When Mitzi Olson was making her will, she wanted to remember her beloved St. Croix River Valley.
Olson, who had a successful career in show business and later made Landfall the "premier manufactured housing community" in Minnesota, left her house in Afton and 18-1/2 acres of property to the St. Croix Valley Foundation.
Foundation officials didn't learn about the gift until after her death in 2012, said Jane Hetland Stevenson, foundation president. "This came out of the blue," she said. "We got a call one day from her attorney. That's the fun part of this job. We just wish we had had a chance to thank her in person."
Olson didn't seek accolades, said Michael Kula, her attorney.
"She was a very generous person, but private about her giving," said Michael Kula, her attorney. "She didn't want the pat on the back. She very much believed in the St. Croix Valley Foundation's mission, and she was a tremendous supporter of the arts and the community."
Olson's donation is the first gift of property to the foundation. Sale of the property provided $600,000, which went into an unrestricted gift fund that foundation officials can use at their discretion. "The fund provides the kind of flexibility to take care of needs in the Valley that pop up," Stevenson said.
Five Loaves food shelf in New Richmond, Wis., for example, recently requested $5,000 to meet holiday needs, and the foundation granted the money from the unrestricted fund.
Since its start in 1995, the foundation has grown to more than $42 million in assets and has arranged more than $16 million in grants. It serves Washington and Chisago counties in Minnesota and Pierce, Polk, St. Croix and Burnett counties in Wisconsin. It also has 10 affiliated foundations that operate in parts of western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota.
Olson, who died at the age of 82, was born in Chicago and trained as as dancer. She performed professionally until an injury while on tour in Europe forced her to give up her career. She met her husband, James, while studying drama at Macalester College in St. Paul. They wed in 1951; he died in 1985.
The couple's house on Coulee Ridge Road was designed by architect Mike McGuire and built in 1971. The house and 7 surrounding acres were sold to a family from the metro area. Tthe remaining 11-1/2 acres, which are on a hill overlooking the house, were sold to a neighbor whose land abuts it, Stevenson said.
Mitzi and James Olson once owned all of the land that is now Landfall, a 43-acre city located on Tanners Lake near Interstate 94 and Century Avenue.
The couple moved into a primitive log cabin on the property in 1953.
"It was the only place we could live in," Olson told the Pioneer Press in a 1998 interview. "It had just four walls and no insulation."
To buy the cabin, the couple had to "sell our old trailer, sell our new car and buy a backhoe," she said. "We had no financing, but we had enough money that we could borrow from his parents. Our first purchase was 25 acres."
When the Olsons moved to Landfall, there was "nothing but cows and country out there," she said. "The pigs would get loose every once in a while. 3M wasn't there. (Interstate) 94 wasn't there, either."
The couple lived in Landfall until 1971, when they moved to Afton.
"She was a long term resident of Afton, and she loved the St. Croix River Valley," Stevenson said.