Two historic buildings saved from the path of a new St. Croix River bridge have a new home, but their significance remains a matter of interpretation.
About 1890, immigrant Moritz Bergstein built a stone building for a rag factory and a separate clapboard warehouse for mattress manufacturing in the woods of what eventually became Oak Park Heights. Bergstein was a German-speaking native of Hungary who was known for his rag picker's trade and his connections with Minnesota's early Jewish community.
The Shoddy Mill and Warehouse relocation -- part of a forthcoming loop walking trail that will be included in the mammoth bridge project -- cost $450,000. Site preparation, including riverbank restoration, made the total cost of the move $1.2 million.
None of the original equipment remains in the buildings, later used for coal storage and after that, for an auto repair business. Spending to save what's left frustrates some people, including Gary Kriesel, the Washington County commissioner who represents Stillwater.
"It's a colossal waste of money," Kriesel said. "Would they be preserving that if the bridge wasn't involved? It would probably be rubble at this point. Nobody wants to be out in front of this issue. I haven't heard one person say they support it."
The money, he said, would have better benefited the Washington County Historical Society, which has been barnstorming the county in search of donations for a new building.
"At what point do we step back and say we just can't afford to preserve everything?" said Kriesel, who acknowledged that moving the Shoddy Mill and Warehouse was decided years ago by "stakeholders" who hammered out compromises over preserving historical and cultural landmarks in the bridge project.
"It's part of the agreement. They would have been destroyed otherwise," said Jackie Sluss, a historian for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "The Shoddy Mill buildings are a rare example of turn-of-the-century buildings that were built by a European Jewish immigrant to get a toehold in the American economy. They're being saved because of the story they tell. It's important to our understanding of Minnesota history."
Now it's up to the city of Stillwater -- which lobbied hard for a new bridge downriver to close the 81-year-old Lift Bridge to vehicle traffic and drive interstate commuter traffic out of downtown -- to decide how the Shoddy Mill will be used.
"It will be set up as a historic resource," said Bill Turnblad, the city's community development director. The buildings will contain plaques or signs explaining the history of Shoddy Mill. But the buildings also are being considered for "active uses" for trail users.
"At this point it looks like the lower level would have bathrooms and a shelter to get out of the rain and vending machine opportunities in there," Turnblad said. The upper floor, he said, could be used for parks maintenance storage.
The Shoddy buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but a steam engine and other equipment that tore rags into "shoddy," used for mattress stuffing, disappeared years ago. So did the house that Bergstein and his wife Bertha owned across Stagecoach Trail from the Shoddy Mill. At the time of his death in 1923, he owned 500 tons of iron -- he was known as the "junk man" after the shoddy trade faded -- and left an estate worth about $85,000.
"He was always honest and straightforward in his dealings ... he was held in high esteem by the businessmen of Stillwater and vicinity and his death will be regretted," his obituary noted.
The Shoddy Mill now stands on the site of an abandoned fertilizer warehouse, razed in recent years because it was determined to have no historical value. The mill and warehouse are positioned in exact proximity to each other as they were in their original location. And just as at the old site, they'll sit adjacent to a one-time railroad line that will become part of the new bridge's loop trail.
Turnblad said historical displays at the new site will be the "absolute minimum requirement" to explain the Shoddy Mill's role in the 19th century economy in Washington County. The city will initiate studies and discussions of the buildings' potential use sometime this winter, he said.
"If they just sit there it would be a waste of money, a waste of our heritage," said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. "It's going to be worth every penny and more to keep it alive, to show how we had to struggle to get here today."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles