WHEN I WAS GROWING UP on the southwestern Minnesota prairie in the 60s and 70s, locally sourced meant harvesting vegetables from the garden, dipping milk from the bulk tank and pulling our own farm-raised beef from the freezer. Our farm family of eight was basically food self-sufficient, with the exception of fresh fruit (a rare treat) and staples like flour and sugar.
With that background, you’ll understand why I appreciate the efforts of businesses like Sleepy Eye Brewing and Sleepy Eye Coffee Company, which work with local farmers to source products. Bison meat. Milk. Honey. Eggs. It’s a win-win for everyone, including customers who value fresh, local and direct farm-to-table.
The brewery and coffee/bakery/sandwich/salad shop are housed in the historic former PIX Theatre in the heart of downtown Sleepy Eye. My first and only visit happened a year ago, just before COVID-19 changed everything, including my interest in dining out or imbibing at a craft brewery.
But I’ll be back once life returns to normal because I appreciate the former movie house setting, the beer and the small town friendliness. I intend also to sample a homemade sweet treat from the bakery. Or maybe a sandwich or salad.
I love how some small towns are seeing a revival of sorts via businesses like craft breweries. Hometown bakeries also add to the draw.
For someone like me who grew up with home-grown/home-raised food on premises, the current trend of locally sourced brings me full circle back to my roots. That’s 45 miles to the northwest of Sleepy Eye in rural Vesta.
But on this stop, we’d just come from neighboring Redwood County, where we saw my mom in the nursing home. We didn’t know it then, but this would be our last in-person visit before COVID-19 closed care center doors to visitors and changed everything.
By the time we reached Sleepy Eye well past the noon hour, I was hungry. It’s a running joke in our family that I need to eat on time or I get crabby. It’s the truth, not a joke.
We ended up at The Railway Bar & Grill, appropriately named given its location near the train tracks. Next to the grain elevator. I don’t recall what I ordered other than a sandwich. Nothing memorable, but sustenance.
In a pandemic year that’s been especially difficult for bars and restaurants, The Railway apparently struggled. The business—complete with bar, two dining areas, private conference room, an outdoor patio, 12 tappers and more—is now for sale. For $165,000.
I’m not familiar with dining options in Sleepy Eye. But I know one thing about small towns—cafes and bars and grills are community gathering places. Spots to meet with family and friends. After a ball game. On a Saturday night. To shoot the breeze. To celebrate. To get out of the house on a cold winter evening. To BS over a beer or two. From all indications, The Railway filled that need in Sleepy Eye.
When Randy and I finished our sandwiches on that early March Saturday afternoon in 2020, I stepped outside to photograph the neighborhood while he paid the bill. I focused my lens on three houses crammed together.
And then I aimed toward the towering grain elevators next to the bar & grill. Vintage elevators always draw my eye for their architectural interest (as cathedrals of the prairie), historical importance and connection to my farming past. Silo style grain storage units will never hold the same appeal as these rectangular grey elevators soaring high above small towns. Too many of these have vanished, including in my hometown of Vesta where a local farmer moved the elevators onto his farm.
On this Saturday, I delighted in reconnecting with my rural roots outside The Railway. In my memory, I heard the rumble of a train, saw grain trucks lining up at the elevator, smelled the earthy scent of harvest…
SPRING UNOFFICIALLY ARRIVED in Faribault this past weekend. You’d never guess that from viewing the snow cover, freshened by two inches of new snow overnight Sunday. But The Little DQ opened on February 27, signaling the shift toward spring. At least for Randy and me.
Every year about this time, the walk-up/drive-up Dairy Queen along Lyndale Avenue reopens after a three-month seasonal closure. And we find ourselves there picking up bargain Peanut Buster Parfaits. Seldom do we treat ourselves to DQ. But this opening special has become a tradition in recent years.
So Monday evening, when I’m certain Randy would rather have settled onto the sofa than leave the cozy warm house after a long day of work, we headed across town to the DQ. Past the fire station and the courthouse, turning onto Fourth Street. The suspension in our 2003 Chevy Impala, closing on 270,000 miles, creaked with each switch in direction. Past the pizza place and our church and the recently-closed Family Video and the abandoned Farmers Seed and Nursery building. Across the train tracks and, shortly thereafter, a left turn onto the frontage road. Past Kwik Trip and then onto the pothole pocked street by the DQ.
I noted the electronic sign welcoming back “your smiling faces.” And I noted, too, the posted temp of 21 degrees.
We arrived at a good time, on a cold evening past the dinner hour, to find only one vehicle ahead of us. A red pick-up truck. I counted out dollar bills and change, $4.28, to cover the $1.99 plus tax parfaits. Once cash was exchanged for treats, I clutched the two plastic encased parfaits and Randy aimed the Chevy back home.
We passed homes still aglow in holiday lights while a country tune played on KCHK 95.5 FM out of New Prague. I’m not a country music fan and Randy listens only occasionally for the weird stories. But something about the gentleness of the song and heart-breaking lyrics appealed to me. I got the music, he got you… He got the sunshine, I got the rain…
As Ronnie Milsap crooned, I took in our surroundings. Colored lights framing a solo second-story window in an aged wood-frame house. And, a block away, an American flag hung vertically as a window covering. Along Division Street, I spotted a snow fort in a front yard, mentally marking that I need to revisit this in daylight.
At a four-way stop, I saw a screen in the maroon vehicle ahead playing some show to entertain the kids. And I wished the family would turn off the device for a moment or ten and take in their surroundings. Neon blue lights outlining a front porch. Slant of light upon snow. Snow mounding along roadways.
In my hands, the Peanut Buster Parfaits transferred cold into my fingers. And shortly thereafter, when I spooned into the ice cream and fudge traced with peanuts while snuggled under a fleece throw in the recliner, I grew colder. And, for the longest time, I couldn’t get warm on this first day of March in Minnesota.
CINNAMON, GINGER AND CLOVES scent my kitchen on the first afternoon of winter as sun streams bright through the southern window.
Christmas music plays on KTIS.
And I stand at the peninsula, rounding dough into walnut-sized balls before rolling the orbs in granulated sugar.
Each holiday season I bake gingersnaps. For my mom. They are a favorite of hers. But this year, although I am still baking the cookies, Mom won’t enjoy them.
She lives 120 miles away in a southwestern Minnesota nursing home, where she is in hospice. Her appetite is minimal. Even last year when I dropped off homemade gingersnaps around Christmas time, she didn’t eat them. Upon a return visit, I took the stale cookies back home with me and tossed them. Mom never was one to throw away food.
Now, as I shape and bake dough and pull crinkled gingersnaps from the oven, thoughts of Mom distract me. Earlier I’d forgotten to add molasses to the mix as my mind wandered away from the kitchen.
I wasn’t baking these cookies for Mom. Yet I was. I baked them to honor her, to celebrate her, to remind myself how blessed I’ve been to have such a caring, loving and kind mother. I told her that recently, thanking her in a loving goodbye letter. Phoning her is not an option. Nor is visiting due to COVID-19 visitor restrictions. I’m sort of OK with that, recognizing from an intellectual perspective the need to keep care center residents as safe as possible.
This has proven a difficult year for our seniors living in long-term care centers with too many dying from COVID. And the separation from loved ones has taken a toll. I miss Mom. But this is not about me. This is about her. That’s what I try to remember when my focus shifts, when the scent of old-fashioned gingersnaps fills the house and tears edge my eyes.
TO YOU, MY DEAR READERS:
If you are feeling alone this Christmas, experiencing the recent loss of a loved one, enduring separation from those you love or struggling, you are not alone. I hope you can reach a place of peace, perhaps in the cinnamon and ginger scent of cookies or a tradition or memory that links you to the one (s) you love and miss.
SUPPER CLUBS. What visual comes to mind when you read those words?
I picture a dark, probably paneled, restaurant with red carpet. Low lights. Candles flickering on tables draped with heavy tablecloths. Fine cutlery and water goblets. Hefty china.
Menu printed on fine paper and placed inside a thick black leather folder. Salad and steak and mammoth baked potatoes. Or shrimp. Maybe a whiskey sour or a Tom Collins.
I am of the age that I still remember the hey day of supper clubs. Like the Cat N’ Fiddle in rural New Ulm, where my parents occasionally dined. I recall my mom bringing home packages of crackers lifted from baskets and stuffed into her purse. A rare treat for us kids. And I remember my dad talking about the tasty frog legs he ordered at a supper club in Granite Falls. I always wondered how anyone could eat frog legs. But Dad could enjoy steak—the supper club feature food—any time given he raised beef cattle.
As a teen, I gathered with my best friends at Club 59 in Marshall to celebrate our senior year of high school in 1974. Photos from that day show the five of us bundled in winter coats, wide smiles gracing our youthful faces. Oh, the memories.
Years later, after college and launching my career as a newspaper reporter and then eventually marrying and moving to Faribault, I rediscovered supper clubs. I dined a few times at The Lavender Inn and The Evergreen Knoll. Both closed years ago, as dining preferences changed, the economy tanked and the food scene evolved.
