It’s vintage food stands, homemade pie, old tractors packing the parade, music by Minnesota musicians (like Monroe Crossing), handcrafted kiddie rides and games, BINGO, a patriot program, fireworks and so much more.
Perhaps my column will convince those of you who live in Minnesota to attend the Fourth of July celebration in North Morristown, which is not an actual town. This is simply a place in the middle of farm fields, west of Faribault and north of Morristown. The festival grounds sits across from Trinity Lutheran Church and School and next to farm sites and acreage.
I’ve attended many times and love the down-home feel of this celebration, which is also a reunion of sorts for those who grew up in this area (which is not me). I recognize many of you, my readers, come to my blog from afar. So please enjoy North Morristown on the Fourth via my images and words.
TELL ME: How are you celebrating the Fourth of July?
Note: If you have seen my story on newsprint, please view it again online. The paper copy of the magazine has issues with clarity of images, and not just mine. All photos I submitted for publication are sharp, clear and focused, unlike the end printing results.
GRAB BAGS AND VINYL SINGLES. Goldfish and tiny turtles. And, oh, an endless assortment of whatever you needed, and didn’t need. Such are my dime store memories upon entering J.T. Variety & Toys in Plainview.
This crammed-with-merchandise store along West Broadway in the heart of downtown Plainview hearkens to yesteryear when Ben Franklin and F.W. Woolworth stores dotted Main Street USA. J.T. Variety & Toys fits the dime store model.
And while I spotted no turtles, fish, grab bags or vinyl, the business offers a wide range of merchandise for all ages and interests.
Need a gift for Aunt Gertie or your next-door neighbor or whomever? There are knick knacks and home décor items galore.
Crafters—whether knitter or seamstress or some other creative—can shop an array of colorful yarn skeins cramming cubbies, folds of sorted-by-color fabric layering shelves, and much more. Choices are bountiful.
The same goes for the selection of fake flowers splashing color into a display and spilling over into baskets lining the floor. Above the flowers I found a collection of summer shoes—flip flops, slip-ons shaped like insects…
If I sound a tad giddy about J.T. Variety & Toys, it’s because I am. A lot of those feelings trace to childhood memories of shopping dime store aisles. Back in the day, I mostly looked because, coming from a poor farm family, buying usually wasn’t an option, except for necessities. I would stand for a long long time in the pet section at the back of Woolworths looking at those mini imported pet turtles, wishing for one.
I expect the kids of Plainview gravitate to the toy section of their local variety store with its puzzles and games, marbles and Play Doh, trucks and dolls, Little Golden Book and other books, and much more. I’d feel giddy if I was a kid with money to spend here.
Plainview is fortunate to have this homegrown business akin to the dime stores of old. It was here in this southeastern Minnesota small town, the day before our 40th wedding anniversary in mid-May, that my husband purchased a lovely anniversary greeting card while I paged through a storybook about Paul Bunyan. It wasn’t like he could buy a tiny imported pet turtle for me…
TELL ME: Do you have dime store memories? Have you discovered a store similar to J.T. Variety & Toys (Dollar stores don’t count)? I’d like to hear.
OH, HOW STUNNING the traditional Hmong dresses worn by two sisters posing among the peonies in a rural southeastern Minnesota garden.
Their unexpected presence graced my annual tour of Aspelund Peony Gardens with culture and color on a recent Sunday afternoon. What a delight to encounter these friendly women who say they simply love peonies. Their attire included floral print fabric. They traveled from the Twin Cities metro to this country location northwest of Wanamingo/northeast of Kenyon, site of Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens. After they photographed each other, one sister asked me to photograph them with her camera. I obliged.
I try to come here every year in early June to see the rows and rows of peonies in bloom. And to sip wine. This visit, Randy and I met our friend Valerie and her friend Jean. The place was busy. Owners Dawn and Bruce Rohl sell wine and take orders for root peony tubers, available in the fall.
Here Rascal the dog welcomes guests up the gravel driveway with raucous barking. I’d barely opened the van door when Rascal ran up and I reached down to pet him. Later I saw Princess the cat weaving through the peonies.
Those are the nuances which endear Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens to me. The simplicity of this place atop a hill overlooking the Zumbro River Valley, red barn and silo in the distance. This place of towering oaks and tire swing, of old tin-sided shed, apple trees, massive rhubarb plants, twisted grapevines…
On this June afternoon, the wind blew fierce, whipping lose ends of my hair, dipping peony stems, playing a refrain inside my head of “summer breeze makes me feel fine” (Seals & Croft 1972). I felt mighty fine in this peaceful place among blooming peonies. Some buds remained clamped tight, but likely have opened in the days since my visit.
I prefer meandering on this plot of land among the apple trees and grapevines and, especially, in the peony gardens. Here assorted shades of mostly pink and crimson flowers bloom. Colors vary from subdued to vibrant. Shapes, vary, too.
But it’s not all visual for me. I take time to bend close to the blossoms (check for bees), smelling their fragrant perfume which, if you’re a romanticist, may prompt you to reflect on long ago brides gathering peonies from their mothers’ or grandmothers’ gardens for bridal bouquets. They did so in my community of Faribault, storing peonies in the cool sandstone caves along the Straight River to preserve until their wedding days. Faribault was once The Peony Capital of the World. Some of the Aspelund peonies were sourced from those once grown in Faribault.
Touring Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens has become an early summer tradition for me. I feel comfortable here, at peace, soothed by the wind and the wine and the welcoming conversations. The small scale of the business suits me as do the unpretentious owners and the rural setting. As I watched two young girls sway on the tire swing, pushed by their dad, their happy voices rising, I felt such joy in witnessing this scene.
And I felt happiness, too, in that chance encounter with the two sisters from the Cities, celebrating their Hmong heritage in a field of peonies.
FYI: Aspelund Winery and Peony Gardens is open from 4 – 7 pm Thursday and Friday, noon – 7 pm Saturday and noon – 5 pm Sunday. Note that the tasting room is small, basically a walk-up and order space. Outdoor seating on the deck and other areas can be difficult to secure during busy times. However, you can order a glass of wine and walk around the gardens. If you want to see the peonies, go now; their bloom period is nearly done.
I remember the mural from my last visit here in 2013. I appreciate this public art now as much as I did then, for art can reveal much about a place.
While Plainview has lost some of its “arts” character with closure of the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center, it will always claim title (along with Staples) as the boyhood home (s) of noted Minnesota writer Jon Hassler. He moved to Plainview with his parents at the age of 10, remaining there until shortly after his 1951 high school graduation.
Hassler, one of Minnesota’s most-beloved authors, focused his fiction on small town life. That includes Grand Opening, a novel based on Plainview. As in real life, the main character’s parents buy a run-down grocery store in rural Minnesota.
While I have not yet read Grand Opening, I just finished Days Like Smoke, A Minnesota Boyhood. This is Hassler’s memoir, a manuscript published by Afton Press in 2021, many years after the author’s 2008 death. Edited by friend Will Weaver, another well-known Minnesota writer, this slim volume offers insights into Plainview, into Hassler’s experiences there and how that shaped his writing. He credits his parents’ Red Owl Grocery Store as the training grounds for his writing, the place where he acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist. In that grocery store, Hassler stocked shelves, ground coffee, interacted with and observed customers, and more.
This sentence in Hassler’s memoir is so telling of the influence Plainview had on his writing: I see the villagers passing along the checkout counter like the cast of characters they eventually turned out to be in my novel about this village in the corn. I love that phrase, “village in the corn,” for it fits agriculturally-based Plainview. The community is home to food processors, Plainview Milk Products Cooperative and Lakeside Foods, and celebrates Corn on the Cob Days each summer. Farming centers the local economy.
It’s the people, though, including the characters, who truly define community. And Hassler shares plenty from Plainview, where he lived across from the stockyards for awhile, tried to derail a train, played high school football for the Gophers, watched endless movies at the Gem Theater, bloodied the nose of a third grader, sat at the bedside of his dying 11-year-old friend, biked to the bluffs along the Whitewater River to camp and fish, served as an altar boy…
In his memoir, Hassler remembers St. Joachim’s Catholic Church and Immanuel Lutheran Churchstanding as sentinels of the soul at opposite ends of Main Street. That’s such an insightful visual. Hassler valued his Catholic upbringing and faith throughout his life. But he also admits in his memoir to the strong current of religious animosity running under the surface of daily life in the village of my youth between Catholics and Lutherans. This comes as no surprise to me, growing up in rural Minnesota with the same denominational tension.
It was that undercurrent—specifically the defeat of Hassler’s father in a school board election—which ultimately caused Hassler’s parents to leave Plainview and return to Staples. He writes: I, newly graduated from high school, loved Plainview too dearly to follow them.
Hassler’s love for Plainview endured, long after he left to attend college, then to teach, then to write and then to retire in 1997 after 17 years as writer-in-residence at Saint John’s University. Visit Plainview today and you get a strong sense of the place that shaped this writer. While businesses and people have come and gone, at its core, this remains “the village in the corn.”
TELL ME: Have you read any of Jon Hassler’s 12 novels or his nonfiction? I’d love to hear your take on his writing and what books you recommend.
Please check back for more posts from Plainview next week.Be sure to read my previous posts on Plainview published this week.
Here kids bike along the main drag through town, passing by homegrown shops and other businesses. Here friendly shopkeepers engage in easy conversation that made me feel incredibly welcomed. And connected.
This is a rural community through and through. Home to the Plainview Milk Products Cooperative. Surrounded by farm fields. And, at its essence, home to residents rooted in rural life. Noted Minnesota author Jon Hassler, who penned novels about small town life, grew up here (and in Staples). His parents owned the local Red Owl grocery store.
At The Shop on Broadway, relative newcomer to the area and co-proprietor Sonia spoke about a recently-purchased rural property.
At the variety store, the clerk and I exchanged histories of growing up on dairy farms.
Plainview, in many ways, surprised me. I’d been here previously, nearly 10 years ago when a wrong turn led Randy and me to this small town some 20 miles northeast of Rochester. During that brief stop, we popped into the Jon Hassler Theater/Rural America Arts Center. The theater closed soon after and the arts center followed. But both impressed me. This return trip to Plainview revealed a new side, a thriving business district of welcoming, one-of-a-kind shops.
Not all were open on the Saturday of my mid-May visit. But I perused enough to get a feel for what this community offers. As cliché as it sounds, Plainview seems an undiscovered gem with its independently-owned shops staffed by friendly folks with time to chat. I felt unrushed in uncrowded stores. Browse at my own pace. Take in the setting and merchandise and down-home feel of being in the moment in rural Minnesota.
That comes from someone who is not a shopper, who easily tires of mass-produced whatever in Big Box stores. But I didn’t feel that here in Plainview. Inside The Shop on Broadway and J.T. Varieties & Toys, I found nostalgia. Antiques and collectibles in The Shop. And at the Variety store, I stepped back in time, into a mercantile akin to the Ben Franklin or Woolworth’s of my youth. I eased down narrow aisles jammed with merchandise—ran my hand across beautiful cotton fabric layered on shelves, eyed endless knick knacks, appreciated the Little Golden Book storybooks for sale.
At Young Love Floral & Finds, historic photos, a vintage Mallard Seeds sign (the seed company was once housed here as was a bank) and the First National Bank vault (now a storage space) revealed more about this community. I love this little shop owned by floral designer/creative Shantelle Speedling. The biggest surprise here: wood flowers. Speedling uses them in her floral designs and they are unbelievably beautiful.
Another surprise came in finding The Magnolia Cottage Boutique. If this had not been my last shop stop, I may have tried on some of the clothing therein because I loved the styles. But I was tired and it takes a lot for me to try on clothes. The shop also sells home décor, gifts, flowers and more.
Next door, Cakes Etcetera was closed, so no cupcakes for me on this Saturday afternoon.
A few doors down, I spotted a vintage sign for Gopher Lanes Bar & Grill. The bowling alley is closed—for the summer. But that didn’t keep me from admiring the sign which is, oh, so Minnesotan. Before Plainview schools merged with Elgin and Millville, their mascot was the Gophers. And just some 10 miles to the southwest of Plainview, the town of Viola celebrates the lowly pocket gopher with an annual community celebration, the Viola Gopher Count. The 148th annual festival is scheduled this week on June 15 and 16. That’s another story and Viola, another place to visit. Just like Plainview.
PLEASE CHECK BACK for more posts from Plainview. I’ll take you inside shops, show you signs, art and more discovered on a Saturday afternoon along Broadway. I’m sure I missed a lot of what Plainview offers. So if you are from this town, or have visited, I welcome your insights on places to check out.
SMALL TOWNS, LIKE PEOPLE, have personalities. I’ve discovered that in my years of exploring rural regions. I can learn a lot about a place by simply walking through the heart of a community, even if I never enter a single business.
On a recent day trip into Wabasha County in southeastern Minnesota, Randy and I stopped briefly in Elgin. Three words define my initial impression of the business district in this community of 1,090 just 20 minutes northeast of Rochester: bricks, bins and bars.
Bricks reference the row of aged brick buildings I spotted along one side of the street. One dates to 1899. I see so much potential in these historic structures if the “updates” on ground level were removed to reveal the original. I recognize, though, that takes money. But, as one who appreciates aged buildings with good, solid bones, I would love to see these buildings restored to their historic selves. What an asset that would be to Elgin.
Bins reference the mammoth grain bins back-dropping that row of brick buildings. This is most-assuredly a farming community, home to All-American Co-op. I especially appreciate the faded signage identifying the local ag business.
At one time, Elgin was also home to a creamery and milk service. The community honors its dairy heritage with Elgin Cheese Days, an annual small town festival slated this year for June 17-19. Events include a parade, carnival, tractor pull, burnouts, vendor and craft show, softball and volleyball tournaments, garage sales, music and the EMS Cheese Chase (walk/run). As these celebrations go, they are really reunions of those who once called this town home or still call this place home.
Although Randy and I didn’t patronize any of these places, I expect they are worth a stop for food and drink and conversation. As a group of cyclists told us, the bar they lunched at served up a mighty fine sandwich. We had packed a picnic lunch. Next time.
Yes, we’ll return to Elgin to explore a bit more. Perhaps drive 1.5 miles south of town to pick up some cheese at Prairie Hollow Farm.
I know we missed a lot during our quick stop…
TELL ME: If you’re familiar with Elgin, what should I see/do next time I’m in town? I’m looking for any insider tips, things I might bypass because I’m unaware. Why should someone visit Elgin?
Please check back for another post from this community. And then it’s on to neighboring Plainview.
NO MATTER HOW MANY country churches I discover, how many adjoining cemeteries I meander, my interest in these sacred places never wanes.
On a recent day trip in southeastern Minnesota, Randy and I found Immanuel Lutheran Church of Potsdam, an unincorporated community close to Elgin. We bypassed it initially, then turned around to explore the church grounds along Minnesota State Highway 247.
Immanuel fits the bucolic image of a rural church—constructed of wood painted white, cross-topped steeple, bell snugged inside tower, stained glass windows running the length of the sanctuary.
This church is especially well-maintained, not always the case in rural houses of worship with often dwindling congregations.
I longed to get inside this Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, to view the sanctuary, to settle into a pew, to see the art therein, to experience the peace such a place holds. But, as I expected, the front doors were locked.
So instead, I walked around the exterior, studying the details, bracing myself against the strong wind sweeping across this hilltop location. In the distance, twin silos rose on a farm site. Across the highway, a red barn contrasted with the gray of tombstones lodged under pines.
We briefly walked the cemetery, marveling at the early birth dates of some buried here—born in 1823, died in 1877. Clearly there are stories here of journeys across the ocean to America, then more travel westward to this land, this Minnesota. I expect those stories hold hardship and loss and struggles and, also, incredible strength, determination and resilience.
I claim no personal connection to anyone here. Yet, I feel a kinship in ancestors who left the Old Country. I feel, too, a kinship of faith. For it was faith which sustained many who left families an ocean away to forge a new life. Here they settled, built a church, planted pines. Here they gathered to celebrate and mourn. To pray and praise and plant hope upon the land.
When I recently photographed the Borrow-A-Bike signs posted on a lovely aged brick building by Pine Island Trailhead City Park, I assumed the bikes were available for rent, because, you know, nothing is free. Turns out I was wrong.
Since 2009, the city has offered locals and visitors free usage of a fleet of bikes to ride the 12.5-mile paved recreational trail between Pine Island and northwest Rochester. The 70 donated, restored and maintained bikes are available in all sizes and even include some tandem bikes. Note that kids need signed authorization by a parent or guardian to borrow a bike and adults must register, sign a waiver, and grab a helmet before checking out a bike.
Bikes are available from 10 am – 6 pm Saturdays and Sundays, May – October, or by appointment weekdays.
What a great idea to not only draw visitors to Pine Island, but also to encourage people to get outdoors, exercise and explore rural Minnesota.
The trail follows an abandoned railroad line past wooded areas, open countryside and along the Zumbro River with a half-way stopping point in the unincorporated community of Douglas in Olmsted County. Next trip to the area, I need to find Douglas.
This Borrow-A-Bike program is especially needed now with ever-rising gas prices and out-of-control inflation. Couples and families are seeking low-cost ways to enjoy time together and this offers that. Not everyone owns a bike. Not everyone can transport a bike/bikes. This program makes biking easy and accessible to all. Plus, it gets people outdoors and away from screens.
Nothing in life is free…until you find something that is—like Borrow-A-Bike in Pine Island.
THE 2022 PLANTING SEASON has proven exceedingly challenging for Minnesota farmers. A late spring with unseasonably cold temps, coupled with too much rain, has delayed seeding of corn and soybeans.
Some areas of our state have experienced widespread flooding, creating muddy conditions and lakes. Not exactly what farmers need in May. To add to that, destructive storms damaged or destroyed farm buildings and equipment, especially in the western region of Minnesota.
Corn planting data from the United States Department of Agriculture (updated every Monday) shows below average planting progress throughout the Midwest, West and in some states east of Illinois. In Minnesota, only 60 percent of the corn was planted as of May 23. That compares to 98 percent last year and a 5-year average of 86 percent. That puts into perspective the 2022 planting delays.
