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.
EACH DAY OF SUNSHINE and warmth this late in October in Minnesota presents as a gift. We long-time Minnesotans understand that and celebrate. One less day of winter. One less day of cold and snow when the season of autumn extends. The recent weather has proven simply glorious.
Late last week Randy took two days off work to savor these final days of autumn. And while we didn’t travel far, we delighted in nearby discoveries. We got a late start on Thursday, catching up on some much-needed rest. So we stayed close to home, aiming for western Rice County into LeSueur County.
Eventually, we landed at Richter Woods County Park 1.5 miles west of Montgomery. I’d heard of the park, but had yet to visit.
We followed the slow-paced route there along mostly back country gravel roads.
We paused once so I could photograph a pair of swans gliding across a small lake.
I photographed, too, a weathered barn with fieldstone foundation. I often wonder how long barns will remain a landmark of our rural landscape. I feel an urgency to document their existence before roofs cave, boards rot, and only foundations remain.
At 80-acre Richter Woods, a mammoth barn looms, centering the park gathering space. The barn is available to rent for $75/day from April-October. With a spacious loft and main level, the barn offers plenty of room for events like weddings, reunions and much more.
I couldn’t access the locked barn. But I could envision the interior, especially the haymow with its curved wood frame. Many bridal couples covet rustic settings like this. I wonder whether many have discovered this barn circled by woods in the quiet countryside near Montgomery.
As much as I appreciated the barn, I couldn’t get over the forest green color. I longed to see that barn in red, a historically-accurate hue. I expect others, too, have wondered at the unusual color choice. As a photographer, I find a red barn much more visually-pleasing.
Before pulling out our picnic lunch to dine near the barn, Randy and I stretched our legs. We followed a leaf-strewn dirt trail into the woods with no map to guide us. The on-site mailbox was without the promised maps.
Maple leaves, especially, blanket the earth.
In a few spots, I looked overhead to a canopy of red and yellow trees set against the deep blue sky of October.
We noticed, too, the many rotting and recently-sawed trees, I felt inwardly thankful for an afternoon without strong winds to possibly topple dead trees, loose branches.
Mushrooms thrive in decay.
Mostly, though, I noticed the peace. The quiet. I feel incredibly grateful to have access to natural settings like Richter Woods County Park. And I feel grateful, too, to live in this decidedly rural region of Minnesota within an hour of downtown Minneapolis. I feel grateful for gravel roads to follow. For barns that still stand. For warm and sunny October days that draw me into the countryside, into the woods.
PLEASE CHECK BACK as I take you on to more backroads in Rice and LeSueur counties.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.
Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.
I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.
Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.
Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.
But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.
And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.
Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.
To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.
THE MUTED AND VIBRANT HUES of autumn mix in the rural Rice County landscape, creating stunning seasonal scenes. If you crave color and harvest, this is your moment to get out for an afternoon country drive.
Randy and I consider our county a best-kept-secret-place to view fall colors. Last weekend we traveled mostly gravel and county roads from Faribault to the Nerstrand area and back and then west to Kelly Lake. In between, we stopped for a hike at Caron Park, a picnic lunch at the hilltop Valley Grove churches and then for apples at Apple Creek Orchard.
As farm-raised kids—me in southwestern Minnesota and Randy in central Minnesota—we find ourselves drawn to the countryside, especially during spring planting and then again during fall harvest. Our weekend drives updated us on harvest progress as we passed fields of corn and soybeans. Some picked. Some still drying under the intermittent autumn sun.
Across an expanse of cornfield on County Road 84/Falk Avenue (just off County Road 20 between Cannon City and Northfield), we paused to admire a treeline in the distance. We return here each year to simply stop and appreciate the hillside aflame with the hues of autumn.
Likewise, we also follow nearby Farmers Trail, a remote gravel road (off Falk Avenue) which winds through woods. Primarily maples as evidenced by the colors and by the blue maple syrup tube collection system that weaves through the trees.
Caron Park, too, draws us to stop and hike into the woods. It’s a less-crowded option than the nearby popular Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The treeline at Caron Park, behind an open field of muted, dried grasses, is particularly stunning.
