Need a reason for a road trip? Got a taste for adventure (or just fudge)? Here are 10 small towns—from Ely and Walker to Luverne and Lanesboro—that feature artisan gems, tasty eateries, historic treasures, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. Grap a map and go.
(page 3 of 5)
Little Town on the Prairie
Forget hokey antique shops and faux roadside diners. When it comes to genuine Americana, Luverne is the real deal. Just ask Ken Burns: when the legendary filmmaker sought out four “quintessentially American towns” for his common-man oeuvre, the 2007 World War II documentary The War, Luverne topped the list. Four years later, this idyllic Mayberry still seems poised for movie-star treatment.
A visit starts at the Brandenburg Gallery, the official showroom for one of the world’s top nature photographers, Luverne native and National Geographic veteran Jim Brandenburg. Inside a quartzite-clad former jail, visitors can peruse more than 100 photos, from famous shots of arctic wolves to sweeping, prairie-land vistas captured at nearby Blue Mounds State Park and Touch the Sky Prairie.
On Main Street, tour the Palace Theater, the historic 1915 vaudeville playhouse where The War had its world premiere. The venue dazzles with antiquated, art-deco elegance, from the original projection screen to the still-functioning Geneva organ in the orchestra pit. Prefer your films al fresco? Hit up the 1950s-era Verne Drive-In Theater at dusk.
For more nostalgia, stroll down to Renfro Variety, a five-and-dime store so authentic it has a chatty 95-year-old woman behind the cash register. “If you can’t find it at my shop, you don’t need it,” says owner Margaret Vegge, who, since 1948, has stocked everything from hairnets to handkerchiefs, toy tiaras to tank tops.
For lunch, it’s The Coffey Haus, a sunny bistro that pairs urbane tastes (espresso, gourmet sodas, Tuscan chicken panini) with small-town comfort. If it’s kitsch you’re craving—or maybe just a burger topped with a fried egg—try Vinnie’s Dang Fine Dine, just south of town, a zany micro-diner packed into a pastel-striped tin shed.
Tucker the kids out at the City Park, one of the state’s largest civic playgrounds. Or head north to Prairie Heights ranch. Schoolteacher-turned-bison-wrangler Jeanne Bowron takes cartloads of kids out to the prairie, where they can hand-feed molasses plugs to a herd of friendly beasts.
Where to go: Brandenburg Gallery, 213 E. Luverne St.; Blue Mounds State Park, 1410 161st St.; Palace Theater, 104 E. Main St.; Verne Drive In Theater, 1607 1/2 S. Kniss Ave.; Renfro Variety, 206 E. Main St.; The Coffey Haus, 111 E. Main St.; Vinnie’s Dang Fine Dine, 306 W. Hatting St.; Prairie Heights Bison, 37 Rural Route 1
Spanning some 1,800 acres, Blue Mounds State Park can feel like a country unto itself—or, with its wide-open eeriness, another planet. 1410 161st St.
Ditch the Drive
Touch the Sky
Spirits in Red Rock
This tiny town stands next to one of the most sacred American Indian sites in the Midwest: the Pipestone National Monument. For centuries, Plains Indians of all tribes made pilgrimages here, digging pits into the prairie and unearthing a strange mineral: a kidney-bean-colored rock, as soft as a fingernail, which craftsmen would then shape into “calumets,” the most holy of ceremonial pipes. This “pipestone” still defines the town today—from the odd reddish color of its architecture to the spiritual hues of its past.
Pipestone National Monument
Tour the present-day quarries—some 50 holes punched into a 283-acre, flower-spotted prairie—and you’ll see American Indian men and women engaged in a very physical form of prayer: burning tobacco, smudging their tools with sage, and then attacking rock fissures with sledge hammers and pry bars. Pipe-making demonstrations occur daily in the visitors’ center. 36 N. Reservation Ave.
The Calumet Inn
This fortress-like 1888 inn is clad in maroon quartzite (rubble from the pipestone quarries) and features antique rooms with claw-foot tubs, pull-chain toilets, and Victorian furniture. 104 W. Main St.
Pipestone County, where wind speeds hold at a steady 18 mph, boasts over 200 turbines. A network of access roads makes it easy to drive right up to one and marvel at the giant machines.
Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers
The nation’s only Native American organization to be officially recognized by the federal government as a “church,” Keepers works to preserve the tradition of the pipe. View authentic calumets at the headquarters, including the 30-foot-tall behemoth installed on the front lawn.
The town’s best lunch option, this 24-hour diner serves up heaping hot beef sandwiches drenched in gravy, homemade mashed potatoes, and pillowy slabs of raisin sour-cream pie. 110 Eighth Ave. SE