Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A flavor of the Minnesota northwoods at Bean Hole Days July 26, 2021

The Bean Hole crew guides a kettle of beans from an underground cooking pit at Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

LONG LINES FORMED an hour before the event in makeshift narrow aisles crafted from stakes and ribbon. Folks waited not for Paul Bunyan, although he was there, working the crowd. And not for Elvis, although he performed. Rather, they waited for a serving of baked beans.

Thousands line up for a bowl of baked beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
My bowl of baked beans. The beans are fee with donations accepted. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Lifting the kettles from the pit requires machinery and manpower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This scene unfolded on Wednesday, July 14, during Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes, a small town in the central Minnesota lakes region. Randy and I, staying at a family member’s guest lake cabin south of nearby Crosslake, attended for the first time. And it was quite the experience. I mean that in a truly positive way. While I don’t like waiting, waiting for a generous serving of bacon-laced navy beans baked in a wood-fired pit proved well worth my time. I’ve never tasted better homemade baked beans.

The bean crew waits near the pit where the beans bake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The process of crafting these beans is impressive. I missed the prep and lowering of massive cast iron kettles into the ground Tuesday. But in chatting with a bean crew member on Wednesday, I learned that the 350 pounds of navy beans were soaked and partially cooked with propane before lowering the cauldrons into the pit of wood coals for overnight baking. And yes, it takes a knowledgeable team and machinery for this operation.

Almost ready to serve beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

My bean crew source wasn’t sharing details about ingredients, with the exception of 126 pounds of bacon mixed into the beans. The special “sauce,” which definitely tastes of molasses, is a guarded secret. And that’s all right. It adds to the mystery, the intrigue.

Lining up for beans under the direction of a volunteer. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

From my observations, volunteers have this bean-baking down to a science. And they should. Bean Hole Days began in 1938 as a way for local businessmen to thank farmers for their business. Today, the focus seems more on drawing vacationers into town—to the local shops and restaurants. While waiting in line for 45 minutes, I chatted with couples from Baxter and the Twin Cities.

We arrived early with plenty of time to check out the arts and crafts. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Bean Hole Days royalty. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
An old-fashioned barrel train weaves through the festival grounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This event at Trailside Park is about much more than beans. It also features an arts and craft fair, a small kiddie carnival, food vendors and crowning of Bean Hole royalty. And this year free COVID-19 vaccinations.

These friendly vendors sold art (Shea J. Maze) and naturally-dyed goods (Diaspora Textiles). Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I enjoyed chatting with vendors, mingling, watching. And photographing.

Paul Bunyan greets Bean Hole Days attendees. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Bean Hole Days, because of its location in Pequot Lakes among lakes and pines in cabin country, reflects the Minnesota northwoods and all that entails. Fishing. The town water tower is shaped like a bobber. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Paul shook hands, posed for photos and generally welcomed guests. Babe and bobber sculptures provided photo ops.

The kettles of beans are given Scandinavian names. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Even the kettles of beans, sponsored by area businesses, feature names connecting to the region’s heritage. Lena. Sven. Ole. And more.

Elvis entertains the waiting crowd. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
This mug allows you to go in the fast/first serving line. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Buy a mug and enter the fast lane. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

As I waited in line for beans, I danced to the music of Elvis performing live. That garnered a compliment from a volunteer guiding guests to the right serving kettles. Those who purchased a 2021 Bean Hole Days mug advanced through the FAST PASS FOR GAS line. I appreciated the humor. While Randy and I didn’t buy mugs, we left a donation.

Volunteers ladle generous portions of baked beans. Some people brought their mugs from past years. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And we left full of beans and appreciative of all the people who put together this unique small town Minnesota northwoods experience.

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Please check back for more photos from Bean Hole Days as I couldn’t possibly fit everything into a single post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling