WHITE ROCK. Belle Creek. Hader. They are among the 60-plus ghost towns of Goodhue County. Places that once thrived, marked now only by signs along a road, a cluster of homes, perhaps a church or abandoned buildings.
Yet, acknowledging their existence, as the Goodhue County Historical Society does with roadside signs, matters. Because these towns mattered to previous generations and still matter to those with connections to the likes of Aspelund, Burr Oak Springs, Crystal Springs, Eidsvold, Skyberg and so many more with names that hint at heritage and sound poetically beautiful.
On a road trip to Goodhue County a month ago, Randy and I followed County Road 8 east and then south of Cannon Falls back toward Faribault.
Our route took us past clusters of woods, some tinged in autumn hues.
Soon the road curved and swept into the valley, rows of corn rolling across the landscape. Only groves of trees surrounding farm sites broke the vista of endless unharvested fields.
Sometimes those farmyards hugged the paved road and I caught a close-up glimpse of farms, some with aged weathered barns and outbuildings, others updated with modern equipment and structures.
In Belle Creek, Randy and I noticed a white building, likely a former creamery. Creameries often graced these small settlements, a necessity for farmers who sold cream for butter-making.
Another building in Belle Creek left us guessing at its past life. Perhaps a general store. Then a dance hall. We could be way off…
Occasionally, we spotted cattle, cows, calves. Growing up on a dairy farm, I delight in seeing bovines, especially Holsteins. But rare are the small family farms today that still raise animals. Corporate and mega farms have mostly replaced that self-sufficient lifestyle. That’s reality.
Just like ghost towns, many farms have become, in some ways, ghost farms. They are but ghosts of the past. Ghosts of their former selves and purposes. I see that in decaying, empty buildings, especially barns. I see that in the absence of livestock. I see that in families who can no longer support themselves solely via the farm.
All of this is unsettling. But with time comes change. And with change must come acceptance and perhaps also an added historical appreciation for the past.
THE “Mailbox Mysteries” SIGN POSTED in the front window of a downtown Cannon Falls insurance agency, drew my interest. I’ve always appreciated a good mystery and I wanted in.
So I headed to the nearby library, home base for the mysteries, to inquire about the featured Gangster’s Gold mystery. Within a week I received an introductory letter about notorious gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz and his $50 million treasure hidden somewhere in the Cannon River Valley.
Channeling my inner Nancy Drew, I determined to locate that treasure. If only my sleuthing skills matched my enthusiasm. Right from the start, I couldn’t figure out how to fold, and then use, a Tri-Hexa-Flexa-Coder to de-code a secret message. I needed help. My friend Stephani, who once considered becoming a private investigator but stuck to family genealogy, solved the folding/coding problem.
I realized solving this mystery would not be easy. Exactly as “Mailbox Mysteries” creator Matthew Stelter, Teen and Adult Services Librarian in Cannon Falls, likely intended. He created this interactive mystery series last winter as an outreach program for library patrons stuck at home during COVID-19 and, as he said, “tired of a life lived entirely through a computer screen.” At that time, the library building was closed to visitors. All of the clues for his mysteries are sent via US mail to the home-based investigators.
Eventually, Stelter crafted six mysteries—five for adults and a math-based set, “Postcard Puzzles,” for kids 12 and under. A bit overwhelmed by managing all of those mysteries, Stelter has since tweaked and downsized the “Mailbox Mysteries” to three.
His past experience developing escape rooms and murder mysteries shows in “Mailbox Mysteries.” I admire his ability to craft a fictional mystery rooted in facts with added local elements. He uses newspaper clippings, photos, letters, historical documents, maps, coded messages (he created the code for the challenging Hexa-Flexagon) and more in believable story lines.
A seemingly authentic newspaper article, for example, references the long-ago Fleckenstein Brewery in Faribault and a possible connection to the underworld. Turns out that story was pure fiction as is gangster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz’s connection to Minnesota. He never had ties here, although many gangsters did. Rather, he lived in New York, where his treasure is rumored to be hidden. Schultz died in a gang shoot-out.
In the end, I found the location of the $50 million treasure after hours of dissecting documents—yes, I became a bit obsessed—and using a magnifying glass to better view details on a map. Stelter rewarded me with a personalized Certificate of Commendation and advised me to bring a shovel to dig deep for the buried treasure.
Now I’m on to the next “Mailbox Mysteries,” Spy School. I’ve received my introductory letter, a brochure for the Vera Atkins Spy Academy and an encoded note warning that the school is compromised.
VASA happens to be in Faribault, as printed in a brochure so professionally done that I would think the academy really existed if I didn’t recognize the photos of Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. Stelter lived at Shattuck for 10 years. I’m also semi-familiar with the campus so I’ll see if that familiarity helps in solving the mystery. As in Gangster’s Gold, I expect this mystery writer to weave more local details into the fictional story line.
While I await the next set of clues, I invite you to join the team of private investigators. Stelter welcomes all Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes types to register by November 30. Simply email your request for Spy School along with your name and complete snail mail address to: mstelter (at) selco (dot) info
Be forewarned, though, that these mysteries are challenging and time-consuming. Yet so worth the satisfaction of solving and of reaching into your mailbox to find, not a bill, but rather the efforts of a talented and creative librarian.
The third “Mailbox Mysteries,” Cypher Cabin, will be available starting December 1.
I VIEW THE WORLD through a creative lens. So when I see an exterior metal stairway, I see beyond the intended purpose of a pathway up or down. Rather, I see the angles, the details, the architectural, artsy side of the utilitarian.
And I appreciate, too, the fading ghost sign lettering for a dry goods and clothing store painted on the brick building.
JUST UP THE STREET a half a block away at the public library, a magnetic word board invites patrons to create. And while I didn’t, I took note of the coupling of words, whether by intentional placement or not:
smile just once
AMERICAN SPORTS are on fire
You bellow blind information like an ugly flood of manure
AMERICANS like cake more
WE AMERICANS ALSO LIKE our wine. Back across the street, near the artsy metal stairway, Cannon River Winery also embraces the arts with a sprawling mural on the side of its building. The scene depicts the area’s rural-ness and the business of growing grapes and crafting wine.
I’ll raise my glass to that—to the winery, to the library, to the antique shop and to all the places in, and people of, this Minnesota community who value the arts. Thank you. I am grateful for the creativity in Cannon Falls.
DREAM BIG. Be Creative. One World, Many Stories. Make a Splash.
Those phrases inspire. They push us to do our best. To pursue our passions. To make a difference. To tell our stories.
When I recently read those words on a colorful quilt gracing a wall in the Cannon Falls Library, I felt empowered.
The messages have been part of Southeastern Libraries Cooperating summer promotionals to get kids into libraries and reading. They’re simple words and graphics. Kid-appealing. Eye-catching. Positive.
As someone who values books and libraries, and the arts, I appreciate the works of the seamstress who stitched this quilt. It’s a good visual reminder to each of us—whether child, teen or adult—of our talents and worth. I may be good with words. You may be good with numbers. I celebrate that difference in talent (especially come tax time when I hand my financial records over to my accountant).
I’ve always loved books and now I have the joy of reading books to my grandchildren, ages nearly three and 5 ½. Books pack shelves in their toy room with more books from the library. Their parents value books.
The world of words is opening even wider to Isabelle, who is in kindergarten. During a recent visit, I would say a word and she would guess the starting letter. Her face lit with sheer delight in determining the correct letter. Her mind is beginning to connect—to understand that sounds define letters which form words and then sentences and stories. I can’t wait to hear her read.
So when I read about dreaming big and being creative and making a splash in this world of many stories, I think of my precious grandchildren. And I hope that in some small way, I inspire them to be all they can be. And one way to do that is via books, art and modeling creativity.
INSIDE THE ENTRYWAY of the Cannon Falls Library, a multi-tiered mini vegetable stand holds an array of fresh vegetables on a mid-October morning. Green peppers. Green beans. Cucumbers. Squash.
The produce is artfully displayed in a beautifully-crafted wooden shelving unit labeled with an appealing graphic of colorful vegetables and the words, Harvest Box. I figured this was the yield of an on-site garden, similar to the one at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault.
But assumptions are not always correct as I discovered. Rather local gardeners provide the produce. That includes Quiet Waters Ranch, a 22-acre Sogn Valley farm owned by Ben and Amanda Luther. Their non-profit received a Healthy Eating in Community mini-grant in 2018 from Live Well Goodhue County for a Community Giving Garden. Now they supply free fresh, organic produce to the library’s Harvest Box which launched in June. The library also received Live Well funding in late 2020 for the display unit and a mini fridge.
