folsom house in the 1970s, and still owns the property today. It is responsible for maintenance and preservation, while the site is operated for the public by the Taylors Falls Historical Society. The organization offers weekend tours during the summer and special events throughout the year.
A major repainting and restoration project conducted this year, funded by the Minnesota legislature through the 2018 bonding bill, should help ensure the house keeps standing for centuries to come. It will be open for special events later this year, and a re-opening is planned for next year.
One day in June, workers were scaling scaffolding and carefully peeling paint. The fine house where Folsom had finally settled was proving it was built to last.
“It’s in better shape than we expected,” said Valerie Heider, the MNHS project manager overseeing the restoration. A worker walking by added that it’s in better condition than other houses half its age, crediting the fact it was built with old-growth white pine, the wood that brought Folsom to the St. Croix Valley in the first place.
He had helped cut down the virgin timber, but the tight grain of such old, slow-growing wood remains in houses like his, built when loggers thought the forests would last 500 years.
Restoring a historic building is exacting work, calling for caution. The point is to preserve history, and not remove or change any of it. “You just want to keep as much as you can,” Heider said.
Architectural drawings of Folsom House created in early 1934 by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. (Library of Congress)
First and foremost, the restoration planners had needed to find out as much as possible about the original colors and conditions of the house. Fortunately, photos of the structure exist dating back to around 1860. During the Great Depression, architects and artists hired by the Works Progress Administration traveled the country documenting historic sites, including Folsom’s house, and created drawings and architectural figures to record their appearance and condition.
Before they could get to work, they had to remove the iconic green window shutters, which were taken elsewhere to be restored and repainted. And, they had to remove the old paint, but as little of the original wood as possible.
The team initially tried a chemical solvent that was approved for such historic sites, but the old, dry wood kept soaking it up too fast. Then they switched to a relatively new tool in the toolbox, a planer than can be calibrated to .01 of an inch. It let them slice the paint off while leaving the surface alone.
Underneath, they found the tight-grained wood, and occasionally, notes from the past. A few spots offered letters, probably initials, carved into the siding. Who carved them and when remain a mystery, but the careful paint removal had ensured they were preserved.
After that, the workers repaired and replaced wood where it was necessary. Seeking to leave it in its original state as much as possible, they filled in holes and gaps when possible. Then the siding was repainted and the shutters reattached — and Folsom probably could have walked down the street and felt right at home.
A historian’s story
The Folsom house was inherited by Folsom’s son and then grandson until it was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in the 1970s. Because of that continuity, much of the family’s original belongings were still stored in the house’s spacious attic. Folsom’s expansive library, the family’s grand piano, and clothing and other items remain in residence.
“Because of the fact that the house is so enormous and has a large attic, Folsom was able to practice the very New England practice of saving everything,” site manager Thurman says. “Furniture, and especially household items, were really meant to last. If you purchased a new bed or a new dresser, if you had the opportunity to hang on to the old one, you did.”
Furnishings and other items were kept to give to children when they set up their own home, or to replace an item if it was somehow damaged. The practice also helps historians bring to life the lives of people who lived 150 years ago.
“One of the things that makes it a great historic site is nearly all the content you see on the tour was owned and used by the family,” Thurman says. “We have a very complete look at what life was like in the third quarter of the 19th century.”
The property is not solely preserved, but also opened to the public for a glimpse into the past. The experience of visiting Folsom’s house helps people put themselves in the shoes of a nineteenth century settler.
“There’s always power to being where history happened,” says Ben Leonard, of the Minnesota Historical Society. “I think it’s much easier to understand history when you try to view events through other perspectives. Standing in those places makes that easier. I also think it makes it more fun.”
Folsom probably would have agreed.
The settler died in the house in 1900. The year before, he extolled the value of documenting the region’s history when he addressed the annual meeting of the Minnesota Historical Society:
“The wisdom and foresight of [the Minnesota Historical Society’s] founders have been happily illustrated year by year in the interest manifested by our people, in the valuable library accumulated, free to all, and in the published reminiscences of the history of Minnesota, from the days of traditions among the Indians to the present time. May the Minnesota Historical Society continue in its usefulness and prosperity.”
His words, like his house, still stand today.
Thank you to the Minnesota Historical Society and St. Croix 360’s readers for financial support of this two-part series.
Help St. Croix 360 reach 300 supporters so we can keep sharing river stories.