Travel Time with Roger Tweed – ‘A Week in Minnesota’

Roger Tweed

At the beginning of August, I was able to spend a week with my friend Cam and his family.  They have lived in the Twin Cities area for many years, and have a lovely home with a back yard pool and Cam’s extensive garden.  On this trip, Cam and I planned to visit International Falls and Lake Itasca, and to stop at as many Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives locations as we could, including a return visit to Gordy’s Hi Hat restaurant in Cloquet, MN.

On Tuesday, August 6, I flew from Washington, DC to Minneapolis on Delta.  I purchased my round trip flight, along with my rental car, through Orbitz for $688.  The package deal reduced the cost of the rental car by about $70.  I had an 11:45 am flight from DCA to MSP.  Mid-day lines for security at DCA were not too bad.  Everyone was on board by 11:39, but we didn’t push back until 11:49, four minutes late.  The flight was uneventful, and I managed to complete both the easy and the hard Sudoku puzzles in the in-flight magazine.  As we approached MSP you could see Target Field (home of the Minnesota Twins) and the Metrodome (former home of the Minnesota Vikings and Twins) off of the left side of the aircraft, an old warhorse MD-90.  Despite our late take off, we landed five minutes early.  My rental car was a Mazda 3, and I was very impressed with the front seat legroom.  My GPS took a while to catch up with the fact that I was no longer in Virginia, but it snapped into action just in time for me to avoid a traffic back-up on I 494, when it suggested that I exit onto MN 77 and then take MN 62 before getting onto I 35 for my trip through Minneapolis and into suburban Mounds View. 

After I arrived I found Cam tending to his gardens in the back yard.  We had a lot of catching up to do, and we talked all afternoon and well into the evening.  Before we realized it, it was 9 pm and too late to go anywhere for dinner that wasn’t local.  This ruled out a visit to the 5-8 Club (5-8club.com), a restaurant that (along with Matt’s Bar) claims to have introduced the “Juicy Lucy” (a cheese-stuffed hamburger) to the Twin Cities.  Cam and I have tried Matt’s “Juicy Lucy” and were anxious to do a comparison, but this would have to wait.  We settled on Red Lobster (Cam had a coupon), and had a wonderful meal (their Tortilla Soup is excellent) while continuing our catching up.  Being among the final customers of the evening, we received very generous attention from the wait staff – a theme that would be repeated at other dinners during the visit.  When we finally left the restaurant, I was beginning to feel the effects of a long day of traveling, so for me it was off to bed when we returned home.

On Wednesday morning, I went on line to find a list of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives locations in the Twin Cities.  Breakfast places, like Al’s Breakfast and the Colossal Café were high on our list, but as it turned out we just couldn’t get going early enough in the morning to match their hours.  And, sadly, Town Talk Diner, which I had wanted to visit, is closed.  We also planned a return visit to Kramarczuk’s Sausage on East Hennepin Avenue at some point.  So we put together a list, and then headed for Minneapolis.  Our first stop was at the golf course where Cam works as a landscaper/greens keeper, so he could show off some of his landscape designs.  And they were impressive.

After driving into North East Minneapolis, we decided to go to Emily’s Lebanese Deli (Emilyslebanesedeli.com) on University Avenue for our late lunch (our first Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives location).  Even though it was no longer lunch time, there was a stream of folks coming in for take out.  I had soup and a meat pie, and Cam and I shared an order of hummus and tahini bread.  Everything was very good, and I was especially impressed with the fresh hummus.

Stone Arch Bridge and St. Anthony's Dam and Locks, Minneapolis, MN

Stone Arch Bridge and St. Anthony’s Dam and Locks, Minneapolis, MN

As we were driving near the Mississippi River, Cam mentioned that he has always wanted to visit the dam and locks at St. Anthony.  I pointed out that we were in the neighborhood and had the time, so why not visit them now?  I had him guide me to the Mill Ruins area, and after a drive on West River Parkway past the former mills and the lock and dam visitor center at St. Anthony, we parked in a lot above the Guthrie Theater and made our way back to West River Parkway to read the historic markers and view the ruins of the mills along the west bank of the river and above the former power canal.  We made our way to the dam and locks, but the last tour of the day had already begun, and there was no way to join it.  So, we walked under James Hill’s Stone Arch Bridge – built for what would become the Great Northern Railway – and viewed the mill ruins from the level of the power canal.  Electricity made the water power provided by the Mississippi and these canals unnecessary, and the small mills along the banks were supplanted by larger mills on the land just above.  This is where General Mills was created, and where the company produced flour until its operations were moved to Golden Valley, MN.  Flour was produced in the building known as the Second Washburn A Mill (Washburn-Crosby became General Mills in 1928) from 1880 to 1965.  What is left of the structure following the fire of 1991 was opened as the Mill City Museum (millcitymuseum.org) in 2003, and this was our next stop.

We entered through the Riverfront entrance (regular admission $11), and immediately walked into the “Ruin Courtyard.”  This open area was gutted by the fire of 1991, and is surrounded by the brick walls that enclosed the Second Washburn A Mill.  In July and August, live music is performed in the Courtyard on selected evenings after 5 pm, and admission for the music and museum drops to $5 after the normal museum closing of 5 pm.  The extended hours for the museum only occur when a live music program is scheduled.  The courtyard was being set up for the music program, so we proceeded into the museum.  You are immediately met with murals and exhibits depicting the history of the mill buildings, the history of wheat farming, and the mills of Minneapolis.  Off to your right is a theater where a 19 minute film about the history of Minneapolis is shown every 30 minutes.  In the museum gallery are giant depictions of General Mills product boxes, displays of General Mills products past and present, a small viewing area where General Mills product commercials past, present, and international can be viewed, and a water lab where a scale model of the Mississippi and its canals and dam are shown along with demonstrations of how water power made the mills possible.  In the baking lab, samples of breads and brownies are made regularly by the baking lab staff.  This is also where local schools hold baking competitions.

The feature attraction of the museum is the “Flour Tower,” a ride in an industrial-sized freight elevator that takes you through eight levels of the building.  At each stop you experience both sights and sounds of workers and machines representing a particular era in the history of Mill A and in the history of milling in Minneapolis.  The final stop allows visitors to walk onto the rooftop observation deck for a panoramic view of the Mississippi, St. Anthony Falls, and the city, along with the famous “Gold Medal Flour” sign, which was erected atop the adjoining building in 1910.  The observation deck looks down on the Ruins Courtyard, and we could see that the music program had already started.  We eventually took the passenger elevator back down to the museum level, and after listening to the music for a bit headed back to the car.  It had been a full day, and we were scheduled to meet Cam’s in-law Matt at the 5-8 Club that evening.  So we hurried back to Cam’s place just long enough to get ready for dinner.

The 5-8 Club, probably named for its address which is 5800 Cedar Avenue South in Minneapolis, was opened as a speakeasy in 1928.  It is located at the intersection of Cedar Avenue (MN 77) and Crosstown Highway (MN 62).  Matt (no relation to Matt’s

Bar) had already arrived and gotten a table, so we parked in the church parking lot across the street (this is allowed so long as there is nothing going on at the church at the time).  The 5-8 Club is not a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives location, but it has been featured on the “Man vs. Food” and “Food Wars” programs on the Travel Channel.  The ambience at the 5-8 Club is mostly suburban sports bar.  There were folks in softball uniforms at some of the tables, and there were three TVs tuned to baseball games while we were there.  The 5-8 Club and Matt’s Bar (Mattsbar.com, 3500 Cedar Avenue South) both claim to have invented the Juicy Lucy in the 1950s.   We all ordered Juicy Lucies.  At the 5-8, you get to choose the cheese that will be cooked inside your hamburger patty.  The 5-8 Club offers the traditional American (American is the only cheese offered with the Jucy Lucy at Matt’s Bar), as well as Blue, Pepper Jack, and Swiss.  I ordered a Juicy Lucy with Swiss cheese.  Well, there is no comparison.  The Jucy Lucy at Matt’s Bar is much better than any Juicy Lucy you can get at the 5-8 Club.  The cheese inside the burgers served to us at the 5-8 was still solid and not very warm.  This did not give you the desired effect of having lava-like cheese cascade out of your burger once you bite into the center.  Although it is true that you don’t run a risk of having molten cheese burn your mouth at the 5-8 Club, a skillfully consumed Jucy Lucy at Matt’s Bar is the far superior culinary experience.  I prefer the “corner bar” ambience of Matt’s Bar to the sports bar environment at the 5-8 as well.

Gordy at Gordy's Hi Hat, Cloquet, MN

Gordy at Gordy’s Hi Hat, Cloquet, MN

On Thursday, we were on the road to Cloquet, MN and Gordy’s Hi Hat.  Heading north on I 35 we saw signs for the Moose Lake 1918 Fire Museum and the Hinckley 1894 Fire Museum.  We decided that we would visit those museums on the way back, along with anything else that caught our eye.

After exiting I 35, we headed past the paper pulping plant and along Cloquet Avenue, the main street of Cloquet.  It was noticeably cooler in Cloquet than it had been when we left the Twin Cities.  Like many other small towns, Cloquet’s central business district is made up primarily of two story buildings containing businesses that are struggling while trying to compete with national chain stores located in large shopping areas outside of town.  In the case of Cloquet, the shopping areas are located on MN 33 south of the town.

When you reach the intersection of Cloquet Avenue and MN 33, you are at an historic crossroads.  On your left is the only gasoline service station ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (the R.W. Lindholm service station).  In front of you is Fauley Park, named for Cloquet Union Depot agent Lawrence Fauley to commemorate his actions in putting together trains to evacuate residents from Cloquet during the 1918 fire.  The park is home to a steam locomotive, tender and caboose as a reminder of the 8,000 people ferried to safety as a result of Fauley’s actions.  It should be noted that the fire is believed to have been started by sparks from locomotives igniting dry foliage along the tracks.  Along the banks of the St. Louis River to your right is Dunlap Park, a city park that offers walking trails along the river, gathering spaces and a performance stage among its buildings that look like a pioneer fort.  Dunlap Island also has a wooden statue of a Voyageur – the legendary trappers and fur traders of Canada and the upper Midwestern United States of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

After turning right on MN 33, you head up the hill to Gordy’s (gordys-hihat.com).  Gordy’s is a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives location that Cam and I first visited in August 2011.  It is a drive-in that is only open from sometime in May to sometime in October (depending on when Gordy and Marilyn return from/go back to Sarasota, FL).  Gordy and Marilyn have been in the business since 1950, and opened Gordy’s Hi Hat in 1960.  Their burgers are delicious, but the highlight for Cam and myself are the made to order shakes.  The blackberry and blueberry shakes are well worth the trip.  There was quite a lunch crowd that day.  Gordy was working behind the counter when we placed our orders, but we didn’t see Marilyn this time.  I noticed license plates from Illinois and Ohio among the cars parked in the lot.

Inside the Moose Lake Museum, Moose Lake, MN

Inside the Moose Lake Museum, Moose Lake, MN

After lunch, and after visiting Fauley Park and Dunlap Island, it was time to take MN 33 back to I 35 so we could start our trip back to the Twin Cities.  Our first stop was the Moose Lake Depot and Fires of 1918 Museum (mooselakeareahistory.com).  The museum is located in the old Soo Line depot outside of town.  The railroad right-of-way is now part of the Willard Munger State Trail, and fittingly, as we approached the old depot I saw a young female moose come out of the woods along the trail and saunter down the path before returning to the woods.

The museum (open Memorial Day to the second Sunday in October, admission $2) is divided into two sections.  First, the passenger depot serves as a museum about Moose Lake and displays artifacts and photographs related to the railroad, the logging industry, the Native American population, Moose Lake State Hospital/Moose Lake Regional Treatment Center, and to the people and business activities of Moose Lake in the early 20th Century.  Military uniforms worn by Moose Lake residents are on display, along with a horse-drawn open carriage, and the actual telephone switch board for the town.  The station manager’s office and waiting rooms are also displayed as they would have looked in the 1920s.