We walked into the woods, following a leaf-covered, eroded dirt trail that made me uncomfortable and unsure of my footing. Tree roots presented potential tripping obstacles. I focused more on staying upright than anything. Yet, despite that, I enjoyed the quiet and beauty of the woods. As did others, mostly young families.
As we continued to follow country gravel roads, we sometimes drove in clouds of dust trailing pick-up trucks. That, too, reminds me of my agrarian upbringing. Yes, nostalgia often seeps into our view and our conversations. Once a farm girl/boy, always a farm girl/boy. Even if we’re decades removed from the farm.
I love how the rural countryside of Rice County often sweeps in valleys and hills, providing incredible vistas. Of farmland. Of wooded and open hillsides. Of land and sky connecting. All connected by gravel roads. This rural setting rates as particularly stunning in autumn.
We ended our drive at another favorite fall destination, the public boat landing at Kelly Lake northwest of Faribault. The view of the treeline across the water—which was unusually clear—always looks particularly lovely, although the colors were not at their peak yet during out stop. Soon.
Heading back into Faribault toward home, I admired, too, how beautiful the trees in my community. Seventh Street. Second Avenue. There’s much to be said for looking in your own backyard for autumn’s glory. And I’ve found it. Right here, in Rice County.
FYI: Please check back for more photos from our country drive and for separate posts on Valley Grove churches and Apple Creek Orchard.
From mid-May fishing opener well into autumn, until the first hard freeze, vacationers and seasonal cabin owners travel into and through Crow Wing County to reach their personal and resort destinations. And now Randy and I, too, are living the Minnesota Up North experience thanks to family who are sharing their lake property. Thrice this year we’ve spent time at the cabin, each visit heading to nearby Mission Park.
The close-to-the-cabin proximity of the park and its 3/4-mile paved hiking trail draw us to this quiet spot in the woods. During our most recent stay in mid-September, we twice hiked in the park. Here leaves are already turning color and I paused often to photograph the autumn hues.
Once, while detouring along a mowed grass path to a pollinator garden, I also stopped to examine a pile of dung. It glistened in the sun, indicating freshness to my untrained non-expert eyes. The sheer volume of excrement led me to wonder…bear? Later, when I shared this with my brother-in-law who is especially knowledgeable about the outdoors, I determined this likely was not bear scat given the lack of acorns and other such matter in the pile. That said, bears (yes, plural) have been sighted in the area, according to the brother-in-law and a park worker who advised to “Make yourself as big as possible and don’t run” if you encounter a black bear. Alright then. Thank you.
As long as he was parceling out advice, I asked about the many wild mushrooms growing in the park. That, he said, was not within his realm of knowledge. Nor is it in mine. So I admired the fungi, in varieties and hues I’ve never seen. Ever. Anywhere. Bold yellow and orange. Stunning. Still life art.
If quick research is correct, the more colorful the mushroom, the more likely it’s poisonous. Deadly. Nope, you’re not going to catch me picking mushrooms in the woods. I’ll settle for photographing them, as much as I like the taste of (store-bought) portabella mushrooms.
The park employee noted, however, that a guy knowledgeable about mushrooms forages for them here.
If you’re not into mushroom hunting or photography or hiking, Mission Park offers plenty of other options—tennis and pickleball courts, a disc golf course, ball fields, horseshoe pits, playground, picnic shelter and much more.
Every single time we’ve hiked through this park, the motto, A QUIET PLACE TO BE, holds true. Here you can hear the quiet, even as you listen for bears.
PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Mission Park and a post on the area’s connection to my Faribault church.
If you are familiar with mushrooms, feel free to educate me on those I photographed.
DAYS AGO I SWITCHED out the art in my home to autumn scenes. To reflect the changing season.
I leaned two paint-by-number autumn landscapes, acquired several years ago in Detroit Lakes, atop a vintage chest of drawers. I exchanged an old mill scene for a rendition of a river winding through flaming orange woods in an interchangeable print my parents received as a 1967 housewarming gift. I hung a crewel embroidery piece I stitched of a multi-hued treeline set against a mountain backdrop. It was a 1974 high school graduation gift from my Uncle John and Aunt Sue. And I placed, too, a mammoth print of Robert Woods “White Mountains and Aspens” purchased for a few dollars at a garage sale in Medford.
