Follow the river: Afton to Stillwater, Minn.

Near the end of his tours for the Stillwater Trolley Co., Bobby McLaughlin is likely to do a summary of the most notable people to have lived in this cheery Minnesota river city.

Among the mansion owners are CEOs for Cub Foods and Dell Computer Corp. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald used to party it up here, too, during visits from St. Paul (which is 20 miles southwest).

Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange lived in Stillwater for a while, but they had to settle for their second house choice – shrouded by the shade of many trees and a high, white picket fence — because another homeowner wouldn’t sell.

“And then there’s your trolley driver, Bobby,” he says. A few of the 38 customers chuckle, assuming it’s the last of the gentle jabs that their driver will make before the 45-minute tour ends.

Bobby leaves it at that. After the tourists leave, he shrugs. “Sometimes I’ll tell my story afterward, and I’ll have 20 people standing around me,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t say anything.”

Now in his mid 40s, it has been 19 years since the trolley driver’s biggest nightmare ended. Bobby McLaughlin was wrongly convicted of a Brooklyn Park murder, but spent seven years on the inside of Rikers Island, Sing Sing and Elmira prisons before regaining his freedom.

The ordeal caught the attention of ABC’s “20/20” and was the subject of a 1991 television movie, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.” Bob Raleigh, the Stillwater trolley’s owner, says he gave Bobby a job in 1990, after the New Yorker completed drug rehab at Hazelden,

So it is a tremendously lighter pace of life today, as Bobby cajoles visitors with tales of lumberjacks, river rats and celebrities.

“Maybe it’s good that prison protected me from the friends I had back then,” he offers, when pressed later. “Or I might not be alive today.”

Stillwater, population 16,000, is Minnesota’s oldest town. It is the site of the state’s oldest courthouse, which is a part of a historic architecture tour. At least seven mansions have been turned into bed and breakfast inns; one of the most recently refurbished is the Rivertown Inn.

The downtown is vibrant, full of small shops and a multitude of antiques. One antique mall has more than 80 dealers.

It also is good bait for serious book lovers. Stillwater in 1995 became the continent’s first Book Town, a designation for cities that have an unusually high concentration of rare and out-of-print titles in many categories. There are a dozen Book Towns in the world.

To learn more about Stillwater and its attractions, consult www.stillwatertrolley.com (or call 651-430-0352), www.booktown.com (651-430-2450), www.stillwaterbb.com or www.ilovestillwater.com (651-439-4001). This weekend is Lumberjack Days, the city’s biggest summer celebration; headliners include The Guess Who and ELO (Electric Light Orchestra).

The city’s river is not the Mississippi but the St. Croix, a lush and serene stretch of waterway with rocky bluffs that attract serious climbers, kayakers and canoeists. It is a National Scenic Riverway, with 227 miles managed by the National Park Service.

North of Stillwater is Taylors Falls, Minn., where narrated and enchanting 3- and 7-mile paddlewheel boats cruise at a leisurely pace. Nearby is Wild Mountain, a recreation area that is a hit with waterpark and go-kart fans in the summer, skiers and snowboarders in the winter.

To learn more about these fourth-generation family operations, see www.wildmountain.com or call (800) 447-4958.

Unheralded is Interstate State Park, across the river from Taylors Falls. Interstate is the oldest state park in Wisconsin, established in 1900. To learn more, go to www.dnr.state.wi.us or call (715) 483-3747.

Drive Minnesota Hwy. 8 from Taylors Falls to Stillwater, and you’re likely to do a double-take. If you’re like me, then you’ll do a u-turn, to see if your head is playing tricks with you.

Franconia Sculpture Park is 16 acres of restored prairie with huge and outlandish art. About 75 sculptures dot the grounds; 30-45 artists and interns from as far away as Australia will work here before the year ends, turning rusty bedsprings and oil drums, plus other nontraditional art materials – you name it, into bigger than life expressions of heart and humor.

Particularly fetching is “Are You Down?,” humanlike sculptures made at Franconia in 2000 by Michael Richards of New York, who was killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Franconia park admission is free, although donations are appreciated. The park is open every day, dawn to dusk. Go to www.franconia.org or call (651) 465-3701 to learn more.

Follow the St. Croix further south, and you’ll eventually land in Afton, 15 miles east of St. Paul. It is a town of 2,800, small enough to walk without breaking much of a sweat, even in the height of summer.

Yet this part of the St. Croix Valley is worth a stop, too, or an overnight. Selma’s Ice Cream Parlour has homemade cones (and an hour wait to get one filled on some summer weekends). “Selma” sits in a chair, suspended from the ceiling; a classic car show is on the grounds Aug. 28.

The Afton House Inn is the other hub of activity. It is the town’s only lodging facility, but it is both quaint and of high quality, capitalizing upon its historic and nostalgic setting. Most rooms have fireplaces and Jacuzzis.

There are two restaurants at the inn: one casual, the other fine dining by candlelight. The inn’s annex has a funky art gallery, clothing boutique and gift shop. Behind the inn is the river, and river cruises.

For more, see www.aftonhouseinn.com or call (651) 436-8883.