Back in the 1940s, a St. Paul businessman named Thomas Carpenter started buying land along the St. Croix River. He planted hundreds of apple trees, and after he and his wife, Edna, died, their hobby farm was left to be enjoyed by future generations.
"They say nobody ever left his house without a flower in one hand and an apple in the other," says Jim Fitzpatrick, who for 30 years has carried on Carpenter's spirit as director of the Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center. "He liked having people here and liked to have them out in the country."
The Carpenter Nature Center is still luring people to the country, especially in autumn, when the orchard's 2,500 trees hang heavy with Zestar!, Honey Gold and 14 other apple varieties. In keeping with the center's environmental mission, apples are raised with minimal chemicals. And the eco-friendly orchard has become an integral part of the center's educational programs for school children.
I visited on a recent drizzly weekend with my kindergarten-age daughter and her friend. We came for apples. But first we went on a hike. We stopped in the visitor center to grab a map and struck out on a paved trail toward a line of trees that runs along the river bluff.
Over the years, the nature center purchased additional parcels and now owns 425 acres in Minnesota and 300 acres across the river in Wisconsin. Trails wind through prairie, woodland, oak savanna and wetlands and along one mile of shoreline just feet from the St. Croix, a favorite trail for bird watchers during fall migration.
The girls ran to a gazebo overlooking the misty prairie. Then, we veered into the woods to explore a platform overlooking a ravine, which the girls called "the world's biggest tree house." Of course, we had to walk down the wood steps to the bottom - we counted 59 - and then back up again.
I had hesitated to visit on such a wet day, but we had a great walk, reminding me that it's worth getting outside in almost any weather. We listened to the patter of rain on tree leaves. The girls stomped in puddles and tipped back their heads to catch raindrops on their tongues.
When they spotted a narrow trail branching off to our left, they followed it, running downhill past mossy mounds and ferns, our footsteps muffled by a thick layer of woodchips, only stopping once to look at weird mushrooms.
At the bottom of the hill we burst out from the canopy of trees.
"I see the lake!" our friend shouted.
Actually, it was the St. Croix River, lapping on a brown sandy beach, on its way to joining the Mississippi River just more than a mile downstream. The girls poked sticks into the sand and climbed on downed trees.
"This is the funnest adventure," our friend declared.
RESTORING THE PRAIRIE
We could have spent an hour there, even in the rain, but we had apples to find. We headed back to the visitor center on a trail that passed through a prairie blooming in purple and gold and dotted with twisted oak trees. A sign said, "Savanna Trail."
"It's some place in Africa," our friend declared.
"Because this looks just like Africa!" shouted my daughter.
Actually, savanna refers to any grassland scattered with shrubs and trees. We saw no lions, just a few birds that came out after the rain stopped.
Our last stop was the river overlook, a big platform with wood benches. Below us and across the river, the first tinges of yellow were starting to appear amid the green foliage. In a week or two, as the trees blaze brown, orange and gold, it will be one of the best spots to enjoy autumn colors.
It was strange to imagine that many years ago, these deciduous woods weren't here. Before European settlement, much of bluff tops were covered in prairie and oak savanna. The nature center is trying to restore prairie by planting native species and discouraging invasive plants like buckthorn.
"The seed source is still in the soil, and if you manage the land for prairie, some of those things come back," Fitzpatrick said.
One of the few non-native species the center encourages is a tree that originated in western Asia called Malus domestica, otherwise known as the apple tree.
Thomas Carpenter's orchard was chopped down and replaced by a smaller and more environmentally friendly 11-acre orchard. We walked along the perimeter, outside a 10-foot tall wire fence that keeps the deer out, admiring the red apples that in some places grew so thick they dragged branches to the ground.
The orchard is central to the center's environmental education program. Last year, 7,000 kids visited to learn about everything from insects and pollination to orienteering and water-quality issues.
Numbers are down from a few years ago, because the center cut three of its five naturalist positions when the recession hit and its endowment income dropped. Weekend programs for the public are also fewer, but you can still catch weekly preschool story times, monthly bird bandings and family classes on everything from dragonflies to snowshoeing.
And the public is welcome daily to wander the grounds and drop into the visitor center, which was updated with new displays several years ago. We got a close look at several live birds, including a bald eagle and a horned owl. The girls pressed their faces to glass tank to watch a Blanding's turtle.
EDUCATING ALL OF US
On our way out, we finally stopped by the Apple Shack, which sells apples from the orchard. You can't pick your own apples unless you are part of a program or school group.
We passed a tempting display of pumpkins and shelves of jams and jelly and went straight to the cooler. Volunteer Paul Boettcher sliced a crab apple for us to taste, and we left with a five-pound bag of huge, crispy Zestar! for $7 and two quarter-peck bags of sweet crab apples for $3 each.
Over the years, Fitzpatrick says he has lost some school groups to other orchards that are in what he calls the agri-tainment business.
"They've told us that they wanted to go to the orchards that have a corn maze and petting zoo," said Fitzpatrick. "That's OK, if that's what the teacher wants. But we pride ourselves on the education kids get here. They walk away from here with something more than an apple."
We left with not only our apples but also a spirit restored and thankful for the Carpenters, who had the foresight to leave this land to the public, and for the many people who came afterward who have created a spot in nature all of us can enjoy.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center
Where: 12805 St. Croix Trail, Hastings
Information: 651-437-4359 or carpenternaturecenter.org.
Hours: Grounds and visitor center are open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily; apple shack is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until Thanksgiving or until apples are sold
Cost: Free (donations encouraged)
Target audience: People who want to combine an apple excursion with a fall hike.
Crowd pleaser: The beach walk to the St. Croix River.
Avoid: Picking apples. Pick-your-own is allowed only during special programs.
Tip: Crab apples are a perfect snack for kids.
Special events: Apple Fest (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 8-9) coincides with blazing fall colors. Stop by for family activities, wagon rides, live animals, music, food and a chance to pick and sample apples. Also, preschool programs at 10 a.m. Fridays and bird banding from 8:30 a.m. to noon every fourth Friday.
More: Read previously published family outings under "family fun" at MinnMoms.com.