Last February, on the floodlit snow of the Olympic Nordic course in South Korea, Jessie Diggins overtook her Swedish opponent to win the women's team sprint freestyle race by less than a fifth of a second. The thrilling victory made Diggins and teammate Kikkan Randall the first Americans to take gold in an Olympic cross-country skiing event. For Minnesotans, the medal was doubly satisfying given its direct ties to a long tradition of cross-country skiing excellence in the St. Croix River Valley. You probably know the story by now: Diggins grew up in the St. Croix town of Afton and learned to ski on trails throughout the area, including those at William O'Brien State Park in Marine on St. Croix. Before conquering the world, she won three state championships for the powerhouse Stillwater Area High School girls Nordic skiing program.
When Afton's famous daughter returned from South Korea, the city threw her a parade. Stillwater did the same. And though Marine had every right to get in on the party, it kept its pride for Diggins to itself. Which is fitting. For decades, the riverside community has been the humble heartbeat of the area's thriving Nordic ski culture.
Swedish settlers brought the sport to Marine in the mid-19th century, and it lives on today at William O'Brien, home to a dozen miles of groomed trails that wind through woods and prairie. Located just north of downtown Marine, the park hosts the oldest continuously run cross-country ski race in the state, and is a longtime training ground of the boys and girls Stillwater Nordic skiing teams.
"We trained at William O'Brien so often with the Stillwater High School team, and it was great to have those hills and trails to improve on," says Diggins, referencing the Saturday morning distance workouts that the school holds at the park to this day.
But there's more to Marine skiing than challenging terrain. A closer look reveals that this river town built a vital, if unassuming, cross-country scene that has influenced Olympians and amateurs alike.
Founded in 1839 by lumbermen seeking their fortunes from the nearby pineries, Marine on St. Croix is one of Minnesota's oldest towns. Historic buildings, an air of genial affluence, and a ring of protected green space make the sleepy hamlet seem farther from the Twin Cities than it is. (It's about 35 miles northeast of Minneapolis.) At the center of town is the 148-year-old general store that's still in operation. Its former owner, Ralph Malmberg, moved to Marine in 1962 after purchasing the store. A skier himself, Malmberg opened a ski shop upstairs from the store, when the sport was shifting from a fringe activity to a craze with a link to the village's early days.
"I just loved the feature of being able to ski out your door," says Malmberg, now 84 years old. Area trails weren't yet groomed back then, so residents skied on the streets, along the railroad tracks, and in the state park. Before William O'Brien began grooming trails in the late 1970s, residents made their own skiable paths around town by dragging an old mattress behind a yellow Ski-Doo.
Like Malmberg, longtime Marine resident Peg Arnason has connections to Marine's historic ski traditions. Arnason and her family moved to Marine in 1972. Next door to her lived a pair of elderly sisters, Bertha and Myrtle Holmstrom, Swedish-Americans whose father had run a local confectionary. The sisters once told Arnason an anecdote that captures a lost era of skiing: As children in the 1920s, the girls enjoyed skiing down the hill into town on handmade wooden skis. When they returned home, they would maintain the curved tips of their skis by propping them against their house with the ski tips wedged beneath a strip of siding.
But by the mid-1970s, skiing was starting to change. The modern iteration of the sport focused on speed, groomed trails, and techy equipment. Spotting a business opportunity, Malmberg opened the Village Ski Shop above his grocery in 1970. It was likely the first Nordic-only ski outfitter in the Twin Cities. "We helped build the image of skiing in the St. Croix Valley from the store," Malmberg says.
"Skiing really became popular" in the 1970s, says Minnesota ski historian Greg Fangel, adding that America's desire to reconnect with nature bolstered its newfound love of the sport. To meet demand, Norwegian ski manufacturers began marketing all-inclusive beginner packages—skis, bindings, boots, poles—in the United States. Fangel's first skis came in such a package, bought from the Marine shop in 1974. "The staff was friendly, and there were racks of wooden skis lined up in the middle of the room," he says.
Bill Simpson also bought his first pair of skis from Malmberg. In the early 1970s, Simpson was an outdoorsy young teacher working at Stillwater Area High School and living in Marine. He had tried Nordic skiing in college but hated it because his wax had stuck to the snow. "I stayed with snowshoes until I moved to Marine and got my first real pair of skis at the Marine shop," Simpson says. "I just fell in love with the sport."
Had Simpson not embraced skiing in Marine, it's reasonable to assume that Stillwater Area High School might not have developed one of the most successful ski programs in the nation, creating generations of competitive and recreational skiers. In 1976, when the school's Nordic team was looking for a coach, Simpson stepped in. That year, the Stillwater boys won their first team state Nordic championship, a title they would hold for three years straight.
Thanks to the team's success and the ethos of inclusivity and fun that Simpson fostered, student interest in the program began to grow. And the big kids weren't the only ones honing their skills. Peg Arnason's daughter, Ann Myers, attended Marine Elementary in the late 1970s, and Arnason recalls her daughter bringing skis from home so she could ski during recess. Sixth-graders embarked on school ski trips. Malmberg's shop sold equipment to the elementary school, helping turn it into a talent pipeline for the St. Croix Valley. Marine was "a community of skiers," recalls Myers.
When Simpson started coaching, the Stillwater Area High School team had seven girls, most of whom had attended Marine Elementary. Once, as a relay race neared, Simpson realized he needed another female skier for the team to compete. "I walked up and down the halls [of Stillwater Area High School] looking for a Marine girl," Simpson says. "I found two. It worked out fine." It's an understatement characteristic of the coach. Between 1982 and 1987, the Stillwater girls won a record six consecutive state championships. "We trained every day but we had a lot of fun doing it," says Myers, who graduated in 1985 after winning four consecutive state titles with the Stillwater team.
The skiers from Marine infused the Stillwater team with skill and enthusiasm that spread downriver to the larger towns that sustain the current team, which often has 130 members between the two squads. Helping to fuel this enthusiasm is 88-year-old Bob Hagstrom, who lives just west of Stillwater on a few rolling acres that were once a dairy farm. A converted outbuilding on the property is Hagstrom's ski waxing shed, where the Stillwater Nordic team meets during the season to melt weather-appropriate wax onto their planks.
In the off-season, a visitor to the shed finds a cord and a half of split wood stacked and drying outside, put up by Hagstrom and his grandson. On waxing days, Hagstrom builds a fire in the shed's barrel stove by noon so the building is warm when the team arrives at 6. Hagstrom is a well-known sight at high school races, a tall man in a red snowsuit who pulls a sled piled with blankets that he wraps around skiers waiting for the starting gun. He began volunteering for Stillwater in the 1980s, when his daughter was a participant, and continued to do so while his grandkids skied for the school. "It's been very meaningful for me to have those kids ski," he says. "They've been above-average skiers."
Inside the shed, the walls are covered with posters, racing bibs, and photographs, including a Jessie Diggins poster that she inscribed to the "Wax Shed Skiers." "Have fun skiing fast," it reads. Diggins and the team still exchange good-luck messages before races. "It's really cool to know she was part of our team and has done what we are doing right now," says Ann Myers' daughter Liv, a sophomore at Stillwater who skied on last year's championship team.
Marine may have planted the seeds of the Stillwater ski dynasty, but its influence on the sport goes well beyond the high school. Founded in 1971 by Malmberg, the Marine O'Brien Ski Race is the longest continually run ski race in Minnesota. More than 200 racers participate in an average year. Malmberg started the event to give the many area skiers an organized outlet for their hobby. Held each January, the race consists of both skating and classic-style races, as well as a wooden ski tour named in Bob Hagstrom's honor.
"People bring out their wood skis and three-pin bindings," says Simpson of the Hagstrom race. "The kids have caught on to that. They go looking in their rafters and attics." One local skier, Randy Ferrin, describes his wooden skis as old friends. "You never get rid of them," he says. The wooden ski racers tend to wear historically accurate baggy wool sweaters and socks pulled up to their shins, while the competitive racers wear skin-tight synthetic suits in the conventional classic and skating events. Some do as Ferrin did one year, when he skied the 6K wooden ski tour, switched gear, and raced the 12.5K skating event.
Come winter, William O'Brien park manager Wayne Boerner is a race co-organizer and one of the course groomers. He worked in several other Minnesota state parks before landing in Marine seven years ago. "I have not seen this enthusiasm and passion in the ski culture in other parts of the state, and I've groomed a lot of trails," Boerner says of Marine's ski scene. He credits the multigenerational pool of skier parents and grandparents who get their kids involved.
On Sunday afternoons, William O'Brien hosts the St. Croix Valley Ski Club, which teaches skiing to kids between the ages of 3 and 13. Liv Myers joined when she was a toddler. She says she enjoyed doing an activity with her parents and grandparents and describes the club as "the big base of where my friends come from that keeps me skiing."
Village Ski Shop is long gone. It relocated to Stillwater for a time before closing in the 1980s. Its former space above the Marine General Store is now the gallery and studio of landscape painter Mary Jo Van Dell. When the snow is good, Van Dell skis twice a week, at O'Brien or nearby Pine Point Regional Park. "For me, [skiing] is about inspiration, about getting out in the woods," she says.
Malmberg's outfitter might be closed, but its impact lives on. Simpson still is a coach for the Stillwater team. Ann Myers and other former Stillwater racers continue to ski at O'Brien. In fact, the sport is so embedded into the Marine community that the local Jackson Meadow housing development has its own ski trails, which are open to the public.
January 2019 marks the 48th Marine O'Brien Ski Race. Racers from the St. Croix Valley and beyond will check the forecast, hoping for sub-freezing temps, gauzy clouds, and a good cold snow that coats the ground and stays.