In Owatonna, a 20-minute drive to the south along Interstate 35, Jerry’s Supper Club closed in 2009. An article published in the Owatonna People’s Press called Jerry’s, opened in 1960, “an Owatonna institution.” I expect people gathered here for business meetings, special occasions or simply supper (not dinner) out at a fancy restaurant on a Saturday night. Perhaps minus frog legs on the menu.
Soon the building which housed this long-time popular supper club, this place of so many memories, will be gone, replaced by a Marriott Courtyard hotel. Before that happens, I hope someone—perhaps the Steele County Historical Society—salvages tangible pieces of Jerry’s. Like the exterior signage. And, if any restaurant-related memorabilia/furniture/whatever remains inside, that, too.
I photographed Jerry’s in May while walking around downtown Owatonna. The alterations to the exterior of the building with the additions and covered windows and everything painted white are aesthetically unappealing. I don’t know when the changes were made to this once beautiful brick building. But I recognize it was once “a thing” to modernize. I am thankful that mindset has returned to an appreciation for historic structures.
And so progress happens. A much-desired hotel is coming to downtown Owatonna. That will include an in-house restaurant in the former Jerry’s Supper Club space, according to the People’s Press. Nothing can replace Jerry’s. While some supper clubs still exist, especially in Wisconsin, they seem mostly a thing of the past. A place of paneled walls, red carpet and low light. And memories.
TELL ME: Do you have memories of Jerry’s Supper Club? Or of any supper club? I’d like to hear.
IT WAS A NICE GESTURE of gratitude. The free wedge of apple dessert pizza boxed in Styrofoam with a note of thanks handwritten in marker atop the cover.
This thankfulness for our patronage expressed by Basilleo’s 2.0, a Faribault pizzeria, impressed me. These are tough times to be in the restaurant and bar business. But yet Tom and Connie, co-owners of this homegrown eatery, took the extra time and effort to connect with customers in a personal way.
Basilleo’s has a long history in my community, tracing back to 1960 when brothers Basil and Leo Burger opened the pizza place. They combined their first names to come up with the catchy business name. Basilleo’s has long been a favorite local source of homemade thin crust pizza. Spicy Italian sausage remains our family’s top choice.
Randy and I last dined at Basilleo’s with friends on a Sunday evening in early March, the day before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz closed bars and restaurants due to COVID-19. We didn’t know then that this would mark our last time eating inside a restaurant in 2020. Yes, the governor later re-opened bars and restaurants, but with limited capacity. We opted out of in-person dining, choosing to occasionally do take-out. Like last Saturday evening, when Randy picked up our ready-to-go Italian sausage pizza at Basilleo’s along with a complementary slice of apple or cherry dessert pizza.
When Tom and Connie conveyed their gratitude through a simple handwritten message and a free slice of dessert, they made an impression. Their small act of kindness shows they value their customers. And, in these days of COVID-19, I welcome such thoughtfulness.
TOO OFTEN THESE DAYS, I feel discouraged by all the discord in our country, by the selfishness and lack of care for others.
But then I discover something that lifts my spirits and reaffirms my belief in our goodness, our ability to help one another, to think beyond ourselves and our needs to those of the people around us.
This is the story of such a discovery. Of goodness and kindness and care for those we call our family, neighbors, friends. Or strangers. And this I found in Zumbrota, a small town about a 45-minute drive east of Faribault.
On a recent Sunday afternoon drive through the Zumbro River Valley of southeastern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped in Zumbrota for a picnic lunch, or what was supposed to be a picnic lunch. The weather, only in the 30s and blustery, proved too cold for outdoor dining. We opted to eat in the van while parked outside the public library.
Directly in our line of vision stood a sculpture of children near a structure, which I soon determined to be an artistic interpretation of an historic covered bridge on the other side of the library. I planned, upon finishing my sandwich, grapes and protein bar, to photograph the art and then we would be on our way.
On any other day, Randy and I would walk across that aged bridge to the park, explore a bit while stretching our legs. But the weather was just too darned cold. I hurried to photograph the sculpture as my fingers numbed.
Once done, I walked back toward the van, only to notice a Little Free Library next to the public library. I found that odd.
As I drew closer, I found I was mistaken. This was not a LFL but rather a Community Cupboard—a source of food and hygiene products. Free for the taking.
