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.

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?

1965
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 (wchsmn.org).

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.