A lot happened in the Stillwater area in 2019. Some events held great significance and will shape the future of the region. Other events will fade into distant memory, but all played a part in the growth and momentum of the community.
The Gazette staff is pleased to present a look at some of the year’s top stories. We have not attempted to rank them in order of importance, but offer them as a reflection on the past year as we bid farewell to 2019 and welcome in the new year.
As sandbagging efforts began in 2019, Stillwater remembers flood of 1965
Stillwater and other cities along the banks of the St. Croix River prepared for a record setting flood this spring.
According to models prepared by the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service on March 4, there was a 98.5 percent probability that the river will hit minor flood stage, a 94 percent probability that the river will hit moderate flood stage and a 90 percent probability that the river will hit a major flood stage.
To give some historical context to the flood stages, the weather service includes historic flood crests with its reports. The highest recorded flood crest was in 1965 at 94.1 feet. The second highest recorded flood crest was 92.3 feet in 2001. According to the NWS prediction, there was a 75 percent probability that this year’s flood will cross the 90-foot mark.
Stillwater-based Community Thread lead volunteer efforts for flood response in partnership with Washington County Emergency Management. In past flood emergencies, many St. Croix Valley cities approached Community Thread to assist with volunteer recruitment and management for flood response activities. Community Thread reached out on social media to source volunteers to help with sandbagging effort in Stillwater. In less than two days, all of the volunteer shifts were filled and volunteers arrived on Thursday, March 21 to begin work.
As the St. Croix River rises toward historically high crest, area residents flooded volunteer opportunities to help build the Lowell Park dike.
Jennifer Kmecik, Community Thread volunteer center director, said more than 380 people registered to volunteer in the last week, with some volunteering more than once.
Kmecik said the volunteers have shown enthusiasm and teamwork. Many of the volunteer shifts filled up within hours of being posted, she added.
“I think they are excited to help out and make a difference in the community,” Kmecik said of the volunteers. “This wouldn’t be able to be completed without all the volunteers.”
Tammy Chilson, owner of the Mad Capper Saloon & Eatery in downtown Stillwater, and Jeff Anderson, owner of 45 Degrees in downtown Stillwater, were working on their fourth day of volunteering Tuesday, March 26.
“I think we have to save our city number one,” Chilson said with a laugh. “And I had time to do it.”
“It’s a sense of community and camaraderie,” Anderson said.
Anderson added the coordination of volunteers has been incredibly organized.
“The city’s doing a great job,” he said.
According to models prepared by the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service on March 27, the St. Croix River hit moderate flood stage on Sunday, March 31. The river hit minor flood stage at 87 feet Wednesday morning, March 27.
There is a 60 percent probability the river will hit moderate flood stage and about a 25 percent probability the river will hit major flood stage, according to National Weather Service models.
To honor the work of volunteer from the flood response efforts, the Grand Marshals of the 2019 Lumberjack Days Parade were the Flood Response Volunteers and Community Thread.
“We were really honored when we heard who had been selected as the parade grand marshals,” said Sally Anderson, executive director of Community Thread. “Volunteers are really the unsung heroes in our community.”
While all of the volunteers who participated in the flood response this year are invited to walk in the parade, special acknowledgment will be given to Community Thread’s volunteer coordinator, Jennifer Kmecik, and Stillwater city clerk, Beth Wolf. Kmecik and Wolf will wave to the crowd from the grand marshal vehicle.
Wolf has been an employee of the city for over 19 years, but took over the role as city clerk this past year. When the flood waters began to rise, Wolf was the point person at city hall to work with volunteers.
“I remember some floods in the years when I first started where we were not as organized as we were this year,” Wolf said. “We had a lot of people that wanted to help, but it became a safety issue.”
By working with Community Thread, who started in Stillwater 52 years ago as a volunteer organization, the city used the help of many volunteers and ensured they were safe while working on the flood levy.
“When the flood comes, it comes quick and it becomes like a second job to manage the response,” Wolf said. “I know all the volunteers worked so hard.”
The Lumberjack Days parade took place at 1:05 p.m. Sunday, July 21 in Stillwater.
Ryan Collins joins Stillwater City Council
Ryan Collins was sworn in Jan. 8 as the new council member representing Ward 1, replacing Doug Menikheim after eight years on the council. Menikheim opted not to run for a third term.
Mayor Ted Kozlowski, who ran unopposed in November, was sworn in for his second term as the mayor of Stillwater. Council member Mike Polehna also was reelected to his seat representing Ward 4. Polehna has served on the council for 14 years.
During the Jan. 8 meeting, the council voted to present Menikheim with a commendation for his years of service to the city.
Kozlowski called the day bittersweet to see Menikheim leave the council.
“You brought a unique point of view and a depth of experience,” Kozlowski said. “You have been a great asset to the council.”
“These have been a very short eight years, but a delightful eight years,” Menikheim said. “It is a day both happy and sad, serving on the council has been the icing on my cake of life.”
Menikheim noted that during his time on the council there have been tough discussions and disagreements, but the council has governed the city well.
“We have been five very diverse guys, but we all have done what was best for Stillwater and that doesn’t happen everywhere,” Menikheim said.
He thanked the city staff for providing their knowledge and expertise in understand the challenges facing the city, and thanked the Stillwater citizens for the high level of civic involvement throughout the city.
“Mr. Collins, you are going to fit in perfectly,” Mennikheim said, noting Collins’ years on the city planning commission. “You have a wonderful understanding of cities.”
Almost 50 years later, First Presbyterian’s organ is complete
After 47 years, the Schlicker pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church in Stillwater is complete.
When Herman Schlicker built the organ in 1971, he constructed a space for the primary set of 56 pipes. However, whether the church ran out of money or decided against it, the spaces were left empty, said First Presbyterian Church organist Laura Edman.
“They did prepare for it. So they were planning on having it,” Edman said. “It is a bit of a mystery.”
Now that the organ is complete, First Presbyterian Church, located at 6201 N. Osgood Ave. in Stillwater, hosted a dedication recital on Sunday, Feb. 10.
Edman performed a special commissioned work, “Shade in a Parched Land” by Aaron David Miller, along with two percussionists. The piece is inspired by the church’s mission work, Edman said, as well as poetry written by congregation member Tom Gillaspy based on a first-time missionary experience in northwest Kenya.
“It’s really a stunning work,” Edman said.
In spring of 2017, a church committee raised more than $70,000 for the cleaning and completion of the organ by Dobson Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa. Congregation members volunteered to help clean the pipes, Edman added. The committee also used the funds to purchase a zimbelstern — a decorative stop that creates a bell-like sound, she said.
“Traditional pipe organs are the main accompaniment for congregational singing,” she said. “We decided it was worthy of being maintenanced and improved.”
The bulk of the cost covered the installation of the 56 pipes that make up the eight foot principal, Edman said.
“The main sound of an organ is the principal sound,” she said. “It’s kind of like the foundation of a house. Everything is built on top of that.”
Edman, who started playing organ as a teenager, said the Schlicker organ’s completion is not only meaningful to the church community but it is also inspiring to her young students who are learning the instrument at First Presbyterian Church.
“It gives hope and confidence about the future,” she said.
Governor praises SAHS for student well-being programs
Gov. Tim Walz visited Stillwater Area High School (SAHS) Wednesday, April 10 to learn about the district’s mental, emotional and social well-being initiatives.
Walz said he visited SAHS to learn about the district’s innovative student support programs as well as how he can better serve schools as an elected official.
Walz was joined by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, Sen. Karin Housley, District 59B State Rep. Tony Jurgens as well as school board members, staff and students.
Incoming SAHS freshmen participate in the Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR) program, a strengths-based model that helps schools meet students’ academic, social and emotional needs.
This fall, a group of SAHS students trained to become peer helpers, who are available to listen to student concerns and personal struggles. Students told Gov. Walz talking to adults in school about personal issues can be intimidating and the peer helpers have strengthened student relationships.
Walz said the district’s leaders and initiatives are “visionary.”
“This is what school safety looks like when you have positive students actually engaging,” Walz said. “The core of the peer counselors and the peer helpers — that’s the front line.”
Stillwater Area Public Schools (SAPS) Superintendent Denise Pontrelli said the district funds the peer helpers program through a mental health collaborative between Washington County, Lakeview Hospital, Family Means and the Youth Service Bureau. Funding, she added, is integral to implementing programs like peer helpers at schools.
Bayport to acquire St. Croix River shoreline
The city of Bayport acquired 11 acres of property along the St. Croix River, said Bayport City Administrator Adam Bell.
Due to nearly $1.8 million in county funds, grants and private donations, he said the city also fully sourced the money to buy the land from non-city funds. The properties are currently privately owned, Bell added.
Washington County awarded Bayport $745,000 from the county’s Land and Water Legacy funds, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) awarded $500,000 and private donations totaled $550,000 for a grand total of $1,795,000, Bell said.
Bell added city staff hope to develop the land as conservation and passive recreation areas with potential for a new public boat launch, parking and natural trails.
Youth Connections drop-in center looks for bigger solutions for County’s homeless youth
Cindy Parsons, executive director of the St. Croix Family Resource Center (SCFRC), said people are shocked when they learn local youth experience homelessness.
“We do have homeless teens in Stillwater,” she said.
Parsons interacts with these youth weekly at the Youth Connections drop-in center at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Stillwater. Since the nonprofit opened the center in September, they’ve assisted 25 teens with over 100 visits.
“There’s a great need and it’s only growing,” Parsons said.
Often as a result of family conflict or an inability to find affordable housing, homeless youth in Washington County have few places to stay when the sun goes down. While an overnight shelter might not be in the immediate future because of cost, Parsons said SCFRC is working on community-based solutions to reduce youth homelessness.
One in eight Washington County youth experienced or are at risk of experiencing homelessness, according to a 2018 SCFRC study. Statewide, there were 16,550 Minnesota students who reported experiencing homelessness in 2018, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Youth Connections provides youth ages 13-24 hot food, showers, a computer lab, phone charging, resource and referral assistance as well as free personal care items, clothing and camping items. All of the food, personal items or gear are donated or bought with SCFRC grant money.
Center staff and volunteers also help youth obtain vital documents, like a birth certificate, needed to obtain a job or housing. Parsons said they have trained 60 community members to volunteer in the center.
Lake Elmo, 3M settle lawsuit for $2.7 million, 180 acres
After nine years of legal proceedings, the city of Lake Elmo reached a settlement with 3M Co. over drinking water contamination.
At the Tuesday, May 21 meeting, the Lake Elmo City Council unanimously accepted a proposed settlement of $2.7 million and ownership of 180 acres of land, which 3M will transfer to the city.
Lake Elmo City Administrator Kristina Handt said city staff are relieved and excited “about moving forward and just putting this behind us.”
The city of Lake Elmo filed a lawsuit against 3M in 2010 and again in 2016 after one of the city wells was contaminated by perfluorochemicals (PFCs), pollution that is a result of materials 3M legally placed in landfills in the 1970s. State officials first discovered groundwater contaminated by PFCs in several east metro cities including Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Oakdale, St. Paul Park and Lake Elmo in 2004.
Exposure to high levels of PFCs has been linked to adverse health effects after prolonged exposure, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).
Since the settlement comes as a resolution to Lake Elmo’s lawsuit, Handt said the settlement money will go into the city’s water account, which funds the construction, maintenance and operation of Lake Elmo’s water system.
The 180 acres that will be transferred to city ownership as part of the settlement is located near Lake Elmo’s Public Works facility.
Handt said the city is considering how to best use the land including possible uses for future city buildings, public facilities like a park or redeveloping the land to sell.
“Nothing has been decided for sure,” Handt said.
The city will dismiss its lawsuit against 3M as part of the settlement.
Lake Elmo was also a co-plaintiff in the state’s lawsuit against 3M for pollution-related issues that resulted in an $850 million settlement in 2018. The city has acquired funds through that lawsuit to drill a new well, which Handt said should be online by summer 2020.
“There’s many, many steps to getting a new well online,” Handt added.
In April 2018, Lake Elmo city officials shut off well one after the MDH found unsafe levels of PFCs. With that well out of commission, Lake Elmo has two of its four wells operational to supply the city’s water needs until the new well is in service.
Allen S. King plant set to close in 2028
In less than a decade, Xcel Energy plans to end coal-fired energy production at two of its Minnesota plants, closing the Allen S. King coal plant in Oak Park Heights in 2028. The announcement this week puts the King plant’s closure nine years ahead of the schedule previously outlined by Xcel. The closure would include the loss of about 90 jobs at the Oak Park Heights facility.
“The announcement of these plant closures will have massive impacts on the communities of Becker and Oak Park Heights,” said Becker City Administrator Greg Pruszinske, who serves as president of the Coalition of Utility Cities. “Without support from the state and other stakeholders, the massive loss of tax base and jobs will be borne by our local residents and businesses.”
The coalition, which Oak Park Heights is also a member, is currently seeking help from the state legislation through a community energy transition grant program.
“The Allen S. King Plant has been central to our city’s identity for more than 50 years,” said Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber in a statement. “With the King Plant now scheduled to close, we are already hard at work to set a course for the next 50 years, but we need the state’s partnership to make that transition successfully. I ask the Legislature to adopt the Community Energy Transition Grant Program this year so we can continue that hard work.”
School bus driver celebrates 50 years behind the wheel
Bus driver Barb Thomsen doesn’t need a map of the Stillwater Area School District. After 50 years of driving over 800,000 students and over 500,000 miles, Thomsen knows each and every road, street and avenue. As she greets each student with a smile, Thomsen knows which days a kindergartner goes to daycare after school, which stops she needs to wait a little bit longer for the latecomers, and which students were wished off to school by a parent she drove to school long before.
“We are the first people that the kids see that day,” Thomsen said. “It makes a difference knowing they were greeted by a smile and someone who cares for them.”
The bus terminal break room has always been a gathering of family and friends for Thomsen. Her aunt was a bus driver and was later joined by her dad and several other relatives — her husband now drivers a school bus too. Ask around the room and there are many drivers who have worked 20, 30 even 40 years for the Stillwater Area School District.
Professionally, Thomsen has a scrapbook full of annual safety awards and appreciation certificates. Her high visibility vest looks like more a scout’s vest; decorated with pins to show her many years of service. At a celebration held in her honor May 29, Thomsen was presented with a special 50-year pin featuring a diamond.
“It’s been a good job,” Thomsen said. “I have worked with some fantastic people.”
Stillwater Relay For Life celebrates 25 years
In 1985, a Stillwater Area High School graduate started a national movement in Tacoma, Wash.
Dr. Gordon “Gordy” Klatt established the Relay For Life, a walking relay that raises money for the American Cancer Society and helps fund life-saving cancer research.
The Stillwater Relay For Life celebrated its 25th anniversary June 22 at Stillwater Area Middle School
Over the last quarter century, the Stillwater Relay for Life grew into the largest fundraising relay in Minnesota and raised $4.8 million, said organizer Anne O’Brien.
“It is a huge deal,” O’Brien said.
This year, the relay hopes to raise $250,000 for the American Cancer Society. The Stillwater relay raised about $200,000 in 2018, O’Brien added.
Elizabeth Rohrer, American Cancer Society community development manager, said Relay for Life supports 13 researchers at the University of Minnesota as well as various programs that assist cancer patients throughout treatment. The American Cancer Society is the top funder of cancer research outside of the federal government, she added.
“Stillwater really has solid roots in the Relay For Life movement,” Rohrer said. “They’re definitely a unique community.”
Lois Coon, of Oak Park Heights, said she has participated in all 25 Stillwater relays, including this year.
Klatt, who died in 2014, was Coon’s brother-in-law. Coon said she participates in the relay every year to commemorate him.
“It’s keeping his dream alive,” Coon said. “The only way we’re going to find a cure is through cancer research.”
Sue Baldwin, a Stillwater relay organizer, said she participated in her 22nd relay this year.
Her team, the “Baldwin Bunch,” is the top fundraiser most years, she said. According to the Relay for Life website, her team raised more than $33,000 dollars this year.
Children’s book continues Stillwater native’s legacy
The legacy of Stillwater native Todd Bol is in front yards around the world.
Now, his story also lives on in a children’s book about how he co-founded and started Little Free Library, a national book-sharing movement.
“Little Libraries, Big Heroes” tells the story of how Todd began the little free library movement, bringing communities together in front yards across the country. Todd died in October 2018 after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
The Stillwater nonprofit Share With Others will host the free “Little Libraries, Big Heroes” children’s book release party 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14 at Teddy Bear Park, located at 207 Nelson St. E. in Stillwater.
Published by Clarion Books, award-winning author Miranda Paul wrote the book and John Parra illustrated.
SAHS Theatre earns international acclaim
The Stillwater Area High School (SAHS) Theatre Department earned international acclaim at a festival this summer.
For two weeks in early August, 28 SAHS students traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland for the International Festival Fringe, where their production of “HamLuke,” a cross between William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Star Wars,” was voted Best Play and Best Technical Production.
SAHS was one of 40 high schools invited to perform at the festival, where thousands of performers presented nearly 4,000 shows on 300 stages, said SAHS Theatre Director Grif Sadow. The festival included unknown artists to big-time actors who presented in theatre, comedy, dance, children’s shows, music, spoken word and exhibitions.
“I’m so proud of my students for their professionalism. They were in a strange theater really far away from home,” Sadow said.
Sadow said the students performed “four really superior shows” while responding to new challenges.
Students had 15 minutes before and after each show to set up and tear down all the set elements, props, costumes and lighting needs.
“A lot of our technical stuff we had to reassemble. Even parts of our costumes, like our R2D2,” Sadow said. “It was kind of like a fully mounted production that we traveled.”
That’s all the more impressive when considering the myriad of technical elements used in “HamLuke.”
In addition to puppetry, projections and original madrigal music, SAHS students used Star Wars character masks, Elizabethan attire and fight choreography in their performances. Sadow said they packed 14 extra bags to travel with the set, puppets, costumes and props.
“We used a lot of compression bags,” Sadow said. “Considering we had to bring everything, we had lavish costumes.”
Overall, SAHS students performed “HamLuke” under the direction of Sadow and Technical Director Brian McTier for over 600 people in Edinburgh. An added bonus — students can earn up to three college credits for their work in Edinburgh, Sadow said.
Sadow said the Best Play and Best Technical Production awards are a testament to how talented and hard-working Stillwater students are.
“They really showed up and represented the school and the community,” he said.
Stillwater Rotary celebrates 100 years
In 1919, a group of men in Stillwater joined together to start a small Rotary Club as a way to serve the local community and the world. Now celebrating its 100th year in the city, the Stillwater Rotary has grown, chartered new clubs in the area, supported local and international charitable efforts and is looking ahead to another 100 years of service.
In celebration of this milestone, the Stillwater Rotary held a dinner Oct. 10 and invited the greater community to join.
“This is a celebration of the community that has supported us for the last 100 years,” said member Tracey Galowitz.
With it’s motto of “Service Above Self,” the goal of the organization is to bring community members together as a way to enhance the community they live in and to join together with the 1.2 million Rotary member - called Rotarians - across the world to bring about global change. One of the main goals of the Rotary Club for the last 100 years has been to eradicate polio, and has joined together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to complete that goal in all but a few remote pockets of the world. The next goal is to eliminate human trafficking.
Member David Wettergren said that he joined the Rotary on the advice of a man in his community.
“He told me, ‘young man, service is the price you pay to be a member of a community,’” Wettergren said. “It really does help you understand the concept of how good it feels to give, but on the other side I have received so much from my membership.”
Rotarians follow an ethical code in their conduct as a group and in their professional lives called “The Four Way Test:” Is it the Truth; Is it fair to all concerned; Will it build goodwill and better friendships; and will it be beneficial to all concerned?
The first ever Rotary Club was started in Chicago in 1905. Prior to World War I, only larger cities had Rotary Clubs - Minneapolis being the 9th club and St. Paul was the 10th — but as men and women were returning to normal life after the war effort, clubs began in smaller communities like Stillwater.
The charter to the Stillwater club was formally presented at a dinner meeting in the Stillwater Club on Friday Sept. 26, 1919. President Upton of the St. Paul club made the official presentation, as the St. Paul and Minneapolis clubs had sponsored the Stillwater group.
In the early years of the club, the club completed several community projects, including a bathhouse at Lily Lake Beach, a barge terminal at Stillwater; the tourist camp across the St. Croix River, a Scout cabin on Big Marine Lake and new streetlights in Downtown Stillwater.
In early 1934, the Roatry club sponsored the founding of the Washington County Historical Society.
Today, the group continues to sponsor local youth programs and community service projects, as well as sponsor a hospital in Tanzania and building roads in Guatemala.