FRIDAY MORNING BROUGHT the first snow flurries of the season to southern Minnesota. Not enough snow to stick to the ground here in Faribault, but in other parts of the state flakes accumulated.
We are in the time of transition, shifting from autumn toward winter. One day the sun shines bright on trees still ablaze in color and temps feel comfortable. Other days, grey clouds blanket the sky, blocking the sun, with winter attire needed outdoors.
In these waning days of autumn, I am reminded of how much I love this season—for the colors, the mostly moderate temps, the scent, the feel, the gathering in. It’s as if we Minnesotans recognize that every single gloriously sunny day needs to be celebrated, to be photographed in our memories, to be pulled out when winter days draw us in.
A few weeks ago I was in neighboring Northfield, about a 20-minute drive away. This art-strong historic college town along the Cannon River presented scenes that hold the essence of the season. From colorful trees to blooming flowers to seasonal displays, the visuals of autumn unfolded before me.
People were out and about. Dipping into Just Food Co-op. Shopping at the thrift store. Sitting on a park bench waiting to share a faith message. Walking a dog. Biking across a bridge spanning the river.
I felt no hurry, only an appreciation for the day, time to meander while waiting for Randy to complete an appointment. Afterwards we headed to Cowling Arboretum for a short walk and an engaging conversation with another hiker. It was one of those chance encounters that left me feeling uplifted, encouraged, blessed.
As I immersed myself in nature on that final day of September, I noticed wildflowers in bloom, leaves floating in the creek, the curve of grapevines, the hint of color in a few trees. If I was to revisit the Arb today, I would surely view a different scene. Each day moves us nearer, oh, so much closer, to winter.
BRIDGE SQUARE IN THE HEART of historic downtown Northfield holds a yesteryear appeal as a long-time community gathering spot along the Cannon River. Today its purpose remains as relevant as ever. I’ve observed festivals and concerts here, focused events like Earth Day and the Riverwalk Market Fair, read poetry here, heard music, watched college students chalk messages onto concrete. Individuals, too, pause here to enjoy the fountain sculpture and other art, to picnic, to simply embrace this beautiful spot.
This park centers Northfield, home to many home-grown shops and eateries and best-known perhaps for the September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank by the James-Younger Gang. This week Northfield honors the long ago townspeople and a heroic bank cashier who stood up to the outlaws. The town will buzz with activities and people, all here to celebrate Defeat of Jesse James Days. That runs September 7-11.
Weeks before this event I was in Northfield, first touring the Northfield Cemetery to view the gravesites of bank employee Joseph Lee Heywood and Swedish immigrant Nicolaus Gustafson, both shot and killed by the outlaws. Gustafson, at the time of the raid, was vending vegetables in, I believe, current day Bridge Square. The First National Bank is located around the corner.
My focus on that afternoon was not on the historic robbery, but rather on Bridge Square. I noticed first the 1918 popcorn wagon which is open from mid-May to mid-September and operated by FiftyNorth, the local center for seniors. It was closed when I was there. But I could imagine the sound of popping kernels, the scent, the taste of buttery popcorn scooped into boxes. There’s something about a popcorn stand that hearkens to bygone days.
And there’s something about an old-time barbershop such as Bridge Square Barbers with a barbershop pole and then, bonus, a doggie in the window. I spotted the dog lying on a fleece bed in a corner. Seemingly content, only lifting his head when I approached for a close-up photo.
I also took in the art of Bridge Square. Northfield is big on the arts with an Artists on Main Street program, sidewalk poetry and other art installations in addition to the performing arts.
And then there’s the history. Aged buildings like the riverside Ames Mill. The river running through is a real asset to the downtown, especially with a river walk behind buildings hugging Division Street.
At the heart of all of it is Bridge Square—a place which melds history and art, land and sky and river, commerce and individuality. Most importantly, the village square brings peoples together to converse, to celebrate, to honor, to discuss, to disagree, to buy popcorn from the popcorn wagon, to simply be.
TELL ME: Does your community have an outdoor gathering spot like Bridge Square?
WHENEVER I’M OUT AND ABOUT with my camera in a downtown business district, I notice details. In storefront windows. On doors. In building signage.
On a recent walk through Northfield, I spotted a typewritten sign at Bridge Square Barbers that caused me to erupt with laughter. And laughter is an expression of happiness that I need more than ever in this unsettled world.
I stood in front of that sign about business hours, read, laughed, then focused my lens.
I love, and appreciate, this humorous approach by a barber unknown to me. Rather than post a straightforward notice of hours, this businessman crafted a memorable message to humor customers should they find the door locked. That’s creative. Smart. Excellent customer relations.
