A Day in Pretty Stillwater

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A Day in Pretty Stillwater

Discovering history, Victorian architecture, cute shops, craft beer
and more in scenic Stillwater, Minnesota

(Disclosure: I was a guest of Explore Minnesota and businesses in the post. Observations and opinions are my own.)

Stillwater, Minnesota, located about 30 miles east of Minneapolis along the St. Croix River, was named one of America’s Most Picturesque Small Towns by USA Today Travel in 2015 and one of America’s Top Ten Prettiest Towns by Forbes Magazine in 2011. I understood why it received these and other accolades when I visited with a group of fellow travel bloggers on a day tour prior to 2016 TBEX (Travel Blogger Exhange) North America Conference.

A Day in Pretty Stillwater: Lowell Park
Lowell Park along the St. Croix waterfront
Stillwater Lift Bridge
Lift Bridge

The lift bridge crossing the river into Wisconsin is Stillwater’s most iconic landmark. It was built in 1931 and is one of three remaining vertical lift bridges built in Minnesota and Wisconsin prior to World War II.

Stillwater Lift Bridge

The bridge was built for much less traffic than it now handles. A new bridge is under construction. When that bridge opens, the lift bridge will become pedestrian-only.

Stillwater, Minnesota
Boats docked with a view of the new bridge construction in the background
Stillwater Trolley Tour
On a trolley tour through town, I learned about Stillwater’s history and saw many of its heritage buildings

Incorporated in 1854, Stillwater is one of the oldest towns in Minnesota. It sat at the edge of the largest continual white pine forest in North America. The lumber industry turned it into a boom town in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

White pine has sap running through it in summer months. When cut, the sap oozes out and gums up machinery. Therefore, the trees were felled in the winter and rolled down onto the river ice. When spring came and the ice melted, the river became the transportation system to the mills. At one time, there were 10 sawmills operating in Stillwater. There were also over 40 saloons, 20 churches, 6 breweries and 6 cathouses. The lumber industry died off in the early 1900s when the trees were used up. The lumber boom left Stillwater with many heritage buildings.

Stillwater Freight House
The Freight House was built in 1883 and handled as many as 70 rail cars a day as well as housing the area’s telegraph office. Today, it is a restaurant and night club.
Stillwater Washington Court House
Washington Court House is the oldest in the state
Stillwater Lowell Inn
Lowell Inn, built in 1927, was designed by architect William Ingemann in the Colonial Revival Style

Heritage home in Stillwater Minnesota

Heritage home in Stillwater Minnesota

Heritage home in Stillwater Minnesota

Heritage home in Stillwater Minnesota

Stillwater Water Street Inn
Water Street Inn

The Lumberman’s Exchange Building was built in 1890 and was the first modern office building in town, equipped with modern heating, plumbing, electricity and an elevator. Today it is the Water Street Inn, a 41-room historic inn with a restaurant and pub. We had a lovely lunch on its patio overlooking the river.

Stillwater Water Street Inn patio
Water Street Inn patio
Stillwater Life Bridge in operation
During lunch, I got to see the lift bridge in operation.

Stillwater Minnesota main street

With more than fifty independently-owned stores, Stillwater is a great place for browsing and shopping for unique items. It was listed as one of the 10 Best Antiquing Towns in the U.S. by Fodor’s Travel in 2015.

Stillwater Maple Island Brewing

Our last stop in Stillwater was at Maple Island Brewing, one of two craft micro-breweries in town. (The other is Lift Bridge Brewing Company.)

Flights at Maple Island Brewing

The brewery had been operational for just a couple of years. Bartender Doug had tasting flights ready for us. He told us that brewmaster Nic liked to make mellow beers.

Beer flight at Maple Island Brewing

The house flight consisted of:

  • Burlesque Kolsch. This light beer has a bit of Canadian honey malt and is the brewery’s biggest seller. I found it to be an easy summer-drinking beer.
  • Maple Island Boch. Most bochs are dark, but this one is made with wheat and is light-coloured. It is made with Sanderson’s 100% Pure Maple Syrup. I would not have thought of putting maple syrup in beer, but I, like many others in the group, were pleasantly surprised with the smooth, creamy taste. It was the first time I had ever entertained the possibility of beer as a topper for ice cream. Much as I enjoyed this beer, I think one (or perhaps half) is about all I could drink in one sitting – it is quite rich.
  • White Butt IPA. This beer has lots of Mosaic hops and a touch of Chamomile. It was my personal favourite, despite the name.
  • Sally Redhead. This reddish beer was the only beer in the flight that wasn’t one of Maple Island Brewery’s staples. Doug told us it was getting good reviews so perhaps it might become a staple.
  • Cup of Joe Freakshow. I am not usually a fan of stout, but I liked this coffee oatmeal stout better than I expected to.

Maple Island Brewery has made over 100 kinds of beer in 1 1/2 years, sometimes with unconventional ingredients such as Crunch Berries, pretzels, ice cream and hand-peeled citrus. The beers are currently available in the taproom and restaurants around town. The Brewery had a new canning machine it was figuring out how to use. The machine came from China and the instructions weren’t as clear as they would have liked. (It turns out it is not only individual DIYers having issues with poorly translated instructions.) When the machine is operational people will be able to buy Maple Island Brewery beer to take home, although initial distribution will only be local in Stillwater.

The town of Stillwater was indeed picturesque and lovely to stroll through. When we were on the trolley, people waved at us and said “Welcome to Stillwater.” When I wandered through town on my own, people passing by said hello. I wished I’d had more time to wander through town.

Stillwater makes a nice day trip from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, but it would also be a great place to spend a weekend or a few days. If one did stay overnight, there are several heritage homes converted to bed-and-breakfasts. Following are photos of a few of them.

Stillwater Aurora Staples
Aurora Staples Inn is an 1892 Queen Anne Victorian home built as a wedding present for Aurora Staples by her husband Adolphus Hospes
Stillwater William Sauntry Mansion Bed and Breakfast
William Sauntry Mansion, built in 1881 by lumber baron William Sauntry
Stillwater Rivertown Inn
Rivertown Inn was built in 1884

Discover Stillwater talks about enjoying all four seasons in Stillwater, but I think autumn might be a particularly special time to visit. In 2014, Stillwater was listed as one of America’s Best Towns for Fall Colors by Travel and Leisure Magazine.

PIN ITScenic Stillwater, Minnesota makes a nice day trip - Victorian houses, interesting shops, great dining #Minnesota #VisitUSA #scenic #Victorian

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  1. Hi Donna, I’ve been to Stillwater MN on two occasions and indeed it is a town with lots of charm and character. On one trip we were there during “Lumberjack Days”. It was a big event held along the waterfront. There was live music and all kinds of vendors, as well as live demonstrations of various lumberjack skills, like log rolling in water, pole climbing and chainsaw carving – very entertaining. This was also where I was introduced to fried cheese curds … probably full of calories, but oh so yummy.
    The town is well worth the visit.

  2. I remember making a day trip to Stillwater when I was a kid and we lived in Minneapolis. I was young, but I have a vivid memory of the bridge! I’d never seen anything like it:)

    1. Jacquie, the bridge is interesting and beautiful. It must have made quite an impression on you to still have a vivid memory of it.

    1. Veronica, I certainly found it inviting. If you do pass through sometime, take a little bit of time to just slow down and enjoy.

  3. Minnesota is regrettably one of the handful of states I’ve not yet been able to spend much time in (the St. Paul airport doesn’t count…) I’d love to explore Stillwater one of these days. Such great buildings in all of your pics.

    1. Jeri, there are a few places where all I’ve seen is the airport too! I loved the buildings in Stillwater.

  4. Stillwater sounds like it had quite a lively history notwithstanding its placid name. The lift bridge is amazing and it must have been fun to see it in action. I like the fact that it will be preserved and reserved for pedestrian use when the new bridge is finished. All-in-all, your visit to this beautiful city looks like it was time well spent. I’d love to visit! Anita

    1. Anita, the bridge is apparently the thing people most associate with Stillwater and the most photographed item. It is good they’re keeping it.

  5. Lovely. I have some friends in Montana who are from Minnesota and they’ve frequently told me how pretty parts of the state can be. Stillwater looks lovely–if I happen to find myself on a road trip west, I’ll certainly divert here…