A century ago this year, a wealthy grain baron bought 50 acres of forests and spring-feed streams on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River a few miles south of Marine Mills. Benjamin Sheffield was once the third-richest man in the American flour business, head of an empire of mills and elevators, and a well-connected statesman in Minnesota’s adolescent years.
The same year he purchased the property, Sheffield hired architect Chilson Aldrich, who specialized in log cabins, to design a lodge. it was painstakingly constructed over the following four years. Three master carpenters oversaw the construction. The log walls were massive Ponderosa pines brought in from Oregon, painstakingly fitted together by hand. A massive stone fireplace near the center of the building seems purely geologic in origin, as if the Earth had thrust a pillar of rock and mortar out of the river bank. It seems to hold up the whole building, and gives it a feeling of rustic opulence. He dubbed it “Croixsyde.”
The 62-year-old Sheffield probably hoped to hunt and fish more in his old age after a long and busy career, but he lived only a handful of more years, long enough to die in the place. Croixsyde is not believed to have been designed as a domicile, but rather a place to temporarily escape the city and hunt and fish. Despite Sheffield’s short ownership, the lodge still stands today, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The gently sloped bluff is now called Croixside (the ‘y’ replaced with an ‘i’), a residential neighborhood developed beginning in the 1950s and into the 1980s. Its stone gate on Highway 95, the original Croixsyde entrance, has long been a landmark for travelers between Stillwater and Marine. The lodge has had just a few owners over the past 100 years. In 2016, Bob and Mary Johnson of Hugo purchased it. They have been careful stewards of the stately abode, and welcomed me for a tour one rainy day in April.
Croixsyde is one example of several such places along the St. Croix River and its tributaries from the Roaring Twenties, when wealthy industrialists sought to escape noisy, dirty cities to country estates an easy train ride away. From the St. Croix’s headwaters area near Gordon, Wis. to the Namekagon’s source near Cable, and several other points, there are examples of this era’s legacy.
Sheffield was certainly a wealthy industrialist. He was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1860 to a well-connected family. His mother’s first cousin later served as premier of Canada. Sheffield’s parents moved the family to Faribault, Minnesota in 1865, where his father built a milling business along the Cannon River. Benjamin joined him before his twentieth birthday, and then shortly took over the company. He quickly showed an aptitude for the business, turning around failing mills and seeing profits within a couple years.
“From the time when he made his initial step in the business world he has displayed thoroughness, keen sagacity, close application and unfaltering diligence and upon these qualities he has builded the superstructure of his splendid success,” a 1923 biography reported.
In the subsequent decades, Sheffield was partner in various firms that operated grain elevators across the region. Farmers plowing up the prairies brought their bountiful harvests of wheat and other grains to these important sites for sale and distribution. It was the same time when Pillsbury and General Mills and many others arose, when Minnesota was the country’s wheat basket, fueled by fertile soil created by 10,0000 years of living grasslands.
A Roosevelt Republican, Sheffield was active in politics in both Faribault and statewide, and had a robust social life. He was the member of the Minneapolis Club and several other organizations in the city, and was also a thirty-second degree Freemason.
It’s not hard to imagine that, by the time he entered his fifth decade in business, Sheffield was getting tired of grain dust, mill machinery, and the din of locomotives. The St. Croix River beckoned. In 1919, a firm he was involved with, Commander Elevator Company, purchased the grain mill and elevator in downtown Stillwater, perhaps drawing his eye to the St. Croix Valley. The company was one of a string of owners, but it is Commander’s name that persists to this day.
While Sheffield had served two terms as mayor of Faribault, been involved in starting a bank and other institutions there, and remained connected through family and business once he moved his headquarters to Minneapolis, now he wanted to go north and east.
Sheffield built not only a lodge, but also dammed the stream called Willow Brook to create two trout ponds. He also had a large stone and concrete fish hatchery constructed across the stream. Descendants of those brook trout still swim in the stream today (though there are concerns about how it is filling with sand, reducing food sources and spawning habitat).
There are rumors about Sheffield and his lodge — with little verifiable evidence. One is that the lodge was used by bootleggers, and another that President Calvin Coolidge once visited. While a rich and powerful businessman toward the end of his career seems unlikely to have engaged in liquor trafficking, but it’s also very likely he kept the lodge well stocked with alcohol for himself and his friends. On the other hand, while President Coolidge is rumored to have stopped at nearly every known hunting and fishing lodge in northern Wisconsin, it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine the avid angler would have stopped by soon after a wealthy member of his party finished construction of a beautiful new retreat. Sheffield had served as a Republican elector in the 1908 election.
Since purchasing Croixsyde, the Johnsons have taken care to keep it as much the way it was when Sheffield would have known it. They have had the exterior extensively restored, including cleaning each and every log, maintain and regularly replace pumps that keep the basement from filling with water, repaired the roof and chimney, and more. But they have also kept its character. Numerous original iron lamps still illuminate the rooms with warm glows, sturdy hand-built beds and chairs of raw lumber offer rest and relaxation, and a giant moose head hangs over the living room. Little sign of the modern world intrudes.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about Croixsyde today is not its expert carpentry nor its impressive size, but the fact it is still furnished with many of its original custom-made fixtures and furniture. Lamps, sconces, hinges, door handles, fireplace hardware, and ashtrays were all made from wrought iron, while chairs and other furnishings were crafted with birch and ironwood.
A visitor enters the lodge through a door in the middle of the north wall, stepping directly into the warm and welcoming living room, two stories high, with a gallery ringing the upstairs. To the left is the kitchen and an adjacent dining room, connected by a fireplace designed for cooking. To the right are bedrooms, and twin staircases to the second level, where there are more bedrooms. On the south side of the building is the spacious porch, which runs the lodge’s length.
A year after construction of Croixsyde was completed, Aldrich, its architect, published a book titled The Real Log Cabin, which featured his St. Croix River project among others. It highlighted both the grand scale of the building, and the small details that showed its quality craftsmanship. Both aspects remain the same today.
A balcony on the east end of the house affords an excellent view of the St. Croix River and its broad floodplain. On the spring day I visited, the river was in flood, water covering the islands, the surface roughened by raindrops. The gabled roof extending overhead keeps the rain off my head. The trees were mostly still the same gray as the sky. Ducks hid among the timber. Neither the view nor the lodge had changed much since Croixsyde was built.