In the summer of 1932, severe drought had transformed the mighty Mississippi River in Winona into little more than a muddy stream, so low you could wade across the main channel. For years, logging and intensive farming, combined with droughts, created a perfect storm for soil erosion. Dust blew across state lines and the loss devastated farmland. When the rains finally came, the exposed soil would run swiftly off into streams and rivers. The state of the land was as dire as the state of the country's economy: ravaged by depression.
Agronomist Bill Sherman wrote in March 1935 of farmland facing ruin: "There were gullies every 100 feet or less. I had never seen such devastation in my life."
Clint Dabelstein had had enough. Born in Winona County, he had operated his farm since 1919, and watched as his land eroded into the river, watched as crops failed. The earliest efforts to combat erosion were in the works in the Root River Valley in 1934 and 1935, and Dabelstein began to rally for erosion control practices in the Winona County area. In 1935, the Soil Erosion Service began a three-year demonstration project that brought tree planting, terracing and strip cropping to the river valley, and in 1938, the first Soil and Water Conservation District in the state — the second in the nation — was organized.
The first district was the Burns-Homer-Pleasant Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). Along with Dabelstein, Carl Goetzman, Palmer Erickson, William Zenk and Aleo Papenfuss were the first district supervisors. Just after the Burns-Homer-Pleasant District was formed, the Rollingstone-Stockton-Gilmore Creek District was organized — the second district in the state — with supervisors Bernard Wachholz, John Bergler, Ed Snell, Alvin Herber and Joe Reis at the helm. Next came the Whitewater SWCD in 1941 with supervisors Matt Marnarch, William Holz, Walter Grane, John Weins and E.J. Steuernagel. In 1958, the three SWCDs in the county merged to become what it is today: the Winona County SWCD.
On Friday, May 3, the SWCD celebrated its 75th birthday, recognizing the pioneers of early conservation efforts and the decades of soil and water quality work that followed. An open house celebration with cake will be held on May 8, following the district's regular meeting, from approximately noon until 3 p.m. at the SWCD office in Lewiston.
Today, the projects and practices used by the SWCD have changed since its inception in the '30s, but the mission has remained the same. "Whether it's erosion control or water quality, our mission is basically just working with the area landowners and helping to protect our environment," said District Manager Daryl Buck. The SWCD administers state and federal dollars for conservation projects and its technical staff assists landowners in implementing the projects, from flood control efforts to projects that prevent feedlot runoff from reaching waterways.
"Our predecessors were very big-time leaders," said Buck. "They saw the need. It wasn't just the board members; there were a couple hundred people showing up to some of their first meetings, discussing erosion problems that were occurring in the county. They got organized, and really have done wonders."
To learn more about the first SWCD in the state, and to find out about conservation programs offered, visit www.winonaswcd.org.