Cannon Falls Library Director Nicole Miller initiated the Harvest Box project after learning of one in North Carolina. She sought county funding for the display unit and fridge and also connected with Quiet Waters Ranch. All of this was prompted by her concerns about local food insecurity. “It’s a low cost way to help people out and to supplement the Food Shelf on days they aren’t open,” Miller said.
She delights in watching local gardeners drop off their extra produce.
I love this concept, this spin on the Little Free Library movement which saw mini libraries popping up all over. I love when communities work together, contribute, support, share. There’s so much good that comes from unity, from understanding that we have the power as individuals and communities to care for one another in real, tangible ways.
TELL ME: Do you have a similar Harvest Box or fresh food program at your local library or elsewhere in your community? I’d like to hear.
TUCKED INTO A SIDE CORNER, behind a nondescript cushioned seat for two, a bold mural pops color into the Cannon Falls Library.
I discovered the art on a recent day trip to this small Goodhue County community along the Cannon River. A sign in a downtown storefront window promoting the library’s “Mailbox Mysteries” program led me to the library. Once inside, I registered for the mystery challenge and then browsed. Not books. But art.
This tastefully and artfully decorated library creates an inviting setting in a cozy space. I felt comfortably at home here, where a fireplace angles into a corner with cushy seating nearby.
But it was that vivid mural which focused my attention. There’s so much to take in. Even now, as I scroll through my photos, I note details previously unnoticed. This mural requires study and an appreciation for nuances.
Titled “Once Upon a Time,” this artwork was created by local students under the direction of Cannon Falls native and New York artist Kelli Bickman. A similar, and much larger, Youth Mural Arts project graces the exterior of the local Chamber of Commerce building 1 ½ blocks away.
As a wordsmith, I especially appreciate the inspirational quotes incorporated into the painting: Today a reader, tomorrow a leader. The noblest art is that of making others happy.
And my favorite: Happiness can be found in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light. How well that quote fits today as we deal with the darkness of a global pandemic. The artists could not have known that, just months after the dedication of this mural in June 2019, darkness would descend upon our world. Now, more than ever, those words of encouragement—of remembering to turn on the light—resonate.
Art is always open to interpretation. So what I take away from this mural may differ from the artists’ vision or from others who view it. I see strength and grace. I see reaching for the stars and achieving goals. I see fiery passion and the fluidity of life. I see going places that may lead far from Cannon Falls, from Minnesota even. I see dreams taking wing. I see how books and music and art and nature influence us.
I see that Once Upon a Time is our story to write. We write the words and paint the scenes to create the personalized murals which depict our lives. And, in the darkest of times, we can choose to switch on the light, to see happiness.
WHEN ART INTEGRATES into a community in a publicly accessible way, I celebrate. There’s a reason I feel such gratitude. I grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota with minimal art exposure. Yet, today, I work as a creative. Expressing myself via writing and photography is my passion. My path to creativity began with the Little House books read aloud to me and my classmates by a grade school teacher. As I listened, words painted images of the scenes Laura Ingalls Wilder described in her writing.
That’s the backstory behind my deep appreciation for the arts—from visual to literary to performing.
I believe art should be accessible to everyone no matter their location, their income, their anything.
So when I happened upon a new mural in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls recently, I felt grateful. Here, on the side of the Cannon Falls Area Chamber of Commerce building at a busy intersection along Minnesota State Highways 19/20 (4th and Main Streets), a colorful mural depicts the culture, heritage and history of Cannon Falls and the surrounding area.
The art reveals much about this small town along the Cannon River, about the early influence of Native Americans and French fur traders. Today, outdoor enthusiasts are drawn to canoe that same river. Others bike, walk and run on recreational trails.
The mural shows, too, the importance of art and agriculture here. On the day I visited Cannon Falls, a farmer steered his John Deere tractor, pulling a wagon heaped with corn, through downtown. Past the mural. I love moments like this when art and reality intersect. This mural truly reflects its community.
A close up look reveals the words Burch Park on a scoreboard behind a ball player. That references nearby John Burch Park, home to the Cannon Falls Bombers, Cannon Falls Bears and other teams. Sports, in most small towns, are a source of community pride, of togetherness.
As I stood viewing and photographing Cannon Falls’ newest mural, I wondered about the middle and high school students who painted the scenes before me. I hope they feel valued, appreciated and, most of all, inspired. Art opens doors. Doors to the future. Doors to seeing the world in a new way. And that is powerful.
NOTE: Please check back as I take you inside the Cannon Falls Library to view more art.
YOU CANLEARN much about a small town by simply walking. And looking, really looking.
On a recent day trip to Cannon Falls, I explored part of the downtown business district. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Cannon Falls Historic District includes 22 historically-significant structures.
Given my love of historic architecture, and art, this Goodhue County community of 4,220 within a 40-minute drive of Minneapolis and St. Paul rates as a favorite regional destination.
During my mid-October visit, I popped into a few shops (including the bakery), discovered the lovely library and admired a new downtown mural. Because of COVID concerns, I skipped dining and imbibing. It was too early in the day and too cool to enjoy either outdoors.
Still, I found plenty to take in from the colorful new mural to the art inside the library to ghost signage.
I noticed, too, hometown pride in the I LOVE CANNON FALLS! tees in a storefront window.
I noticed also notices taped in a display window, one of which alerted me to Mailbox Mysteries, which led me to the library around the corner which led me to sign up for this challenging endeavor. Now I’m trying to solve the “Gangster’s Gold” mystery with weekly clues snail mailed to me by the library.
Had I not done this walk-about through downtown Cannon Falls, I likely would have missed these nuances. The details which help define this community.
As I meandered, I paused to watch a John Deere tractor roll through downtown pulling a wagon heaped with golden kernels of corn. This is, after all, an agricultural region.
Later, Randy and I picnicked at Hannah’s Bend Park, the local grain elevator complex defining the nearby skyline. As we finished our lunch, a bald eagle soared overhead, wings spread wide. I expect the Cannon River drew the majestic bird here, to this small southeastern Minnesota town, this Cannon Falls.
THE SCENT OF HOMEMADE BREAD fresh from the oven. The taste of my late mother-in-law’s best-ever gooey caramel rolls. The rustic look of a cracked gingersnap cookie. All appeal to me. All bring a flood of memories.
I appreciate the love and labor that go into baking and the memories I associate with homemade baked goods.
Perhaps for those reasons I am drawn to small town bakeries, including a regional favorite, Hi Quality Bakery in Cannon Falls. On a recent day trip to that Goodhue County community, Randy and I made the bakery our second stop. After the local Chamber of Commerce office, where we were tipped off to buy-one-get-one-free Fritter Friday at the bakery a few doors down.
Soon we found ourselves inside the bakery, admiring the baked goods, but disciplining ourselves to ordering two fritters. Apple and blueberry.
This popular bakery has been a Cannon Falls mainstay since 1947 with original recipes passed through several changes in ownership. The fresh-baked treats and breads remain popular with locals, with visitors like us and with natives returning back home. A bakery clerk referenced a recent returnee from Texas who made Hi Quality her first stop.
I understand the draw. There’s something Norman Rockwell appealing about stepping inside a small town bakery. There’s something appealing about standing before glass cases of pastries and breads and sweet treats contemplating the choices. There’s something anticipatory about accepting a white paper bag with a pastry nestled inside.
Small town bakeries rate as one of life’s simple delights.
On this Friday morning inside the Cannon Falls bakery, I noticed an array of Halloween-themed cookies filling trays. And I thought of the artist who crafted these—the spiders and mummies and webs… Baking and decorating truly are art forms.
And I noticed, too, rows of rosettes neatly lining a baking sheet. The Norwegian cookie proved a popular buy during a recent local lutefisk dinner, a clerk shared.
Rosettes. Fritters. Cupcakes. Cookies. Breads. Donuts. And much more. A baker rose early to create these bakery delights. I’m grateful for that dedication to craft, for the baked goods that draw me into small town bakeries like Hi Quality in Cannon Falls.
TELL ME: Do you have a favorite local bakery? I’d like to hear. And if you have tips on the bakery’s specialty, I’d like to hear that, too.
On a recent Saturday afternoon stop in Cannon Falls, population around 4,000, I spotted a John Deere tractor driving through the heart of downtown, wagon in tow. A bride and groom sat on straw bales as the tractor paraded past First Farmers Merchant Bank, Brewsters Bar, antique shops, the side street leading to a winery and brewery, and on down the road.
I love moments like this when I can pause to take in a joyful scene, to smile, to celebrate the happiness of another, to appreciate the rural character of southeastern Minnesota. This is why I live where I live, why I document people and places and events and life in general. It isn’t always the big things that define life, that mean the most. It is the moments of unexpected delight that bring me joy. And if I have my camera in hand, I delight in sharing these snapshots with you. In today’s world, we need more of this—more reasons to pause, to just stand there, to take it all in, to feel moments of joy.