The Weekend Tourist: Two towns on the St. Croix River

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March 26, 2012
By: Linda Koutsky
Linda Koutsky
Spring is finally in the air and the first thing that makes me want to do is head out of town. Fresh air, a changing landscape, discovering something new; spring brings a sense of renewal and excitement after being cooped up all winter. So I picked up my friend Becky and we headed to Taylors Falls. It’s an easy escape and makes a terrific day trip.

After a little more than an hour’s drive we descended St. Croix River’s bluff and entered the historic town. In the late 1800s, Taylors Falls was Northern Pacific’s last stop on a rail line from St. Paul. Four different depots have been built on the site, but the one from 1902 remains today as a community center.

I love doing research before I go on a trip — it makes me feel like I’m on vacation already. Even though this was just going to be a day trip I checked the Taylors Falls city website (taylorsfalls.govoffice.com) in advance to make sure we wouldn’t miss anything. There I found a terrific walking tour that coordinates with YouTube videos. Brilliant! Why haven’t I seen this before? Leave it to a small Minnesota town to embrace technology. So I printed out the map and we logged onto YouTube right beside the depot.

“Looking north toward the downtown, imagine our journey through the rich innocence of the past that includes stagecoaches, sweeping fires, log jams and mudslides so violent they changed the face of the city.” The beautifully narrated script, packed with historic photos and interspersed with old newspaper accounts, had us hooked. While it was a little hard to see my iPhone’s screen in the unusually bright sun, we enjoyed the talk and paused (according to the narrator’s directions) to move to the next location. The tour explains how Richard Sears, soon-to-be founder of Sears Roebuck, worked at a station for six months, how East Coast settlers built their homes of local timber in the Greek Revival style and how the town built a public school building in 1852 that is now the oldest still operating schoolhouse in Minnesota. The Eastlake Style, gingerbread library is one of several buildings in town on the National Register of Historic Places. The building, along with a local librarian and several town residents, inspired the 1975 blockbuster thriller “Wind Chill Factor” that I recently crossed off on my Minnesota literature checklist. In between the tour stops we popped into many of the charming stores.

While there’s plenty of 19th century history in Taylors Falls, that history goes back even further. Ten thousand years ago melting glaciers created a river so strong and powerful it cut a gorge through the area’s hard basalt rock. More than a mile wide, the river flowed for hundreds of years. Sand and silt got caught in swirling eddies and grinded out “potholes” in the rock. They look like perfectly auger-bored holes and measure from two inches to 20 feet wide and up to 80 feet deep! Interstate Park has more potholes, and deeper ones, than anywhere in the world — a real geologic treasure.

We left Taylors Falls and crossed the St. Croix River. When it was designated a National Scenic Riverway in 1968 the St. Croix became a National Park. At the visitor center we learned about the river’s 40 mussel species, including the recently invasive Zebra mussels. The center has natural history exhibits, a Google Earth-style map of the river you can walk on and brochures for area trails.

History, nature, geology . . . now all we needed was some culture. When it opened in 1917, the Festival Theatre first showed silent movies; today, it’s a venue for live theatre and concerts. Folk musicians Pop Wagner, Tony Glover and Charlie Maguire thrilled the nearly sold out hall with their tribute to Woody Guthrie.

It was a full day. As we crossed back into Minnesota we wished we had booked rooms in Minnesota’s first licensed bed and breakfast — the Old Jail. The 1884 cells have been removed, but this adorable two-story building has exterior walls built of stacked two-by-fours so the delinquents couldn’t escape. Next door, a former saloon has additional suites. Well, it was only 50 miles — I know we’ll be back again soon.

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Dinner Break

We ran out of time for a tour of the Chateau St. Croix Winery & Vineyard but opted for dinner at Indian Creek Orchard Winery & Grill in downtown St. Croix Falls. Local wines and regional ingredients make this restaurant a locavore’s delight.