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Louisville Swamp: The Carver State Park that might have been

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

A drive down to the portions of Scott and Carver County along the Minnesota River Valley usually means, for the purposes of this column, some exploration of a grand, large-scale scheme that never quite came to fruition. I guess those mile-wide, glacier-hewn vistas of the river valley must activate people’s innate sense of wild ambition. In the past, we have explored the would-be boomtown of San Francisco and the might-have-been techno-utopia of Jonathan. Very close to both of these sites, on the Scott County side of the river, is the Louisville Swamp Unit of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, an area that might have become Carver State Park. It’s close in proximity and in spirit of ambition.

This proposal here wasn’t quite on the same scale as Jonathan or San Francisco, but it’s an interesting consideration of how ideas of recreation, preservation and conservation change over time. In 1934, during the administration of Floyd B. Olson, the aging Theodore Wirth, architect of Minneapolis’ park system, proposed that nearly this entire part of the river valley – a stunning 41,000 acres – be preserved as parkland. Federal relief money was easy to come by in the era of the WPA and CCC, and Wirth saw an opportunity to take land “not adapted to profitable farming” and cultivate a massive forest preserve that would serve the citizens of metropolitan area.

Farming was on its way out here, anyway. The parkland would give the people of the increasingly industrialized and urbanized region an opportunity to “employ their much-increased leisure time under happy surroundings and proper character and health building conditions, exercise and uplifting recreation.” It would be the start of a green belt that would do what the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis did on a regional scale. 

Olson, an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, died in 1936, and with him the political will for the plan died, too.

The Louisville Swamp Unit
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Louisville Swamp Unit covers an impressive 2,600-acre collection of landscapes that look very unlike the farmland that surrounds it.

In the mid-1960s, the planning firm led by Theodore Wirth – the grandson of the first Wirth – revisited the idea, drawing up a slightly scaled-back proposal for a state park in the more immediate area of Louisville Swamp and the Carver Rapids. It was prompted by the same ideas his grandfather had put forth: a large-scale recreational area for citizens of a rapidly growing metropolitan area. There was a good deal of support for this plan politically, but enough local opposition scuttled the idea.

The opposition was related to all kinds of factors. Some thought it involved buying up far too much private land, much more than was needed, while others weren’t excited about the influx of tourists. Still more thought the river valley would be better served by a series of dams and reservoirs to stem flooding. In the end, the Legislature declined to approve the plan, and there would be no Carver State Park.

However, a few years later the Legislature authorized the creation of the Minnesota Valley Trail. In the 1970s, grassroots groups of citizens along the river valley, working across municipalities, successfully lobbied local congressional leadership for the creation of a federal wildlife refuge. Today, the larger Minnesota River Valley Wildlife Refuge, including the Louisville Swamp, is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while the trails are maintained by the DNR

I will admit that the name of this area is of great interest to me personally – Louisville, Kentucky, which gives the township and adjacent swamp its name, is my hometown. Louisville was also the hometown of one H.H. Spencer, who made the trip up in 1853 and named the township he founded here that year for the city. I wanted badly to administer a pronunciation test to a local Scott Countian, in order to find out which pronunciation of the name Spencer brought with him (the standard “Loo-ey-ville” vs. the more authentic “Lou-uh-vull”). Sadly, the opportunity never arose, and neither the website nor the brochures offer any guidance on this important matter.

Burr oaks tower over tall, deep-rooted prairie grasses
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Burr oaks tower over tall, deep-rooted prairie grasses, the type that would have been fed nutrients and otherwise maintained over centuries by prairie fires.

Like a lot of the small towns in Scott and Carver counties – including San Francisco – Louisville grew rapidly in the violent years leading up to the Dakota Uprising of 1862, and then emptied out just as rapidly as the seats of political influence shifted to Carver and Shakopee. These ambitiously named little towns like Louisville and San Francisco were dismantled and became farmland.

Before white settlers forced out the Dakota living in this area after some vicious conflict and dubious treaties (the infamous Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed very nearby), the land looked strikingly different. While it may not be the 41,000 acres imagined by the elder Wirth, the Louisville Swamp Unit covers an impressive 2,600-acre collection of landscapes that look very unlike the farmland that surrounds it, or how we might think of “prairie.”

