Between the high bluffs of historical fact and modern fiction sits “Eureka Valley – Grandfathers’ Grandfathers,” a novel true in its telling of settler history in the St. Croix Valley. The tale’s historical characters are men who settled in Scandia and Cushing, their stories fleshed out through research by author Lisa Doerr.
A journalist by training, Doerr’s curiosity was initially piqued by her husband’s family tree.
“My husband’s great-great grandfather was a Swedish settler in Scandia in the 1850s,” she said. “They called him Wood John because he cut down most of the trees in Scandia, particularly hardwood to use for firewood.”
Once felled, Scandia’s trees made their way through Stillwater and on to St. Paul, where they stoked wood stoves.
“He cleared Scandia Township,” continued Doerr, “then started ripping stumps out. Cutting the trees down was the easy part, imagine these
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huge stumps, so he had a team of mules he’d use to pull them out.”
Doerr – who grew up on a farm west of the Twin Cities and moved to Polk County about 15 years ago when her husband started a job with the river’s National Park Service – had filed Johnson under her list of people to write about someday.
She came upon the book’s second ancestral character, Lycurgus Bell, while researching a lake near her home in northern Polk County.
“Just north of us is Alabama Lake,” she said. “I was wondering why there’s an ‘Alabama Lake’ in northwest Wisconsin.”
A bit of research uncovered Bell, who had traveled from Alabama to Wisconsin with his own family and five others after the Civil War.
“They came up the Mississippi and the St. Croix and settled here,” said Doerr. “They had been sympathetic to the Union during the war and were driven out, basically. A lot of people don’t know that one in 10 southern soldiers fought for Abe Lincoln.”
Bell’s story contains a nuance lost in most history books.
“I thought, ‘What an incredible story,’” said Doerr. “You think you won the war, and then you go home and people see you as the enemy.”
Both Bell and Johnson come to Eureka Valley (a made up name) to start new lives. Four generations later, their decendents farm the valley’s land.
“The book starts out with two modern day farm families,” said Doerr. “They’re trying to figure out how to survive in the modern economy.”
Jessica Bell’s family runs a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm, growing organic crops. Jason Olson’s family grows corn and soybeans, trying to guess whether they’ll get $7 or $3 for a bushel of corn.
“Jason is trying to decide if he should go organic,” said Doerr, “like a lot of farmers now, who are asking, ‘How do I make a living at this?’”
The families’ stories are tied to the St. Croix River.
“The other big character in book is the St. Croix,” said Doerr. “There’s a fair amount of history about the river, and it’s kind of a love story for the river.”
It’s an homage to the broader St. Croix Valley, too.
“I love the landscape of the valley,” she said, “the glacial landscape especially. I have a lot about that in the book. I think it’s the most beautiful place on earth, actually. … We’re very happy to be here.”
Evening in Quail Town
WHEN: Thurs., Oct. 29, 7 p.m.
WHERE:St. Croix Falls Public Library
DETAILS:Lisa Doerr will read from “Eureka Valley – Grandfathers’ Grandfathers,” bringing to life historic Quail Town, a lively settlement just north of St. Croix Falls.
“In the late 1840s and early 1850s it was kind of a party town, right by where river visitor center is now,” said Doerr. “They had a bowling alley and a dance hall. They sold hard liquor – grog as they called it. It was kind of the other side of the tracks, they also had the fur trader there, in a big building full of all the furs they’d trade in the winter.
“Loggers would come in the springtime with their money and spend it in Quail Town. Tourists from cities would come up the river, and there were a lot of Ojibwe people there. Wood John goes there too. … It was a colorful part of town. I thought it sounded like a fun place to visit.”
A live fiddler will set the mood for the Quail Town readings. The event is sponsored by the St. Croix Falls and Taylors Falls historical societies and the St. Croix River Association.