Tom Curtis’ caves spark local tourism trade

Tom Curtis was a farmer, businessman and developer of Stillwater’s first tourist attraction, the Curtis Caves in the old Wolf Brewery at the south end of Main Street. Curtis is shown with a shovel and pick axe inside one of the Curtis Caves he owned until selling the venture in 1971. (Washington County Historical Society photos)

Tom Curtis was a farmer, businessman and developer of Stillwater’s first tourist attraction, the Curtis Caves in the old Wolf Brewery at the south end of Main Street. Curtis is shown with a shovel and pick axe inside one of the Curtis Caves he owned until selling the venture in 1971. (Washington County Historical Society photos)

Every once in awhile, a person comes along and does something they think is a good idea. The thing is, however, the idea takes off and he becomes the innovator of something that grew and grew, and today is a part of our everyday life.

Such was the case with native Stillwaterite Tom Curtis, who started what was Stillwater’s first tourist attraction, Curtis Caves.

Curtis was born on Sept. 16, 1892, on his parent’s farm three miles north of Stillwater. When he became an adult, Curtis was instrumental in organizing the Farmer’s Buying Association and served several terms as the association’s president.

He also served as a director of the Twin Cities Milk Producers Association and played an active role in the “Farm Holiday,” a grass-roots attempt to draw attention to the farmer’s plight and was a state as well as national leader fighting for legislation to secure farm equality.

In 1932, during the Great Depression, Curtis started a feed, seed, fuel and farm equipment business in downtown Stillwater at 237 South Water St., which is today the Freight House restaurant.

It was in 1945 that Tom Curtis purchased the old Wolf Brewery at the south end of Main Street. He converted the upper level into apartments and in the lower portion, he and a partner had a DeSoto car agency. He later purchased the entire business, then rented the agency to another dealer.

Curtis then got the idea to turn the caves of the old brewery into a tourist attraction. The caves were originally used to store and age the kegs of Wolf’s Beer, and the spring water used to make the beer and keep the caves cool. Curtis added indoor and outdoor trout ponds and opened them to the public for a small fee. Thousands of visitors went through the caves from the late 1950s until Curtis sold them in 1971.

Not only was Tom Curtis a farmer, businessman, but he was also a writer. He was a frequent writer for the Stillwater Gazette, relating the history of Stillwater and of the St. Croix Valley. In one article he wrote about his friend John Runk, he states that it was he and Runk who tried to save the old prison, and then later the Union Depot from the wrecking ball. They were unsuccessful both times. It is wondered what they would think of the new condo developments on the north end of Main Street and inside the prison site which they once tried to preserve.

Curtis also was very active in various community organizations. He was a charter member of the Knights of Columbus when they organized here in 1912. He was a member of the Stillwater Elks Club, and was a member of the Home Guard in World War II.

On April 4, 1985, the person who began the tourist industry that many rely on today, died at Linden Health Care Center in Stillwater. Tom Curtis will not only be remembered for his outspoken opinions, but most of all, for a love of his hometown.

Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. Contact him at 651-439-5956 or visit www.wchsmn.org

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