Trivia from Our Archives

Check out fun facts and photos from the St. Croix Collection, the local history resource of Stillwater Public Library!
Browse through books, photographs, maps, and clippings files focused on the city of Stillwater, the St. Croix Valley, and Washington County, Minnesota.

Women in Stillwater Public Library
“The library is not a building nor a collection of dead books, but a living active agent of service. It is a necessary part of the educational equipment of the city.” – Gertrude Glennon, librarian, in a 1929 report to the Stillwater Public Library board
In recognition of National Library Week on April 4 – 10, we delved into our archives for library memories and found this photo of women, probably librarians, checking cases containing the John Runk Historical Collection at the Stillwater Public Library. The photo was taken on May 2, 1938. This collection of Runk photos is still an important part of the library’s St. Croix Collection.
119 West Chestnut

Become a house detective! Did you know that the Queen Anne style house at 119 West Chestnut Street provided an excellent vantage point for its original owner, Alexander Johnson, to watch over the daily activities of his sawmill? The house was built in 1894-95 with all of the latest trimmings, and a barn was added two years later (which today serves as a garage). To learn more about this home and to explore the histories of other Stillwater homes, tap into the resources of the St. Croix Collection. You can access digitized building permits, view Sanborn fire insurance maps, and peruse house history files. You can also visit the City of Stillwater’s Heirloom Homes and Landmark Sites to uncover more intriguing facts about these historic places. 

Brrr! Imagine spending January and February harvesting thousands of pounds of ice from local lakes and rivers. This photo, from the Runk Collection, features the Lily Lake Ice House Crew in 1947. Interested in learning a bit more history about winter work on the water? Try this short article from the January 2018 edition of  St. Croix Valley Magazine: The Risks and Rewards of the Frozen St. Croix.

Walk through history! Visit our outdoor historic photo walk in Lowell Park in January – March 2021. As part of Wintertime in Stillwater activities and attractions, 31 historic Stillwater photos from the library’s St. Croix Collection are temporarily installed along the path in Lowell Park. Walk by and view some of the many treasures of this special collection.

Travel through time with us! Meet the Holcombes in their Stillwater home on Christmas in 1900. Continue the journey and join the family for birth, marriage, new homesteads, historic floods and Lutheran choir parties as you page through this amazing collection of photos taken and developed on glass negatives by Fred E. Holcombe in Stillwater from 1893-1908. Stop by the library to view this local history resource, one of the many treasures found in our St. Croix Collection.

Local photographer John Runk captured many historic images in and around Stillwater, including this one of the Blackfeet Indians of Glacier National Park in front of the Lowell Inn (dated 1928). If you have an interest in looking through historic photos of Stillwater, but do not want to venture out, try the Minnesota Historical Society Collections OnlineTo refine your search, select “Narrow to items with digital content” and then select Stillwater under “Narrow by Place.” When you enter a search term, you will be limited to photographs of Stillwater!

The library’s St. Croix Collection contains many gems of local history, including the Sinclair Stereopticon Slides. James Sinclair was a Stillwater area photographer from approximately 1876 to 1890. His collection, titled “Views In and Around Stillwater,” portrays people and scenes in the late 1800s. Most images feature scenes of early Stillwater businesses, homes and views of the St. Croix River. A selection of these may be viewed online through the Minnesota Reflections Minnesota Digital Library.

The background photo with the yellow border is of Fairy Falls, north of downtown Stillwater near Highway 95. The photo with the orange border is Florence Mill on Second Street. The photo with the purple border is Charles Bean’s residence located on North 3rd Street.

The St. Croix River Valley has long been an area for archeological exploration. The library’s St. Croix Collection includes a 1979 dissertation titled Archeological Investigations of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, Minnesota and Wisconsin. News clippings in our vertical files from the 1980s discuss evidence of a 1500 year-old community site north of Wolf Marina. Articles from the 1990s show findings dating back to 5000 years ago. 

This summer, archeologists discovered new clues about early residents of the St. Croix River, including artifacts from roughly 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Read about these recent excavations in article by Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360. We will add this latest information to our files and keep building our local history records!

Who is the fourth player from the left?

This is an image of the Stillwater Loggers baseball team on July 4, 1954, from left to right: Jerry Ryan, Jim Ponath, Ed Gamm – Manager, Bud Grant, Jim Buege, and Jack Junker. Photo is available online through the Minnesota Historical Society Collections Online and is also available in the library’s St. Croix Collection.

Are you interested in local history facts and photos? Here are two digital resources available for browsing that should not be missed.

Minnesota Reflections is a database of digitized original materials, and is the first online project of the Minnesota Digital Library. It is a collection of more than 55,000 images and documents depicting the history of Minnesota. Nearly 200 institutions including historical societies, public libraries, special archives, universities and colleges have shared their original materials with the Minnesota Digital Library. These materials include images, text, audio, film, and more, with new items added on a regular basis.

Minnesota Historical Society Collections Online is another place for history enthusiasts. Search for photographs, three dimensional and archaeological objects, artwork, oral histories, moving images, maps, and more. Digital images from the Stillwater Public Library’s Runk photo collection are available in this online database, providing a glimpse into the events and daily life of Stillwater starting in the 1900s. A search of baseball in Stillwater provides a visual history of the leagues of the past, including the 1954 picture of the Stillwater Loggers with player Bud Grant.

The Proctor House is one of the earliest homes in Stillwater. Where is it located, and when was it built?

The Proctor House, located on 220 Fourth Street South, was built in the Greek Revival style. The County Assessor dates the house to 1852.

220 4th Street South is referred to as the Proctor House in the Heirloom and Landmark Site Program. The home was actually first occupied by Francis R. Delano, the first warden of the Stillwater State Prison, who assumed his duties in March 1853. He was also the mayor of Stillwater from 1862 for one year.

The house later became the home of John Proctor and his wife Caroline. Proctor came to Stillwater in 1849 from Missouri. He ran a general merchandise business of Short, Proctor, and Company from 1852 to 1856. He opened a hardware store under the name of Proctor Brothers and was part of the St. Croix Boom Company until 1880, when the Governor appointed him the surveyor general of logs and lumber for the first district. Proctor served two terms as register of deeds and postmaster, three terms as mayor from 1877 to 1880, and was appointed as the warden of the Minnesota State Prison in 1860, a position he held until 1868.

Today Gregg “Spike” Carlsen and his wife Kat make this house their home. Spike serves on the Stillwater Library Board of Trustees. Spike built a tree house at the age of 8 and has been swinging a hammer ever since. He worked as a carpenter and contractor for 15 years, then as an editor with The Family Handyman, the world’s leading DIY magazine, for another 15 years. He’s the author of the award-winning A Splintered History of Wood, Woodworking FAQ, The Backyard Homestead of Building Projects, and Cabin Lessons.

For more information about this house, view the Proctor House History brochure (compiled with help from Spike Carlsen). The brochure also contains information about the Heirloom and Landmark Sites Program of Stillwater, as well as a list of St. Croix Collection resources available for learning more about Stillwater’s historic homes, the people who lived there and what may have happened in the past.

Does this Sanborn Insurance Map show the library?

No, the Carnegie library was built in 1902 and postdates the August 1891 insurance map. If you look at Image 6 of the online version of the 1891 map, try to identify where the library will be built. Ascension Episcopal is on the map at its present location.

In the 1800 and 1900s, Sanborn Map Company published detailed maps of cities and towns to help companies assess fire insurance risks of properties. The maps contained an index of streets and addresses,outlines of each building and outbuilding, locations of windows and doors, property boundaries, building use, house and block numbers, and often the names of churches, schools and businesses. While no longer published today, Sanborn maps are a valuable tool when researching the history of a particular town, area, bulding or even a specific residence.

The library owns Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Stillwater in large format photocopy versions for 1884, 1888, 1891, 1898, 1904, 1910, 1924 and microfilm editions for 1884 – 1950. Digital versions are also available from the Library of Congress. An article from Family Tree Magazine (magazine available at the library) offers a how-to guide on using online Sanborn maps for genealogy research.

Is this Stillwater voting photo from the first time women were allowed to participate in national elections?

Perhaps not. This is likely a photograph of voting for a local school board election in approximately 1915.

Local Stillwater historian Don Empson researched this photo from the Runk Collection: “This voting booth was on the northeast corner of North Third St and East Elm Street on ‘Prison Hill.’  Notice the bluff behind, and the stairway down the bluff on the far right side of the photo. The woman, fourth from the left, is Georgina Simonson, who lived in Stillwater between 1906 amd 1915 when she was a proprietor of a grocery store at 406 E. Poplar Street in Dutchtown. Her presence and the style of clothes suggest a date of approximately 1915 when women were allowed to vote in school elections.”

Brrrrrr! Was it so cold in 1929 that a stove was needed on Main Street?

