MID-AFTERNOON ON A TUESDAY and we are dining at the Whitewater Café in downtown St. Charles.
We’ve driven to this southeastern Minnesota community of 3,300, sandwiched between Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 14, because we’re meandering home from a family vacation to Wisconsin.
I’ve specifically placed St. Charles on our route back to Faribault for two reasons: the Amish and the gladiolus.
Before dining at the fishing-themed Whitewater Café in downtown, we stopped at Amish Market Square just off I-90 where you can gas up, eat, buy products handmade by the Amish and pose for a photo in an Amish buggy. While I admired the stunning hand-stitched quilts—priced around $1,500—and the wood cutting boards and more, I didn’t climb into that buggy for a photo. I wanted authentic Amish, not tourist Amish.
That would come later, after lunch downtown, next to “The Table of Knowledge,” aka a group of local guys who gather each morning and afternoon to shoot the breeze, drink coffee and, when asked, give directions to the gladiolus fields and Amish farms.
I didn’t get any of their names, but one of those friendly club members—and I use that term loosely here—found a Winona County map in the restaurant and highlighted a route that would take us southeast of St. Charles past Amish farms and then back north to the glad field just south of Utica. He praised the hardworking Amish, two of whom were working on a fence on his farm at that very moment. He picks them up in the morning, then drives them home at the end of the work day.
We left the restaurant, opting to view the flower field first by following Highway 14 east of St. Charles, turning south onto Winona County Road 33 into Utica until we found the rows of gladiolus just outside of town. It should be noted that the flower-growing location changes annually to keep the plants disease-free. Last year the glads were grown next to St. Charles, so the knowledgeable locals told us.
Up until that moment, I’d thought mostly of gladiolus as “funeral flowers,” a moniker that has stuck for decades based on my memories of glads at every funeral I ever attended as a child. Interesting how you associate something with an impressionable event, isn’t it?
As we slowed the car to get an overview of the gladiolus in the field below, I felt as if I was viewing a painting by Claude Monet. Soft pinks and purples and blues—punctuated by splashes of brilliant red, and broken by lines of green, tight-clasped buds and foliage—created a surreal scene against the backdrop of corn, farm places, sky and a distant tree line.
I hoped for a close-up look, but found no signage indicating we could stop at a next-door building site to view or purchase flowers.
And so we drove on, further south and then west past several Amish farms—past the horses and wagons, the laundry on clotheslines, the shocks in fields and the Amish men throwing bundles high atop a wagon, their arm muscles bulging from seasons of labor.
Heading back into St. Charles, I wished I could spend more time here, in this town promoted on its website as “The Gateway to the Whitewater Valley,” and made world-famous by Carl Fischer, now deceased. He was the world’s leading hybridizer of new and distinctive gladiolus and established Noweta Gardens in 1945.
Each August this Minnesota town celebrates Gladiolus Days, which is happening right now and continues through Sunday, August 28. For a schedule of events, click here.
I fully intend to return some day to experience this festival, to this place where, if you look, you will see southeastern Minnesota’s version of a Monet painting.
MORE PHOTOS OF ST. CHARLES:
© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling