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Woodbury has changed a lot in 50 years

John Johnson introduces his daughter, 6-week-old Leah Johnson, to a new (old?) town. At the City of Woodbury's 50th birthday celebration Saturday, the Cottage Grove residents took the Woodbury Heritage Society's Woodbury Heritage Walk, a wall-sized photo timeline. (Bulletin photo by Mathias Baden)

Jim Currell was being naughty.

To get to school one morning, he rode a horse from his father's 240-acre farm. As he clopped up to the building, his sixth-grade friends were impressed — but not the principal.

"She said, 'Well, you can turn around and ride it back home,'" recalled Currell, who has lived in Woodbury all of his 66 years.

Currell — and Woodbury — have changed since then. His former horse path is surrounded by hundreds of homes, and the former rural township of Woodbury is now the state's eighth-largest city. On Saturday, Woodbury celebrated that transformation at a 50th birthday party.

"I absolutely want to say, 'Happy birthday, Woodbury!'" Currell said.

Woodbury was a late bloomer. It was first organized as Red Rock Township in 1858 — but it didn't really grow for another 100 years.

Other cities around Woodbury — St. Paul, Newport and Stillwater — thrived because of transportation links to rivers and railroads. Woodbury was a landlocked patch of 36 square miles with no railroad connections.

When Currell was born in 1951, Woodbury was a loose collection of farms. Population: 1,000.

But that's when the automobile began to change everything.

In 1955, Woodbury started to build its first automobile-oriented subdivision — Woodbury Heights, in the northwest corner. It was followed by Park Hills and Royal Oaks.

Cities no longer depended on rails and rivers. When interstates 94 and 494 were completed, the sleepy community found itself at the intersection of two major freeways.

Woodbury added its first water and sewer lines in 1961. The village of Woodbury was created in 1967, and it became a city in 1974.

Blank slate for rapid growth

The founding fathers made a critical decision to encourage development. According to Currell, it put the city on a path that continues today, of well-planned and rapid growth.

Unlike Lake Elmo, Stillwater or Cottage Grove, Woodbury had no historic downtown.

"Afton has a village, too, and it likes to focus on that nostalgia," Currell said. "They have something we did not have."

And yet that gave Woodbury an advantage. Instead of trying to bring a horse-and-buggy village into the 21st century, Woodbury officials were free to plan the city as a blank slate. Instead of clustering businesses around a 100-year-old downtown area, they spread the shopping areas and offices apart.

The growth began. By 1975, the city boasted an industrial park, four schools, six churches, a small shopping center, radio stations and a Howard Johnson restaurant.

In 1988, voters approved spending $4.4 million for the city hall, public safety building and fire station.

From 1980 to 1990, the population doubled to 20,000.

During that time, another early decision began to bear fruit — efforts to attract upscale housing.

3M had established its international headquarters in next-door Maplewood in 1963. That brought hundreds of well-paid employees into the area, looking for places to live.

Places like Woodbury's Evergreen development.

In 1977, the new development opened as Woodbury's first upper-class housing project. The area was thickly forested with pine trees, which Currell's father helped plant in the original tree farm.

In 1985, 400 acres near Colby Lake were developed into the Wedgewood project, a ritzy area around the 18-hole Prestwick Golf Course.

A retail milestone was passed in 1996, with the opening of Tamarack Village, a large shopping center on Radio Drive.

In 2002, two planned communities — Dancing Waters and Stonemill Farms — bolstered the city's reputation as an upscale place to live.

Other innovative projects followed, including the 453-unit four-story CityWalk, and CityPlace, a 100-acre mixed-used development.

Currell can't help but be a bit nostalgic for his youth — recalling, for example, how his mom used to swap her farm-raised eggs for supplies at Hagberg's Market in Lake Elmo.

But he thinks his hometown is on the right track.

"I can't imagine it's been 50 years already," said Currell. "It happened so quickly."

Woodbury then and now

• Parks: Four in 1971; 50 today.

• Walking/biking trails: None in 1967; 100 miles today.

• City employees: One in 1965; 254 today.

• Jobs: Almost none except farming in 1967; 22,813 today.

• Supermarkets: None in 1967; 10 today.

• Businesses: Very few in 1967; 1,370 today.

• Health care-related businesses: None in 1967; 190 today.

• Restaurants: G-and-L Cafe in 1967; more than 70 today.

Birthday party

The celebration of Woodbury's 50th birthday took place Saturday at Central Park, with face-painting, balloon-animal making, a visit from the police K-9 unit, children's stories, drawing and coloring contests, robotics demonstrations by Woodbury high school teams, rock painting and musical contests. Food from Kowalski's Market and Piada Italian Street Food was sold.

A special part of the event: community singing of "Happy Birthday" and a cake-cutting ceremony led by Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.