AUSTIN, Minn. — Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 — With Interstate 90 coming through the north side of Austin, community leaders in the early 1960s wanted their downtown connected with the new freeway.
Dozens of acres of Austin’s former state park and adjacent wetlands/pasture along the Cedar River, however, created a barrier between downtown and the freeway, which formally opened in 1961 as the “Austin Belt Line.” A year earlier, the city also just had opened a hotel-motel — the Red Cedar Inn (present-day Cedars of Austin) — that stood out in Austin’s skyline and was the first development on land once part of Horace Austin State Park.
Community leaders at the time decided to develop the rest of the old state park and flood-prone wetlands of the Austin Mill Pond area for commercial and residential projects, which led to dredging of the Cedar River and using that material to develop what was long viewed as an “unbuildable” area.
About the same, Austin began experiencing worsened flooding, with major flood events in 1961, 1962 and 1965 (twice). Now that once “unbuildable” area is protected by an extensive system of flood walls and earthen berms.
This critical era in Austin’s history will be the focus of a presentation Monday night by the Cedar River Watershed District’s outreach coordinator Tim Ruzek as part of the Hormel Historic Home’s monthly “History Happy Hour” series.
His presentation titled, “Freeways & Floods: Austin Mill Pond history — Part Two,” will run from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Hormel Historic Home; doors open at 5:30 p.m. with a cash bar available and coffee, water and appetizers provided for attendees.
One of Ruzek’s favorite finds on the topic is a 1964 local newspaper’s large headline stating, “They Poured $1 million Into a Big Swamp.”
“Austin Mill Pond’s history is really interesting in a variety of ways,” Ruzek said, “especially when you consider that what’s protected down there now by flood walls and berms today used to be river channel, swampland and a state park. What was viewed as progress for the community at one time is seen much differently now.”
Ruzek gave a similar presentation in 2015 called “Flood Walls in a Former Swamp” on Austin Mill Pond’s history. This upcoming presentation on Monday is based on that but with many more photos and facts along with a focus on the urban development of the former state park land.
He will cover the extensive changes made to the Cedar River in the area between the downtown dam and Interstate 90 since Austin was founded in 1856. Ruzek also will discuss how and why the major changes happened as well as share dozens of photos of the former Horace Austin State Park, the old swimming beach, the original Hormel Foods plant and historic aerial photos.
Admission for “History Happy Hour” events is free for members of the Hormel Historic Home; Mower County Historical Society; and Friends of the Austin Public Library. Cost is $5 for non-members.