By Janette Dragvold
Visitors of the root river trailhead and historic campus in Preston have been greeted by the renovated elevator, box car, caboose and rail display since the early 2000s. Though the Preston Historical Society is still hoping to complete the elevator renovation by adding back on the remaining components – a scale house, a bagging house, the bagging shed and a drive-through covered area, some new and exciting additions to the historic campus have been planned.
“My first goal would be to get those three components added on to the elevator,” states Sheila Craig, president of the PHS and vice president of the Fillmore County Fair. “Then kind of a side component all along has been a permanent home for the historical society.”
Preston is one of the few towns in the area that does not have a building for their historical society. Most of the items they have were being stored at various peoples homes, garages, and outbuildings; making it difficult for the public to experience and appreciate the items in person.
The PHS is currently located in the old dairy and farm building across from the trail head and historic campus, which makes storing and cataloguing items much easier, but it’s isn’t a permanent location for them and does not allow for public access. Their hope is to reconstruct the old Preston depot in the location they are currently using. Since the original depot was torn down, their plan is to have one constructed to match the original.
“This is as temporary space that the city lets us use,” says Craig. “We’ve made fantastic use of it and we’ve made lots of progress, but it would be really great to have a permanent home.”
From there came the idea to expand to Preston’s riverfront. They formed a separate committee of close to a dozen people and set to work on planning the historic campus and riverfront master plan.
“I think we did three things to get this off to a good start,” explains Jon DeVries, member of the Facilities Committee, PHS and Preston EDA. “We warned the steering committee… We wanted that broad institutional support from the beginning. The second thing we did was we went after a very diverse range of funding sources. The third thing, we asked Widseth to help us design and administer a community survey. We found out that the trail and the trail head were being used even more than I had dreamed. It was something like 60% were using it at least a few times a month. We also found out that at least 70-80% would use it a lot more if there were some unique displays, the campus was expanded, and that the whole riverfront would be more amenitized places where there would be direct walking and fishing accesses to the river, and more places to sit. There would maybe be shelter kiosks were people could sit inside and get out of the sun and enjoy the views.”
The first public meeting about the plan was held in October 2022 and over 50 people from the community came out to learn about the plans and talk with the designers and committee members. Widseth plans gave people a realistic view of the overall project and the potential for expansion.
“We aren’t doing anything extremely inventive with this greenway that is out of reach for a community of this size,” says Widseth’s Landscape Arcitect Ryan Hermes. “All we’re doing in this design is utilizing features that already exist and shining a light on those. Right now the trailhead park is very underutilized for anybody going there and wanting to stay there any sort of long term. It’s a great place to park and walk and bike. It’s also a great place to go and fish along the shore but past that the playground is pretty small for the size of the town along that riverfront, and it’s not ADA accessible. We really wanted to focus on these areas, (in the design) so that we can bring people downtown, and make them want to stay in this park for a longer time period rather than a park and go.”
“The ultimate goal is to enhance Preston first and foremost,” says PHS vice-president and city council member Steve Hall. “The front door of Preston is right here. What can we do to make this more attractive.”
Craig, DeVries and Hall are quick to point out that this whole endeavor has been a community-based project with cooperation and support from many organizations.
“The PHS accepted leadership by getting this initial funding and said we’ll form a committee,” says DeVries. “But I think it’s been very community based from the beginning. We want to increase the use of the riverfront and the campus on a year-round basis for all our residents. We want to add enough features to this so that this becomes a regional destination and a regional resource for our surrounding southeast counties that are in the karst region. We’ll have preserved this riverfront, these cliffside and made them accessible to people for the whole area.”
The city of Preston passed a resolution of support for the project in February of this year. Staff and elected leaders have also participated in the project planning committees and the community engagement meetings.
“If the project would receive state funding,” states City Administrator Ryan Throckmorton, “the City of Preston would act as the fiscal agent to the project. A vast majority of the proposed sites are city property so future projects would be reviewed and adopted by city council.”
As of right now, the historic campus and riverfront master plan is just that. A plan. Specifically a dream to those working on it. They are hoping that funding will come through so that they can eventually begin enhancing the beauty of the city of Preston and provide more opportunities for the public to enjoy the historic campus and riverfront. For more information on the Preston Historical Society and Masterplan please visit their website Prestonmnhistory.com.