100 years in paradise
Twenty-five miles east of Rochester, Minn., State Highway 74 quickly descends from gently rolling farm fields through ancient outcrops of limestone into the beauty of Whitewater State Park. Since it was established in 1919, the park has been praised for its outstanding cold-water trout fishery, noticeable lack of mosquitoes and dramatic landscapes. And 2019 marks the centennial anniversary of this special place.
Over the past year, park staff has been working with the Friends of Whitewater to plan monthly centennial events that showcase the fascinating history of and unique outdoor opportunities at Whitewater State Park. The following timeline highlights some of that history.
• 1896-1918: Tourists flocked to the Whitewater valley to camp, hike, fish and hunt at the Paradise Ranch, a private ranch offering visitors opportunities to experience the outdoors.
• 1916-1919: When farming and land-use concerns motivated locals to unite to preserve the Whitewater Valley, L.A. Warming, editor of the local newspaper, assembled a photo book of the valley titled, “The Paradise of Minnesota; the Proposed Whitewater State Park.” The book helped grow support for establishing the park and, on April 24, 1919, the House Appropriations Committee approved $10,000 for “the new Whitewater State Park in Winona County to cover the costs of 240 acres of land.”
• 1934-1941: The park was fairly rustic until the New Deal programs of the Great Depression funded development projects, with labor provided by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Using simple hand tools, these workers built much of the infrastructure still used by park visitors today including the beach, picnic areas, restroom facilities, parking lots and many of the trails.
• 1944-1945: The camp facilities that housed CCC and WPA workers were used as a German Prisoner of War (POW) camp at the end of World War II. At that time, America had a labor shortage and POWs were assigned across the country to help with agricultural work and other manual labor. The Whitewater camp was later used as a summer camp for various youth organizations until 1953, when a tornado demolished the site.
• 1940s-1960s: Boy Scout camps were held at the park each May. Troops from across southeastern Minnesota gathered with 600-1,000 boys camping in military-style pup tents in the woods and pastures surrounding the edges of the developed park.
• 1970s-2000s: Repeated flooding caused the park to lose its golf course, stone-arch bridge and CCC visitor cabins. Floods washed away and buried campgrounds, forcing park staff to rebuild in new locations out of the floodplain. In 2007, the largest flood in the park’s history caused several million dollars in damage to infrastructure and closed the park for nearly a year.
• 2009: Peregrine falcons returned to Whitewater State Park after a nearly 40-year absence due to widespread use of the pesticide DDT.
• 2014: The Friends of Whitewater regrouped after dissolving in the 1990s. Today this newly invigorated group of park volunteers works tirelessly to raise funds for park projects and events and to help park management staff find innovative and creative ways to achieve goals and objectives identified in the park management plan.
• 2019: Whitewater State Park is celebrating 100 years with a variety of monthly special events including a Centennial Picnic and Great Big Sing Along with the Okee Dokee Brothers on Saturday, July 13, from noon to 2 p.m.
The affection that past and present visitors have for the Whitewater Valley is expressed in the following poem, whose author is unknown:
“Oh there’s not in this wide world a valley so sweet
as the valley in whose bosom the Whitewaters meet.”
For more details about Whitewater State Park and its centennial, including an online version of the revised “Paradise of Minnesota” book, visit mndnr.gov/whitewater.