Every day, the folks in Marine on St. Croix walk intimately with their past. And that's just how they like it.
There's the community hub, the Marine General Store, built just after the Civil War with its false front and worn maple floors that creak pleasantly under foot. Next door is the Village Hall, its bell tower standing as stout sentinel since 1888, making it the state's oldest municipal building in continuous use. Swollen by rain and relentlessly burbling nearby is the mill stream, along which a huge sawmill once stood that led to Marine first being carved from the pine-wooded wilderness.
That was 175 years ago, in 1839. A milestone like that comes along so rarely — few communities in Minnesota can claim to be in the same age group — that the city has decided to celebrate with special events all year long.
A nine-month exhibit at the Washington County Historic Courthouse that opened in March chronicles the city's rich history, and Sunday marks Mill Stream Day — a traditional small-town festival that leads a full slate of events.
"It's the past we're celebrating and, yes, we're celebrating it here in the present how this town was built and how it has persevered and come through so many changes through the years," said Nancy Cosgriff, who leads an eight-member steering committee that's been planning the celebration. "But we're also looking to the future. We want Marine to be a thriving little community."
And what about that name, Marine on St. Croix? The first pioneers who arrived in fall 1838, Lewis Judd and David Hone, had been sent north to scout for land (which had come available after being purchased via a treaty with the Ojibwe) for a potential lumber mill originally hailed from Marine, Ill. That community east of St. Louis, in turn, had been dubbed "Marine" in honor of its own pioneers, most of whom had come from seafaring backgrounds.
Judd and Hone returned home for the winter after staking their claim. On May 13, 1839, they returned by boat with supplies and a contingent of partners in what would become the Marine Lumber Co., and got the mill up and running by that fall. The settlement was first called Judd's Mills, then Marine Mills and, eventually, Marine on St. Croix.
Turning off Hwy. 95 about 12 miles north of Stillwater to Judd Street, Marine's main drag, is almost like passing through a time portal into the 19th century. The street has always been dominated by the Marine General Store, a landmark said to be the inspiration for Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery in Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon. Ralph Malmberg ran the store in the 1960s, when Keillor lived in Marine.
Karen and Andy Kramer bought the store in 2005 while working for Guidant Corp. They left the corporate life two years later after Guidant was acquired by Boston Scientific Corp. "Neither of us had experience in retailing — except as customers," Andy Kramer said with a chuckle. "We naively thought we could have people manage the business for us."
The couple had always loved Marine, but never thought they would come to run its most deeply rooted business. Andy Kramer said his mother had vacationed in Marine in the 1920s, when it was a summer destination for people eager to flee the Twin Cities.
"My mom was always telling us these stories about her idealistic, carefree summers in Marine," he said. "So I sort of have that family connection to Marine."
Still, making the move from Stillwater presented a bit of a learning curve for the Kramers.
"It certainly has its ups and downs," Andy Kramer said. "A lot about it is fun and rewarding, but it's also a lot of work."
It's clear that the Kramers cherish the store, its history and its quirks, like the front wall not being quite square. Andy Kramer has written a brief history of the store and its long line of owners from its start as part of the lumber company, offering a full range of supplies to its workers at a time when travel was limited.
Each of those owners have left a mark on the old building, and like layers in an archaeological dig, that past can be read in changes made to it.
The Kramers are no different. Using old photographs, they restored the ceiling-to-wall shelves that had once lined the store walls, complete with a rolling ladder for reaching the topmost items. The shelves are an ode to Andy Kramer's mother, who loved to come into the store with her sisters and ask to try on shoes from the upper reaches in order to watch the dutiful clerk climb up and down.
Besides nodding to the past, the Kramers are also looking to the future. Recently, they installed solar panels, as unobtrusive as could be found, on the store's roof to provide a green source of energy.
Andy Kramer also is an emergency medical technician with Marine's volunteer fire department, just like Jack Warren, who has lived in Marine for 51 of his 79 years. The department has been around since 1886, and Warren started out as a firefighter in 1963. He said the department represents the kind of opportunity for community involvement he and his wife, Janice, were looking for when they moved to Marine from St. Paul.
"With our kids, it bred a responsibility within them that we could and should participate in the community," Warren said. "And it showed them the rewards in participating in your community."
Warren, also a longtime member of the city's Planning Commission, pointed to an analysis of Marine's unique qualities: the St. Croix River, which is treasured by the town and gives it its name and identity; its history; its green space; and its high rate of community involvement.
Those qualities have been a constant even as the growth in nearby communities such as Scandia, May Township and Stillwater make Marine less rural and isolated than in the past, he said.
"The biggest thing is, this community works so well to keep its small-town feel, to keep its historic feel," added Lynette Peterson, Marine's city administrator. "That's huge."