In the freight depot the visitor sees artifacts associated with Moose Lake from the 1918 fire (October 12, 1918).  Red Cross uniforms, items found among the remains of charred structures, and photographs of buildings and families taken before the fire are displayed next to news clippings and recordings of survivors documenting what it was like trying to get away from the devastating fire.  Some survived by driving their cars (with their families) into the lake and waiting for the flames to die off or move on.  The 1918 fire was the largest fire disaster in Minnesota history and the second largest fire disaster in U.S. history.  It is sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten Fire” because it was overshadowed at the time by World War I.

After our Moose Lake visit, it was on to Hinckley to visit the 1894 Fire Museum.  Hinckley is the midway point between the Twin Cities and Duluth.  The town boomed in the late 19th Century as the timber and railroad industries made their way into the forests of Minnesota.  After the fire of 1894, Hinckley and the surrounding area used the nutrient-rich charred soil to start an agriculture-based economy.

The Hinckley Fire Museum is located west of I 35.  Take the MN 48 exit, turn right on old Highway 61, and the museum will be on your left three blocks after crossing the railroad tracks.  The museum (admission $5) suggests that you take at least 2 hours to tour its exhibits, and with a closing time of 5 pm, does not allow new entrants after 4:15 pm.  Unfortunately, it was 4:20 pm when we arrived and we were informed that we would have to come back another day.  Fortunately, there are some other things to see in and around Hinckley.

First, there is Grand Casino Hinckley, a good-sized Native American casino/golf resort/RV Park on the east side of I 35.  Cam and I wandered around the gaming tables and slot machines getting a feel for the casino and its patrons.  As with other Native American casinos in Minnesota, there are no craps tables at Grand Casino Hinckley.  There are, however, complimentary self-service soda fountains in several areas of the casino.  After we checked out the casino, Cam wanted to have a look at the golf course, especially the grounds and grounds keeping facilities.  Grounds keeping is housed in a large garage complex, so there wasn’t much to see.  But the grounds themselves appeared to be in very good shape, as was the club house.  Cam was also very impressed by the golf packages advertised at the kiosk in the parking area.

Loon, East Arm of Lake Itasca, Itasca State Park, MN

Loon, East Arm of Lake Itasca, Itasca State Park, MN

Another Hinckley landmark to visit is Tobies, a restaurant, bakery, coffee shop, ice cream parlor, convenience store, lounge, and car wash famous for its very large and delicious caramel rolls.  Tobies is an oasis well known to travelers heading between the Twin Cities and Duluth.  Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have time to stop for rolls this afternoon.  We were headed back to North East Minneapolis for dinner.

Our diner stop was at the Modern Café (337 13th Avenue NE.) (moderncafeminneapolis.com), another Diners, Drive-ins and Dives location.  We arrived after 9 pm, and for a time were the restaurant’s only patrons.  Even so, we did not receive the attention we had experienced at the Red Lobster on Tuesday night.  This is probably because our waiter/bartender was more interested in the restaurant’s waitress, who was apparently off duty by this time.  The restaurant doubles as a jazz club, but there was no entertainment this evening.  We both started with the soup of the day.  For our main dishes, I had pot roast and Cam had meat loaf.  The pot roast was served in a bowl with the vegetables included.  This reminded me of the way my mother served roasts with vegetables from a large bowl when I was a child.  Unfortunately, on this night the flavors from both the roast and the vegetables seemed to have disappeared by the time the bowl arrived at the table.  Overall, I was not impressed with the meal, and I found the prices to be inflated.

On Friday, we decided to hang around the house and recover from our travels while also resting up for our weekend trip to International Falls and Lake Itasca.  I sat around the pool and read while Cam tended to his gardens.  We even bought steaks at Costco and grilled dinner that night.

Saturday morning we retraced our path up I 35 and onto MN 33 past Gordy’s on our way to International Falls.  Taking MN 33 north from Cloquet until it ends at US 53 at Independence, and then following US 53 takes you all the way to International Falls (where US 53 ends and becomes US 71 going southwest).  On the way, we stopped at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum (ushockeyhallmuseum.com) on Hat Trick Avenue just off the highway in Eveleth.  Opened in 1973, the museum pays tribute to the legends of the game and seeks to preserve the precious memories of hockey in the United States.  The museum offers exhibits on the history of the game of hockey, stories of legendary teams from towns across the United States, memorabilia from hockey teams of all levels (including an Alexandria, MN (Jefferson High School) Girls Hockey sweater  (Go Cards!), interactive exhibits (test your slap shot), the Wall of Enshrinees and even a Zamboni exhibit displaying a 1950 Model B used by the Ice Capades.  The Museum does not include the world’s largest hockey stick, which is located in Downtown Eveleth.

A little over an hour later, we were in International Falls.  Founded in 1909 and the seat of Koochiching County, International Falls is home to large paper and wood mills now owned by Boise Corporation.  Our hotel was on US 53 just south of town.  After we checked in, we decided to find a marina with boat rentals so we could do some boundary waters boating on Rainy Lake.  Of the marinas listed in the tourist literature we had, only one appeared to be an actual operating marina.  But when we arrived at this marina, we couldn’t find anyone to ask about boat rentals.  There just weren’t any people around on this Saturday afternoon.  The good thing about our failed marina search was that it took us through the city of Rainier (population 100) on the final day of its Rainier Days celebration.  Rainier is where the Rainy River meets Rainy Lake.  Rainier has its own Voyageur statue (much bigger than the Cloquet Voyageur) next to its town billboard on MN 11.  Fort Frances, ON, Canada is just across the water from Rainier, and the Canadian National rail line crosses the international border here.  We saw a member of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detachment at the Rainier freight station board a south bound CN freight locomotive after it stopped on the U.S. side.

Lawn Tractor Races, Rainier, MN

Lawn Tractor Races, Rainier, MN

In addition to the crowds at the Main Street flea market and those hanging out at the various waterside businesses run by the Woody’s Rainy Lake Resort consortium, the big attraction this afternoon was the lawn tractor races.  In various elimination heats we saw young men and women go head to head drag racing various makes of lawn tractors that they had modified for competition.  We stood near the finish line to watch the heats, but when tractors in several of the heats started coming apart and dropping pieces, we thought that relocating away from the finish line to the dock area looking west toward Fort Frances and International Falls was the best course.   After the excitement of Rainier Days, we returned to International Falls to do some sight seeing.  I really wanted to see the giant thermometer they used to show on TV when demonstrating how cold it was in the “Nation’s Ice Box.”  We parked at the Chamber of Commerce building just below the international border crossing toll bridge, but the building was closed and the literature and maps displayed on the kiosk in the parking area didn’t mention any thermometer.  We then visited a tourist shop next to the border crossing where we learned that the giant thermometer had been removed years ago.  It had been located in Smokey the Bear Park near the Koochiching and Bronko Nagurski museums.  We also learned that the falls for which International Falls is named no longer exist due to water control projects.  We did find a stand of shrubbery roughly where we were told the giant thermometer had stood that had electric hook ups in place, and Cam played the roll of stand in for the thermometer as I took a picture.

Smokey Bear Park, International Falls, MN

Smokey Bear Park, International Falls, MN

After our big day of sightseeing, we returned to our room and got ready for dinner.  We decided on The Chocolate Moose restaurant because it was the only restaurant listed in our tourist guide.  The address was on US 53 and since the street number was lower than the number of our hotel, I was certain that heading back into town was the right thing to do.  Well, we went through town and US 53 ended and became US 71 and still no restaurant.  So, we headed back and I managed to miss the turn for our hotel and that is when we discovered that our restaurant was 2 doors further out of town from our hotel.  I had the Walleye dinner because even though I have been coming to Minnesota for many years, I have never had Walleye.  I ordered mine broiled, and now I know why so many anglers want to catch the wily Walleye.  It was very flavorful.  From now on when I see Walleye on a menu in Minnesota, I’m going to order it.