The average temperature in November 1929 in the Twin Cities area was 29 degrees Fahrenheit, historically below average for the month of November. The Northern States Power Company made the most of this cool weather by setting up a stove outside on the corner of Olive and Main Street to demonstrate the heating powers of coke.

The “Gas House Coke” photo is part of the library’s John Runk Collection and is dated November 27, 1929. The men shown, from left to right, are Reverend Herman Piper of Salem Church, John A. Granquist, Al Kempf, and Mike McCleer on the corner of Olive and Main Street. On January 10, 1983, the Stillwater Gazette published the photo and asked for further information. Lawrence Kempf of San Diego sent a letter back to the Gazette, which was published on January 17, 1983. Following is an excerpt from the letter, explaining the photo:

“One of the men included in the photo is my father, Albert Edward Kempf, who then was an employee of the Northern States Power Company. The stove was set up outside their office building on that corner in order to demonstrate the heating capabilities of coke, a byproduct of their gas plant located further south on Main Street. Whether or not this was my father’s idea, I don’t know, but I do know that he demonstrated the product there for at least several weeks in the dead of winter in order to improve sales of the product. (Yes, we used coke in our hot air furnace in our home at 717 West Oak Street, Stillwater, for many years.)  You will note a wind break about waist high behind the men to keep the chill winds off as they enjoyed the warmth of the fire. I remember that the stove … would get red hot even though the temperature outside was near zero.”

Who is this group?

Company K, First Minnesota from 1916 or 1917

Company K, First Minnesota mobilized on June 19, 1916, to defend the Mexico border. Due to increasing friction and violence along the border, Army troops were sent into Mexico to pursue violent revolutionaries. This left key unguarded areas. President Wilson called the National Guard into active duty, and troops from across the U.S. assembled to patrol the border.  The large presence of troops deterred the raids, and nine months later the guard was released. Company K, First Minnesota returned home to Camp Bobleter at Fort Snelling and mustered out of service on March 25, 1917. Just 11 days later, the First Minnesota was called back to active duty and redesignated to the 135th Infantry Regiment and assigned to the 34th Division in World War I.

To learn more about the 1916 Mexican Border conflict and its importance in preparing America for World War I, view 1916:Trial Run on the Mexican Border by Jack Johnson as provided by the Minnesota Military Museum.

To learn more about Minnesotans serving in World War I, stop by and visit the St. Croix Collection. Peruse a copy of the Last Buddies Bully Beef Club booklet (the last man’s club for World War I veterans), or look through A History of Washington County, Minnesota in the World War (1917-1918-1919): A Chronicle of the Activities of Soldiers, Sailors, Officials and Citizens.

Tale of the Blue Light? The Ringing Bell? Battle Hollow Hauntings?

Local lore about the spirits of the St. Croix Valley.

A journey through the St. Croix Collection’s vertical files reveals historical news clippings detailing spirit sightings in the valley.

The Tale of the Blue Light: Joy Powell explored the legend of the haunted blue light in an article published in the Stillwater Gazette on March 5, 1984. Powell wrote that around the turn of the century a farmer lived in a house below the old Soo Line Bridge on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River. The farmer was reported to have been employed as track checker, using a blue light to warn railroad engineers if track conditions were hazardous. According to the lore, sparks from a passing train caused the farmer’s house to ignite, burning his wife and animals alive. Since this time, a blue light has been spotted in the area of the burned farmhouse, reportedly the farmer’s ghost haunting the tracks.

The Ringing Bell: Joy Powell also wrote about scary stories broadcast as part of Hank Sampson’s “Heritage” historical series. One story featured the old Sabin Mansion. Deserted at the end of the 19th Century due to the declining lumber boom, the house was in a state of neglect and decay. It became a dare for school children to walk by the abandoned mansion in the moonlight to listen for the sound of the tinkling bell inside.

Battle Hollow Hauntings: The homes in the Battle Hollow district of Stillwater have had their share of peculiar sightings. In a two-part article published in the Stillwater Gazette in October, 1987, writer Dawn Aerts shared the case of 14-year-old Mary Sharpe. In 1903, Mary came down with a mysterious fever and went into a death-like coma. She just as mysteriously awoke from the coma and recovered from the illness. She told family members about the strange apparition that spoke to her and helped her regain consciousness. The apparition’s name was Edwin Emeny. One of Mary’s attending doctors, Mrs. Cora Emeny, was shocked when she heard this. It was the name of her brother who had died 15 years earlier – a name and man that Mary would never have known.

To learn more about these tales, visit the St. Croix Collection. To read about other Minnesota haunts, check out these titles: The Nearly Departed: MN Ghost Stories and Legends by Michael Norman (133.1 NOR), The Minnesota Road Guide to Haunted Locations by Chad Lewis (133.109776 LEW), Twin Cities Haunted Handbook by Jeff Morris (133.109776 MOR), or Ghost Stories of Minnesota by Gina Teel (133.1 TEE).

What was Pest Island?

Located near the Osceola Landing on the St. Croix River, Pest Island was a site used to quarantine immigrants in the 1850s who were ill and suspected of carrying cholera. 

The mysteries of this forgotten island are explored in a local history research paper written by Kathryn Nordstrom. Kathryn researched the background of the cholera pandemic and conducted interviews with descendants of Swedish immigrants to piece together the tale of Pest Island.

In the 1800s, the world suffered a series of cholera pandemics. The second pandemic reached the Americas in 1832, with cholera striking in waves several more times over the next thirty years. Evidence suggests that cholera arrived in Minnesota in the 1850s, possibly spreading from immigrant populations traveling up the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers on crowded river boats.

A grandson of Swedish immigrant Maja Lena Johanson spoke about his grandmother’s story at a centennial celebration of the Swedish Methodist Church in Lindstrom: “In 1854, [Maja Lena] was with a group of immigrants from Sweden, some of whom had contracted cholera in Chicago. From Chicago, they went by steamboat down the Illinois River to St. Louis. There they transferred to a steamboat carrying supplies to soldiers at Fort Snelling. Again, they transferred to another boat, went back down the Minnesota River to the Mississippi and then up the St. Croix River to Taylor Falls. On the St. Croix River, when people died of cholera, the boat captain would pull in near shore and have the dead hastily buried.”

In an interview with Kathryn Nordstrom, Roy Strand related a story about the island itself. “His grandfather, Gustav Strand, was living near Marine-on-St. Croix when he heard that a boat with Swedish immigrants, from the area in Sweden he had come from years before, was on its way to Stillwater with cholera. Those with cholera were taken upriver near Osceola, Wisconsin and put on an island. Gustav bought groceries, rented a boat, and took food to the island. It was there that he met his future wife. About six people died and were buried on the island. Their surviving relatives intended to move the bodies at a later time but when they returned to the island, it had disappeared.”

Although now washed away, a marker at the Osceola Landing memorialized the resting place of these immigrants. The sign read:

Pest Island
Paddlewheelers carried mail, supplies, and fear to the isolated villages along the river. Cholera might be aboard.
A hundred years ago, before shifting channels and highway road fill altered the river banks, the peninsula was an island. Many immigrants bound upstream for new land traveled no farther than the island’s temporary hospital. The “Pest House” quarantined the ill and suspected plague carriers. Some were apparently buried here.

To learn more about Pest Island, stop by the library to read Kathryn Nordstrom’s research paper, or discover another unique facet of valley history by delving into the St. Croix Collection’s one-of-a-kind scrapbooks, journals, and papers depicting the valley and its people.

What is this river relic?

A belt buckle made from a mussel shell from the St. Croix River. 

In late 1916, Richard and Walter Kaiser formed the St. Croix Pearl Button Company of South Stillwater (now Bayport) and joined the multimillion dollar mussel industry in the United States. Shells were cut and stamped into blanks from locally harvested mussels and from mussels shipped in from other areas. The blanks were sent to finishing factories in New York to be made into mother-of-pearl buttons, buckles and other ornaments for high-end apparel.

While the St. Croix River was never in the top five rivers nationally for production, over 50 tons of mussels were harvested from the riverway in 1917 alone. Clamming or mussel harvesting was a popular activity for many. People waded and raked the shorelines in search of mussels. Some built special hooked rigs to drag along the river bottom from the back of boats. (Click to view a photo of a clamming boat on the Mississippi River in Red Wing in the Minnesota Reflections digital archives collection).

By the 1920s and 1930s, overharvesting and habitat destruction had significantly affected the supply of mussel shells. Parts of the St. Croix were closed for mussel harvesting due to steep population declines. Lack of supply combined with the invention of plastic buttons and zippers slowed the industry along the St. Croix.

Learn more about freshwater mussels and the button industry in the following articles: St. Croix River Mussels, Native Mussels in Minnesota, and From Freshwater Pearls to Button Factories.  Read more about the St. Croix Pearl Button Company in an article by Brent Petersen, Washington County Historical Society. 

What was the first Last Man’s Club?

Thirty-four surviving members of the volunteer infantry from Company B of the First Minnesota Regiment of the Civil War formed the “first” Last Man’s Club of Stillwater in 1885. After World Wars I and II, Last Man’s Clubs formed across the United States. The Last Man’s Club of Company B of First Minnesota claimed to be the first.  

In April of 1861, eighty-nine men from Stillwater marched away to the Civil War as Company B of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The company fought in the battles of First Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg. The regiment was mustered out of service in 1864 with only 43 men coming home. In 1885, the survivors gathered for a reunion in Stillwater, calling themselves “The Last Man’s Club.” They decided to meet annually on July 21 on the anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run.

The above photo, from left to right, is of Adam Marty, Peter Hall, John Goff, and Charles Lockwood. The photo is believed to be from July 21, 1921, when 4 of the 5 living members attended the reunion. In 1930, Charles Lockwood was the last surviving member of the Last Man’s Club. Lockwood passed away in 1935.

Read more about the Last Man’s Club in an article by Brent Petersen, Washington County Historical Society and an article from the Pioneer Press archives. Stop by the library’s St. Croix Collection to browse biographies of the members of Company B or view the documents online on the Minnesota Reflections digital archive.

What was the class yell and motto of the Stillwater High School class of ’19?
1919 that is.

Class Yell: S-e-n-I-o-r-s, S-e-n-I-o-r-s, Seniors, Seniors, SHS!
Class Motto: Out of the valley, into the open road!

Photos, invitation, graduation program and class information is from The Girl Graduate, Her Own Book. This special scrapbook journal details Bessie Bernstein’s years at Stillwater High School as a member of the class of 1919. Bessie’s graduation photo is shown above.

Stop by the St. Croix Collection and check out this amazing scrapbook by a Stillwater Senior one hundred years ago, or view the scrapbook online at Minnesota Reflections digital archive.

Our thanks to the Bernstein family for this donation.

Where is Little Venice?

North of Stillwater on the St. Croix River between the High Bridge and Boom Site Landing

The tree-shaded channels of the St. Croix River between the High Bridge and Boom Site Landing were nicknamed “Little Venice” by locals in the early 1900s. This 1924 photograph by John Runk depicts a canoe pass between the isles of Little Venice. A unique segment of the St. Croix River, Little Venice marks the transition between the meandering river to the north and the deep lake-like water to the south. The islands are formed from sand deposited by the slowing St. Croix.

Read more about the history of the river and find mentions of Little Venice in two books found in the library’s St. Croix Collection —The St. Croix River: Midwest Border River by James Taylor Dunn and Stillwater by Brent Peterson. Stop by the library to view historic photographs of the St. Croix, part of the Runk collection featuring Stillwater and the surrounding area between 1860 to the 1960s.
“From here to Stillwater the main channel was not for us. We explored, instead, the sylvan, shaded wonders of Little Venice Canal – one of the many catfish trails of the lower river . . .”
-Author James Taylor Dunn, The St. Croix River: Midwest Border River

What year was The Teenagers Dike created to help save downtown Stillwater from flooding?

Heavy rain and snow runoff raised the St. Croix River above flood stage in 1965. Residents, students and even inmates from the Minnesota Correctional Facility came together beginning April 10 to build a dike to save downtown Stillwater. There were so many teens helping fill sandbags, there was a sign naming it The Teenagers Dike. By April 15, government officials closed off downtown to foot and vehicle traffic. The River crested at 694.07 feet above sea level on April 18. The Teenagers Dike held fast! Downtown reopened April 21. You can see still the sign at the Washington County Historical Society (

What building served as Stillwater’s first reading room and public library?

The Jassoy Building
Immediately west of the junction of Chestnut and Third Street is the Jassoy Building, built by Theodore Jassoy in 1886. He and his son Herman owned and ran one of the finest harness and saddlery shops in Stillwater and in the state.  The building, known as the Jassoy block, housed the family on the second level of the building with businesses on the first and a meeting hall for the Stillwater Lodge No. 7, Knights of Pythias on the third. In a blurry photo of the building taken in 1898 (not shown), the southernmost window of the lower level has the words “Public Reading Room” inscribed. The year the photo was taken was the year the first Board of Directors of the Stillwater Public Library was formed and had their initial meeting in August. At this meeting, it was moved that the first floor of this block ‘will be leased for a term of 3 years at a rental of $50 per month’ from Jassoy for use as a library, with the understanding that the rooms on the first floor would be connected and supplied with additional lighting and adequate heat. This was the inception of the library that has transformed into what we now have today.