'This is a proud legacy'

Jim Sillman

LEWSISTON, Minn. — Bill Sillman saw the hills and valleys of Winona County at their flooding- and erosion-plagued worst in the 1930s, but with his help, the county reversed those trends.

Last week, his son, Jim Sillman of Louisiana, told more stories about his father, who died in 2003, and the bad old days back then that led to the good days now to about 75 people gathered at Farmer’s Community Park near Lewiston. His talk was part of the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation. It’s the oldest of the state’s 89 districts.

The county was the first because its hilly, rugged topography makes the county "pretty vulnerable to soil erosion," said Neil Broadwater, a former U of M Extension educator. "Something had to be done back in that time."

Bill Sillman, who was the county conservationist from 1936 to 1973, saw the land at some of its worst times. For decades, farmers had been cutting trees, setting fire to hillsides, grazing cattle on steep hills and plowing up and down hillsides. The result: massive erosion, gullies 50 feet deep, sudden flooding, farms stripped and farmers left destitute. Without trees and grasses to hold back water, even light rains could be devastating. Tiny Gilmore Creek that flows into Winona, was once a mile wide after a heavy rain, Jim said.

Even into the 1950s, he said he could remember seeing fires on the hillsides around Winona. His dad would have to go out to help put out the fires.


The county, especially the Whitewater Valley that is mostly in Winona County, became known nationally for its history of erosion. But with the help of Sillman, the SWCD and other groups, it’s now known for recovery.

Jim Sillman told stories about his dad would taking him along to hold instruments for surveying. The boy’s reward: a 7-ounce Coke and a Nut Goodie.

One of his father’s most important instrument was not his surveying tools but his voice, Jim said. He met with nearly every farmer in the county and got 90 percent to sign up for erosion-control measures such as filter and contour strips. "He was always trying to sell soil conservation," he said. "People knew about them, but they were not in general practice."

One thing his father didn’t see, but would observe now, was "the demise of the family farm," Jim said later. "I think that would be one thing that would bother him."

Today, he would love seeing the green hills around Farmer’s Community Park, he said. "He started the process and you folks are continuing it," he said to listeners.

The need to continue it, and cooperate, were emphasized by other speakers.

LeAnn Buck, executive secretary of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation District Association, said groups such as hers are needed to bridge the gap between federal technicians and people on the land. "It’s ultimately about that local decision making," she said.

John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources, said new problems are cropping up, "it’s not just things you can see any more." Urban runoff problems and lake pollution are current challenges.


Troy Daniell, state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, applauded the work the county SWCD has done. "It’s a monumental legacy," he said. "We need to be ready as partners to tell the story to the next generation. There are challenges, all kinds of challenges."

But in the end, "this is a proud legacy," he said.

Lance Klessig, a resource specialist with the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District, talks about how different kinds of soil retain water. The demonstration was part of the 80th anniversary celebration of the SWCD.

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