Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Next time pull off in Pine Island June 17, 2015

Approaching Pine Island on Highway 52 southbound.

Approaching Pine Island on U.S. Highway 52 southbound.

TRAFFIC ZOOMS BY on U.S. Highway 52 around Pine Island, hurried motorists rushing to Rochester or St. Paul or places in between.

On the left, a street sign directs motorists to U.S. Highway 52. On the right, the antique store that was closed the afternoon of my visit to Pine Island.

On the left, a street sign directs motorists to U.S. Highway 52. On the right, the antique store that was closed the afternoon of my visit to Pine Island.

I’ve been one of those travelers all too many times while en route to and from Wisconsin. Never pulling off to explore Pine Island. But always wondering what this small town holds and thinking I really ought to stop at the highway side Pine Cheese Mart.

It’s too late now to visit the Cheese Mart. The long-time business folded last year after an exit into Pine Island was closed due to traffic safety issues. That closure made navigating to the Mart cumbersome, resulting in a business downturn. So I missed out on the cheese.

A view of Pine Island's Main Street while driving into the downtown.

A view of Pine Island’s Main Street while driving into the downtown.

Early this spring, my husband and I took a day trip to Pine Island. We hopped in the van with our Minnesota atlas and road map and headed east, stopping first in West Concord.

My favorite scene of the day by the old butter factory.

My favorite scene of the day by the old butter factory where, yes, butter was once made.

I should have done my homework. After the fact, I learned that Pine Island was once considered “The Cheese Capital of the World” That would have been in the opening decades of the 20th Century when some 40 cheese factories existed in the area. In 1911, Pine Island cheesemakers crafted a 6,000-pound block of cheese for the Minnesota State Fair, earning that cheese capital title for the town.

Today the small cheese factories are gone with only the large Land O’ Lakes cooperative producing cheese. But the community honors its cheesy past with an annual July Cheese Festival.

Look closely at this downtown mural and you will see a hunk of cheese, a visual tribute to this community's rich cheese past.

Look closely at this downtown mural and you will see a hunk of cheese, a visual tribute to this community’s rich cheese past.

Perhaps I missed it. But I didn’t notice anything visually significant tipping me off to Pine Island’s rich cheese history other than a mouse and a block of cheese painted onto a downtown mural and a lovely brick building labeled BUTTER-FACTORY.

This old butter factory now holds bicycles available to ride on area trails.

This old butter factory now holds bicycles available to ride on area trails.

I should have done my research. The old Butter Factory today houses bikes and bike helmets available to borrow at no cost from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on weekends to cyclists using the nearly 13-mile Douglas State Trail from Pine Island to Rochester and Pine Island’s Paths to the Past trails: Historical Trivia Trail, Young People’s Path and Homes & Heritage Trail. Check ahead as this usage is seasonal.

So I missed a few things this visit. But I didn’t miss the remarkable historic architecture that defines the downtown business district:

Downtown buildings feature stunning architectural detail.

Downtown historic buildings feature stunning architectural detail.

A broad view of downtown historical buildings with grand architecture.

A broad view of downtown historical buildings with grand architecture.

A stairway appears like a work of art on the side of an aged building.

A stairway appears like a work of art on the side of an aged building. I stood in an alley and aimed my camera up.

More historic buildings, including one that houses the post office.

More historic buildings, including one that houses the post office.

The top of City Hall.

The top of City Hall.

And some of the beautiful old homes close to downtown:

I snapped a quick shot of this lovely house while driving by.

I snapped a quick shot of this lovely house with a wrap-around porch while driving by.

Another sweet house near downtown.

Another sweet house near downtown.

I was disappointed, though, to find the one antique/furniture refinishing store, Green’s Stripping & Antiques, closed when I was there.

Likewise, I really wanted to get inside the Olde Pine Theater:

The theatre that I wished I could have seen.

The theatre that I wished I could have seen.

Maybe next time.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Many small towns still have thriving hardware stores like this Hardware Hank.

Many small towns still have thriving hardware stores like this Hardware Hank.

Parked outside Hardware Hank.

Outside Hardware Hank.

I even noticed a below street level barbershop.

I even noticed a below street level barbershop.

I spotted the spring scene in a flower box outside a downtown business.

I spotted this early spring scene in a flower box outside a downtown business.

Murals grace the sides of two brick buildings sandwiching a vacant lot that is now a downtown mini park.

Murals grace the sides of two brick buildings sandwiching a vacant lot that is now a downtown mini park.

Driving out of town, I shot this image of Pine Island's mobile home court across the cornfield.

Driving out of town, I shot this image of Pine Island’s mobile home court across the then stubbled cornfield.

IF YOU KNOW Pine Island, what other things did I miss on my first visit to this Minnesota community of 3,300 residents?

How did Pine Island get its name? According to the Minnesota Historical Society “Minnesota Place Names,” an early settler named the town Pine Island in 1855 for the large, lone white pine on a small island in the Zumbro River. The island was once thick with pines and was once a winter shelter to the Dakota.

Check back to read about the Rainbow Cafe, where we ate lunch.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling