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A History of Storied Stillwater

Hockey Day host city is intertwined with Minnesota's origins

by Devin Lowe /

Against the scenic backdrop of Stillwater's famous Lift Bridge, a symbol of the city's rich history, hockey fans from around the state will flock to Lowell Park on Jan. 21 to partake in this year's Hockey Day Minnesota festivities.

By the time the Lift Bridge opened in 1931, the town had already been established for over 80 years, making Stillwater one of the oldest Hockey Day Minnesota locations yet.

Nestled on the banks of the St. Croix River on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Stillwater's geography encouraged select industries to move in and flourish. Some of the first people to settle there in the early 1840s were fur traders and lumbermen, and by 1848, about 600 people called Stillwater home. The town was platted that same year.

Stillwater gets its often-referenced Birthplace of Minnesota nickname from the important role it played in Minnesota becoming a state. As a result of Wisconsin joining the union in 1848, some areas that lay on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border ended up without governance, so delegates met in Stillwater to discuss statehood for Minnesota. A little under a year after its neighbor to the east entered the union, on March 3, 1849, Minnesota became a territory, born out of the delegates' convention held on the corner of Main and Myrtle Streets in downtown Stillwater.

By the 1850s, loggers had built massive steam-powered mills in the city, and roads linked it to St. Paul and other local towns popping up to the west. In the 1870s, railroads connected Stillwater to cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, further increasing its manufacturing clout. Stillwater's products found their way to much of the Midwest via the rail system. The late 1880s turned Stillwater into one of the most advanced towns of its time as it installed gas lights, telephone service and electric streetcars. In 1888, it became the first city west of Chicago to glow with electric lights.

With the collapse of the lumber industry at the turn of the 20th Century, Stillwater faced population decline and the disappearance of many of the same jobs that drew its first residents there. What kept the town alive was its many downtown businesses across several industries, like farming, shoe-making and furniture manufacturing, that were able to stay afloat in the midst of economic turnover. Still, people left the city in droves, and Stillwater's population dropped from 13,000 in the 1880s to 7,000 by 1940.

Like the rail system had given the city new life, the automobile played a similar part in rejuvenating Stillwater. Cars allowed the newly flocking suburbanites to commute into the Twin Cities for work and come home at night to their storied city. Neighborhoods sprouted up along Highway 36, and Stillwater became a tourist destination for locals and those from out of state.

Today, Stillwater offers a unique blend of history and growth. With old favorites like the scenic Lift Bridge and Nelson's Ice Cream and plenty of new, local businesses populating downtown, the city keeps drawing people back. It's against this backdrop that Hockey Day Minnesota 2017 will come to life on Jan. 21.

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