Historic habitat: Old sawmill is site of modern ecological restoration

Arcola Mills has embarked on an ambitious project to improve its lands along the St. Croix River for water and wildlife.




6 minute read

Conservation Corps crew members plant a tree on the St. Croix River bank at Arcola Mills. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

“In May of this year I had made a claim of government unsurveyed land, covering springs sufficient for a water power. While I was sick at Point Douglas, Joseph Brewster, Martin Mower and David B. Loomis formed a company to build a mill and carry on a logging business. They had agreed upon me as a fourth partner and to build on my claim; Mower and Loomis to attend to getting logs, Brewster and Folsom to build the mill. We moved to our claim Oct. 6, 1846, and went to work in earnest. We agreed upon the name of Arcola for the new settlement. The mill was not finished until April 3, 1847, at which time Brewster and Folsom sold out their interest and returned to Stillwater.”

– W.H.C. Folsom, Fifty Years in the Northwest

More than 175 years after W.H.C. Folsom and his partners spent a winter building a new sawmill on the banks of the St. Croix River, which would cut up to five million board feet of old-growth white pine per year, the site is now the focus of an intensive effort to restore its natural condition.

In its time, the Arcola mill contributed to the rapid deforestation of the St. Croix River basin, and provided lumber used to settle the region and beyond. Today, the 50-acre site is owned and managed by the nonprofit Arcola Mills Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving not only the historic structures, but the landscape that existed before settlement.

“We’re going full circle from resource extraction to restoration,” said board member Fitzie Heimdahl, who has been instrumental in making the project happen.

Thanks to a series of grants, including a significant state award received earlier this year, the organization has been getting rid of invasive plants and planting native species, with the hope for multiple benefits for the environment. One key priority is providing bird habitat — with Arcola’s location on the banks of the river, it is visited by thousands of birds on their migrations up and down the flyway in spring and fall. The work will also help other wildlife, protect clean water, and improve the land’s ability to resist climate change and invasive species.

Starting last winter and continuing in July, workers have been hard at work on about fifteen acres of land along the St. Croix River. The foundation’s leaders say it’s only a beginning.

Significant support

(Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a crew from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa was scrambling up steep hills, walking through waist-high ferns, and wading in Arcola Creek as they put plants in the ground. The nonprofit organization performs restoration work while training college students and other young adults interested in conservation careers.

The plants they were placing included native bushes like dogwood and willows, and trees such as river birch and swamp white oaks. All native species, they are well adapted to the wet soils. They carefully placed them in holes, patted the soil down, and then retrieved buckets of creek water to give the plants their first drink in their new home.

Arcola’s restoration effort started in earnest in 2021, when the organization received a grant from Tropical Wings, the St. Croix Valley organization dedicated to protecting birds that migrate between the tropics and the St. Croix River region. With the funding, Arcola started planting the types of trees and bushes that provide berries and rest stops for birds traveling journeys of thousands of miles. They also worked with nonprofit Great River Greening to create a management plan for Arcola’s natural resources, to guide professional restoration and preservation.

Then, last year, the state of Minnesota awarded Arcola nearly $150,000 to support the work through its Conservation Partners Legacy grant program. The funding was provided by the Outdoor Heritage Fund, as recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and approved by the state legislature.

“Without active management, woody, invasive species dramatically change vegetation, first by outcompeting other shrubs and shading out the forest understory plants, and eventually by preventing germination of trees,” the grant application read. “This in turn impacts water quality and species biodiversity. This makes our work urgent for the health of the property and the wildlife that uses it that directly effects the natural springs and creeks on the property that in turn flows into the St. Croix River.”

Because of all the springs and soggy ground, winter work was necessary to avoid harming fragile soils and plants. When everything was frozen last winter, crews from Princeton-based Prairie Restorations and St. Paul-based Landbridge Ecological began cutting buckthorn, honeysuckle, and other non-native brush, making way for native plants.

Despite parts of Arcola being degraded by invasive species and lacking in plant diversity, much of the site remains healthy and high-quality maple and basswood forest on a terrace above the St. Croix, with oaks still growing on the bluff tops. By eradicating invasive species on about 20 acres and bringing more diversity to the vegetation, the foundation hopes to protect the parts of its property that remain healthy.

Once summer arrived, the Conservation Corps crew started its work in the lush ravines and river banks. Plants were purchased at nearby Prairie Restorations in Scandia and Landscape Alternatives in Shafer, ensuring the species were specifically suited to the area. Some of this phase was funded by by the Washington Conservation District, another partner Arcola brought in to the project.

The Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix Watershed District has also supported the project in multiple ways. Arcola Creek is a high-quality stream with naturally-reproducing brook trout and unusual types of plants which depend on groundwater connections, and improving and protecting its health is a district priority.

“[We] were happy to support the excellent work of the Arcola Mills Historic Foundation to restore and manage the native shoreland vegetation and buffers on this unique and high-quality site,” said Mike Isensee, district adminstrator. “Well established and diverse native habitat areas are an important component in the resiliency and to the long-term health of our water resources.”

Isensee explained that the watershed district has a 10-year plan to reduce phosphorus flowing into the St. Croix by more than 100 pounds, and to restore 200 acres of native shoreland buffer.

“Achieving these goals is only possible through collaboration with voluntary landowners,” Isensee continued.

When a group like Arcola is willing to work with them, water and wildlife can win.

Land, water, life

“It’s the land that has drawn people here for thousands of years,” Heimdahl says. The area has a long history of Native American use, as they came for its abundant wildlife, fresh water, and other resources. Evidence of human habitation in the area around Arcola goes back several thousand years. Indigenous people intensively managed lands with fire and other methods, but that ended in the settlement era.

It was the water that caught Folsom’s eye and why the Mower brothers bought out his claim. Water in the river carried lumber and the creeks tumbling down the bluffs provided power for the saws at first, before conversion to steam power (which also depended on water).

Today, the big, white Greek Revival house still stands, largely thanks to the nonprofit group which acquired it more than 20 years ago. The sandstone chimney for the sawmill, which was converted from water to steam power less than 10 years after its initial construction, also remains. The land and water are also what is left.

Arcola became the home and headquarters of the Mower brothers, John and Martin, two influential Yankee transplants who lived and worked at the location for several decades. The sawmill was soon joined by a small village, regularly visited by lumberjacks and settlers, and the Mowers were involved in the St. Croix Book company and other enterprises in Stillwater. John Mower served in the territorial legislature in the 1850s, and in the state legislature in 1875, and a county in southern Minnesota bears his name.

It was the plants that brought the property’s next owners, as Dr. Henry Van Meier and his wife Katherine of Stillwater stumbled across it while searching for ferns and other plants in the 1930s. Van Meier had a reputation of using natural remedies foraged from around the St. Croix Valley. The couple bought the abandoned house and property and used it as a summer residence for decades. They also developed a small artists’ colony that provided space and inspiration from land and water for creative individuals who spent time at the property.

Working to restore the land and water was right in line with the mission of the Arcola Mills Foundation.

It could be hot and humid, bug-bitten and branch-scratched, but Arcola is a beautiful and historic place to work. This summer, the Conservation Corps workers pushed their shovels into the soil and planted trees that may stand for many decades. Another generation is leaving its mark on Arcola and, for the first time in centuries, their primary purpose is its preservation.


One response to “Historic habitat: Old sawmill is site of modern ecological restoration”

  1. Troy Avatar

    Great article! We need to find ways to produce more conservation stories like this one.


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Historic habitat: Old sawmill is site of modern ecological restoration