Bicycling Stillwater

Since the late 1800’s, bicycling has been very popular in Stillwater and the surrounding area.  We often have Rivertown Inn guests who arrive on their bicycles and many people come to Stllwater to either participate in or watch the local bike races.  On April 27th, Washington County will host the 48th annual Minnesota Ironman Bicycle Ride and on June 5th Nature Valley Bicycle Festival  will be held in Stillwater.  Guests who arrive without a bike can rent bicycles by calling the Rivertown Inn where our staff will gladly make arranges for them through Wahoo Adventure.


The “bicycle craze” in the United States began shortly after the safety bicycle was invented by John Kemp Starley in 1885.  Unlike the earlier bikes with the large front wheel, the safety bike featured a steerable front wheel, equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel.


As early as 1886, bicycle races were held in Stillwater.  The Saint Paul Daily Globe reported on a race held in April of 1886, between “Prince, champion of America; Woodside, champion of Ireland, and Eck, champion of Canada.”  It was a 15 mile race which was completed in 52 minutes and 8 seconds with the fastest mile being completed in 3 minutes and 51 seconds.  In July of 1891, under the heading “Dull Day in Stillwater,” the St. Paul Daily Globe reported on “the ladies bicycle race at the new Athletic park…”

The next major innovations in bicycle design were the use of pneumatic tires in 1888 and the invention of the coaster brake in 1896 (an important need for those who do not live on flat land).  Before the use of pneumatic tires an elaborate suspension system (which made the bikes heavy, cumbersome and expensive) was needed to ride comfortably on hard surfaces.  These new tires allowed for a much lighter frame and the resulting lower production cost brought the bicycle within reach of most people.  In fact the bicycle became so popular and affordable that in 1895 the cost of a good horse hit an all time low.

The Stillwater Cycle Club was organized in July of 1895.  In addition to promoting the hobby, they also raised funds to build local bicycle trails.  John O’Brien, who built the home we now know as the Rivertown Inn, was elected president of this organization in 1896.  Several newspaper articles mention that John O’Brien was an enthusiastic cyclist and on April 24, 1896, the Stillwater Daily Gazette reported that, “John O’Brien has purchased wheels for his children and may occasionally be seen mounted on a cycle himself – and let us add that these good sized folks, like Mr. O’Brien and R.S. Davis, appear graceful on their silent steeds of steel.”

As noted in the Saint Paul Globe, the Stillwater city council soon became involved with regulating this new mode of transportation.  On May 21, 1896, they stated that the city council passed “an ordinace governing bicycling in the city.  It provides for a maximum speed of six miles per hour, prevents riding on sidewalks, and compels riders to carry lanterns on their wheels after dark.”  A few months later, they revisited the new ordinance and removed the lantern requirement.  I have not been able to confirm any other changes to this ordinance, so it might be amusing to racers in Stillwater, that they could be ticketed for traveling faster than six miles per hour.

In August of 1896, the Deere Weber Bicycle Day at the State Fair Grounds was touted as being “the greatest cycle meet ever held west of Chicago” by the Saint Paul Globe.  Among the participants in the “One-Mile Fat Riders’ Race – weight must be over 200 pounds” was John O’Brien of Stillwater.  It was reported that “The fleshy gentlemen provided considerable amusement” and John came in third place.

Bicycle on SUmmit Avenue

In 1897 and 1898, the local newspapers include many articles concerning bike runs from St. Paul to Stillwater by the Capital City Cycle Club.  The Little Falls (Minnesota) Weekly Transcript reported in 1897 and 1898 about Felix Simonet and friends of Stillwater traveling between the two cities on bicycles.

Although the Stillwater Cycle Club had been planning a cycle path to Lake Elmo since early 1897, it was reported by the St. Paul Globe on September 21, 1898, that “The city of Stillwater has no cycle paths.  It is to be excused for this, perhaps, as they would have to be equipped with elevators and safety devices.”  This little jab, may have got them moving, as the Stillwater Gazette reported on April 20th, 1900, that “Work on the Lake Elmo Path began this morning.”  By early 1901, the Stillwater Cycle Club was working with the area boards of county commissioners to complete the cycle path to Stillwater “as far as the Ramsey and Hennepin county lines.”


Typical Ladies Bicycle Attire

The “cycling craze” or “golden age of cycling” dropped off dramatically between 1900 and 1910 as automobiles became the preferred mode of transportation.  One legacy of this “golden age” concerns the rights of women.  According to Wikipedia, “the impact of the bicycle on female emancipation should not be underestimated.  The safety bike gave women unprecedented mobility…As bicycles became safer and cheaper, more women had access to the personal freedom they embodied, and so the bicycle came to symbolize the New Woman of the late nineteenth century…Since women could not cycle in the then-current fashions for voluminous and restrictive dress, the bicycle craze fed into a movement of so-called rational dress, which helped liberate women from corsets and ankle-length skirts and other encumbering garments…”

Thank you for your readership and please let me know if there is anything of local interest you might suggested for future blogs.  Next week we will be announcing an exciting new blog special for the month of May at the Rivertown Inn, so stay tuned.







Rivertown Inn History, Cuisine and the Arts

On today’s date in 1842, John O’Brien’s parents, Michael and Mary (Casey) O’Brien, were married in Miramachi,  New Brunswick.  Although, I’m sure their wedding could in no way be compared to today’s often elaborate celebrations, it was a very important event for them, their friends and family (possibly of most importance was that their first child, Edward Augustus O’Brien, was born just 2 months after their marriage).  Over the course of their marriage, they had a total of 9 children.  Mary (Casey) O’Brien died in Stillwater, Minnesota, on December 4, 1882.  Michael O’Brien died in Stillwater on December 5, 1907.  He was almost 100 years of age at the time of his death (there are several different records concerning the date of his birth, so he was somewhere between 94 and 100 years old).  His obituary in the Stillwater Gazette stated that, ‘Mr. O’Brien was held in high esteem and was noted for a strong personality and for a vigor of manhood that astonished his many acquaintances.”

This week there are three events in Stillwater you should consider attending which are either at or within a short walk of the Rivertown Inn.  On Friday, April 11,  from 5-9 pm , Art On Main will be hosting artist receptions at several of Stillwater’s Main street art galleries.  The participating art galleries this week include the Tamarack Gallery at 112 S. Main St., Gallery 310 at 310 S. Main and the Stillwater Art Guild Gallery at 402 N. Main.  More information can be obtained by calling 651-439-9393


Chef Ray Remler

At the Rivertown Inn on Saturday, April 12, from 1-4 pm Chef Ray will be teaching one of his very popular Cooking Classes.  The theme this month is “Sweet and Savory Crepes – France’s Comfort Food.”  Skills covered in this class include making whole wheat and bran crepes, preparing 3 distinctive fillings and creating a mixed berry compote crepe with a Greek yogurt vanilla mousseline.   As of the posting of this blog, there are only 3 seats available for this class.  Please call (651) 430-2955 to place your reservation.  Culinary students who take Chef Ray’s Cooking class, receive $50. off their nights stay for either the night before or the evening of the class.


Roosevelt Credit

On Saturday April 12th, the Valley Chamber Chorale will perform a concert in Stillwater titled “Words to Live By” with special guest Roosevelt Credit.  Mr. Credit is a bass/baritone and has performed in many Broadway and off Broadway productions.  He is currently touring the U.S. with the production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”  The concert will be performed at 7:30pm at Trinity Lutheran Church.  You can purchase tickets at or by calling 651-430-0124.  Tickets are $27. each, but guests at the Rivertown Inn may receive tickets at a discounted rate of just $15. per ticket.  Please let us know in advance if you would like to purchase tickets through the Inn by calling us at (651) 430-2955

Come to Stillwater for a stay at the Rivertown Inn, enjoy great art, create incredible cuisine and experience world-class music – it really doesn’t get any better than this!




History of the Rivertown Inn

Rivertown Inn


The Rivertown Inn was built as a private residence in 1884 by John & Anna O’Brien.  In the spring of 1882 the O’Briens purchased 4 lots on the corner of Olive and Fifth streets in Stillwater, Minn.. from Mrs. H. Wilson.  Although we do not know the purchase price, the 4 lots were valued at a total of $1,300 on the 1883 tax rolls.  Just after they purchased the property, the Stillwater Messenger of April 29, 1882, stated that, “Mr. O’Brien will at once erect a house on his lots on Olive Street..”  Apparently this did not happen “at once” as the Stillwater Gazette published a notice on August 9, 1882, that, “John O’Brien expects to move into his new home on Third Street next week.”  Finally, on April 23, 1884, the St. Paul Daily Globe reported in their Stillwater news column that, “John O’Brien will soon commence the erection of a new residence on Olive street.  According to the plans and specifications the new structure promises to be one of the finest and most commodious private dwelling houses in the city.”

Further evidence that the house was completed in 1884 are the Stillwater Directory and two newspaper articles.  The Stillwater Directory for 1884, is the first listing of John O’Brien residing at the northwest corner of 5th and Olive Streets.   The St. Paul Daily Globe on November 10, 1884, reported that,  “John S. O’Brien’s new residence was excellently illuminated, gas aiding to the other lights…” and on December 15, 1884, they published a list of new construction in the past year in Stillwater which included the “John O’Brien, house, barn and improvements, Olive Street – $11,ooo.”  The General Contractor was listed as August Jackson who also built a house at 717 W. Pine street for John O’Brien’s brother-in-law, John F. Burke, as well as a house on Pine St. for John O’Brien’s brother, James S. O’Brien.  The architect was Frederick Sturnegk.

