Written by Truly Malin on 05 Aug, 2002
Just kidding. Nobody parties in Lanesboro, because there''s not much to do except hang out in one of the three bars and swap fish stories - which can be fun! But to fully appreciate Lanesboro, you have to visit during the day. Here are…Read More
Just kidding. Nobody parties in Lanesboro, because there''s not much to do except hang out in one of the three bars and swap fish stories - which can be fun! But to fully appreciate Lanesboro, you have to visit during the day. Here are a few signature Things to Do ...
Bluff Country Studio Art Tour
Once a year around April 27 or so, Minnesota’s Bluff Country artists celebrate spring by hosting the Bluff Country Studio Art Tour. Artists’ studios are opened to the public, artworks are displayed in 40 different locations, and visitors are encouraged to admire and purchase their way across the cozy little villages of Lanesboro, Winona, Whalan, Peterson, and Spring Grove. Just one problem – it’s still pretty cold the last weekend in April!
Root River Trail
The Root River Trail is yet another successful conversion from abandoned railway track to recreational heaven on earth. Forty-two miles of smooth paved concrete cut a subtle grey swath through the beautiful Root River Valley, making the stately bluffs, rolling farmland, and scenic little towns like Lanesboro accessible to anyone with a bike, rollerblades, cross country skis, or even a wheelchair. Of course you don’t have to do all 42 miles – and in fact I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve got scads of time to kill and like hills, but I can vouch for the stretch between Lanesboro and Whalan, and can just about guarantee you’ll see some wildlife, flowers, and beautiful countryside. You’ll find an occasional lean-to for camping on the side of the trail, usually in a scenic spot like a bend in the Root River. I’d suggest getting a trail map online or in one of the towns on the trail if you’re considering an overnight trip.
If you’re planning to bike the trail, do a good deed and support the Fuji Bike and Canoe Shop in Lanesboro. They’ve had a rough year, losing their store and 90% of their investment in the infamous Lanesboro fire, and are now hanging on by a thread, operating out of an already-crowded basement around back of their former storefront. Fuji rents a custom-made tandem reclining bike, which was a lot of fun but not exactly a performance vehicle! My husband and I were huffing and puffing like twin chimneystacks to get up some not particularly large hills. Be aware that like a car, only the driver can steer, so control freaks should sit on the left - and don’t round corners too quickly!
If you make it as far as Whalan, be sure to stop in at the Whalen Inn for some home made pie.
The Whalen Inn: Home of World Famous Pies and lunches daily
The family-owned Whalen Inn bills itself as the home of "World Famous Pies". I was skeptical of such a grandiose claim, particularly as it was emanating from a tiny pie shop operating out of a tiny private home in a tiny town in the southeastern-most corner of Minnesota. So we had to check it out, naturally, and see if these were indeed pies of global caliber.
My suspicions that Whalen pies might not, in fact, be world famous, were confirmed shortly after we entered the restaurant/living room, when an elderly couple who had been sitting and enjoying the rhubarb pie noticed that I had signed my name and hometown in the guest book. Apparently being from New York City is grounds for instant celebrity in Whalan. My husband and I were inspected, questioned, poked, prodded, and paraded around for everyone to see. Look, Sven, city folk!! No, not from Minneapolis, New YORK!
Anyway, having been transformed into Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, we made two selections from the list of 10 or so pies of the day. The apple pie was extremely good, although you might want to take a tip from me and not order the "caramel apple pie", which is just the apple pie with some cold caramel sauce squeezed onto it from a recycled plastic ketchup container. The raspberry pecan pie was also very good, but both pies were served room temperature. That would have been fine if we hadn’t ordered them a la mode - our ice cream came separately, in a plastic bowl, and had no intention of melting any time soon.
The entire Whalen family is listed on the Whalen business card: Lynette, Tiffany, Mike, Matt, Erika, and Cassidy. I wanted to ask our server/ waitress/ cashier which one she was, and whether the Whalen family was related to the Whalan town. I didn’t, though - she looked about 12 years old, was home selling pie on a school day, and was clearly so terrified of the two New Yorkers that I thought it best not to bother her any more than I already was just by existing.
If you’ve worked up an appetite on the Root River Trail, be sure to give Whalen’s Inn a try for pie. I wouldn’t recommend the rooms for rent, though, unless you’re from Iowa or South Dakota. You might scare that poor shy little girl half to death!
At Milepost 16 on the Root River Trail in Whalan
618 Main Street
Hours: 8 AM - 6 PM.
We didn’t mean to go to Mystery Cave. We were chasing a tip, hoping to find our way to the Meighen General Store. We didn’t know exactly where it was, but we were determined to find it. Back in the mid 1800s, as…Read More
We didn’t mean to go to Mystery Cave. We were chasing a tip, hoping to find our way to the Meighen General Store. We didn’t know exactly where it was, but we were determined to find it. Back in the mid 1800s, as I later learned, the store was part of a thriving farm town that fell into decline when the new railroad decided not to build a station there. People started to move away and shops closed until the general store, the last business standing, was shut down by its owners in 1910. The building stayed in the family, but remained shuttered for decades until it was sold to the state in the early ‘60s. When they opened up the building, they found that it had been left perfectly intact, with six decades worth of tins and boxes still on the shelves. It hadn’t been looted or even touched since the day it closed down... so they restored the village and turned it into a state park. This we simply had to see for ourselves.
Boy are there are a lot of back roads in southeastern Minnesota. We must have been on at least ten of them before we gave up and bought a map at a gas station. Even with the map, it still took us the better part of the day to find Forestville State Park. The Meighen Village was already closed when we got there – but not to worry! The park ranger told us that a tour was about to start at "Mystery Cave"! and if we hurried, we could still make it! and it was the last tour of the day! and he would even call ahead for us! We couldn’t say no to all this enthusiasm - monotone delivery notwithstanding – and besides, it was raining, and what else were we going to do?
Well as usual, Minnesota surprised me. I have been on quite a few cave tours in my time. I’ve swam with blind albino fish, heard the Civil War referred to as "The War of Yankee Aggression" by a straight-faced teenager, and even spent an entire day hiking underground without the benefit of natural light. So I didn’t expect Mystery Cave to distinguish itself in any way. But no two caves are quite the same, and this was no exception.
One of the strangest things about Mystery Cave is that no one happened to come across it until the 1950s. There is no evidence whatsoever of human habitation – no pottery shards, bones, or smoke smudges on the walls. Perhaps because the branch of the Root River that runs directly above it periodically sinks into the cave through crevices and sinkholes - and floods it. If it gets dry enough, the river will actually disappear. One year the rains were so heavy that the river flooded the cave entrance, the visitors’ center, and even the parking lot, an awesome sight that the parks department has captured in photos and displayed at the new visitors’ center on higher ground.
Our guide, a wonderfully knowledgeable retiree who was working part-time for the Parks Service, was a highlight of the tour. This guy knew everything. He lovingly introduced us to the usual stuff, like hibernating bats and formations with goofy names that look vaguely like coke bottles, toads, and the like. But he also pointed out a few six-foot long fossils in the cave walls and ceiling! He also seemed to be intimately familiar with every roadside attraction from Preston to Minneapolis, like the boyhood home of the founder of Sears, the Little Hotel on the Prairie (apparently Laura Ingalls Wilder left her family’s attempt at hotel management out of her "Little House on the Prairie" series), and yes, the herd of elk grazing by the side of the highway in Oronoco.
The only thing better than a great tour guide is two. We had the dumb luck to have on our tour a guy who had worked at Mystery Cave 20 years earlier, back when the cave was privately owned. He remembered the place where he worked summers as a teenager well; and what’s more, he remembered it quite differently. Apparently the government, who bought the cave in 1988, had made some changes! For instance, a two-stage sealed steel door now protects the interior from flooding and temperature changes. Areas once open to the public are now closed. Motion-sensitive lights were installed. Most shocking to the shell-shocked ex-guide was what he remembered as a natural hallway between two caverns. It is now a deep cavern with a suspended walkway through the middle so visitors can look fifteen feet down at the formations as they pass through. Turns out the man who discovered the cave had filled it in with dirt and rubble so you could walk through without having to climb in and out of the dangerously steep depths.
Mystery Cave is actually pretty big, although most of its 13 miles of passages are closed to the public. It is popular with spelunkers, who are occasionally allowed access to the areas that take some getting dirty to visit. (One amusing experience here... ) Our second guide regaled us with tales of the times he and his buddies walked all the way from one end of Mystery Cave to the other. With all the squeezing through tiny passageways, climbing up and down through the caverns, and dodging underground ponds, it took them eleven hours. Not too shabby to get across the longest cave in Minnesota! And not a bad place to visit on a rainy day.
Forestville State Park
Route 2, Box 128
Preston, MN 55965
1 or 2 hour tours, $7 adults, $4 kids.
Take 52 south from Minneapolis, then 16 W. The park entrance is 4 miles south of State Highway 16 on Fillmore County Highway 5, then 2 miles east on Fillmore County 118. The park is approximately 6 miles south of Wykoff.
Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society website (Meighen Store) and Konrad Schmidt (Mystery Cave)