Every piece of art I own—and I have a lot, acquired mostly at garage sales, thrift stores and recycled art sales at bargain prices—means something to me. Some is personal. But others simply inspire me or give me peace or take me into nature, as does most of the art now decorating my home.
It’s as if I’m bringing the outdoors in.
Outside, autumn eases into the landscape with oranges, yellows, reds and browns painting over green leaves. I noticed that especially last week on a short get-away to the central Minnesota lakes region where Randy and I stayed for several days at a family lake cabin south of Crosslake. We hiked into the woods at Mission Park and I found myself stopping often to photograph the leaves and the abundance of wild mushrooms. I’ll showcase images from that park soon. But for today, you get this solo image.
Take time to step outdoors. To walk in the woods. To appreciate the beauty of autumn as she paints color into the landscape. I welcome these September days. The cool mornings and evenings. The sunshine that warms the day. The earthy scent of the outdoors. The changing colors that delight me visually, that make this season so beloved to me.
Fall colors as photographed in rural Rice County, Minnesota, on September 26.
THIS AUTUMN FEELS especially fleeting, as if the days are slipping too quickly into the cold and dark of winter’s grip. The sun now rises shortly after 7 a.m. and sets just before 7 p.m. The darkness is closing in and I feel it.
Ripening corn and soybean fields surround this farm site in Rice County.
This year, more than ever, I feel an urgency to get outdoors, to delight in every single moment of autumnal beauty, of semi warm temps, of days without snow.
Heading uphill on the backroads of Rice County last Saturday.
And I feel this way due to COVID-19. The reality is that the winter ahead will prove challenging as we hunker down indoors, limiting our contact with others as we attempt to stay healthy and protect others. At least that’s my plan, Randy’s plan.
Cornfields ripen, awaiting the harvest. I feel like we’re all waiting. Just waiting in this season of COVID.
We’ve already managed seven months of this cautiousness, this recognition that we hold a responsibility to do our part. For ourselves. And for our friends, family and neighbors. I’m particularly worried these days about the upsurge in cases in Wisconsin, where our daughter and her husband and our son live. But I worry, too, about Randy facing potential COVID exposure daily at work because of a failure among others to mask, mask properly or to follow other safety/health regulations. I am beyond frustrated, as I’ve stated here in previous posts.
Another Rice County farm site. COVID knows no differences between rural and urban. We’re seeing that now in Minnesota, where cases of the virus in rural counties are spiking.
We’re weary of it all. Truly weary. Who isn’t experiencing COVID fatigue? But, as our health officials have advised, this is no time to let down our guard, to give up, to live our lives like there’s no pandemic. Because Randy and I are trying to be careful, we gravitate outdoors, whether on countryside drives or hiking. Nature and time outdoors provide a peaceful and uplifting escape.
Driving down Rice County’s backroads to view the ripening crops and fall colors.
Last Saturday took us onto backroads in our county of Rice, where we’ve found fall colors to be especially lovely. And mostly undiscovered. We had no particular destination and I can’t even tell you where we drove. But we drive and turn and turn and drive and follow whatever roads seem interesting.
Farm sites prove interesting to me on these rural drives.
The overcast day wasn’t especially beautiful for leaf-viewing. But, this time of year, you take what you get and enjoy whatever appears before you.
Color tints treelines in rural Rice County.
I encourage each of you, especially if you live in the Rice County area or other parts of Minnesota, to take a fall color drive this weekend. These days are fleeting as leaves change colors and fall, moving us closer and closer to the long winter ahead.
TELL ME: Do you have a recommendation for a great place to view fall colors?
A stunning autumn scene sets the backdrop for this dock at Dunton Locks County Park, rural Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.
OCTOBER MARKS ONE of those months when we Minnesotans feel the need to get outdoors as often as possible, to take in the autumnal hues, the sunny skies, the measured days of light and warmth. Too soon winter arrives and all the glories of October become but a memory.
In recent weeks, I’ve added pages to my autumn memories via viewing vistas of landscapes turning from green to the oranges, reds, yellows and browns of the season. Like at Dunton Locks County Park outside Detroit Lakes. It’s a lovely place just a short drive south of this northwestern Minnesota city. Here trees hug shorelines and trails lead through dense woods.
