Spend a couple of days along the St. Croix River in Stillwater, Minnesota’s oldest town, and you’ll be planning a repeat visit before you leave the city limits.
River towns are so inviting. Maybe it’s the scenery. Perhaps it’s the outdoor recreation opportunities or the laid-back atmosphere that so many of these towns have in common. Whatever the reason, we’re drawn to them like…well, like a duck to water. Our latest favorite: Stillwater, Minnesota, just a half-hour to the east of St. Paul, Minnesota’s capital city.
First settled in the 1840s, Stillwater was incorporated as a city on March 4, 1854. Stillwater had all the ingredients for a lumbering town: river connections to the northern Minnesota and Wisconsin pine lands, still waters for assembling rafts, and water power. In the 1850s huge steam-powered mills and a log-holding boom were built and Stillwater became the supply depot for the entire St. Croix valley. Early stage roads connected the city to St. Paul, Marine, and Point Douglas.
Railroads arrived in Stillwater in the early 1870s, vastly expanding markets for timber and manufactured goods. Manufactured products ranging from lumber and shingles, windows and doors, furniture and flooring, to farm machinery, steam engines, and rail cars—as well as grain, feed, and flour from the elevators—were shipped to customers in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Dakota Territory via rail.
Stillwater entered a golden age that produced the grand homes of the lumber barons, the biggest opera house west of Chicago, and many magnificent brick buildings on Main Street. It had gas lights in 1875, telephone service downtown in 1878, and the first electric lights west of Chicago in 1888. The city also boasted as many as 46 saloons and was home to six breweries. In June 1889, the first electric street railway in Minnesota began operation in Stillwater.
By 1900 the lumber was giving out and the mills closed. As the jobs left, Stillwater’s population declined from a high of more than 13,000 in the 1880s to a low of around 7,000 in 1940. However, the population began to recover after World War II when good roads and automobiles put residents in commuting range of the Twin Cities. Stillwater began to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. Fabulous old mansions, like the Ann Bean Mansion, got new life as bed and breakfasts. Old waterfront buildings were torn down (some regrettably) and others were reused. Restaurants were installed in the beer caves and freight house, shops in the old utility buildings and mills, and a hotel in the old Lumberman’s Exchange.
Whether you visit with your honey or with friends, Stillwater is a welcoming and charming destination. We started our visit by meandering through the hillside neighborhoods.
Five sets of historic steps around town offer a magnificent view of Stillwater and the valley as well as plenty of exercise.
Beautiful Victorian homes grace many of the sloping streets in the oldest part of town.
On our way downtown, we passed the Washington Country Courthouse, the oldest standing courthouse in Minnesota. This magnificent 1867 Italianate style building overlooks the town from atop Zion’s Hill and contains the old county jail. Guided tours operate year-round.
Main Street and the St. Croix River are the lowest points in this hillside town. Lowell Park is the riverfront area of downtown Stillwater where many events are held. Take in a riverside walk or picnic in the grassy areas and view the historic lift bridge.
The lift bridge, completed in 1931, spans the St. Croix River between Stillwater and Houlton, Wisconsin, and is one of three remaining lift bridges in the U.S. today.
Head over to the Stillwater Boat Club to rent a watercraft for an outing on the river.
Or, if you prefer a more leisurely option, take a ride with your sweetheart on a romantic Venetian gondola.
Don’t miss the public art around downtown—like this unique tree by artist Dale Lewis
Made from welded rebar and vintage flatware, the leaves and berries shimmer in the sunshine.
Main Street is the shopping artery of the town and there are lots of things to see. So much, in fact, that we’re splitting our shopping trip into two days.
Our first stop, though, is Leo’s Grill & Malt Shop for a late lunch. They’ve got a great menu of sandwiches and more, but don’t miss the burgers. We each tried different kinds and all were among the best we’ve ever tasted.
Now that we’re stuffed, we’ve got to walk that meal off. Stillwater is rich in antique and vintage shops so we’re starting there.
At My Sister’s Cottage you can stock up on painted furniture or buy milk and mineral paints for your own projects.
Just a few doors down, American Gothic Antiques houses two floors stuffed to the corners with vintage furnishings, jewelry, collectibles, and memorabilia.
Whatever your collecting passion, chances are you can find multiple examples to choose from.
If you love the Hollywood Regency look, this chandelier would be right at home.
The Stillwater Antiques Mall is filled with booths that specialize in collectibles like these vintage guitars.
Before we head back to the car, we make one more stop to satisfy our sugar cravings. The smell of creamy chocolates, fresh caramel corn, and spiced nuts is topped by the sweet joy of sampling homemade treats at Candyland.
Stillwater is located on the St. Croix Scenic Byway—State Highway 95 which runs through historic downtown Main Street—and follows the cliffs and wooded areas along the river. Driving through the byway is an ideal way to appreciate the beauty of the area.
We put in a lot of steps today, so on our way back through town, we finished the day at the Water Street Inn outdoor café. We relaxed with a scrumptious meal of comfort food like shepherd’s pie and a glass of cold hard cider while watching the boats on the river.
Don’t miss our next post when Kurtis and Hannah shop ‘til they drop in the unique boutiques and vintage stores in Stillwater’s old downtown.
© Caruth Studio