In 1840 a former soldier, Indian trader, promoter, and Justice of the Peace named Joseph Renshaw Brown set up a small warehouse at the head of Lake St. Croix to supply his upriver fur trading operations. This warehouse, in what is now the north part of Stillwater, became the county seat of St. Croix County, Wisconsin Territory. Brown began building a courthouse and jail and importing settlers for his new village, which he named Dacotah.
Several of Brown’s relatives, including his half-sister Lydia Ann and her husband, Paul Carli, moved into a house built of tamarack logs. The Tamarack House, well known as “Mrs. Carli’s,” became a favorite stopping place for travelers on the St. Croix River. However, few other settlers arrived in Dacotah.
In 1842 Jacob Fisher, former millwright for the St. Croix Falls sawmill, was living in Dacotah. He made a claim to south and diverted Pine (now Browns) Creek through a lake on top of the bluff to provide a water power. Fisher soon sold his claim to John McKusick and three other lumbermen who were looking for a good millsite. The four men formed the Stillwater Lumber Company and had a mill in operation by spring 1844. A few years later, McKusick became the sole owner of the mill.
As word spread of the new mill, settlers began arriving. The John Allen family was the first to settle in the new village of Stillwater. He was followed by Anson Northrup’s family. Northrup built a hotel, which he sold to William Willim, and went on to build another. By 1846 Stillwater had about 10 families and 20 single men; Dacotah was all but abandoned. The Carlis moved to St. Mary in Afton; the courthouse and jail were never finished. In January 1846 Stillwater was made the new seat of St. Croix County.
Stillwater was platted in 1848, a town of about 600 people, nearly all lumbermen. When Wisconsin entered the union that year, leaving lands now in Minnesota without government, delegates from the area met in Stillwater. The Stillwater Convention that August appointed Henry Sibley to petition Congress for the early organization of Minnesota Territory. Minnesota became a Territory on March 3, 1849. The first Minnesota Territorial Legislature named the county Washington and confirmed Stillwater as its county seat. On March 4, 1854, Stillwater was incorporated as a city. John McKusick, the man who had named the community for Stillwater, Maine, was elected Stillwater's first Mayor.
However, the diversity of business in Stillwater prevented it from becoming a ghost town. Fabulous old mansions got new life as bed and breakfasts. Old waterfront buildings were torn down (some regrettably) and others were reused. Restaurants were installed in the beer caves and freight house, shops in the old utility buildings and mills, and a hotel in the old Lumberman’s Exchange. In its third century, Stillwater is a bustling community boasting a variety of industry and business from automotive and plastics technology to government, banking, and medical services.
Stillwater became a city in 1854. At that time it was the largest incorporated area in the state. By 1857 the population was 2,800, soaring to 13,700 by 1884. As the lumber industry gave out, Stillwater lost population until it bottomed at around 7,000 in 1940. Suburbanization gave the city new life, and by 1980 Stillwater had regained her historic population of 13,000; in 2006 the number of residents had risen to 17,900.
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