By Sara Holger
“Oh there’s not in this wide world a valley so sweet
as the valley in whose bosom the Whitewaters meet.”
—After Thomas Moore, “The Vale of Avoca,” via Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
This year, 2019, marks the centennial anniversary of Whitewater State Park located in Winona County in the southeast Minnesota blufflands region. The story of how this place evolved into the popular tourist destination it is today is both fascinating and frightening and the park naturalists are working to make sure that story is not forgotten.
Over the span of 100 years, the Whitewater valley went from wilderness to tamed landscape and back to near wilderness again. The following narrative is a common story of how human relationships with the land evolve over time. Travel the world over and in nearly every region you will find a similar story. Today, more than 30,000 acres of public lands comprise the valley, providing opportunities for visitors to hike, hunt, fish, camp, bird-watch, and more. The Whitewater valley has become a paradise, but this was not always the case. In this piece, I include excerpts from stories shared by local residents during a Whitewater State Park oral history project that began in 2017 that illustrate the history and changes of this place. These stories are being transcribed and will be available online at Minnesota Reflections in the coming year.
Timeline courtesy of the author.
Before Bridges and Roads
Nestled in the Whitewater valley is the famed Whitewater River, named by the Dakota people who once lived here as Minneiska, meaning “white, water.” Historically, the river would swell with snowmelt each spring and erode light-colored clay deposits along the riverbank, turning the river milky white. By the time Elaine Holst’s grandfather, Emanuel Hessig, settled near Beaver village in the 1870s, the clay deposits were gone and the Dakota were seasonal migrants in the valley. Now in her nineties, Elaine shared stories her grandfather once told her.
“Grampa would tell us kids . . . about the Indians coming up there. Yes, and those Indians would come and they were kind. I mean, they didn’t make any disturbance, only when they came they always raided the chicken house and they’d take all the eggs. And they would go up the head of the valley, that’s what Grampa always called it, the head of the valley. And that’s where the Indians would settle in for the summer. My brother always talked about how the Indian children would slide into the creek.”
The Dakota were forced from their homelands by the government and European settlers. By the 1890s, five villages were established in the Whitewater valley; from north to south they were Weaver, Beaver, Whitewater Falls, Elba, and Fairwater.
In Elba, Mike Mauer’s great grandfather arrived from Luxembourg in 1890 to work for Bub’s Brewery out of Winona.
“Basically, the president or whatever the owner of Bub’s, told my great grandfather to come to the valley because ‘I think you can start a bar there and have a heck of a business.’ And the town was already started; I don’t think there was much for businesses then. So, they built the bar.”
Elba has managed to remain on the map and Mike’s family continues to operate Mauer’s Tavern. The tavern has become a destination for campers, trout fishermen, and hunters who come to the Whitewater valley seeking respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Changing Land Use
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, floods caused by agricultural erosion plagued the valley villages. It turns out that plowing up the vast root systems of the virgin prairies and converting them to wheat and corn fields was not sustainable. Rain and snowmelt flowed off the fields, carrying the fertile topsoil down into the valley. Clogged streams became choked with sediment and flooded with the slightest rainfall, sometimes filling homes with up to three feet of sand and burying crops and pastureland. Beaver village flooded 28 times in 1938 and residents began to relocate (Whitewater River Watershed Project n.d.). Yes, you read that correctly: 28 times in 1938!
Meanwhile, efforts were underway to establish a state park along the middle branch of the Whitewater River. National parks were becoming very popular and Minnesota had already established a handful of state parks. Local settlers wanted to preserve the most scenic portion of the Whitewater valley as pleasant grounds for future generations. The editor of a local newspaper photographed tourists using the valley for leisure and assembled a book of photos called The Paradise of Minnesota: The Proposed Whitewater State Park (Warming 1917). Articles ran almost weekly in the local papers praising the proposed park. In 1919, the Minnesota legislature approved the establishment of the park, but it wasn’t until the New Deal programs of the 1930’s that infrastructure was built with help from the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration (Meyer 1991).
During the time the park was being developed, farmers in the valley were taking huge losses on their flooded properties. In 1931, the Izaak Walton League petitioned the state legislature to purchase the abandoned farmsteads and transform the valley into a game refuge. In 1932, the state purchased its first valley farmstead and made it into what is known today as the Crystal Springs Trout Hatchery.