Yet, if you farm, you realize a stretch of good weather can quickly change everything for the good. Time will tell how this all plays out.
I find it interesting that, nearly 50 years removed from the farm, I still pay attention to spring planting, and, later, harvest. I have friends who farm. But, more than that, farming is part of my history, part of who I am, even as an adult decades distanced from living on the land. I am proud of my rural heritage. It shaped me. It grew me. I see that rural influence in my writing, my photography, in the places I value and, I suppose, even in the way I live my life.
I am, and always shall be, honored to call myself a farm girl.
HOW ABOUT YOU? Did place shape you? I’d like to hear.
NOTE: I took these photos on May 14 in Goodhue, Olmsted, Rice and Wabasha counties in southeastern Minnesota.All images were taken through the passenger side windshield or side window while traveling on the roadway.
TODAY, APRIL 22, marks Earth Day, a day to focus on our planet, the environment and ways we, individually and globally, can protect both.
This day gives me pause to reflect on an event which began in 1970, when I was nearing young adulthood. I remember the anti-litter campaigns, the energy shortage and even Earth Shoes. Fifty-two years later, the focus has shifted to clean energy, Zero Waste and climate change.
But, taking it down to a personal level, what am I doing to honor the spirit and intent of Earth Day on a daily basis? Some examples follow. What are you doing?
WHEN I WORE FEED SACKS
I recognize that some of what I do is rooted in my past, where reuse was popular long before it became hip. For example, as a child I wore clothing stitched from feed sacks. Not all clothes, of course, but enough that I remember. Clothing was handed down the line from oldest to youngest siblings and sometimes among cousins. Whenever I got new clothes in my youth, they were either from the sales rack or sewn by my godmother or, later as a teen, by me. When I had children, most of their clothing came from garage sales. To this day, I dislike clothes shopping and gravitate to the discount rack. And, yes, I still occasionally buy second-hand. My approach to apparel is, I figure, earth-friendly.
Likewise when it comes to laundry, I either line dry outdoors or on a rack inside. To me hanging laundry isn’t a chore. I love the methodical rhythm of clipping laundry to the line early in the morning, then pulling it off when the sun has dried the clothes, towels, sheets… In the process, I’ve saved energy by not using my electric dryer.
SAVE THE BOWS, PLEASE, & THE CARDS
I also save and reuse gift bags, tissue paper and ribbons/bows. Through the years, I’ve taken a lot of ribbing for that practice. But, frankly, I don’t care. Tossing those items seems wasteful to me. And I am simply following the example set by my mother who, Christmas to Christmas, saved and reused tissue, ribbons, bows and carefully-folded wrapping paper. (We didn’t get birthday gifts.) I don’t reuse paper. Mom’s reasons for reuse were not necessarily rooted in the environment, but rather in finances. Wrapping paper and all the embellishments cost money. She also saved Christmas cards, repurposing them as gift tags, something I also do.
BREAD BAGS & PEACHPAPER
I also follow Mom’s example of washing and reusing plastic food storage bags. I don’t save bread bags, though. While growing up, I slid bread bags over my feet before slipping into boots. The bags kept my feet dry and warm, especially if my rubber boots leaked.
Thankfully I don’t need to repurpose the tissue from individually-wrapped crated peaches as toilet paper in the outhouse. Yes, I grew up using an outhouse in the warm weather months and a pot on the porch in the winter because our old farmhouse didn’t have a bathroom. I am quite appreciative of the small solo bathroom in my current house.
OLD IS JUST FINE WITH ME
The one other area in which I’ve really focused on reuse is furniture. I just counted all the furniture pieces in the six rooms on our main level. Of the 20 pieces, we’ve purchased only five new—the sofa, recliner, entertainment center and my office desk and chair. The dining room table and chairs came from two auctions 40 years ago. Other furniture either came from garage sales or from family. Even our bedroom ensemble—hideous 1950s blonde—is used. Not the mattress or boxspring. In the two second floor bedrooms, all of the furniture is second-hand.
RECYCLED ART, OH, HOW I LOVE THEE
And then there’s art. I love art and own a stash of it thanks to thrift stores, garage sales, the local recycled art sale and my mom. My “newest” pieces are “Jesus, the Good Shepherd” and “Jesus Knocks,” wedding gifts to my parents in 1954. Budget-friendly sources of art have allowed me to curate pieces I love in an earth-friendly way.
Now, I’d like to hear from you. How do you honor the spirit and intent of Earth Day in your daily life? Let’s learn from one another about ways we can reuse, repurpose, recyle, upcycle, reduce waste…