Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The power of the Zumbro August 11, 2022

Fishing at the base of the Lake Zumbro Dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

WATER RUSHES IN A SHEET over the dam, a powerful wall of water spilling from the 600-acre Lake Zumbro reservoir into the river below by Mac’s Park Place & Campground in rural Mazeppa.

An overview of the dam and fishing area next to Mac’s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
Mac’s Park Place by the Zumbro River and dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
The 100-plus year-old powerhouse. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Until several months ago, I was unaware of this hydroelectric generating plant along the Zumbro River in southeastern Minnesota. But Randy and I discovered the Rochester Public Utilities facility after turning off Wabasha County Road 21 onto a gravel road that led us to Mac’s at the base of the dam.

The Lake Zumbro hydroelectric dam. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I stood in awe of this structure with a spillway spanning 440 feet and a height of 55 feet. Constructed beginning in 1917 and operating since 1919 under ownership of the RPU, this hydroelectric generating plant is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s truly an amazing feat of engineering and construction. Renowned engineer Hugh L. Cooper led the project.

A hillside of trees hugs the bank of the Zumbro River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Not only are the dam and powerhouse impressive, but so is the natural setting in the backwoods of the river valley. Here trees fill the hillside across the Zumbro from Mac’s. In the greening of spring, when we visited, the scene was wild, scenic, beautiful. I expect autumn would yield a hillside flaming in color.

Fishing below the Lake Zumbro Dam on a Saturday afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

An angler’s gear, beverages, etc. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
Fishing along the grassy river bank. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a Saturday afternoon in May, anglers angled for fish in the placid river, the roaring dam nearby, dwarfing their size. Access to this seemingly popular fishing spot comes via Mac’s, which charges a fee for non-campers.

Fishing near that powerful wall of rushing water. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In August 2019, this was the site of a boating incident which injured four people after their pontoon plunged over the dam. I can’t imagine the terror they felt in that moment of realizing what was about to happen.

Angling in the Zumbro River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

There’s power here, in this wall of water. I heard it, saw it, felt it.

This rock formation in the Zumbro River caught my eye. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

But then I experienced the power, too, that comes with this natural setting. The power to quiet the spirit in the placid river, the rock formations, the tree-filled hillside… The Zumbro River can be harnessed, but not tamed. There’s an undeniable wildness in this place that yields peace.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Along a river valley backroad near Mazeppa August 9, 2022

The first scene off the highway was this fenced farm site with that lovely aged barn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

BACKROADS IN ESPECIALLY remote rural regions often yield an eclectic mix of discoveries. Like those spotted along a gravel road off Wabasha County Road 21 in the Zumbro River Valley between Mazeppa and Oronoco in southeastern Minnesota. A homemade roadside sign for Mac’s Park Place drew Randy and me to take a path into the unknown.

On the way to Mac’s, a 1950s restored Oliver tractor peeks out from a weathered shed. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I photographed some of the sights along that short route from the highway back to Mac’s, a bar, restaurant and campground along the Zumbro River.

Mabe’s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

What we saw remains somewhat of a mystery, especially Mabe’s Deer Camp. Was this once a public place for hunters and others to gather? Or was this (is this) a private hunting retreat for friends and family?

Skulls identify Mabe’s as a deer hunting camp. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

And who is Mabe?

Signage on a truck parked by Mabe’s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I expect locals could tell me lots of stories. Or I can spin my own backwoods river stories about Mabe’s, imagination running rampant.

A vintage gas pump sign outside Mabe’s. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

That’s the thing about backroads. You see oddities that leave you wondering. And sometimes it’s OK to wonder, to not have all the answers. To delight in the simply seeing. In-the-moment appreciation for that which unfolds before you, unexpectedly.

Also headed back to Mac’s Park Place, a converted school bus. Maybe a party bus. Maybe a camper. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

TELL ME: What oddities have you discovered along a back country road?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the way to Mac’s Park Place, rural Mazeppa August 8, 2022

A quick snapshot I took of Mac’s Park Place roadside sign through the passenger side window of our van. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

BACK COUNTRY ROADS often lead to interesting discoveries. Places that reveal America at its grassroots basic. Such is the road leading to Mac’s Park Place. And such is Mac’s.

It was the homemade sign posted along Wabasha County Road 21, which winds through the Zumbro River Valley, that caught the attention of Randy during a day trip in southeastern Minnesota. I missed the sign sporting an angler and a fish along with a list of all Mac’s offers:

BEER

BURGERS

RV CAMPING

FISHING

PULL TABS

That roadside signage was enough to make Randy reverse course and aim down a gravel road to Mac’s Park Place along 406th Avenue, rural Mazeppa. The restaurant/bar/campground is located between Mazeppa and Oronoco along the Zumbro River.

This is an area lovely in natural beauty. Winding river. A bit of backwoods wild. The ideal setting for a place like Mac’s, perhaps not widely-known to those without connections to the area.

Check back to see what I saw along the route to Mac’s, and then at Mac’s. I wondered at some point if we should continue on, not quite knowing what we were driving into…

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling