Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From the Minnesota northwoods: The charm & quirks of Park Rapids September 25, 2017

An array of shops pack downtown Park Rapids. A July 24 fire damaged the iconic marquee at Park Theatre, right.


“IT’S NISSWA ON STEROIDS,” I told my friend Sharon in describing Park Rapids, a resort town just to the north of her Minnesota home. She laughed. Both communities pack shops and tourists. But Park Rapids in Hubbard County is home to around 4,000 permanent residents. Sixty miles away in Crow Wing County, Nisswa’s population is half that. Add in the seasonal populations, though, and those numbers grow significantly.


At Smoky Hills Art Gallery, I discovered this lovely mural.


I toured both towns on a recent trek north with my husband for a book release party and my first-ever stay at a northwoods Minnesota lake cabin. Each community holds characteristics that make it unique and memorable.


Rain fell all afternoon during our Park Rapids visit.


For Park Rapids, it’s “the small town with the extra wide Main Street.” And the local tourism folks aren’t exaggerating with that tag. When we turned into downtown, I observed a parking lot of vehicles jammed into the business district. Vehicles parked diagonally curbside along both sides. But in the middle of this extra wide Main Avenue, two rows of vehicles also parked parallel. The unusual parking made quite the impression. I would later learn from a shopkeeper that the original town founders built the street wide to accommodate oxen drawn wagons.


I noticed, and appreciate, the beautiful potted plants that line the sidewalks in downtown.




On this rainy Friday afternoon, minimal extra space existed as seemingly everyone was in Park Rapids for the day rather than on nearby lakes. And being in town meant shopping and dining at businesses lining several blocks.


I love capturing the nuances of small towns, like this barbershop image.


Typically I don’t like shopping. But I managed to spend an entire afternoon ducking in and out of shops to peruse merchandise ranging from tourist kitsch to books to antiques to crafts to original art and much more. Because of the rain, I left my good camera (my Canon DSLR) in the van. That marked my major disappointment as Park Rapids offers so much to photograph. The smartphone camera would have to do on this visit.


Recommended as a place to dine, the logging camp was closed for the season.


There are dining options aplenty from bars to fancier restaurants and in between.


My heaping bowl of Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side.


But before the merchandise browsing began, we needed to eat. We’d gotten several recommendations, but landed in a booth at The Good Life Cafe after a brief wait. Oh, my gosh, I cannot rave enough about the creamy and savory Wild Rice Hotdish described as vegetables parched with wild rice, cooked slow in vegetable stock and finished with mushrooms in a parmesan cream sauce topped with toasted almonds. This dish, with chicken added for a few dollars more, is divine, absolutely one of the best restaurant foods I’ve ever eaten. Randy ordered the Beer Cheese Pretzel Burger and was also impressed.



Fueled by fantastic food, we began our exploration of downtown Park Rapids with Ben Franklin as one of our first stops. I grew up with this five-and-dime, now a Main Street rarity. It still offers an eclectic collection of goods. But prices are, as you would expect, no longer nickel and dime low. I appreciated the opportunity to walk through this store and remember Ben Franklin as I once knew it.



I chose to skip the local pawn shop after noticing a sign outside the door that advised customers to PLEASE UNLOAD GUN AND REMOVE SKI MASK BEFORE ENTERING. Randy entered. I moved onto the next-door gift shop.



Upon the recommendation of friends, we both popped into Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks which specializes in an assortment of flavored popcorns made on-site. Samples entice customers to buy, which we did—their top-selling caramel popcorn. I also favored the puppy chow (peanut butter/chocolate/powdered sugar) flavor.



As the afternoon wound down and our energy waned, we had one more stop, at the Minnesoda Fountain, an old-fashioned 1950s ice cream parlor.



Still full from lunch, we didn’t need the blueberry shake we shared. But when you’re on vacation, such indulgences require no excuses.


Please check back for additional vacation posts, including one on Nisswa.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


29 Responses to “From the Minnesota northwoods: The charm & quirks of Park Rapids”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    Your cafe lunch looks amazing and my tummy is growling for some of that “Minnesota hot dish” (complete with wild rice!!!). I’ve not trekked thru that town but Nisswa is VERY familiar territory (DHs dad resided on Upper Gull Lake during his retirement years). The town’s personality and flavor is definitely present in your sharing…….and your photos are wonderful!!!!!

  2. What Fun!!! I love finding those places to eat that are local and offer amazing eats. I get the whole ski mask thing in being a snowmobiler growing up – my dad always told us to lift our ski masks up and at times off to not look like robbers and there were times you carried due to protection from wild predators while out on the trail. I have fond memories of exploring the local Ben Franklin growing up too. Great Captures 🙂 Happy Day – Enjoy

  3. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

    What a nostalgic place! Phone cameras work pretty well sometimes, too, huh? Nice shots. Especially like the one of the barbershop.

  4. The parking on the Main Street was/is creative genius!

  5. Almost Iowa Says:

    A rainy day in Park Rapids is the perfect Up North experience. Those images are both familiar and endearing to anyone who owns or has rented a cabin in the area.

  6. Marilyn Wren Says:

    I really like this post. It brings back memories of when I lived in Montana as a teenager. I love the sign: PLEASE UNLOAD GUN AND REMOVE SKI MASK BEFORE ENTERING. Just like in Montana it could have two meanings. I like to think it is an innocent request like: NO SHOES NO SERVICE. Ha ha! After all a lot of people carry guns and have ski masks (in season).



  7. Jackie Says:

    So fun to see Downtown park rapids featured in your post, our home away from home. We have so many good memories especially when the kids were little, They loved going to the candy stores especially. I’m glad you found Park Rapids to be a fun town to visit. Now if we could just be in charge of the weather. 🙂

  8. Susan Ready Says:

    LOVE your posting on Park Rapids. I have been there numerous times and you managed in one afternoon to perfectly capture the quirkiness and heart of the town. It is a tourist town loaded with lots to do-a step back in time. Thanks for sharing .

  9. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    Love the old Ben Franklin signs. “Building community through art”!!!

  10. Littlesundog Says:

    Goodness! I didn’t know the Ben Franklin stores still existed. The one near where I grew up closed more than a couple of decades ago, but I still remember fondly, the trips to town with Grandma, where she had “just enough money leftover” for each of us kids to get something for ourselves. What a cool town this is. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Gunny Says:

    Ben Franklin – been a long time since I have seen one of those or a White, Wackers or any number of other ones. LOL: The “Unload Gun and remove ski mask” sign was humorous as well as serious. Puts a smile on my face every time I see something like this. I would have to go in just to see the treasures! In Texas, state has mandated about 3 signs that MUST be posted to make issues clear. There is the 51% sign which means the establishment makes 51% or more of their business for selling alcohol. Then there is the No Open Carry sign and finally the No Concealed Carry sign. If the last one is posted, I pass the store by. Sorry, we all have our issues.

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