However, I’m left wondering about “if all hell breaks out at home.” As a writer, my brain is drafting multiple stories, none of them probably true, but all prompted by the barber’s words. Does “all hell breaks out” involve children? Pets? Just life in general?
Whatever the story, this writer and photographer appreciates when business owners show their personalities in creative messages like these. I notice. And I laugh. Well done, Bridge Square Barbers!
AS A MEGA APPRECIATOR of outdoor public art, I delighted in the recent discovery of some new, at least new-to-me, art staged in historic downtown Northfield. This southern Minnesota river town boasts a thriving community of literary, visual and performing artists.
Here you’ll find poems imprinted in sidewalks, painted on steps and read at poetry readings in a city with a poet laureate. Here you’ll see outdoor sculptures scattered about town. Here you can listen to a concert at Bridge Square, a local church, St. Olaf or Carleton Colleges or elsewhere. Here you can enjoy live theater. Here you can appreciate the works of creatives at the Northfield Arts Guild and many other venues.
Northfield truly is synonymous with the arts.
So when I spied a recently-installed sculpture, “Framing the Scene” by St. Paul glass artist Erin Ward, I felt a jolt of excitement. The free-standing, two-dimensional mosaic frames the nearby Cannon River and Riverwalk on one side and Bridge Square on the other. It’s meant to be an interactive sculpture for framing photos.
“Framing the Scene” meets all of those criteria, in my creative opinion. The artwork itself represents the vision and skills of a talented artist. The art adds to the downtown Northfield experience. That experience is one of dipping in and out of mostly home-grown local shops or of dining in an historic setting. The cliques “quaint and charming” fit Northfield. This is a community rich in history, rich in historic architecture, rich in natural beauty and rich in art.
I appreciate how Ward melded art and nature in creating a mosaic which honors both. As I studied her interpretation of the Cannon River, I recognized the thought she invested in this detailed art of many many pieces. Her river evokes movement in waters teeming with fish and the occasional turtle. Assorted greens and blues evoke a sense of calm and peacefulness. Ward’s art honors this river which runs through. This river of life, now a backdrop to a community which still appreciates her beauty, her recreational qualities, her history, her aesthetic value.
And then, on the flip side of “Framing the Scene,” bold pieces of mostly yellow, orange and red triangles create a completely different feeling. It’s as if sunbeams fell from the sun in a chaotic, jumbled mix of happiness. That’s my interpretation.
This side of the art looks toward Bridge Square, community gathering spot in downtown Northfield. Place of concerts and popcorn wagon, Santa house and quiet bench-sitting. Place of artistic activism. And beyond that, to the back of the frame, historic buildings rise.
Art rises in Northfield, enriching the lives of locals and the lives of visitors like me, come to town to follow the Riverwalk, to walk along Division Street and, then, to pause near Bridge Square and frame the scene.
Please check back for more posts about art in historic downtown Northfield, Minnesota.
SUNDAY PROVED ENLIGHTENING, educational and reflective. And that’s a good thing because ongoing learning often makes us more informed, compassionate and caring individuals.
The focus of my learning was not intentional, but rather a coming together of several elements. That began with a decision to follow the Riverwalk in Northfield on a rare February afternoon of sunshine and warmth in southern Minnesota. At 40-plus degrees, it was simply too nice to stay indoors. Northfield, only about a 25-minute drive, is a beautiful progressive river town, home to St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, a thriving downtown historic business district, an active arts scene and more, including community activism.
On this Sunday, activism and engagement focused my initial attention as Randy and I exited the van across from Bridge Square, a mini middle-of-the-downtown park next to the Cannon River. As I pulled my camera strap over my neck, I noticed a group of young people chalking the sidewalk leading to and around the Civil War Monument and center fountain. I decided in that moment not to photograph them writing their messages as part of SAY THEIR NAMES INTERVENTION #32. I remembered the controversy over such chalk art at Bridge Square. I believe the City of Northfield enacted an ordinance banning the chalking of the public space, although I could not confirm that information online.
Later, after we walked along the river and then along Division Street, we paused to read the messages printed by SAY THEIR NAMES NORTHFIELD participants who had now left the square. As in previous “interventions,” their words repeated that BLACK LIVES MATTER. All too familiar names were chalked onto the cement—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, Daunte Wright… And new to the list, Amir Locke.
As I photographed the names and messages, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness at the injustices, the fact that this is 2022 and we are still grappling with racism and social injustice and many other issues related to race.
I was especially moved by the joyful performance of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by Fifth Dimension, complete with audience participation and by the singing of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite hymn sung at his funeral. All were performed against a stage backdrop collage of vibrant squares, rectangles and L shapes. (I’d love to have a poster of that artsy 1969 graphic.)
