by Michelle Miron - Managing Editor St. Croix Valley Press
MARINE ON ST. CROIX — William O’Brien State Park, one of the metro area’s most scenic and well-used parks, is adding nearly 100 acres to its treasure trove of natural beauty. And it has the legacies of two local families to thank.
The newly acquired land contains numerous springs, woods, a trout stream, and one of the best remnant native prairies in the seven-county metro area, according Brett Feldman of the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota.
In December, the council (on behalf of the DNR) finalized the $1 million-plus purchase of 97 acres from Joan Grant of Marine of St. Paul, 81, and her children Hendrie and Ann. The land and a historic home built near it in 1859 was a summer home for the Grant family for 70 years. The transaction included a $100,000 donation from the Grants.
“We certainly would not have wanted to develop the property, because if you drive south of Marine on St. Croix, or west of Marine, you can see all the development,” Joan Grant commented last year for a council newsletter. “It’s disturbing to see all the houses”.
The O’Brien family that originally founded the park also had a hand in the Grant deal; a $100,000 grant from the Alice M. O’Brien Foundation aided the purchase. The family also gave the Parks & Trails Council a $100,000 grant toward the project.
The Grant land once known as “17 Springs Farm” is “near and dear” to Joan’s heart, according to council Executive Director Brett Feldman. Her in-laws, St. Paul opthalmologist Dr. Hendrie Grant and his wife Elizabeth, bought it in 1940, seven years before the park was founded. They beautified it by turning four of its springs into trout ponds landscaped by weeping willows, irises and ferns.
Joan married Hendrie and Elizabeth’s son (also named Hendrie) in 1959; they often hosted brunches serving trout caught in the family ponds. Their daughter Ann got married by one of the ponds and their son (another Hendrie) spent hours running through the property. Joan’s Husband Hendrie died in 1984; Ann is now living in Sweden and the younger Hendrie lives in the metro area.
Feldman said the Grant family was among adjacent landowners approached by late council president Samuel Morgan back in the 1960s. Morgan secured informal pledges from the families to consider donating or selling their land to the state when the time was ripe. He played a major part in the park’s development dating from 1954 and secured some 750 acres of the western portion before he died in 2000.
“In that regard it’s really a beautiful story,” said Feldman. “This is something that stood the test of time — it’s not like they (the Grants) did this on a whim. Sam believed in nurturing relationships over time, and this was a relationship that outlasted Sam ... he left really clear notes about the details he had and the intentions of people”.
Feldman worked with Joan Grant for two years to finalize the deal. He described her as “a really great woman ... an amazing person”.
Because the DNR didn’t have the resources for preserving the historic homestead, it was sold along with a five-acre parcel to St. Paul lawyer Tim Pabst.
“The Grant family should be commended for their personal generosity,” said Feldman. “And for their intense commitment to making sure their 100 acres is forever preserved for all to enjoy in its natural state as part of the park.”
The landscape of the area can be attributed to area glaciers millions of years ago that melted slowly, carving out the sandstone outcrops as they headed south. The glaciers deposited soil and rocks of various sizes and ultimately created the St. Croix River. Now the area boasts oak-hickory forests, scattered white pine areas, marshes and bogs, restored oak savanna, upland prairie and rolling meadows.
Dakota and Ojibwe Indians were among the first to live in the area before European trappers arrived in the 1600s, followed by lumberjacks looking to harvest white pine. After the pine was harvested much of the land came up for sale, and lumber baron William O’Brien acquired much of the nearby property for his personal estate.
In 1947, 20 years after his death, his daughter Alice O’Brien donated 180 acres along the riverfront to be developed as a state park in memory of her father. Raised in St. Paul, the social activist and philanthropist worked in Paris during WWI as an auto mechanic and auxiliary nurse, according to the book “Alice M. O’Brien and the Women’s City Club of St. Paul”. Later she co-founded the Women’s City Club, a philanthropic and social club which included 1,000 members. O’Brien died in 1962.
At the time of her donation, there were no state parks near the metro area. Later expansions included the addition of Greenberg Island (donated in memory of Phillip and Ellen Greenberg); land west of Highway 95 extending into the river bluffs; and other large tracts in 1973 and 1986.
The park is now something of a mecca for hikers, canoers, snowshoers, cross country skiiers and campers as well as fishermen angling for walleye, northerns, bass and trout. There are 13.5 miles of hiking trails, a 1.5-mile paved bike trail, 12 miles of cross country trails and 12 miles of skate skiing trails. Canoe rental is available during the summer and the park offers free use of hand-held GPS units for geocaching.
Staff offer programs year-round, including several child- and family-oriented sessions, and a visitor center includes interpretive exhibits. Programs and services are listed at www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/william_obrien/index.html.
— Contributing Writer Julie Kink and MnTrails Editor Dave Simpkins added to this story. Tom Rice provided photos.