Stoneware, leather, sweet onion dip, and a pair of dreadlocked dogs await visitors who venture to Red Wing in the dead of winter. And did we mention the beer-battered cheese curds?
“The beauty of the location of Red Wing has so often been described by visitors and tourists that it is unnecessary to dwell upon that feature here.”
—Joseph Hancock, Red Wing’s first permanent settler, writing in an untitled book about Goodhue County in 1893
Nestled on the southwestern bank of the Mississippi River and home to countless antique shops, beautifully restored homes, and a post-card–perfect downtown, Red Wing is a veritable magnet for such words as quaint, charming, and picturesque. It’s a town worth preserving; indeed, you can’t lob a stone in any direction without grazing something listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With its mix of historical sites, gotta-stop shopping destinations, restaurants, and outdoor activities for any season, you can easily fill a weekend without wanting to leave the city limits.
Once home to a Dakota farming village, Red Wing first developed its reputation as a riverfront trading hub for white settlers in the 1850s and ’60s, with milling and shoe-making as two of its primary industries. By the turn of the century, however, the economy had diversified: local clay deposits provided abundant raw material for manufacturing pottery and stoneware. As wheat production in the area waned, milling dwindled, but the city’s other industries thrived. Red Wing reigned as the largest producer of stoneware in America from the late 1800s until the mid-20th century, and the Red Wing Shoe Company, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, became a steel-toe standard for work boots worldwide.
Author and This American Life humorist Sarah Vowell once joked that a B&B is a place where “every object large enough for a flower to be printed on it is going to have a flower printed on it.” In Red Wing, this applies not only to the B&Bs, but also to the much-loved St. James Hotel. Blended with yesteryear touches, such as pull-chain toilets, handmade quilts, and wooden shutters, are notably modern amenities, including whirlpool tubs. Need a nightcap? Head up to Jimmy’s Pub on the fifth floor, where, on Friday nights, there’s low-key live music as well. 406 Main St., 800-252-1875, www.st-james-hotel.com.
Once the residence of businessman James Lawther, Red Wing’s erstwhile Donald Trump, the Octagon House has stood at the corner of Third and Hill streets for nearly 150 years. Named for its unique shape, the house features a cupola for stargazing and rooms furnished in period antiques. Visit the parlor if you want to tinkle the ivories (or pound out “Chopsticks”) on proprietor Penny Stapleton’s grand piano. 927 W. Third St., 651-388-1778, www.octagon-house.com.
Every B&B seems to have a gimmick, and there are few as hilarious as the dreadlocked dogs that inhabit the Moondance Inn. Toby and Della, a pair of pulis who have been known to perform wearing tutus, may be the center of attention, but the owners have made the rooms—with two-person whirlpools, fireplaces, and antique furniture—the real stars of this show. 1105 W. Fourth St., 866-388-8145, www.moondanceinn.com.
You can’t escape the puns at the nautically themed Oar d’oeuvre, but the food is worth a few groan-inducing moments. Starters range from the Seaworthy (spicy shrimp) to the Yacht to Try It (sweet onion dip with crostini). You’ll be shore to love the build-your-own pasta and the raspberry chicken-breast sandwich—no doubt a-boat it. 433 Main St., 651-388-2155, www.greatfoodinredwing.com.
With a name like the Staghead and a gigantic painting of an intimidating buck looming over diners, this may seem like a place where you get your meat served with a side of meat. But there’s plenty of surf to go with the turf, plus salads, beer-cheese soup, and fancy cheesecake. 219 Bush St., 651-388-6581.
Check out the locally created artwork on the walls at the Smokey Row Cafe, which is also home to the Jenny Lind Bakery. Add your vote to the Question of the Day (Are people ruder than they used to be?), then pick up a Piet Mondrian coloring page to get just a little bit brainier while you wait for your panini. Save room for the freshly baked pastries, cookies, and brownies. 1926 Old West Main St., 651-388-6025.
If you’re the sort who can’t go a day without checking e-mail, bring your laptop and take advantage of a Wi-Fi connection at the Blue Moon, where you can enjoy a New York bagel topped with strawberries or walnuts. Choose from a Starbuckian range of coffees and settle into one of the mismatched chairs that give these digs a homey atmosphere. Blue Moon features live music most weekends. 427 W. Third, 651-385-5799.
The locals congregate at Bev’s Cafe, a small, unpretentious diner akin to Lake Wobegon’s Chatterbox Cafe. You won’t find any Brie or tofu here, but the beer-battered cheese curds are dee-lish. And with the Minnesota State Fair still six months away, these should hold ya till August. 221 Bush St., 651-388-5227.
THE TO-DO LIST
Goodhue County Historical Society Here, local lore meets hard evidence. You can browse exhibits featuring Red Wing pottery, historic sports uniforms and memorabilia, and artifacts from the days when flour milling and even ice-skate boot manufacturing kept locals employed. Downstairs, there’s a full-size replica of the inside of a one-room schoolhouse, complete with uncomfortable wooden desks, a wood-burning stove, chalkboards, and pull-down maps. And for kids who need a little extra incentive to get their recommended daily allowance of knowledge, you can tempt them with a promise to stop in the small gift shop or buy a homemade caramel at the cash register. 116 Oak St., 651-388-6024, www.goodhuehistory.mus.mn.us.
Anderson Center From late spring to early fall, the Anderson Center, located just outside downtown Red Wing, plays host to resident artists. Though you can see the work of paper artists, painters, and photographers inside, be sure to check out the tall, brightly colored sculptures behind the center as well. 163 Tower View Dr., 651-388-2009, www.andersoncenter.org.
Outdoor Recreation Red Wing natives may brag about their connection to Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about the beauty of the area in his journal after climbing to the top of Barn Bluff, but during the winter months, you won’t want to replicate his journey up the treacherous snowy paths that lead to the summit. If you want an almost equally good view of Red Wing, without the arduous ascent, you can drive: wind your way up to the top of the hill of Memorial Park, where you’ll get a spectacular view of Ol’ Miss and Main Street. If you’d rather race down hills than climb ’em, head to nearby Welch Village, where you can ski and snowboard through March. 26685 County Rd. 7 in Welch, 651-222-7079, www.welchvillage.com.
Sheldon Theatre Nightlife in Red Wing begins (and some say ends) with the Sheldon Theatre, a century-old venue with ornate plasterwork, velvet curtains, and red carpets that was restored to its original elegance in the mid-1980s. The 466-seat theater hosts productions year-round. Upcoming shows include singer-songwriter Greg Brown and, for an edgier experience, The Vagina Monologues. 443 W. Third St., 800-899-5759, www.sheldontheatre.org.
Shopping You can’t really say you’ve experienced Red Wing until you’ve done the requisite shopping for pottery, antiques, and shoes. Get your fix, respectively, at the Red Wing Stoneware Company, Historic Pottery Place Mall, and the Red Wing Shoe Store in Riverfront Centre. Red Wing Stoneware Company, 4909 Moundview Dr., 651-388-4610; Historic Pottery Place Mall, 2000 W. Main St., 651-388-1428, www.rwpotteryplace.com; Red Wing Shoe Store, 314 Main St., 651-388-6233.