Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Up North in Nisswa November 9, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Babe the Blue Ox of Paul Bunyan Legend stand on the corner by the tourism office along Nisswa’s Main Street.


ON THE THURSDAY I toured Nisswa in mid-September, the turtle race track stood empty, Babe the Blue Ox stood tall and this northern Minnesota community buzzed with visitors.



Set in the heart of lake country, this town of some 2,000 draws folks from nearby cabins, resorts and hotels to meander through the many shops that line several blocks of a route once followed by Native Americans traveling northward through these parts from southern Minnesota.


Babe the Blue Ox bears the history of Nisswa’s name on its flank.


The name Nisswa comes from the Ojibwe word nessawae meaning “in the middle” or “three.” Nisswa sits in the middle of three lakes.








On this day, I didn’t learn much about local history. But I did learn that these northerners rate as a friendly bunch. In business after business, shopkeepers greeted Randy and me with friendly smiles and welcoming attitudes. With the exception of signs prohibiting photos of merchandise (much of it original art) prevalent throughout Nisswa, I felt more than welcome.



A shopkeeper at The Fun Sisters Up North Boutique even convinced me to try on leggings and an appropriate bum-covering top. Inside my mind, I protested. But she was just so darned nice that I agreed. I’ll admit that I looked better than I thought in leggings. But I still felt like I was playing dress-up in fashionable attire totally foreign to me. She didn’t make the sale. But the clerk sold me on the genuine friendliness of Nisswa.


Signature northwoods birch logs propped outside a business.


I dropped my money in several other businesses, picking up Minnesota-themed gifts for friends and my granddaughter.




Vintage Native American art outside a shop tips visitors off to this region’s history.



The legend of Paul Bunyan, here interpreted in a woodcarving, runs strong in the Minnesota northwoods.


Nisswa presents a definitively northwoods feel with more than one Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan and plenty of buffalo plaid and loon art. Randy and I spent hours here ducking in and out of shops. And that says a lot for the attraction of Nisswa to someone like me who generally dislikes shopping. The original arts and crafts and merchandise with a Minnesota bent kept me interested.




Painted turtles mark businesses.


Although we didn’t patronize a Nisswa eatery, there are plenty of options for meals, treats and brew.


Had we arrived in Nisswa at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday weeks earlier, we would also have witnessed the weekly summertime turtle races. Reminders of that tourist draw are evident in the turtle race track and in turtles painted onto sidewalks in front of businesses. I applaud communities like this that hatch and then latch onto an idea that identifies and sets them apart from other towns. For Nisswa, it’s turtle races and friendly folks in quaint northwoods shops.

TELL ME: Have you been to Nisswa? What is your impression of this small Minnesota town?

Please check back for a closer look at the iconic Babe the Blue Ox statue along Main Street.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


25 Responses to “Up North in Nisswa”

  1. Littlesundog Says:

    Three decades ago I remember traveling through some area of Minnesota where “Babe the Blue Ox” was featured a good bit, but I have no clue where that was. Back then I did a lot of camping and we spent a lot of time in the northern part of the state.

    “Bum-covering top” made me laugh! I am not a fan of these kind of outfits personally, but ‘whatever floats yer boat’ is my motto. I love tights in winter, with a dress or under jeans for warmth. It’s a comfort thing – not fashion.

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    My kind of place. I love discovering little towns like this—I think you and I have the same type of blood running through our veins. thanks for the tour!

  3. Sandy Bessingpas Says:

    I love visiting Nisswa. My granddaughter works at the Chocolate Ox and my grandson at Rafferty’s..my favorite shop is the Green Porch, and if you bike the bike trail that runs right through town , that gives you and excuse to have a reward of an ice cream cone

    • The Chocolate Ox and the ice cream shop were closed when we were there, which was on a weekday at the end of the busy tourist season. Nisswa rates as a fun little town. I especially appreciated the friendly welcomes from shopkeepers.

  4. The FunSisters brings back the memories for me. I have family up in that area and have not been back in that area since 2004/2006. Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  5. Almost Iowa Says:

    We have friends who owned a resort just north of town. Unfortunately, they lost it in the real estate crash. We have not been back since. I miss that town, especially the bookstore and coffee shop. I would walk the bike trail to the coffee shop every morning, then walk to Pequot Lakes and back while my wife slept in.

    We always liked going up there late in the fall, a cold wind outside makes for a cozy time around the fireplace at night.

  6. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    That statue of babe is sure pretty

  7. Philip Holum Says:

    I grew up on Roy Lake, that is connected to Nisswa lake by a channel. Worked summers in the ’70’s at Nisswa Super Valu, which is now a big gift shop. Whenever I go up there from Eagle Bend, MN where I live now, I stop at the cafe on the corner by the hi-way and have their “fruit of the forest” pie and ice cream. Then to a second-hand store back behind the main street.

  8. Susan Ready Says:

    You did a great job capturing the the flavor of a small up north town Nisswa. The people are friendly who work hard to build a strong community with a variety of activities throughout the year and not just summer time. The town can boast a huge tourist trade during the summer and into the fall months. Supporting their local businesses is a way to keep this town vibrant.

  9. Valerie Says:

    Nisswa is on the way to my friend’s cabin. We do stop and window shop there. It is a fun “up north” kind of town.

  10. What a sweet town! So much to do with wonderful shopping. 🙂 Can’t wait to visit some day.

  11. Linda S Berry-Brede Says:

    I love Nisswa!! As a child I spent my summers at my Grandfathers cottage on Gull Lake…a short distance away. Nisswa was a magical town & still is. Spent a lot of time in the little shops, especially liked the one with the totem pole outside. Don’t recall the name but it was full of MN souvenirs. Even though the cottage & grampa are long gone, I still travel there occasionally. Even though things have changed from the 50’s, I still love this magical northwoods town🌲💖

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