Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Walking into yesteryear at the Oak Center General Store October 17, 2011

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.

That message on the front window that urged us inside.

The general store sits nearly on top of Highway 63, right, in Oak Center.

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.

The vintage cash register sits atop a counter labeled with strongly-worded messages.

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…

An eclectic mix of merchandise is crammed into the store.

Old-style refrigerators, still in use in the store.

Brooms for sale tucked into a basket on the floor.

Hacky sacks and handmade woolen mittens on display near a front window.

You can purchase pop in bottles from a vintage pop machine.

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.

A message on the cash register advises customers to leave their payment on the counter with a note if no one is around.

Rows of bulk spices line the shelves behind the counter.

Steven Schwen

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.”

The former Grange Hall stage where musicians perform during the Folk Forums.

Rows of seating in the old Grange Hall.

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.

Strider Hammer calls animals to the fence at Earthen Path Organic Farm.

The friendly animals on the "Old McDonald" style farm. Steven's son Joe and his wife Rebecca farm with draft horses. Steven once used those horses to farm, but now, because he can no longer lift the harnesses, relies on tractors.

The mishmash of buildings behind the general store.

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.

A flower blooms next to the general store.

A side view of the store from Highway 63.

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