THROWBACK THURSDAY: In Beaver, Mother Nature reclaimed area she’d lost
BEAVER, Minn. — Within the period of 100 years, a winding and picturesque valley near Winona has been transformed from wilderness to farmland and back again.
The story of this transformation of the Whitewater Valley is shocking and sad.
Even before the state stepped in, in 1943, and began buying up land as the last resort, farmers were fleeing from the Whitewater.
What else could they do? Their farms no longer supported them, their fields were buried beneath tons of sand and debris carried down from the nearby bluffs.
What first had been welcome, suddenly became a horrible life crushing power ... never stopping.
At first, farmers were glad to have several inches of topsoil washed down on their land.
But soon the topsoil was replaced with coarse sand, clay and then more sand. In places fields were covered by 10 to 20 feet of sand and soil.
Roads built to be 6 feet above flood stage were suddenly 6 feet lower than the adjoining land; bridges originally 10 feet above water 20 years ago have become entirely hidden by the washed in the sand.
Corn and hay crops were flooded several times a season — with sand! Farmers were planting and replanting as many as three times in one spring to no avail.
Valley residents look to the hills which had first brought rich, wanted topsoil with alarm. But it was already too late.
Then in 1943, under the Pitman–Robinson act, the government stepped in and began purchasing farms throughout the valley. Two farms had been bought already, in 1932, by the Department of Conservation.
Now 23,000 acres were part of the state-owned Whitewater refuge in the valley. Of this, 622 acres are known as Whitewater State Park.
Fields are covered with willows and dense underbrush springing up in the sandy soil. One has difficulty telling where hillsides and valley bottomlands begin or end, so thick is the shrubbery.
Whitewater Valley, in many areas and especially around Beaver, has reverted to wild countryside such as greeted the pioneers when they first found their way into the valley about 1850 from New York state.
But under the brush and trees today lie tons and tons of dirty, sandy soil ... a grim reminder of what has happened to this rich land during the past century.
Ironically, it was the valley that was settled first that has been killed. The uplands and prairie which were overrun by pioneers afterwards continue today to support descendants of these families.
As the pioneers moved onto the ridges and begin clearing vast areas of timberland for the cultivation of grain and row crops, dairying became popular.
Around the turn of the century hillsides were heavily grazed in the valley, and shortly thereafter the first bad floods began hitting the bottom lands.
Farmers continued working the land up and down hill; hillsides were cleared of timber and then overgrazed. This all made runoff easier and faster.
With the runoff went soil, sand and debris. Almost overnight huge ridges of land appeared on farms closest to the hillside.
And then, like a fan, these ridges spread out, covering field after field.
The Ira Card farm on Highway 74 just east of Beaver was a good example. When the barn was torn down there in 1930 it was discovered that the livestock was standing on what originally was the hay mow floor.
A full basement was found below the soil — buried in from 8 to 10 feet of mud. Since that time another 5 to 6 feet of sand and mud have filled in.
Highway 74 itself was built by Hamlin and Oakes in the early 1920s to be an all weather road, 6 feet above the surrounding area; now it is 6 feet below in places.
Residents still recall 1938 when the Whitewater, its riverbed filled in with sand, overflowed 28 times. The state highway department was forced to close Highway 74 each time.
Just before the turn of the century — in 1890 — the Mike Ellringer farmstead at Whitewater Falls was on a high spot about 20 feet above the river banks of the river.
It is startling today to view that spot and discover the riverbanks higher than the site of the old farmstead.
At its peak, Beaver boasted two stores, a hotel and livery stable, church, school, two flour and grist mills, a blacksmith shop, produce market and two saloons.