In 2013, I visited Death Valley – and Badwater, the place with the highest recorded temperature in the U.S. – in January, and International Falls – the place with a reputation for being the coldest place in the U.S. – in August.  These seem to me to be the proper times for visiting these areas.

Leaving International Falls on Sunday morning, I just had to stop at the Koochiching County Courthouse, a lovely beaux art structure of limestone and brick with gilded dome.  The cornerstone was laid in July 1909, and the building was built in 1910.  International Falls is the seat of Koochiching County.  Then, it was time to head down US 71 to Bemidji and eventually to Lake Itasca and the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Headwaters of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park, MN

Headwaters of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park, MN

After leaving Koochiching County and passing through the northwest corner of Itasca County, we entered Beltrami County at Funckley.  A little further down US 71 we saw about 20 cars parked in a field to the right of the highway.  A sign leading into the field announced that this field was where the final day of the Beltrami County Fair was being held.  This gathering looked to be about ¼ the size of any county fair I have ever attended, surprising for a county with a largely agrarian economy.  But then again, only 45,000 people live in the entire county.  Next we came to the intersection of US 71 and MN 72 at the city of Blackduck, and just had to stop at the Wayside Park to take a picture of its Blackduck statue.  This is not the original Blackduck statue, which is located about ¼ mile away in the downtown.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to venture into downtown to see the original, and so we headed on toward Bemidji (where US 71 meets US 2) and Itasca State Park.

When US 71 met US 2 on the west side of Bemidji, we saw signs for the Paul Bunyan and Babe statues, a landmark that we wanted to visit.  But we decided to continue south on US 71 when it split from US 2, and head to Lake Itasca instead.  Paul and Babe would have to wait for another time.

About 30 miles from Bemidji you follow MN 200 north to the east entrance of Itasca State Park (www.mndnr.gov/parksandtrails).  Established in 1891 to preserve virgin pine stands and protect the basin around the Mississippi’s source, the park’s 32,800 acres are located in three counties.  After paying the $5 one day vehicle entry fee, our first stop along the Main Park Drive was the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center.  Here we saw several exhibits and a short film about the history and geology of the area, the history of the park, and the topography, flora and fauna of the park and the area.  Our visit to the visitor center helped to direct us to the attractions of the park we were most interested in and enabled us to plan our afternoon in the park.  We decided to head up the Main Park Drive which takes you north around the lake shore and leads you to the Mississippi headwaters.  Along the way, we would do some hiking and sight seeing along the lake shore, and look into renting a pontoon boat at Itasca Sports Rental located at the boat ramp on the North Arm of the lake.  After stopping at Peace Pipe Vista and hiking down to the lake shore and back for some very impressive views of the lake, we drove on to Bear Paw and then to the boat ramp and Itasca Sports Rentals.  You could rent a pontoon boat for $15 per hour, so Cam and I signed the paperwork (and left our drivers licenses) at the desk and headed to the dock where “Bluegill”, our boat, awaited.  After a brief demonstration on how to make the boat go, we were off.

What a beautiful experience!  Bluegill’s small motor didn’t make much noise as we glided out of the reeds surrounding the channel out of the slips and into the North Arm of the lake.  We immediately headed north to where we could see lots of people standing around at what we presumed to be the headwaters area.  There were a few fishing boats on this part of the lake as well, but we appeared to be the only pontoon on the water at the time.  After satisfying ourselves that we were looking at the headwaters area, we swung Bluegill around and headed south to where the North Arm breaks into the East and West Arms.  I took the helm on this part of the journey, and with the sun peaking in and out from behind the clouds the trip just seemed to take on a life of its own.  We saw some loons on the water, and after sailing around the small island that marks the entrance to the East and West legs, we determined that the sun seemed to be shining more to the east.

So, we headed down the East Arm, which just seemed to go on forever.  Every time it looked like the water was coming to an end, a new expanse appeared just to the right or left.  At one point we passed the Chester Charles II riverboat coming north as we were heading south, so we knew that there had to be more lake still ahead of us.  Finally, we came to the docks at the Douglas Lodge and knew that we had sailed the length of the East Arm.  As we headed back north, when we found a section of the lake where the sun was shining, I would cock the steering wheel either all the way left or all the way right, and put the Bluegill into a big lazy circle to keep us in the sun while not turning off the engine (we were afraid that if we turned the engine off, it might not turn back on again).  As we sailed in these circles soaking up some sun, we’d watch loons bobbing on the water.  It amazed us how long the loons could stay underwater, and how far they could travel before they would pop up to the surface again!  Other than the Chester Charles and a few kayakers, we were the only ones boating on the East Arm for the two hours we were on the water.  It was very relaxing and enjoyable!

After our two hour boat trip we headed to the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, and the headwaters themselves.  Mary Gibbs was appointed Park Commissioner of Itasca State Park in 1903, and she is believed to have been the first female park superintendent in the United States, if not the world.  With little help from the State Government, Ms. Gibbs managed to stop a logging company from damming a local creek that would have flooded timberlands that Itasca State Park was created to preserve.  She accomplished this despite being threatened at gunpoint by logging company personnel.  As we walked along the path to the famous pole with its inscription announcing that you are at the headwaters of the Mississippi, 1475 feet above sea level and 2552 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.  Along the path was a park ranger with a “know your scat” demonstration.  I correctly identified the deer scat, and I should have recognized the bear scat because it was so big.  But the only bear scat I have ever seen was mostly remains of berries, and this example (all the examples were fake) was much darker.

Finally, we walked across the Mississippi River a few times, then walked along the banks of the creek-like river as it made its way north.  That is correct.  From its headwaters, the Mississippi travels north to Lake Bemidji before it travels east through Cass Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish (Big Winnie) before the river really starts heading south after passing Grand Rapids, MN.  And although the name “Itasca” sounds like it comes from the Native Americans of the area, it is a name made up by Henry Schoolcraft, who was sent to the area by the U.S. Government to negotiate a treaty between the Dakota and the Ojibwe.  Schoolcraft was led to the headwaters by an Ojibwe named Ozaawindib, and he combined the Latin words Veritas (true) and Caput (head) to create “Itasca.”  The Ojibwe name for the lake Schoolcraft named Itasca is Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan, meaning Elk Lake.

After our headwaters visit, it was time to head for the Twin Cities and dinner at Victor’s 59 Café (www.victors1959cafe.com) on South Grand Avenue in Minneapolis, a Cuban restaurant and another Diners, Drive-ins and Dives location.  It was getting dark as the GPS said we had arrived at the address, but we didn’t see Victor’s anywhere.  So, we headed further south on Grand Avenue and saw many very nice older homes, but no restaurants.  Finally, as we returned to the corner of 38th and Grand we saw Victor’s at the northwest corner.  It turns out that it is closed on Sundays.  Making the best of the situation, we walked across the street to Grand Café (www.grandcafempls.com).  Once again, we would be one of the last customers of the night.  In fact, we were the last customers of the night, not counting the large private party that was being served inside the restaurant.  Cam and I sat outside, and were treated to the abundant attention of our waiter.  He explained how the neighborhood was being rejuvenated, and how the many newer eating establishments (like Victor’s and Grand Café) were participating in the transformation.  Cam had the lamb shank and I had the red wattle pork chop, which comes from domestic sows bred with wild boar sires.  It was all very good, and a very pleasant way to end our Sunday and weekend travels.