In the early 1900s, Mike Seibenaler’s grandfather arrived from Germany and settled on the ridge overlooking Beaver village. As the floods forced families from the valley and the country schools began closing down, those who remained had to face a tough choice: how to get their kids to school.
Mike recalled, “People on the ridge were willing to . . . sell. I remember my mom and dad telling the story . . . where the kids were all little, all of a sudden they were going to start school. . . . The state was offering to buy land and they thought . . . ‘We can’t afford to drive them to school. . . .’ So, they decided to move to town . . . and so then they sold their land to the state. My grandfather, Peter Kronebusch, was not happy. Not happy at all!”
Most families were not happy about selling their properties, but they knew they could not make a living in the flooded valley. After the passage of the Pitman-Robertson Act of 1937, which placed a sales tax on hunting guns and ammunition, the Minnesota Department of Conservation had a funding source to acquire farms and develop a game refuge.
Richard J. Dorer was hired to oversee the Pitman-Robertson funds for the state and he devised the plan to restore the Whitewater valley. Dorer envisioned a place where urban folks who had no personal connections to private land could come experience the traditions of hunting and fishing. A self-proclaimed crusader, he worked tirelessly to enlighten others about conservation and stewardship. At the same time, the first Soil and Water Conservation District in Minnesota was established in Winona County and helped local farmers better understand how their farming practices contributed to soil erosion and runoff. The area farmers were some of the first in the country to help pilot experimental conservation practices at the time, such as rotational grazing, contour strips, and grass waterways.
Mike Seibenaler’s father, Alex, grew up on the ridge overlooking Beaver village. He witnessed the erosion, flooding, and devastation caused by poor land use. He sold his farm to the state and later became a soil conservationist. During his career, he led many field tours to share the lessons of the Whitewater valley.
Keeping the Story Alive
Today, only two of the original five valley towns remain. The story of the Whitewater valley is now being told by the naturalists at Whitewater State Park. Monthly tours to Beaver village cemetery introduce the powerful story of destruction and restoration in the valley. During cemetery walks, visitors hear the stories of those buried at the site and learn how poor land use practices caused floods and destroyed homes, businesses, and communities. The Watershed Field Experience, a field day designed for area high school youth participating in agricultural education classes, allows students to investigate watershed issues while learning the history of the valley. In addition, the park Visitor Center houses both permanent and travelling exhibits that relate to watershed protection, including the We Are Water MN exhibit the park hosted in 2017.
Managing the natural resources of the park and surrounding Wildlife Management Area is a delicate balancing act. There is a vast spectrum of interests among visitors. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, through its various divisions, works to address the interests of all Minnesotans while using science to guide sound management planning. It is easy for visitors to see the restored bluff prairies and oak savannas and vastness of green perennial vegetation along the river and think, “Wow! The Whitewater valley has been restored!” But to the educated observer, the invasive species, high sediment content in the river, and recent increase in flooding tell us there is much, much more work to be done in the Whitewater valley.
Find out more about the current issues impacting the Whitewater watershed and explore the health of this and other watersheds with the Watershed Health Assessment Framework tool developed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Friends of Whitewater State Park. n.d. “Resources.” https://friendsofwhitewater.weebly.com/resources.html
McKane, John. 1968. “A Walk Thru the Whitewater with Richard J. Dorer and a Paddle Thru Pretty Red Wing in a Story of Two Valleys.” Minnesota Conservation Volunteer November-December. 29-37. https://webapps8.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteer_index/past_issues/article_pdf?id=2414
Meyer, Roy W. 1991. Everyone’s Country Estate: A History of Minnesota’s State Parks. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Trimble, Stanley W. 2016. Historical Agriculture and Soil Erosion in the Upper Mississippi Valley Hill Country. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Warming, L. A. 1917. The Paradise of Minnesota: The Proposed Whitewater State Park. St. Charles, MN: L. A. Warming. https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/destinations/state_parks/whitewater/paradise-of-minnesota.pdf.
Whitewater River Watershed Project. n.d. A History of the Whitewater Watershed in Minnesota. Lewiston, MN: Whitewater River Watershed Project. http://www.whitewaterwatershed.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Whitewater-Watershed-Conservation-History_Minnesota.pdf
Holger, Sara. 2019. “Whitewater State Park: 100 Years in Paradise.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 15. https://editions.lib.umn.edu/openrivers/article/whitewater-state-park/.
Download PDF of Whitewater State Park: 100 Years in Paradise by Sara Holger.