Monday, February 17, 2014

Valentine Weekend - Little Falls and Beyond

The good news is that The Seven States of Minnesota is now in its third printing. A generation of outdoor enthusiasts, vacationing families, and armchair travelers has enjoyed the book since it first appeared in 2007. 

In this thoroughly revised and updated version, I’ve removed outdated material (the bakery in Faribault, the bookshops in Stillwater, etc. etc.) and introduced new facts and references about every corner of the state, including notes about a printing press museum in Montevideo, Touch the Sky Prairie just north of Luverne, the Scandinavian folk festival in Nisswa, and unusual restaurants in Wadena and Park Rapids. Minnesota’s newest state park on Lake Vermilion receives notice, along with long-established but out-of-the-way parks such as Bear Head Lake and Scenic State Park.

I bring readers up to date on recent changes in Red Wing’s pottery industry, the art galleries in Fergus Falls, the autumn swan convocations on the Mississippi near Brownsville, mining controversies in Babbitt, Alexandria’s new pedestrian-friendly downtown, the challenging mountain bike trails north of Crosby, and the ever-changing discovery center in Chisholm.

And to top things off, the new edition has full-page sidebars devoted to Lake Superior’s South Shore (not in Minnesota, I know) and The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.

But wouldn’t you know it: no sooner is the book out than I come upon more wonderful stuff that perhaps should have gotten in.

Hilary and I were headed north to Itasca (again) this past weekend, and we decided to duck into Little Falls along the way. At the visitor’s center we were given heaps of information about the city by director Khristina VonBerge. But what impressed us especially were the two buildings sitting on a small bluff closer to the Mississippi. These were the homes of Charles Weyerhauser and Richard Musser. 

I give them a full paragraph in the book, but visiting the site again, I’m wishing I'd emphasized that although northern Minnesota abounds with mock lumber camps, there is no better place than Little Falls to conjure the atmosphere and lifestyle of the barons who ran the industry. (Except perhaps Taylors Falls?)

During our chat with Kristina we also learned that the train station in Little Falls was designed by Cass Gilbert, and that Crowler’s gas station, on the north side of town—open since 1938— may be the oldest in the state that’s still selling gas.

Is that important? I don’t know. Anyway, we’ll catch it in the next edition. (But first, I’ll have to find out if it’s true.)

We stopped at Morey’s in Motley to pick up some smoked fish, and I asked the clerk if Morey’s operated the huge Trident factory next door.

“We have nothing to do with that,” she replied. “All they make there is mock crab legs. They work three shifts, around the clock. And they’re expanding.”

“Well,” I replied. “The Lund Boat Works in New York Mills is building a new addition…and I believe the Tuffy Pet Food plant in Perham is expanding, too.”

“It’s nice to see some prosperity returning to the region,” she said, as she scooped up some herring in horseradish sauce and plopped it into a plastic pint container.

At that point we were just a loaf of bread shy of a fine Valentine dinner in the bosom of Itasca State Park. 

As we were passing through Menahga I seemed to recall hearing about a co-op in town. I’d met an organic potato farmer in Wadena who told me about it. Turn right at the Orton’s station, then another right one block to the east. 

We’d passed the Orton station but turned right, and having made the turn we immediately spotted a little bakery on the corner. We went inside and bought a loaf of Finnish flatbread, very flat, with a little hole in the center, and I asked, “Is there a co-op around here?”

“Co-op? No.” The woman shook her head. Then she said: “Oh. You’re thinking of the organic grocery—half a block down, other side of the street.”

So we wandered over to A Clean Plate, which looks very much like a co-op inside. Organic sweet potatoes in a bushel basket on the floor. Ginger salad dressing with a cute name on the label for $6 a bottle.
When the proprietress emerged from the back room, I said, “I asked at the bakery if there was a co-op in town and they had no idea.”

“We’re not a co-op,” she said. “We don’t want members. We want to keep control for ourselves.”

So we talked a bit about distribution. “We get a lot of the same things the Wedge gets,” she told me. “But around here, it seems everything has to go to Moorhead, and then we buy it and get it back.”

OK. “So, is that a Finnish bakery across the street?” I asked.

“Not really,” she replied. “They sell a few Finnish items.”

I felt I was in the land of Jean-Paul Sartre, where things are what they are not, in the mode of being them. And then I remembered the large statue of St. Urho alongside the highway on the edge of town—the Finnish “patron saint” whom people in Finland have never heard of, created by a department store clerk in Virginia, Minnesota, in 1956. St Urho drove the grasshoppers from Finland. Or so the story goes.

A Clean Plate is housed in a wooden building dating back to 1891 (presuming the plate at the apex of the roofline is real). It does have an attractive fa├žade.

Someday I’d like to try the potatoes. But we were headed for a little two-room suite in a log cabin at Itasca--where twenty miles of ski trail start right outside your door--and we were already well-provisioned with Valentine lobster tails and fresh asparagus…and a loaf of fresh St. Urho Finnish flatbread.

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