On Monday we (predictably) got a late start.  It was such a nice day that we took Cam’s old Sebring convertible for our travels.  Our first stop was lunch at the Blue Door in St. Paul (www.thebluedoorpubmn.com).  This Diners, Drive-ins and Dives location is a very nice local eatery located in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul.  Although there were tables outside, we sat at the bar.  Customers seemed to all be known to the bartender and wait staff by their names.  I had the fried cheese curd appetizer (my first fried cheese curds since the Minnesota State Fair in 2010!) and the Blue Cheese salad with fried chicken strips.  Both were excellent, and the salad and chicken were plentiful.  Cam was told that the Spam Bites were Guy Fierre’s favorite when he taped the show there, so he ordered them along with the Cobb Salad.  Cam did not finish the Spam Bites, and I could only eat one.  Spam bits surrounded by cream cheese which is then breaded and fried.  Somehow, this did not translate into something tasty.  His Cobb Salad was good, but did not make up for the disappointing appetizer.  When Cam told the bartender that we had been to the 5-8 Club and Matt’s Bar, he said we should have tried the “Bluesy”, the Blue Door’s version of the Juicy Lucy.  Maybe next time.

Lift Bridge, Stillwater, MN

Lift Bridge, Stillwater, MN

Then we headed for Stillwater, MN.  Located along the St. Croix River, Stillwater is sometimes referred to as Minnesota’s Birthplace since the territorial convention that began Minnesota’s statehood process was held in Stillwater in 1848.  Stillwater was the home of the Territorial Prison.  I wanted to visit the caves that were used by bootleggers along the banks of the St. Croix during prohibition.  It is rumored that Al Capone owned some of these operations.  Not only was illegal alcohol made and stored in these caves, but whole night clubs were operated in them as well.  As you drive down into town you can see the entrance to the cave sites on your left, but they looked too much like tourist traps for us to want to visit.  So we drove into town and parked along the waterfront just north of the famous lift bridge.  The lift bridge was completed in 1931, and its design was inspired by the aerial lift bridge in Duluth, MN.  Although on the National List of Historic Places, the lift bridge is now considered structurally deficient and may be replaced by a bridge to be built just down river.  Court rulings have delayed the beginning of the replacement process.  We drove across the bridge into Wisconsin just so I could say that I had crossed Stillwater’s lift bridge.  I may never have the chance to do that again.

As we explored the city we found some very interesting older homes, like the Prison Doctor’s house on North 2nd Street.  There are several eateries along the waterfront as well as a very nice park along the shoreline, with concrete walkways and grassy areas above what appears to be a breakwater.  As we walked along the river bank to the north, we came to a boat yard and looked at several used boats for sale.  Slightly north of the boat yard was the former Stillwater railroad station, and perched outside the station were two Electro Motive Division (General Motors) FP-7 locomotives sitting on blocks with their trucks (wheel sets) packaged up around them.  These were the two locomotives used on the now defunct Minnesota Zephyr dinner train that ran north and west from the station along a six mile route.  Passengers were served a five-course dinner while traveling at between four and seven miles an hour along the St. Croix in five dining cars.  The round trip took about three hours.  Operations were suspended in 2008, and in 2012 the State of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources obtained the rail right of way and began removing track and paving the trail out of Stillwater.  In 2013 the rolling stock of five dining cars and the two locomotives were purchased for the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad.  The dining cars were shipped to Colorado, and the locomotives are supposed to be shipped there as well.  Stillwater is a beautiful city in the summer, and I’d like to visit there again some time.

After leaving Stillwater, we headed for Minneapolis and Kramarczuk’s (www.kramarczuks.com) for dinner.  They have the best eastern European sausages and red cabbage anywhere!  Unfortunately, it was after 6 pm when we arrived, and Kramarczuk’s closes at 4 pm on Mondays.  Every other weekday, they close at 8 pm.  This was a big disappointment!  We drove a few blocks up Hennepin Avenue and found The Bulldog Northeast (www.thebulldognortheast.com) and ate there.  It was nothing special, but I would recommend ordering the tater tots as your side dish.  The highlight of our Bulldog experience was seeing the Minneapolis Police making some kind of major arrest just down the block as we left the building.

And, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, my week in Minnesota was over.  I had a wonderful time with Cam and his family.  And I put over 1,100 miles on my rental car while seeing all these wonderful sights.  Minnesota is a very big state, and there are many things I still want to see.  I hope to be back this coming summer to see some new sights, and get back to Kramarczuk’s and finally get to visit Victor’s 59 Café.  And I’m sure that Gordy’s Hi Hat will be on the itinerary as well!