Minnesota ‘Grovians’ a ‘tight-knit’ family

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series on “other” Cottage Groves across the country.

Cottage Grove, Minn., has its brand on street signs and water towers throughout the town.

The Wisconsin Grove has become a bit of a Rugby mecca. The nonprofit Madison United Rugby is the nation’s largest community-based nonprofit organization that promotes the sport. It was formed in 2007, uniting different rugby clubs in the Madison area. Located in the Village, the Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex project started about 10 years ago, boasts two rugby fields, covered bleacher seating, and youth soccer fields. The association has 10 rugby teams ranging from elementary ages to college level, including two national champions.

The Village of Cottage Grove is overseen by a six-member council and led by a president, John Williams. Some of the cultural activities ring familiar to our own. “Music in the Grove’’ normally takes place in different village parks and features live music and food trucks.The program this year was canceled, same as ours, due to Covid concerns. The big summer festival in the Wisconsin Grove, analogous to our Bohemian Mining Days, is the Fireman’s Festival. It features carnival rides, beer tent, kids’ tractor pull, and fireworks. It raises money to support the volunteer fire department and has been running since 1931. Like BMD, the festival had to take a year off due to coronavirus health concerns.

Two major employers in this Grove are Stihl Machinery, which has a regional distribution center there, and the national headquarters of Johnson Health Tech, a global fitness equipment manufacturer.

This Cottage Grove is growing rapidly; since 1990 it has increased by 500%, one of the state’s highest growth rates. Kevin Laufenberg, longtime resident, was drawn to Cottage Grove due to its small-town charm and sense of community. “Cottage Grove combines a friendly, small-town feel with a close proximity to Madison,” he said. “The parks are wonderful and Cottage Grove is a great place to raise a family.” That sounds familiar. Probably similar motivations led William Robert Taylor to settle on a Cottage Grove farm and later go on to become the 12th governor of Wisconsin.

From Wisconsin we go to Minnesota and find our next Cottage Grove very near the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Lying southeast of the big city this Cottage Grove is about five miles away from a metropolitan area of 3.5 million souls.

This is the largest of all of the Cottage Groves, tipping the scales at around 38,000 Grovians. Yes, I got it straight from the Mayor of Cottage Grove, Minn., Myron Bailey, that’s what they call themselves. I let him know that we are Grovers. We had a cordial phone call, comparing customs, celebrations, history, and our versions of Cottage Grove. He told me that he was already aware of our Cottage Grove. He periodically gets a call or email from a Grover here thinking he is connecting with his Oregon counterpart. This was especially true during the controversy concerning South Lane County Fire Chief Wooten.

Bailey also explained how this city got its name, which turned out remarkably similar to our own, without the wandering around bit. The first settlers built cottages in the oak and ash groves and so it became known as Cottage Grove. That was in 1842, when James Sullivan Norris made his land claim in what became the town. He and many other early residents hailed from the Northeast, giving the growing community the nickname of “New England of the West.” These early pioneers were mostly wheat farmers, but as the years went by many shifted to dairy farming.

The Railroad came through in 1869 and that changed some of the commerce away from river transport. In 1871, two different plats were laid out, one now known as “Old Cottage Grove’’ that still relied on the river for transportation. The other, Langdon, was laid out around the railway station. Despite its early beginnings, Cottage Grove, Minn., remained a mostly small farming community. In 1950 the population in the area was 833, but that was soon to change. Arrival of housing developments caused the population to increase dramatically, 4,800 by 1960 to over 13,000 in ’70. 

“We have been growing like crazy,” the mayor confirmed. “But Grovians still form a very tight-knit community. There are many of the old families here and their kids are either staying or have come back to raise their families here, true family groups.”

He presides over the four-member City Council, whose decisions and policies are implemented by the City Administrator. Some of the public facilities in this Grove include City Hall, Ice Arena, and the River Oaks Municipal Golf Course.

Cottage Grove is rich in park lands, having over 1,300 acres committed to public parks. These range from small neighborhood ones to the Ravine Regional Park that encompasses 515 acres of natural area. Connecting the many parks is a network of 45 miles of trails. “These trails and parks have seen heavy usage during the Covid restrictions. “People are really getting out to walk and bike. It turned out to have been a great investment for the community,” he said. Also located in city parks are an 18-hole disk golf course and a splash pad for kids.

Local historic sites include the Schilling Archeological District, National Historic Register Cedarhurst Mansion (which hosted four U.S. presidents and foreign dignitaries), several early settler homes showing the New England clapboard style architecture, and the 1850 Grey Cloud Lime Kiln. And some of the Mars family, of candy bar fame, have Cottage Grove connections, including their final resting places.

The Minnesota Grove also has a river, but instead of going through the middle of town, the mighty Mississippi River forms its southern boundary. Included along the river is the 237-acre Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Nature area. This natural preserve is great for birding and contains endangered native plants. It preserves evidence of ice-age glacier action and is popular for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter.

The big summer event there has been the Strawberry Festival. Its origins trace back to Swanlund’s Strawberry farm, where for many years, people would come from the Twin Cities to pick their own. Those farms are gone now but the memories are kept alive through the festival, usually held during the second weekend of June. A parade, live music, carnival rides, strawberry pie baking (and eating) and fireworks are popular aspects of this annual festival. Like many summer events, the Strawberry Festival had to take a Covid breather this year.

Bringing up our virus spoiler, it has, like here, affected Cottage Grove’s Christmas traditions. In our Minnesota cousin’s town, it sounds a lot like our celebration, except that Santa normally arrives by the special Holiday Train. Hot chocolate and pictures with St. Nick at City Hall have been nixed as well. Like us, there was a tree lighting but it’s going virtual this year. But Grovians are innovative, like us Grovers. They organized a tour of lights. An interactive map was put together of homes that went all out in festive decorating. Participants could volunteer or be nominated by their neighbors. The organizers hoped for 20 sites, but were overwhelmed and ended up with over 40. To facilitate the tour it was broken into two routes, the “North Pole” and “South Pole.” There is also a chance for a drive-through photo selfie with the town’s Christmas tree and big adirondack chair.

The last Cottage Grove, a neighborhood in Houston, Texas, was founded in 1910 as an independent town near the Eureka Junction railway stop. It was mostly single-family homes with narrow streets. As Houston’s growth exploded outward, the town was absorbed into the city.  

It was one of the few areas that hadn’t been completely built out in Houston, and that has led to some growing pains. Developers have swooped in and bought any vacant land to build high density townhouses.

According to a 2005 Houston Chronicle article:

Civic club president Earvin Smith, 81, welcomes new neighbors but notes that the high prices are out for seniors living on fixed incomes because they can’t afford the rising taxes in the area. “Our biggest problem at present is finding a new place to hold our civic club meetings,” said Smith, who has lived in the area since 1949. “The places we’ve been holding the meetings at no longer exist because they have been building so many new homes.”    

The drainage ditches still overflow in heavy rains leading to flooding, so all is not well in this Cottage Grove.

Having taken the tour and seeing both the amenities and maybe some of the downsides of the other Cottage Groves, I hope that you appreciate living in your own Cottage Grove.  

Regardless, here is wishing all the Cottage Groves a peaceful and prosperous new year. May 2021 be much better than this one.

Hindsight is always 20-20!

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