The message thereon invites those opening the door of this small structure, designed like the nearby covered bridge, to TAKE WHAT YOU NEED, LEAVE WHAT YOU CAN. Baby formula. Snacks. Dried legumes. I didn’t poke around to see all of the contents.
Rather, as I photographed the Community Cupboard, I felt a sense of gratitude for this “Sharing Our Saviour” food outreach of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. I thought of the many times Jesus fed the hungry of body and of soul. And how thankful I am that churches and nonprofits and so many others help people in more ways than we will ever know. This lifts my spirits.
TELL ME: How do you or your community or church (or whatever) help individuals and families in need? I’d like to hear more uplifting stories.
ART, FOOD, FUN and more food. All will focus events in the Faribault area this weekend. And even though I’m uncertain yet whether I will attend any—because of my COVID-19 comfort level—I want to pass along this community information. These are all worthy events which I’ve attended in past years.
The tour is scaled back from previous years, but still includes a variety of artists who paint, shape clay into pottery, practice the Norwegian art of rosemaling, engage in fiber art, design jewelry, create with photography and more. I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to meet these artists, to view their work and where they work.
Promotional info for the tour emphasizes that health and safety come first and that participants—yes, that includes everyone—must wear a mask and that hand sanitizer will be used. Some artists will set up outdoors.
Likewise, the Faribault Diversity Coalition, organizers of the 15th annual International Festival Faribault, promises plenty of safety protocol during the 10 am – 4 pm Saturday fest at Faribault’s Central Park. If you’re comfortable attending, I’d encourage you to do so. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the diverse people who call Faribault home. The fest is aptly billed as “Neighbor Meeting Neighbor.”
This celebration of our cultural diversity includes a full day of entertainment from Native American, Guatemalan and Aztec dancers to Guatemalan and Hispanic singers and more. Other highlights include a Naturalization Ceremony and a Flag Ceremony, both in the early afternoon.
And there’s more—arts and crafts, kids’ activities, informational booths and food. Let’s not forget the food. Food from around the world. The fest offers a great opportunity to try ethnic foods.
Food centers the final local event I want to highlight. That’s the annual Trinity North Morristown Harvest Dinner from 11 am – 1 pm Sunday. I’ve attended this annual church dinner many times and highly-recommend it for the outstanding food. For only $10, you’ll get a meal of turkey, ham and all the trimmings that tastes like it came directly from Grandma’s kitchen.
This year the meal is take-out only with tickets sold on the adjacent Fourth of July picnic grounds and meals then handed out via drive-through on the south side of this rural church. I’ve always enjoyed the dining-in experience of cramming inside the church basement for good food and conversation among this friendly crowd. But, because of COVID, there will be none of that nor will there be a craft or bake sale.
Life goes on, pandemic or not. Just, please, if you attend any of these events, mask up (whether indoors or out), social distance and keep your hands clean. If you’re sick or have COVID symptoms or have been exposed to anyone with COVID or COVID symptoms, stay home.
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.
Heading into Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.
SO…WE’RE DRIVING along the interstate, entering Madison, Wisconsin, on a mid-July afternoon. Traffic is getting heavier. Drivers are weaving their vehicles in and out of traffic lanes. Trip after trip to this capital city we’ve noticed the increases in speed and aggressive driving as we near Madison.
But this time something other than the traffic chaos diverts our attention. Up ahead I spot a bright yellow vehicle with what looks like a hot dog atop the roof. Could this be…yes, it is, the Wienermobile.
Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…
Remember that jingle? I expect you do. The catchy words and tune proved memorable, an advertising success in promoting hot dogs.
Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.
On this summer day, one of six Wienermobiles circulating throughout the US is here, perhaps for a stop in Madison or on its way to Milwaukee or even Chicago to the east. I don’t know. But I smile at the sight of this American icon.
In Dane County, Wisconsin, location of the state capital, Madison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.
The sighting led me to research the 27-foot-long Wienermobile, first created in 1936. That includes one crafted in Madison in 1969, recently restored and now under ownership of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Too big for the Society’s museum, the iconic “Old Number 7” Wienermobile will be displayed outside the downtown Madison museum during special events and also shown elsewhere in the state.
Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 14, 2020.
Up until the closure of the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison in June 2017, that Wienermobile stood outside company headquarters. When Oscar Mayer’s parent company, Kraft, merged with H.J. Heinz Co., corporate restructuring resulted in closure of the Madison facility. A local business staple for more than 100 years as a producer of hot dogs and lunch meat, this was a big loss to the city. The Madison plant at one time employed 4,000 people, but by 2013, only 1,300. Still, that’s a lot of jobs.