Apparently, the O’Brien family did not enjoy their new home for very long, as on April 11, 1885, the Stillwater Messenger reported that. “John O’Brien, whose family spent the winter at his logging camp near Stewart, Wisconsin, has decided to take up his abode at Stewart for some years and will probably sell his elegant new residence on the corner of Fifth and Olive streets.”  On May 7, 1885, the St. Paul Daily Globe announced that, “Mr. John O’Brien and family left yesterday for their new home at Stewart, Wis.”  By the middle of 1885, newspaper articles begin to refer to John and Anna O’Brien “of Veazie, Wisconsin.”

The St. Paul Globe of September 22, 1886,, reported, “Newton McKusick has purchased the O’Brien property, corner of Olive and Fourth streets, now occupied by Mrs. Koons, for $9,000, and will move into it shortly.”   Although the 1887 Stillwater Directory lists Newton as living at 306 W. Olive they were not in residence for very long as it was noted in the St. Paul Daily Globe, on July 3, 1887, that, “Newton McKusick and family are making preparations to remove to St. Paul and his residence on Olive street will be occupied by John O’Brien.”   This is further corroborated by a note in the John Burke Papers dated Saturday, July 30, 1887, which states, “Newton McKusick sold his house on the corner of Fifth and Olive to John O’Brien the original owner.”  The last known date the O’Briens were listed as “of Veazie, Wisconsin” was on July 3, 1887.

Cotter,John,Willis,Michael,JOB onporch in Vancouver abt 1913 2

John O’Brien (Photo courtesy of Terri Cole)

The O’Briens lived in the house with their 6 children and 4 live-in servants.  In 1896, they made major additions to the house which included a 2 story 6′ x 16′ addition to the west side of the house, a 2 story 14′ x 30′ addition to the back of the house and an indoor bathroom (currently our massage room).   In 1901, the O’Briens founded the town of Somers, Montana, where they built a lumber mill and homes for their workers.  In 1903, they also built a very large home for themselves in Somers.

Anna Conrad Kennedy O'Brien 1855-1916 (2) 2

Anna Kennedy O’Brien (photo courtesy of Terri Cole)

A Stillwater newspaper article dated October 14, 1901, states, “The John O’Brien residence has been leased for the winter to W.C. Jordan…”  It was later noted that the O’Brien family was staying at the home of James S. O’Brien (John’s brother) and would be moving to Kalispell, Montana, on Monday, November 3, 1901.  Sometime after the O’Briens moved west, they rented the house to William and Mary Bean who subsequently purchased the home in 1909.  Mr. Bean was the son of a local Lumber Baron, whose home is now the Ann Bean Bed & Breakfast.  The Beans moved into the house with their 2 sons as well as 2 servants.  Shortly after purchasing the house, the Beans removed a 16′ x 32′ portion of the rear of the house and added a back porch.  In 1920, they also replaced the roof using cedar shingles.

In the late 1930’s the house was sold to Harold & Grace Hohlt.  In May of 1938, the Hohlts were issued a permit to divide the house into 3 apartments.  They lived in one part of the house and rented the two apartments.  In 1942, a fire in the basement destroyed the parquet floors in the front parlor and dining room.  Over the years, many people rented the apartments and although they are too numerous to list here, if anyone has any information about this time period and the residents, please contact us.

In 1976, the house was purchased by Dick & Judy Anderson (current owners of the Lowell Inn and the Stillwater riverboats).  They began the restoration and used the home as a “Crisis Center” for juveniles who were awaiting their court dates.

In May of 1982, Sherwood and Gloria Vasgund purchased the home with the intention of opening Stillwater’s first Bed and Breakfast.  It opened for business on July 1, 1982, making the Rivertown Inn the oldest Bed and Breakfast in Minnesota.  The next owners of the Inn were Kerry & Patty Fenelon, who sold it in May of 1987 to Chuck and Judy Doherty (current owners of the Waterstreet Inn and Cover Park Manor B&B).

The Dohertys made many improvements to the Inn including adding seven bathrooms so that all of the rooms had a private bath.  Five of these bathrooms had jetted tubs. They also added central air conditioning, many gas fireplace inserts and converted the carriage house into a home for their family.


In 1999, Jeff & Julie Anderson purchased the Rivertown Inn.  They closed the business while the porches were being restored.  They also replaced the old gazebo at this time.  In Phase 1 of their renovation, they renovated and redecorated all of the main house bedrooms in the spirit of 19th century authors.  In phase 2, they painted the exterior, added garden statuary and redecorated the main floor.  Subsequently, they installed two Grand Suites in the north half of the carriage house and enlarged the main house kitchen.

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