I felt a mix of sadness and concern that here we are, 53 years later, and just now this film footage has been released. Woodstock, the Apollo moon landing and more overshadowed the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. I appreciate the release of this film nominated for a 2022 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and a 2022 Grammy Award for Best Music Film. It’s important I watched it for, among many reasons, the insights and perspectives gained.
Before “The Summer of Soul” aired on TV Sunday evening, I’d begun reading Under the Tulip Tree, a historical novel by Michelle Shocklee set in Nashville following the stock market crash of 1929. Only a third into the book, I found it fitting of my unexpected Sunday focus on Black lives The main character is a young White writer interviewing a former slave. And, yes, although fictional, real-life stories weave into the book.
I feel grateful for all the elements—chalk art, a documentary and a book—which came together on a February Sunday in Minnesota to educate and enlighten me about many aspects of Black lives. To learn is to grow in understanding and compassion.
FYI: Activism and art will theme an event on Thursday, March 3, offered through St. John’s Women, a Northfield-based group in its fourth year of sponsoring “Courageous Conversations” via monthly speakers and book studies. Carleton College Professor Cecilia Cornejo, an artist and also leader of the local SAY THEIR NAMES group, will talk about “Anti-Racism Activism Through Community-Engaged Art” at 7 pm via Zoom. Click here for more information.
THE RIVER RUNS THROUGH. Behind businesses, over the dam by the aged mill, under bridges…
In Northfield, the Cannon River always draws me. There’s something about water. About the power of a river, the mesmerizing movement, the rise and fall thereof, the sense of peace which flows through me when I view water. Or watch fire. Or hear wind.
On a recent Sunday, Randy and I headed toward the Riverwalk in the heart of historic downtown Northfield. We passed, and paused, at Bridge Square, the community’s gathering place. Every town should have a spot like this for folks to meet, to center causes, to converse or to simply sit.
We stopped to watch the Cannon spill over the Ames Mill Dam next to the 1865 Malt-O-Meal (now Post Consumer Brands) mill that still produces hot cereal, the scent often wafting over the city.
I delighted in a blossoming tree and the spring-themed art painted on the front window of the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office. Seemingly small things like this add an artsy vibe to Northfield. Details matter. Art matters. Nature matters.
When we reached the riverside back of the Contented Cow, I noticed for the first time the Holstein painted retaining walls and tables. Why had I not previously seen this? It appears to have been here for awhile.
I find backs of buildings bare bones interesting, like nouns without adjectives.
That’s the thing about slowing down. Noticing. Sometimes we fail to walk at a pace that allows us to see, truly see, the world around us. The backs of buildings. The flow of the river. To take it all in, starry-eyed at the beauty which surrounds us.
THE CITY OF NORTHFIELD, about a 20-minute drive northeast of my Faribault home, has long-rated as one of my favorite Minnesota communities. For many reasons.
It’s situated along the banks of the Cannon River, making for a picturesque setting.
Homegrown businesses fill the historic downtown, which edges the river. Here you’ll still find an independent bookstore plus antique shops, boutiques, restaurants, an arts center, the public library and much more.
And, in the heart of Northfield’s business district you’ll also find a community gathering spot. Bridge Square. Here you can buy popcorn from a vintage wagon in the summer, take the kids or grandkids to visit Santa during the holiday season. You can rest here on a bench and engage in conversation. Watch the river flow by or the water fall over the fountain sculpture or the nearby dam.
But Bridge Square is so much more than a Norman Rockwell-like place to meet, gather and relax. It’s also a spot where opinions are expressed. Students from St. Olaf and Carleton, two noted private liberal arts colleges based in Northfield, use this space to gather and voice their concerns. And, even though I may not always agree with their views, I appreciate that they share them. To see young people concerned enough about an issue to publicly express their thoughts gives me hope.
For the first time in a long time, I feel hope. Out of all the chalked messages I read on Sunday while at Bridge Square, I found one that really spoke to me. Peace vs division. Oh, how we need that. Peace. Not division.
That stop at Northfield’s town square, with so many issues printed in chalk on cement, could easily have overwhelmed me. I could have despaired at all the problems that need fixing. But rather, I choose to see this as an acknowledgment of concerns. Of the possibilities. Of the solutions. Of choices which can bring peace rather than division.
But this year, because of COVID-19, the mega celebration scaled back, leaving Northfield busy, but not packed. And so we walked around downtown for a bit on Saturday afternoon, after we replenished our book supply at the local public library—our original reason for being in Northfield.
The LOVE mural painted on a pizza place in Northfield drew lots of fans taking photos, including me.