Much of the area is oak savannah. If you’ve never seen this type of landscape in person, you should. These are burr oaks, which – especially in the winter – have gnarled, spreading branches that look fantastic against a clear sky. They tower over tall, deep-rooted prairie grasses, the type that would have been fed nutrients and otherwise maintained over centuries by prairie fires. There are now controlled burns out here, in an effort to retain those original features overpowered by farmers and settlers. This landscape looks so alien to an uninformed observer in the 21st century, but it’s about the oldest, most natural and truest landscape there is in Minnesota. Your backyard probably looked like oak savannah at some point, depending on where you live.

There’s also a great deal of sumac in this area, as well, giving a wild splash of color to the winter landscape. The word sumac comes from the old French and Latin via Arabic for “red,” and it sure is red out there. This diversity of colors and textures – so different than the dull gray slush of an urban or suburban snowscape – is exactly what Wirth had in mind when drafting his plan.

There’s a great deal of sumac in this area
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
There’s a great deal of sumac in this area, giving a wild splash of color to the winter landscape.

There is a human-made reminder of the miseries of pre-modern farm life along the way. The decimated remains of a stone farmhouse once occupied by Sebastian Ehmiller and his brood – John, Joseph, Katharena, Christina, Gabril und Alvis – are barely visible. There’s some rusted metal support structures nearby, which suggest the building was propped up for years longer than it was probably meant to, but there’s very little remaining beside the foundations and, some chimney, and some load-bearing walls. (A nearby site, the Jab Farmstead, is better-preserved and worth exploring in detail another time.) The tiny footprint gives a pretty powerful sense for how claustrophobic but also completely isolated a seven-person family must have felt way out here. 

The remains of a stone farmhouse
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The remains of a stone farmhouse once occupied by the Sebastian Ehmiller family are barely visible.

It’s remarkable to think that a mere 50 years elapsed between 1885, when this farmhouse was occupied, and 1935, when Theodore Wirth proposed a state park for the benefit of city-dwellers with copious amounts of leisure time. The youngest Ehmiller, Gabril, who was 12 at the time the state census worker trudged out to the Louisville swamp to count his probably German-speaking, subsistence farming family, may very well have lived to see what an enormous transition the area undertook in that time. 

Of course, I’m sure farm life wasn’t uniformly miserable out here – reading Laura Ingalls Wilder tells you that much. Kleiner Gabril would have had access to one of the most remarkable geologic features around as a plaything. About a half-hour’s walk from the Ehmiller house is a glacial boulder. It looks like the result of cosmic slapstick – an enormous, rounded boulder, geologically unrelated to anything else in the area, plunked in the middle of a dead-flat field. Fifteen feet high and 100 feet around, the boulder was carried here eons ago by glacial ice, and then left behind when it melted away. The resulting deluge, the prehistoric Glacial River Warren, is the same feature that gives the Minnesota River Valley its imposing mile-wide shape that’s so breathtaking when seen from the trails in the Louisville Swamp. The River Warren swept the accompanying sediment away, leaving only a huge boulder behind.

an enormous, round boulder, geologically unrelated to anything else in the area
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
It looks like the result of cosmic slapstick — an enormous, round boulder, geologically unrelated to anything else in the area, plunked in the middle of a dead-flat field.

It’s a well-known feature in Twin Cities rock climbing and bouldering circles. The worn surface suggests that people have enjoyed climbing on it for probably thousands of years, looking cosmically out of place amidst the oak savannah and swamplands. It and the Louisville Swamp make for some of the most uplifting recreation around, as Theodore Wirth put it 80 years ago.

Thanks to Jim Proctor for his assistance.

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Comments (3)

Another fine column !!

I was startled at your description of oak savanna, as it brought back memories of the land where I grew up.

Then, your comments which began, "If you’ve never seen this type of landscape in person..." startled me further, as I realized that perhaps most people living in these parts today have never really SEEN this type of landscape. We are disconnected from our natural history, as we have altered the landscape so significantly, that even its lingering traces have nearly disappeared.

At http://oaksavannas.org/, there is more on oak savanna habitat. There are those who are trying to keep some of this habitat so future generations can see it with their own eyes.

H.L. Mencken is alleged to have said:

"90% of good writing is skill. The other 90% is your material."

Andy Sturdevant brings the whole 180% in this series. I think these columns will read well some years hence.

I know some sustainable

I know some sustainable farmers up near Barrett who are attempting to return much of their land to native oak savanna. Before I met them I had no idea it was once so prevalent in Minnesota.
My farmer friends explained that oaks naturally do not grow densely, and they survived the yearly lightning-ignited burns due to their thick bark, I believe, which was why they were able to tower over the grassland.
Plus that boulder is freaking huge.

So exciting!

Feel a need to visit this place.
...So is that an glacial erratic boulder?