In 1886, wealthy businessmen turned the valley of Big Rock Creek, a few miles north of St. Croix Falls, into a vast fishing and hunting estate and trout hatchery. A few decades later, it became a family retreat for two wealthy St. Paul brothers in the railroad and construction business.
Claude and Allen Siems operated this paradise tucked into the bluffs as an “Up North” outpost. Their father, Peter Siems, had come to the United States in 1865 and built a business in building railroad embankments, working closely with James J. Hill on his Great Northern Railroad. His sons took over the business upon his death and expanded into construction.
Big Rock Creek was their summer retreat, a short train ride from home on Summit Ave. in St. Paul. After the brothers’ deaths, Big Rock Creek was owned and cared for by their children and grandchildren until 2015.
It is now owned by another family, who are writing a new chapter in Big Rock Creek’s story. They continue to use it for hunting and fishing, and are opening parts of it for events, craft fairs, short-term rentals — and now, a unique holiday festival.
The month-long event called Miracle at Big Rock will offer picturesque lighting, winter activities, a holiday market, and more, with options to walk, drive, or ride a horse drawn wagon or sleigh through light displays boasting 10 million bulbs. The market will be in the massive barn, called The Lyon, a centerpiece of the property, and is history itself.
Family patriarch and co-owner Brad Hansen says the beams are from a railroad trestle originally located in Boston, Mass., which was taken apart and shipped west to the estate 100 years ago. When it was moved, the bridge was already at least 150 years old. That means the wood is likely old-growth New England oak that started growing around the time of the Pilgrims.
Unlike many aging barns with swaying spines and leaning walls, this one stands tall and straight thanks to those timbers. The structure is emblematic of the estate, where there is history in the woods.
Big Rock Creek Farm has been largely hidden from view for most of that history, a refuge for the rich and powerful. During “Miracle” and other events, it is open to all. The festival is based on one of the founding principles of Big Rock Creek Farm: family fun. Just as it was once a retreat for the Siems, Hansen says it’s now an opportunity to enjoy old-fashioned amusement, like simply sitting around a blazing fire, cooking s’mores, and sledding.
“We want to create a magical place for people to come and enjoy,” Hansen says.
The 1,000-acre property remains largely natural, except for some long lasting signs of people. The Siems Brothers, who bought Big Rock Creek estate in 1992, specialized in building railroad embankments. Today, a web of narrow roads weave through the valley, often elevated on berms identical to railroad lines.
Big Rock Creek remains full of trout — brook, brown, and rainbow — all naturally reproducing. Signs of the old hatchery abound. There are cement sluice ways and tanks with trees growing through them, original oak piping, and hydrological manipulations. At one place, a 100-year-old enamel cup hangs upside down atop an iron pipe with a steady stream coming out of it, and a passerby can quench their thirst the same as a century ago. The water is the consistent 55 degrees of groundwater, which the fish also love.
The main cluster of buildings, including The Lyon, surround a five-acre impoundment, also reportedly densely populated with trout. The lake is held back by a 20-foot dam with water rushing through it. The creek originates on the property from springs far up the valley. After the dam, it spills another few miles to the St. Croix.
One day this fall, the farm was abuzz with activity. Workers — mostly members of the family — were building and decorating. There was a sense of simply working steadily toward a firm deadline. Almost everybody was working with someone else, as a family.
Hansen emphasizes that the festival will be an experience first and foremost.
“You might see photos, but you have to feel the place,” he says. “It’s almost a secret, you have to come here to understand.”
One can imagine the railroad tycoons and their powerful friends saying the same thing to each other in between spanning the continent with steel.