Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Scandia, Minnesota's big plans to rebuild iconic water tower barn

Scandia Water Tower building
A drawing of the planned Scandia Arts and Heritage center, featuring the restored water tower barn.
Courtesy Scandia Heritage Alliance

The town of Scandia, Minn. in northern Washington County, near the Wisconsin border, is small — it has fewer than 4,000 people — but it got a big win from the legislature this year.

Tucked into the state bonding bill is $2.2 million toward rebuilding Scandia’s iconic water tower barn and creating an arts and cultural heritage center in the town’s center.

A group of dedicated volunteers have been dreaming and planning about this center for over a decade. Part of the story they want to tell encompasses the first Swedish settlers in Minnesota.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer speaks with Susan Rodsjo, a founding member of the Scandia Heritage Alliance, who has been working on this project since its inception.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.   

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: The town of Scandia in northern Washington County near the Wisconsin border is small. It's about 4,000 people, but it got a big win from the legislature this year. Tucked into the state bonding bill, $2.2 million toward rebuilding Scania's iconic Water Tower Barn and creating an Arts and Cultural Heritage Center in Downtown Scandia.

A group of dedicated volunteers have been dreaming and planning about this center for more than 10 years, and the story they want to tell encompasses the first Swedish settlers in Minnesota. Susan Rodsjo is the founding member of the Scandia Heritage Alliance, and she's on the line with us. Hey, Susan.

SUSAN RODSJO: Hello, how are you?

INTERVIEWER: I am fine. Thank you for joining us. I appreciate it. I must tell you, I have never seen the Scandia Water Tower Barn, and I'm pretty familiar with the area. Where is it? What does it look like?

SUSAN RODSJO: Well, right now, it's actually stored inside of a barn, because it was dismantled in 2014. But it was a very iconic building that stood behind the mercantile that's right in the center of our village center, but right now, it's actually dismantled and stored in another barn.

INTERVIEWER: And that whole area in Downtown Scandia is pretty cute. So why is it important? Why do you want to save it? And actually, I guess, it's dismantled, but you want to put it together. And what's important about the architectural details of it?

SUSAN RODSJO: Yeah, so this building really was a very iconic structure. It's pretty unusual to see a barn sitting in the middle of a little downtown area, and it was what's called a tank house. We called it the Scandia Water Tower Barn, and it was built by Frank Lake in about 1895. He was an early entrepreneur who built the mercantile that was sort of the center of anything happening along with the church and town, of course, back in the late 1800s, early 1900s.

A tank house is something that has a tower on it. It held a wood water tank and provided water to the local businesses and communities. We know that there, actually, back in the day, were wood water pipes, if you can believe it, that went underground to the local homes, so like a square, wood pipe with a hole drilled through it. It's very unique in that it wasn't your typical barn.

It was a barn that had a large tower on the top with a curved roof on it. It had sort of a cupola of sorts that would hold that windmill. That then was powered by the wind and pulled water out of the ground to send to these homes and businesses. Now, this is something that was really typical of a railroad, a [INAUDIBLE], or even a large ranch. But this was rather unusual that he created this to help businesses start in Scandia before there was a city to do it.

INTERVIEWER: Hmm, so this is almost like the municipal, an early municipal water system.

SUSAN RODSJO: Yeah, except for that it was run by a local businessman instead, and what's really interesting is that it was a very unique building that many of us thought was kind of-- it was very representative of Scandia. You always saw it when you drove into town, a very unusual looking building, because it had this huge water tower on top of it with a curved roof, very passionate about it. And we're sad when-- it was owned by a-- back in the--


--that was associated with this building. So even into when it was dismantled, these homes were still getting water from this building.

So the Hilltop Water Company had purchased the building back in the 1970s, but it came to a point, where it was hard to continue maintaining it. It was starting to fall apart, so they chose to take it down rather than to continue maintaining it. But there were a number of us that were very passionate about this building and worked very closely with Hilltop Water Company to have it dismantled by a barn restoration company. We did some early research on the building and learned that it is or, I guess, is or was the only remaining tank house in the state of Minnesota, and there's a number of tank houses in California, primarily in the wine district, that are on the National Register of Historic Places. So it's known to be a very historic--


And we are working really closely, Scandia Heritage Alliance is with the State Historic Preservation Office to put it on the National Register of Historic Places once it's rebuilt.

