It has been a wonderful start to our Christmas holiday in the Twin Cities area. After the presents were opened, the feasts were prepared, and the carols were sung, it was time for my wife and I to get back on the road and do what we do best – explore the highways and byways of this country. From scenic overlooks to unexpected roadside attractions, and scenes of natural beauty, we spent several hours exploring both sides of the St. Croix River in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Without further ado, let’s begin:
Our trip for the day: a seventy mile jaunt along the St. Croix River, exploring towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A 169-mile long river, the St. Croix is a tributary of the mighty Mississippi and separates Wisconsin from Minnesota.
Our day began in the town of Hudson, Wisconsin. The town was founded in 1840 and settled by families who came to work in the area’s growing timber industry. Much of the town’s earliest architecture is preserved in the downtown area (via Wikipedia).
We stopped by the Octagon House. Built in 1854 for a wealthy family, the eight-sided house was part of a fashionable trend in home design for the nation’s upper crust in the mid 19th century. It now houses a museum for the St. Croix County Historical Society.
Our next stop was Stillwater, Minnesota. In the 19th century, steamboats such as this one were extensively used from docks along the river in this town.
Many pleasure boats still operate out of Stillwater, from steam river boats to more modern cruise ships.
Before exploring the town further, my wife and I stopped for a quick caffeine fix at Made, a small coffee shop. The coffee was delicious, but even cooler was the outdoor fire pit. Despite temperatures in the mid 20’s, we were comfortably warm as we enjoyed our beverages! As we drank our coffee, though, a set of stairs leading up the hillside behind the coffee shop (left) caught my eye…
The 171 steps (according to the gentleman I spoke with who climbs them every day) led up the side of the hill, giving a fantastic view of downtown Stillwater.
The view from the top was well worth the hike. From there, you can see the Stillwater Lift Bridge, built in 1931. This 1,050-foot long bridge once carried almost 18,000 vehicles each day between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Its age and deterioration means that it is structurally unsound to continue carrying vehicles, and has been repurposed as a pedestrian and bicyclist bridge (via Wikipedia).
After exploring some of the shops in Stillwater, we made our way to the riverside. A scenic town, several films have been shot in Stillwater, including Grumpy Old Men, Grumpier Old Men, and Fargo. Trivia question: Stillwater was also the place of what invention most of us use every day? (Answer in next caption).
Stillwater has lots of cool places to shop, including several antique stores. This display of antique oil cans in one store gave me inspiration for a display in my garage… someday. And the answer to the trivia question in the prior photo: Charles Strite invented the pop-up bread toaster in 1921 in Stillwater.
After leaving Stillwater, we pulled off the road a few miles later to view the St. Croix River Boom Site. This area of Minnesota was a major logging center during the 19th and early 20th century. Logs would be floated from further up the river to Stillwater, where a series of logs and chains (called booms) would catch the freshly cut wood. The site closed in 1914, and aside from a few historical markers, there is no surviving evidence of the nearly sixty-year operation.
We almost didn’t explore the site. I could see that the parking lot was covered in hardpack snow and a sheet of ice. My wife insisted we go in: “We’ve got a four-wheel drive Jeep AND Nokian tires… let’s do this.” I was glad we did – beside seeing a cool view, the Jeep managed the icy lot with zero wheel spin or loss of grip. Those Nokian tires are impressive!
Our next stop was lunch in the small town of Marine on St. Croix… population 689! A series of small shops line the Main Street.
Our lunch destination: Brookside Bar and Grill. Originally built in 1930 as a creamery, the restaurant has a really cool feature.
“Brookside” isn’t just a cool name, it’s accurate! A brook that runs through the town continues beneath the restaurant. When Brookside was a creamery, the stream would be used to keep the milk cold.
The restaurant’s history was cool, but the lunch was hot! And by hot, I mean really, really good! My wife ordered a turkey avocado burger on a gluten-free bun while I went with the fish fry. While her burger and my fish were tasty, both of us raved about the tater tots… so, so yummy!
Our next stop didn’t quite go as planned. We stopped by the Gammelgarden Museum to learn more about Swedish cultural history in Minnesota. Although the website said that the museum is open from May through December, a sign in the window indicated the museum was closed. Ah, well… better luck next time. For fun, though, check out the Dalecarlian Horse by the front door – these painted wooden horses are a Swedish tradition.
As we were driving along Highway 95, my wife yelled for me to pull over. At first I thought there was something wrong, but then I saw we were approaching a field filled with metal sculptures.
We had stumbled upon Franconia Sculpture Park in Franconia, MN, a free park that showcases the works of over 120 artists every year (via Wikipedia). This is Johnny Appleseed by Mark di Suvero, who received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2010. This sculpture has been in the park since 2008.
The Way You Look, a 2019 sculpture, allows you and a partner to view each other from within the two large spheres, using a series of mirrors. Far out, man.
The sculptures seemed to stretch on forever. With over one hundred installations in the park, we did not have time to see them all!
Is it a self-portrait of your humble author? Nope! This is Helmet, by Aaron Leif Nicholson.
Playstation, by Bridget Beck, is both a sculpture and also a working playground for children. In the time that we were in the park, we saw several families come by and play on the equipment.
Peshmerga Fighting Vehicle, by Zaq Landsberg, is a recreation of some of the improvised armored vehicles used by the Kurdish soldiers in Iraq and Syria. Barred from purchasing heavy fighting equipment of their own, the Kurds would often create their own tank-like weapons from old bulldozers, tractors, and other vehicles.
Perhaps my favorite installation – Got the Power: Minnesota by Bayete Ross Smith.
As a child of the 80’s, I kept hearing the lyrics to Pump up the Volume by Marrs: “Pump up the volume, pump up the volume, pump up the volume, dance! dance!”
Our final stop – Cascade Falls in Osceola, Wisconsin.
Cascade Falls were discovered in 1884, leading to the settlement of Osceola. The twenty-five foot falls will eventually collapse due to erosion (via Wikipedia).
The real challenge: the 156 steps from the park above to the bottom of the falls were covered in snow and ice. My wife and I climbed down like we were members of Ernest Shackleton’s crew, exploring the Antarctic, lugging ourselves down the icy stairs. We felt pretty proud of ourselves until a father and his teenage daughter came running past us, the daughter happily skidding around snow-covered corners, slipping on ice, and sliding down the steps. “Watch out!” we yelled to her. “I’m all set, guys!” she yelled back. So much for us joining a polar expedition.
On our return drive through rural Wisconsin, past farm after farm, the sun finally began to emerge from behind the clouds.
Our route back took us over the St. Croix Crossing, a new bridge that replaced the old Stillwater Lift Bridge. The St. Croix Crossing opened in 2017.
The end of our journey – we arrived back in Hudson, enjoying the decorations in Lakeside Park.
While I have been to Wisconsin and Minnesota several times now, this was my first trip north of the Twin Cities. My wife planned a fun adventure for us on the road. Another benefit – aside from lunch, none of the stops along the way required us to spend any money!
Brookside Bar and Grill is open Monday through Friday from 11:00 am – 11:00 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 am – 11:00 pm. The Franconia Sculpture Park is open from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Cascade Falls in Osceola is open twenty-four hours a day.
Thanks for coming along on anther journey down the open road ahead. Stay tuned for more Midwest adventures!
’Til next time.