On the late Wednesday afternoon of our visit, lots of folks enjoyed the park on a particularly glorious day. A woman fished. A guy gazed toward the water from the bridge spanning the rapids linking Muskrat Lake and Lake Salle. A kindergartner and her mom collected colored leaves. A young family—new baby girl bundled against Mom and second son riding atop Dad’s shoulders while oldest son ran ahead—hiked in this park within a mile of their home.
There’s something about being outdoors on a beautiful day that brings us all together to appreciate the simple things in life. A sunny day. Crunch of drying leaves underfoot. The sound and rush of water roaring over rocks. The overwhelming feeling of gratitude for living in a place like Minnesota where we have easy access to public parks, where open space is abundant and where, on an autumn afternoon, folks delight in the beauty of this land.
Rails for a mechanical boat tram run across the grass between two lakes at the park. The tram operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day and transports boats between Muskrat Lake and Lake Salle.
A beautiful oak tree along the shore of Union Lake at Albers Park, Rice County, Minnesota.
IN THIS TOO WET and too gloomy of Minnesota autumns, days like this past weekend are a gift. Sunshine and dry weather. Trees morphing from green into sometimes blazing red. Skies still and beautiful and the scent of earth and harvest prevailing.
One of my favorite places to photograph in rural Rice County in autumn: the shoreline of Kelly Lake.
A mass of maple leaves at Albers Park.
From the shores of Union Lake, the steps leading down to the lake at Albers Park.
On Sunday afternoon we took a drive through western Rice County to view the fall colors. I needed the outing after a week of mostly lying around feeling awful. An all too early in the flu season virus struck me hard. Residuals remain and I’m still not back to 100 percent.
Across the water, colorful trees line the shore of Kelly Lake.
Autumn beauty in a single leaf.
A playground at Albers Park stands empty on a beautiful October Sunday afternoon.
But a few hours away from home viewing the changing landscape, taking photos and walking about in the beauty of autumn lifted my spirits considerably. Especially since I missed my niece Katie’s wedding on Saturday. Nothing will make up for that. But such is life. I knew wedding guests wouldn’t appreciate my not entirely healthy presence.
Not everyone could play like me on Sunday. Farmers were working hard to harvest crops on a rare sunny day.
On a beautiful autumn afternoon in southeastern Minnesota, none of that mattered. Sunshine does the soul good. So do fresh air and thoughts focused outward instead of inward.
The afternoon ended perfectly with a stop at an area apple orchard. More to come on that.
Maple leaves up close.
I hope that you, like me, have found time to delight in these closing days of autumn. Trees in colorful glory. Sun streaming. Scents of harvest and earth rising.
BEFORE THE WINTER STORM arrived with predictions of feet of snow in nearby North Dakota, we embraced autumn at, for us, a previously unvisited state park. Maplewood State Park east of Pelican Rapids in northwestern Minnesota fits its name. This place blazes with hillsides of trees set among prairie and lakes.
A rutted and narrow gravel road takes motorists on a scenic drive through the park.
These horseback riders led their horses to the lake for a quick drink.
Restored prairies are found throughout Maplewood State Park, this one along a trail to a scenic overlook.
Last Wednesday, only days before that predicted winter storm (which also edged into western Minnesota), we toured this park that features scenic overlooks, miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, and a five-mile driving loop.
Driving into Maplewood State Park.
A glorious fall scene repeated throughout the park.
Trees ablaze at the picnic grounds.
We hit the park at the peak of fall color. So did many others—busloads of school children, generations of families, couples, horseback riders…
Wildflowers on the prairie.
Acres and acres of prairie grass wave in the wind.
Even dried seed heads hold beauty.
When you live in Minnesota or the Dakotas, you need to take in every single last glorious day of autumn before the snow flies, the leaves fall and winter settles in for months.
We enjoyed a sunshine-filled, albeit windy, afternoon exploring Maplewood. There’s something incredibly soothing about immersing one’s self in the outdoors, far from work and worries. Spirits soar in sunshine in a place that is spectacularly beautiful in this season of autumn.
TELL ME: What’s your favorite location to view fall colors?