Whitewater State Park seeks stories as it prepares for 100th anniversary

Whitewater State Park, nestled in the rugged bluffland of southeastern Minnesota and known for its trout fishing and noticeable lack of mosquitoes, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019. 

In preparation for this milestone, park naturalists have embarked on a Whitewater State Park Oral History Project, which aims to gather stories and memories about the park from visitors, former staff, volunteers and others who have a connection to this special place. Stories will be used to develop podcasts, YouTube documentaries and interpretive materials, including an updated version of the 1917 book, “The Paradise of Minnesota: the Proposed Whitewater State Park,” by L.A. Warming of St. Charles.

The project kicked off Memorial Day weekend, and staff hope to have enough stories by mid-September to begin working with a professional documentary producer on a video. “We’re hoping that by January we can have a few finished products,” said interpretive naturalist Sara Holger.  “Any story anybody wants to share, we want to hear it!”

Over the Fourth of July weekend, naturalist staff talked with campers and picnickers about their park memories. Many families shared stories about using the park for decades. Iowa resident Jesse Rorabaugh, for example, talked about coming to park over the Fourth of July every year since he was in high school.

“We always come with a big group of families who used to be our neighbors when we lived in Mankato when I was a kid,” he said. When asked about his favorite memories, Rorabaugh described participating in washer-board tournaments. “It’s a game that one of the dads in our camping group invented. You have a plywood board set up like you would for a bean bag toss but you throw washers instead.” The tournaments can last hours. The winner gets crowned with a special hat and gets photo taken wearing the hat. This has been the tradition for years.

Holger said stories don’t have to be specifically about the park, they can be about experiences and life in the broader Whitewater Valley. For example, the Graves family from Elba, interviewed at the park in June, shared memories of the 2007 flood that forced them to flee their home in Elba and wade through flood waters with their 2-year-old daughter before being rescued by local firefighters and taken to a Red Cross emergency shelter in Altura.

“Every story gives us a better sense of the valley and the experiences people have been sharing here over the past 100 years,” Holger said. She stressed that people do not have to come to the park to be interviewed. “You can have a family member interview you in the comfort of your home using a list of questions developed by park staff.” Audio recording apps for smart phones can work well for capturing stories and audio file can be emailed to the park.

Want to add Whitewater State Park memories to the tapestry of stories that will help commemorate the park’s 100th anniversary? Follow the instructions posted on the park’s webpage or contact interpretive naturalist Sara Holger at 507-932-3007, ext. 226, or by email at sara.holger@state.mn.us.