More than 250 people attend Avon Hills conference

by Cori Hilsgen

More than 250 people, including 24 children,  attended the “Living in the Avon Hills” conference held on Saturday, Feb. 1 at St. John’s University.

Two local presenters at the conference included Susan Kroska and Peggy Roske. Kroska presented “Pretzels and More,” showing the audience how to make pretzels. She also gave out samples of the pretzels.

“There’s nothing like the smell of a warm pretzel,” Kroska said.

She shared various facts about pretzels, including that Pennsylvania produces 80 percent of all U.S. pretzels, that Anderson Pretzel in Lancaster, Penn. makes 65 tons of pretzels a day and that April 26 is National Pretzel Day among other fun pretzel facts.

Kroska distributed her “Swiss Pretzel with Sponge” and “Best Soft Pretzel Recipe Ever” recipes.

She discussed facts about yeast, the importance of measuring in ounces for consistency, holding the salt back because salt inhibits yeast, experimenting with various grains to make breads healthier and more.

Kroska, , who owns “Susan’s Artisan Bread,” attended the San Francisco Baking Institute and classes in Canada and San Diego. She and her husband, David, have eight children. Dr. David Kroska also gave a presentation about “Plant Powered Health: Answers from the Garden.”

Roske told about the history of Collegeville. She discussed the arrival of the Benedictines in St. Joseph and Collegeville and the site in “Lower Collegeville” where St. John’s monks settled before their move to the Lake Sagatagan shores.

Roske discussed the bridges on Lake Sagatagan’s Chapel Walk and other stonework on the grounds of the SJU campus. She showed old photographs of where the main entrance used to be, the stonework that graced the entrance of the football field and more.

Roske also discussed where the fish hatchery on the east bank of Watab Lake was located and how its founders had planned to grow the fish population so students and monks could eat them.

With the recent St. John’s paint-shop fire, she discussed the history of fires at SJU. Some included a fire at the north fork of Watab Creek in 1868, the saw mill in 1873, the Old Stone House (the first house the monks built on campus) in 1877, the first chapel in 1903, the woodworking shop in 1939, the first sugar shack in 1942, a roof fire of the old gym in 1988 and more.

Roske is an archivist for St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. She and her husband, Mike, live in Collegeville.

“The Avon Hills Conference is so packed with interesting sessions it can be hard to choose between them,” Roske said. “It brings people together for interesting experiences and topics, to visit with their neighbors and to learn about nature, the local community, sustainability and ways to tread more softly upon the land.”

Other local presenters included Steve Heymans about “Small-scale Prairies and Eco-Friendly Landscapes,” Diane Hansgen about “Peonies: King of the Perennial Garden” and Steve Saupe about “charming” and interesting plants in the Avon Hills.

The keynote presentation, “The Wonderful World of Raptors: Predators of the Sky,” was given by the Wildlife Science Center of Forest Lake. It offered an up-close learning experience about many characteristics of raptors, fables and stories, conservation, falconry and more.

The day was broken into four 45-minute sessions. Conference attendees were able to choose to attend any session on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the day. The event included 40 presenters and offered 44 different sessions.

Fifteen area business vendors also had tables set up for guests to visit. Some of them included Carol Theisen and Doug DeGeest.

Theisen is a 10-year cancer survivor who sells “daisyblue” 100 percent natural and gluten-free products through expos, home parties and from her home. Products include essential oils, lotions, soaps and others.

“What you put on your body goes through your system,” Theisen said.

DeGeest is the vice president and general manager of the “Third Street Brewhouse” brewery. He offered information about the brewery and some of its new beverages, including seasonal options available to customers.

The 2014 Initiative Awards, which recognize extraordinary people in the Avon Hills area, were given to the following: Don Otte, the “Lifetime Initiative Award” for recognition of his thoughtful, forward-looking support for the preservation of the rural character of the Avon Hills Landscape; Richard Bresnahan, the “Public Service Initiative Award” in recognition of his community leadership to Avon Township and the environment of the Avon Hills; Sister Phyllis Plantenberg, OSB, the “Lifetime Initiative Award” for growing healthy food and a healthy community; and the Stearns County Department of Environmental Services, the “Conservation and Land Stewardship Initiative Award” for innovation, leadership and service in assuring a healthy Avon Hills Landscape to citizens.

The annual Initiative awards celebrate individuals or organizations who are developing or preserving jobs, preserving open land or promoting the rural character, beauty and ecological health of the environment and livable communities in Avon Hills. The Avon Hills Executive Committee accepts nominations each year, and nominees are evaluated on the significance of their contributions.

The conference is organized by St. John’s Outdoor University environmental education coordinator, John O’Reilly, and Outdoor U staff, the Avon Hills Initiative and other individuals.

O’Reilly said the best reward for all of the work that goes into planning this event is to see and feel the excitement as people and conversations move from session to session throughout the day. He said the level of engagement is exactly why he and others do this each year.

The conference has been held since 2005. It originally dealt mostly with land use and land-planning issues, but in 2009 it was changed to include a wider variety of educational topics.

It is held on a Saturday each winter and usually covers a variety of topics about natural history, alternative energy, land use, the arts and more. The intent of the conference is to educate the whole family.

The AHI is an organization of concerned citizens who works toward the preservation of the rural and natural character of the Avon Hills, an area of about 50 square miles of land located in St. Joseph, Collegeville, Avon and St. Wendel townships.

AHI members communicate with involved individuals to try to preserve the history, natural beauty and different biological elements of the hills for future generations, while at the same time respecting the individual landowner’s rights.

For more information visit

photo by Cori Hilsgen
Susan Kroska spoke about pretzels at the Avon Hills conference. She gave out samples of her pretzels for attendees to try.

photo by Cori Hilsgen
Peggy Roske discusses various historical facts about the college. Roske is an archivist for St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.

photo by Cori Hilsgen
Carol Theisen displays some of her “daisyblue” 100 percent natural and gluten-free products.

photo by Cori Hilsgen
Vice president and general manager of the Third Street Brewhouse brewery Doug DeGeest presents facts about the brewery and some of its new beverages.

Cori Hilsgen

Cori Hilsgen

Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people's stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.
Cori Hilsgen
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