Marine resident offers grants to help rebuild aging outbuildings
1931 was a difficult year.
The Great Depression was nearing its peak, prohibition was still in full swing and in the Great Plains the dust bowl was just beginning. All across the country there was suffering, as unemployment rose and families went hungry. It seems odd to think during all that chaos, Lewis Shawe came to the cliffs of the St. Croix Valley and built a truly magnificent home.
Shawe was a recently widowed opera singer (a character description that should be reserved for dime store romance novels, but is nonetheless true) and built much of the home himself. It stands two stories with a foundation of stone quarried on the property and a very rare, unobstructed view of the river below. The idea of a lonely opera singer laying the foundation or framing walls by himself brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘whistle while you work.’
The home is brilliant, and overtly historic. There’s a soul to the property that doesn’t exist in the suburbs. You just know things have happened here, and it stirs the longing for a time machine to appear out of thin air with the date set to 1931.
One of the property’s most unique features is a cabin that sits just to the north of the main house, where Shawe lived while he built the house. It’s no bigger than a one-car garage, with a small basement below for storage.
The cabin has a stone fireplace, a porch overlooking the river and smells the way only a building of its age can smell — of dark, damp wood and creosote. The air hangs heavy inside the shed, making the smell that much stronger. It’s not necessarily a good or bad smell, but alerts the nostrils to the presence of time gone by.
Marine on St. Croix is filled with these kinds of homes. The town is collectively historic, like one of those living history weekends that never ends. The Shawe home, now owned by Wendy Larson and her husband Steven Spear, is among many of these historic Marine properties that includes small shed, cabin or outbuilding, and these often forgotten secondary buildings are the target of a new grant program called ‘The Old Shed Project’ organized by Marine resident Wendy Ward.
“The moment you set foot in Marine on St. Croix, you can see that it’s a really special place,” Ward said. “There’s a lot of history left.”
Ward has spent her career in historic preservation. She’s worked on properties large and small, but has focused much of her time on buildings that might normally be overlooked.
“I tended to focus on those buildings that didn’t get attention but were just as important and as significant,” she said. “They were the barns and the houses that the miners or lumber men had — working man’s architecture.”
Her new project will provide two $900 grants to Marine residents who own a home with one of these small sheds or outbuildings on the property, with the goal of helping them restore the buildings. The basic qualifications are the building has to be more than 50 years old, be part of the original homestead and the money must go toward an overall rehab of one complete outbuilding. The home must be within Marine on St. Croix and be owned by a Marine resident. Applicants must also agree to three consulting visits by Ward; before, during and after the project.
“As homeowners, our first priority is our home, whether your roof needs to be replaced or your electrical needs to be upgraded. The last thing you need to pay attention to are these outbuildings,” she said. “So they start to sag and fall down, and you begin to lose these critical little parts of really rich history.”
While the Shawe home’s history dates back to Prohibition, many of the eligible homes were built in the mid 19th century, when the logging boom created Marine on St. Croix and other towns up and down the river from Taylors Falls to Afton. Back then most homesteads had several of these small buildings, and they were used for everything from smokehouses to outhouses.
“Everybody had a couple cows and maybe a pig and some chickens,” she said. “So chicken coops were another big use. They also usually had a work shed or a barn.”
Shaw’s practice of building a small cabin to live in while a more permanent house was under construction was also common at the time
“They had a broad spectrum of uses,” Ward said. “And they were critical to everyday life of these early homesteaders.”
Ward designed and developed the program on her own and will also be privately supplying the funds for the grants. However, she hopes the project will gain traction as it gains exposure and morph into something larger.
“This is a really easy way to kind of open people's eyes and show these little things are just as important as our beautiful homes,” she said. “It’s easy for folks to grab onto and say ‘OK I’m going to do this shed because I’ve got a little shot in the arm here from the Old Shed Project.’”
If interested in applying to the Old Shed Project, please visit theoldshedproject.org