INTERVIEWER: So I'm wondering. Once this is all rebuilt-- and I mentioned to folks listening that you're hoping this will be an Arts and Cultural Heritage Center. What do you want to see in this center? What's the ultimate goal here?

SUSAN RODSJO: Well, the whole center will focus on the Water Tower Barn. That will be the central element of the Arts and Heritage Center, and it will have multiple purposes. So the Water Tower Barn will be a museum with a plan. We're working with the State Historic Preservation Office to put it on the National Register of Historic Places as an element or as an example of the iconic engineering that was created at the time that it had a windmill on it.

So we still have elements of the windmill and then the pump that was operated by the wind, and we'd like to recreate that, so that the public can come and see how this windmill engineering worked. So it was a very short lived time frame when windmills were big. So they became really, really big when the Chicago World's Fair happened, and Aermotor was the company that they really took the world by storm with this new type of windmill that they came out with in the late 1890s.

And Frank Lake, who operated the building in Scandia, sold these windmills, so we'll bring back that windmill. We'll bring back a hand water pump. People can actually come to the Arts and Heritage Center and pump water by hand kind of like you can do at the Harriet Island Pavilion, but it'll also be a place, where we can remove the museum displays and have art shows.

It'll have a small stage for small productions, music, theater, and then we'll have an amphitheater outside that can seat about 260 people. So it'll be a beautiful garden setting, kind of a splash pad for kids outside. Also, the whole setting is surrounded by rain gardens. We'll have a rain garden, but it's surrounded by wetlands on all three sides.

So we'll have a wetland overlook and some wetland trails, but the whole thing is kind of themed with water to be able to talk about how this windmill provided clean water for the early Swedish families that were in Scandia. And the later immigrants that came helped provide water for businesses, as well as before farmers had the money to drill their own well, they could get water from this tank house, fill their cisterns with it. So we'll celebrate water and clean water throughout this whole facility and be a place, where theater companies and musicians can come and share their talents.

INTERVIEWER: I know you had a chunk of money from the state of Minnesota, but I'm going to assume here, you're going to have to do more fundraising, right?

SUSAN RODSJO: Yeah, the state of Minnesota with the state bond financing requires-- you know, their goal is to pay for half of a project, so that we have to raise the second half. We've already raised about $600,000 towards that, but we will be launching a big capital campaign.

INTERVIEWER: And it's interesting to me. This is a community driven effort. Not every historical preservation project makes it this far. So what do you think it is about the building, the effort, that area of Washington County that has coalesced in your project's made it this far?

SUSAN RODSJO: It's really interesting. What I have discovered is that Scandia is somewhat of a sleepy, agricultural town, but there's so much talent. It's unbelievable, and we've gathered together a group of really passionate individuals who really loved this barn. And I think, I would say, Scandia is kind of like a little engine that could.

I think I can. I think I can, but we were really blessed early on that our Mayor Christine Maefsky knew an attorney John Herrman, who I would imagine a lot of your listeners are probably familiar with his name. He was an attorney at the time that he retired with Faegre Baker Daniels, who worked with cultural and public assistance projects, and a big part of his job was state bond financing projects. And he worked with things, like the Ordway Theater with the Minneapolis Institute of Art and big projects.

So we were blessed from the very beginning to have John as a board member with us, and he kept telling us early on, "I think we can do state financing," and explaining to us how that works--


How does this work? What do we do? He was very patient, and it's a complicated process. But it's something that any community in the state of Minnesota can take advantage of. Next, we're blessed with one of the best lobbyists at the state capitol, moving to Scandia five years ago, Bill Strusinski. So he's been a great partner with us, working with our legislators on promoting the project, also, helping us understand the steps that we need to take to seek state bond financing.

INTERVIEWER: All right, sounds like you've got it all together.

SUSAN RODSJO: So we have these wonderful volunteers, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: And plus, a really cool, little town. Susan, I've got to run. I wish you the best. Thank you so much.

SUSAN RODSJO: Thank you for having us. We really appreciate it.

INTERVIEWER: Susan Rodsjo is the founding member of the Scandia Heritage Alliance, which is a volunteer effort, as you heard, to reconstruct the Scandia Water Tower Barn as a center for an Arts and Cultural Heritage Center in Scandia.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.