WHITEWATER STATE PARK – Owen Hoegh first visited Whitewater State Park more than 25 years ago while on a field trip with his sixth-grade class from Byron, Minn. Now a teacher in Byron himself, Hoegh, 38, wants his young family to share the experience he had climbing the steep limestone bluffs, traipsing through the meadows and enjoying the Whitewater River and spring-fed Trout Run Creek.
So he and his wife, Leah, brought their daughters, Clara, 12, Elsie, 10, Ada, 7, Greta, 5, and their 9-month-old brother, Silas, camping last week, unaware that their beloved park was in the midst of celebrating its 100th anniversary.
What mattered most was family time outdoors, hiking the trails and swimming at Oxbow Beach.
The 563-acre park on Hwy. 74 between Elba and St. Charles was established in 1919, largely on land donated by Winona grocer John A. Latsch, a lifelong bachelor and outdoorsman who believed that wilderness refreshes the spirit. The park would have been founded two years earlier, but then-Gov. Joseph A.A. Burnquist vetoed a bill establishing the park because he couldn’t justify spending $10,000 while World War I raged.
L.A. Warming, editor of the St. Charles newspaper, spent the next year photographing the park for a book, “The Paradise of Minnesota.” He sold copies for $1.50 each and used the money to lobby for the park.
“We went from World War I stopping the park’s start to the Great Depression,” said Jeremy Darst, interpretive naturalist with the Department of Natural Resources.
The legacy of that economic crash can be found in the park’s many stone buildings, which were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.
After the war, the park drew as many as 20,000 visitors a day to theatrical pageants in 1933, 1935 and 1949. Many still recall the nine-hole golf course that challenged duffers with sand putting “greens,” but periodic flooding forced its closure in 1974.
The park also played a role in World War II by housing German prisoners of war.
“We actually had prisoners living inside the park while the park remained open,” Darst said.
The park, in southeastern Minnesota, is seated in an old ocean basin. As rivers cut through the soft sandstone, the land collapsed, leaving tall, steep cliffs, which gradually harden to dolostone near the top. Steep trails take visitors through thickets of trees to popular overlooks like Chimney Rock and Inspiration Point. The landscape offers unusual diversity.
“You can literally walk on one side of the hill to the other side of the hill and go from a prairie to being in a pine forest,” Darst noted.
Jackie Leatherman of Wyoming, Minn., visits the park a handful times each year to walk the trails and take in the scenery. Last week she camped out with her two youngest sons, Ryan, 13, and Brandon, 10, and her parents, Bill and Jeannie Ramsey of Roseville.
“Me and her, we don’t climb bluffs no more,” Bill Ramsey said with a chuckle as his wife chopped kindling. “Me and her just like sitting around the fire.”
Visitors still have time to catch some of the special centennial events. “Theater in the Park” runs every Sunday in August. An archaeology and history festival runs Sept. 14-15, followed by a geology program Oct. 18-19. In November, competitors in a “History Mystery Geocache Challenge” will be given clues to find hidden items with a chance to win prizes. And December promises an assortment of outdoor activities.