Twenty-one students from Dover-Eyota High School were ready to learn when they arrived at the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area on a sunny morning this past October. The students live within 20 miles of the Whitewater River valley, a mosaic of 30,000-plus acres of public lands with renowned trout streams and dramatic bluffs. This jewel of southeastern Minnesota is in the teens' backyard, and yet when their guide from Whitewater State Park asked them about the area, most of them had no idea about the place, and none of them knew its haunting history.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of historic flooding at the former town of Beaver along the Whitewater River, in the WMA. In 1938, the area flooded 28 times and was buried beneath several feet of sediment, causing residents to abandon their homes and farms and flee the valley. The interpretive staff at Whitewater State Park is making sure local students learn this story.
On this day, students worked in muddy conditions surveying water chemistry, shoreline vegetation, and aquatic invertebrates to determine the health of the Whitewater River. After crawling up a soggy riverbank, Jose Ruiz said, "Today is brought to you by wet pants! You'll sure have wet pants after you visit the Whitewater valley!" Students discussed how land use practices from communities above the valley affected the water quality of the river.
In the late 1800s, white settlers in the area started planting corn instead of wheat. The new crop didn't hold the soil as well. Farmers sometimes planted up and down the slope of the hill, instead of across. When tractors were introduced, farmers plowed steeper slopes. Some hills were logged. In the 1900s, all of these factors led to massive erosion‐topsoil washed into rivers, and farms and towns were covered by sand and mud.
At lunchtime, students ate bag lunches en route to Beaver Cemetery, a pioneer site overlooking Beaver Creek. In the cemetery, the tone was somber. The teens worked in teams using family history cards to find the graves of the people mentioned. Students shared stories about the struggles these pioneers faced. They talked about farming, erosion, severe flooding, and buried towns.
They discussed the town of Beaver, located at the confluence of Beaver Creek and the Whitewater River. In photos of flooding from the 1930s, cars and fence posts were buried in mud and debris. By 1950, the people had moved away.
At the gravesite of Richard J. Dorer, students learned about the Pittman-Robertson Act, passed in 1937. It placed a tax on hunting gear to generate funds for wildlife restoration. Dorer led the Department of Conservation, now the Department of Natural Resources, to restore the valley.
The state purchased farms in the valley from landowners eager to sell and took steps to curb erosion. Trees and shrubs were planted on slopes. Ponds were built to store runoff. A new channel was dredged for the river, but too much sediment drifted down the new route. The DNR fixed this issue by creating a new, more natural channel. The restored river now transports less sand and silt and is home to hundreds of trout. The wildlife refuge is now a place where people can fish, hunt, and enjoy other outdoor experiences.
At the Richard J. Dorer Overlook, students looked out at the confluence of the Whitewater and Mississippi rivers. As they boarded the bus to leave, the students, who were covered in mud from their day of exploration, were again surveyed about the valley. Everyone could define the WMA and describe the importance of the place. "I enjoyed learning all of the history and how much the Whitewater valley has changed," said Connor Martin, a senior.
Sara Holger, Whitewater State Park interpretive naturalist