On our way to Bridge Square, a riverside community gathering spot in the heart of this historic downtown, I paused to photograph the latest public art project here—a floral mural painted on the side of the Domino’s Pizza building by Illinois artist Brett Whitacre. (More info and photos on that tomorrow.)
One of the many Sidewalk Poetry poems imprinted into cement in downtown Northfield.
A fountain, monument and the iconic popcorn wagon define Bridge Square in the warmer weather season.
Buying a corn dog…
I was delighted also to see and hear a guitarist quietly strumming music in the town square while people walked by, stopped at the iconic popcorn wagon or waited in line for corn dogs and cheese curds. Several food vendors lined a street by the park.
The Defeat of Jesse James Days royalty out and about.
Among fest-goers I spotted Defeat of Jesse James royalty in their denim attire, red bandanna masks, crowns and boots, the masks a reminder not of outlaws but of COVID-19.
Photographed through the bakery’s front window, the feet-shaped pastries.
Yet, in the throes of a global pandemic, some aspects of the celebration remained unchanged. At Quality Bakery a half a block away from Bridge Square, the western-themed window displays featured the bakery’s signature celebration pastry—De-Feet of Jesse James.
A sign outside a Division Street business fits the theme of the celebration.
For a bit of this Saturday, it felt good to embrace this long-running event, to experience a sense of community, to celebrate the defeat of the bad guys.
Messages related to the Black Lives Matter movement are chalked in Northfield’s Bridge Square.
BRIDGE SQUARE in Northfield. It’s a gathering spot for the community. A place to relax and enjoy music and conversation and even popcorn from the popcorn wagon. Water flows from a fountain. Benches beckon visitors to linger. Colorful flowers spill from large, lush planters. Nearby, the Cannon River roars over a dam. People fish and picnic and walk along and over the river. It’s a beautiful setting of trees and sky and water.
This is a common phrased used in the current Black Lives Matter movement. Chalked names fill the sidewalks at Bridge Square.
The downtown park also provides a place to express public opinion, most recently related to the Black Lives Matter movement. On a recent walk through Bridge Square and several blocks along the River Walk and Division Street, I read the concerns expressed about lives lost, about racial injustice…
A broader view of the names and messages leading to and surrounding the fountain.
Written in chalk were names of the dead. And messages. Powerful. Heartfelt. Even as rain and sun have faded the chalk writings, the meaning remains that Black Lives Matter.
Next to the fountain, this fading portrait of James Baldwin.
Next to Baldwin’s portrait, one of Paul O’Neal.
Chalk portraits of James Baldwin and Paul O’Neal give faces to names that we should all remember. Like Baldwin, an author and Civil Rights activist. Like O’Neal, shot in the back by Chicago police in 2016. And, more recently, the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests, unrest, destruction, and calls for police reform and justice.
Barricades have been set up along this street next to Bridge Square to separate traffic and pedestrians/protesters on a bridge spanning the Cannon River.
The poem I found particularly meaningful in relation to Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd.
After crossing a partially barricaded street to follow the River Walk, I paused to read a poem imprinted in the sidewalk as part of Northfield’s Sidewalk Poetry Project. Reading the seven-line poem, the final line—Just breathe—struck me. George Floyd, when he lay dying on a Minneapolis street, said, “I can’t breathe.”
I followed the River Walk, eventually turning onto this footbridge across the Cannon River.
And so I walked, down steps, along the pedestrian river path hugging the banks of the Cannon River. I thought of that poetry and of those names and messages in Bridge Square.
One of many Black Lives Matter signs I spotted in downtown Northfield, this one in the upper story window of an historic Division Street building.
I considered how, no matter our skin color, our background, our education, our whatever in life, that we are all just people. We see beauty. We feel sunshine. And sometimes we share the silence that forms in our minds.
Photographed through the front window of Quality Bakery, a snippet of the bakery’s holiday window display.
Signage directs families to Santa’s house in Bridge Square.
The Christmas tree in Bridge Square brightens the wintry landscape with bold red decorations.
For someone like me who prefers rural to urban, a 22-minute drive there with no traffic hassles, visual delights in a historic downtown, an artsy vibe (including sidewalk poetry) and more, make this college city of some 20,000 particularly appealing. Especially at Christmas.
Bridge Square in the heart of downtown Northfield.
An ornament on that community Christmas tree.
Santa’s house, where Santa has always been absent whenever I’ve stopped at Bridge Square.
Fancied up holiday window displays, a Santa House and Christmas tree in Bridge Square (the downtown community gathering spot), an annual Christmas Walk, the renowned St. Olaf College Christmas Concert and more transform Northfield into a magical place during the holiday season.