On the River

A few months ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I visited Stillwater. Though I love my hometown, I hadn’t been back in years, and I had only a vague sense of how much the place had changed since the last time I visited.

The most noticeable differences were also the most predictable. Stillwater now has all the totems of suburban prosperity, not unlike a million other American towns, from Columbus to Coos Bay: new strip malls, new housing developments, a Cub Foods big enough to need its own Zip Code. But even downtown—which has basically looked the same since the invention of dirt—has changed, with its myriad art galleries, antiquarian bookstores, antique malls, and chocolate shops (or “shoppes,” as the local fudge-hawkers like to spell it). There are even condos—and, yes, a Starbucks. I took the presence of the latter as a sure sign that the apocalypse would soon be upon us. 

But even though Stillwater has come to resemble many bedroom communities, it is still impossible to escape the city’s sense of uniqueness, and how it’s uniquely tied to its past. For good or ill, Stillwater is, and always will be, defined by its relationship with the St. Croix River (and, perhaps, the prison). And no number of Ye Olde Chocolate Shoppes is going to change that.

Of course, Stillwater is not the only town whose identity is inextricably linked to the river, nor is it the only place that has seen some dramatic changes in recent years. And as more people and more money pour into the area, residents—and officials—up and down the St. Croix Valley have been forced to confront difficult questions about development and identity, about preserving character and promoting commerce.

The current fight between the Minnesota DNR and Rob Hubbard (of the KSTP-owning clan), who wants to build a large house along the river in Lakeland, is perhaps the most conspicuous example of just how contentious these disputes can be. As writer Jon Tevlin explains in his story for this issue (“River Lost” p.70), the controversy is but a small piece of an important debate.

Forty years after the St. Croix was named a Wild and Scenic River, many believe the river is at a critical juncture, caught between those fighting to maintain the river’s pristine character—and local governments and landowners who want to take advantage of increasingly valuable property.

As someone who will always consider the area home, I have more than a passing interest in how this issue plays out. But I also believe these are questions that don’t just affect people who live in Hastings or Afton or Taylors Falls. No matter where you live in Minnesota, or how you feel about the St. Croix, you’re likely to encounter similar debates in coming years. And how we deal with them will affect our quality of life for years to come.

Unless, of course, I am right about that Starbucks.

Andrew Putz