IF NOT FOR THE MINNESOTA Highway 60 detour onto U.S. Highway 63 north of Zumbro Falls, we never would have found Oak Center.
And had we not seen the writing on the window, “Stop on in and explore the store,” and the OPEN sign, we might have driven right by the Oak Center General Store.
From the exterior, it’s that type of structure and setting—a visual hodgepodge which makes you question whether the place truly is open.
My husband and I wondered that when we pulled off the highway and parked next to the old building. Then we stepped inside and it was like we had walked into a general store of yesteryear, right down to the vintage push-button cash register.
For the longest time we meandered around the shelves, taking it all in—the worn wood-plank floor, the tin ceiling, the old wooden refrigerators, the vintage bottled pop machine, the bulk spices…
I couldn’t get enough of this historic general store, which hearkens back to 1913 in this unincorporated locale. I’m not sure exactly what I said to my husband when we were there, all alone, perusing the place. I think we were both too in awe to even talk much.
That’s a good thing, because, even though no one was minding the shop, the baby monitor was switched on, we later learned, and our conversation could be overheard.
About the time I stepped behind the counter to photograph the cash register, Strider Hammer strode into the room and, when I began asking questions, he fetched owner Steven Schwen.
Introducing himself as a “voluntary peasant,” Steven and I shook hands and he apologized for the damp hand. He’d been washing dishes.
Strider clamped my hand in a friendly vise grip handshake.
And so, properly introduced, Randy and I learned a thing or ten about the Oak Center General Store, which Steven purchased 35 years ago after the business closed and the building sat vacant for five years.
Today the Oak Center General Store is “dedicated to rebuilding a better world from the earth up.”
Although I didn’t ask for details about his life views, Steven’s comments and signage inside the store speak to an outspoken, yet gentle, man deeply-rooted in his independent, self-sufficient, non-materialistic, environmental, anti-war beliefs.
“Produce, don’t consume,” he says.
With that philosophy, Steven runs this general store which sells organic foods, kitchenware, candles, incense, local fair trade products, herbs and a lengthy list of other miscellaneous items.
He also operates Earthen Path Organic Farm, a 14-acre fruit, vegetable and herb farm based directly behind the general store, and works with son Joe and daughter-in-law Rebecca of Heartbeet Farm. They sell their products at the Rochester Farmers’ Market and to co-ops in Northfield and the metro area. The Community Supported Agriculture farm, Steven says, supports his family and the store. He also builds furniture and cabinets during the winter months.
Later, after touring the other facet of Oak Center General Store—the music scene—Strider would take us out back to see the farm.
But first things first. Steven disappeared and Strider led us through a dark middle room gathering place cozied with worn couches and a wood burning kitchen stove, past the corner media center (aka computer) to a back stairway nearly as steep as a ladder.
Those steps led us to the old Grange Hall, a former meeting place for farmers and now an entertainment center for local, national and international bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz and similar musical acts.
Earlier, Steven defined the 30-year run of October – April Folk Forum weekend concerts as “non-commercial entertainment connecting people to the land, music and each other.”
I know nothing really about the music genres that entertain at Oak Center. But I recognized Monroe Crossing, the bluegrass group which will present a 2 p.m. Christmas Matinee on Sunday, December 4.
Other upcoming performers include Bingham and Thorne, Marty Marrone & Tangled Roots, Robby Vee, Galactic Cowboy Orchestra and many more slated in from now through December 23. (Click here to get the full line-up of musicians.)
Strider invited us to return for a concert with a recommended $5 – $15, but “pay what you’re able,” ticket price and what I expect would be a laid-back atmosphere.
He’s a personable guy, who, when I asked, said he’s a friend and extended family to Steven. You get the sense that anyone who steps inside Oak Center General Store is family.
Even the animals out back are the friendly sort; they nuzzle up to the fence when Strider beckons.
Back at the side door that leads to the former Grange Hall and back room gathering place, Strider climbed the few stairs onto the weathered deck and bid us farewell with a single and seemingly fitting word for the vibe of the Oak Center General Store:
“Peace,” he said and walked away.
FYI: The store is open from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday – Saturday and some Sundays. In addition to music, Oak Center General Store hosts theater, round table discussions and workshops (ie., holistic medicine, organic gardening, batik) at its Folk Forums.
For more information about the Oak Center General Store, click here.
To learn about Earthen Path Organic Farm, click here.
For info about Heartbeet Farm, click here.
© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling