For more than 40 years, Betty and Wayne Schilling have taken on the dual challenge of running a farm and trying to stay one step ahead of the bulldozers as development enveloped their operation in southern Woodbury, one begun by Schilling’s great-great grandfather a year before Minnesota became a state.
Last week, almost ominously, earth-moving equipment sat poised at the end of the quarter-mile long dirt driveway leading to their neatly kept farmstead. Soon, under the hypnotic drone of the auctioneer, everything that made the farm tick — well-used tools, tractors and tilling equipment, wooden egg crates, even the big steel grain bins and brick silos — would be sold off, the buyers departing with generations of memories as well as goods.
“It’s not a funeral,” Wayne Schilling said. “It’s just a change of life.”
Still, it was a day of wistful emotions for the Schillings, who were supported by their children and siblings who jointly own the farm’s last 130 acres and who together came to the decision that this was the right time to sell.
Their farm is destined to become the site of St. Therese of Woodbury, a 307,000-square-foot senior housing complex that is part of Bielenberg Gardens, a mixed-use “urban village” that will include a grocery store, other retailers and housing at the southwest corner of Radio Drive and Bailey Road. That cluster of development, in turn, is part of an explosion of housing growth in some of the last open spaces in southern Woodbury emanating from the Bielenberg Sports Center/East Ridge High School complex just east of the Schilling farm.
Just as the Schillings are starting another chapter in their lives, the new development, which began in 2012 with the opening of what is known as Phase 2, marks the latest step in the city’s rapid transformation from a rural township to the state’s 10th-largest city in just a matter of decades. For years, the city has carefully managed the pace and location of its growth. So when tracts open up, developers pounce.
The city aims to add 600 housing units a year for the next decade in the area between Bailey Road and Cottage Grove, and new subdivisions are springing up. The South Washington County School District — which includes Cottage Grove, also undergoing housing growth — also is looking at long-range plans to meet the needs of that growing population.
The Schillings have been able to watch the changes from their kitchen window.
Not long before they took over the farm, Woodbury residents had taken the first step in redefining the community, voting to change from a township to a village. The first village office, 180 square feet, was set up in a Water Building near Century Avenue and Hwy. 12, which would soon be rebuilt into Interstate 94. Sun Ray Shopping Center in nearby Maplewood was the main retail area.
The cluster of homes built in the northwest corner of the city now known as Woodbury Heights steadily expanded east and south, the cornfields and pastures yielding to relentless growth in what was still a very rural area.
Schilling recalled the pealing of the noon bell from Woodbury United Methodist Church, the oldest in the city, which his ancestors helped establish in the mid-1850s with its tall steeple visible in the distance, signaling lunch and a break from chores. Woodbury was still very much two worlds then; now there are only 12 farms left, mostly on the city’s eastern edge, facing the same development pressure. There is no land left in Woodbury zoned as “agricultural.”
The Schillings always knew they would one day sell the farm they loved. Farming here was always a scramble; besides the 130 acres, they rented hundreds more of ever-dwindling cropland from sometimes 20 or more landowners to provide for their 80-cow dairy farm. Theirs had been the last dairy farm in the city; the cows have been gone for about 10 years.
Like a steadily rising tide, development advanced toward their home. Bailey Elementary School was built just to the west in 1991; Bielenberg Sports Center came four years later; East Ridge High School arrived in 2010 and is already at its capacity.
Now, in the hubbub of auction day, with church ladies doling out generous-sized sloppy joes as the last soybean crop in the nearby field awaited harvest, multiple auctioneers put in a full day to sell the farm’s goods. Their gavels had a poignant ring of finality.
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson