Living the Swede Life in the Chisago Lakes Area

The Chisago Lakes region combines hygge Nordic charm with serious seasonal indulgence
The Swedish Christmas story of Saint Lucia comes alive at the Gammelgården
The Swedish Christmas story of Saint Lucia comes alive at the Gammelgården Museum (portrayed here by Ida Brown)

Courtesy of Gammelgården Museum

Two statues stand at the entrance to Lindstrom, about 45 minutes northeast of the Twin Cities. Huddled up, Karl and Kristina Oskar are fictional Swedes from the 1950s book series The Emigrants. Karl gazes into the wilds of Minnesota, the state with today’s largest Scandinavian American population. Kristina looks back, toward Sweden.

Scandi-settled Lindstrom sits in the Chisago Lakes area, a “Swedish Circle” including Chisago City, Center City, Shafer, Taylors Falls, Marine on St. Croix, and Scandia. They fill the nooks of 10 or so lakes west of the St. Croix River, where signs and menus bear names of real-life immigrants Gustaf, Helene, Erik, and Nellie. Star-like Swedish barn-quilt squares ornament buildings. The water tower looks like a blue-handled Swedish coffee pot. Gift shops and antique stores sell Scandinavian-made Dalecarlian (Dala) horse knickknacks.

Dalecarlian (Dala) horses can be found at gift shops throughout the Chisago Lakes area
Dalecarlian (Dala) horses can be found at gift shops throughout the Chisago Lakes area

Adobe Stock

Coming to the Chisago Lakes, my aim was twofold: Enjoy small-town charms and maybe glean a few details tied to my own Norwegian and Swedish great-grandparents, who picked up land grants here in the mid-1800s. The University of Minnesota Tourism Center last year noted the best assets of Scandia, Minnesota’s oldest Swedish settlement: scenic beauty, circa-1850 Swedish heritage, and “agritourism” activities like milking and feeding goats year-round at Poplar Hill Dairy Goat Farm.

To start, “scenic beauty” is right. William O’Brien State Park, just southeast of Scandia, grooms wide trails for cross-country skiing, plus snowshoeing that skirts the St. Croix. Three camping cabins stay open year-round. Known for red-shouldered hawks (I spotted two using binoculars from the office’s birding kit), these 1,520 acres contain diverse prairies, forests, and wildlife.

Big Marine Lake, west of William O’Brien, offers ice fishing, as do the smaller Chisago Lakes farther north. Outstate comforts stay within reach—like so much “Minnesota-style” pizza. Center City’s strip-mall-size Pizza Pub, Chisago City’s coffee-shop Wagon Wheel Café, and Scandia Pizzeria service late-night hangouts (if 8 p.m. is “late-night”), piling cheese onto thin crusts.

Gustaf's on Main Eatery mixes Chisago Lakes history with hearty, Swedish-tinged food
Gustaf’s on Main Eatery mixes Chisago Lakes history with hearty, Swedish-tinged food

Courtesy of Gustaf's

Closer to Scandi origins, Gustaf’s on Main Eatery, in Lindstrom, serves sandwich specials, like turkey on lightly sweet cranberry-wild-rice bread, and breakfasts of mortar-thick cheesy potatoes plus tissue-soft Swedish pancakes with lingonberries—not to mention meatball dinners on Thursdays. In 2017, Gustaf’s opened in a red-brick once owned by a Swedish immigrant farmer, who retired there after striking Montana gold. (It hosts a Swedish-inspired Christmas tea Dec. 8.)

On either side of Gustaf’s, Picket Fence Gals cycles through antiques and furniture, while the expansive Up North galleries carry gifts crafted in Scandinavia and regionally. Shopping here covers a porcelains-aplenty antique mall, boutiques, and an old-saloon general store known for malted milk balls.

More sweetness awaits at Lindstrom Bakery. Their Scandinavian cake doughnuts are nothing like the dry coffee-soakers of my Lutheran-church-basement youth. Crunchy on the outside, eggy-fluffy on the inside, these landed on Saveur’s top-50 list in 2013. (Try glazed for an extra patina of crunch.) Those in the know also squirrel away bags of bone-dry cinnamon toasts (rusks), shaped for sugar-and-spice coffee dunkage. And you’ll get that coffee at Northwoods Roasterie & Coffee Shop. Organic, fair-trade beans make the smooth Northern Blend, plus signatures like the Umlatte (almond and honey). While there, order the al dente Norwegian waffles, in savory-sandwich and jammy arrangements.

WineHaven Winery in Chisago City
At WineHaven Winery, in Chisago City, you can select six wines to sample from a menu of options, including seasonal varieties

Photo by Ackerman + Gruber

For suds, the brewery boom has hit Chisago City. Uncommon Loon’s house favorite is a trendy hazy IPA, the ShapeShifter. Families blend in here, snacking on string cheese and buffalo sticks from Eichten’s Market & Grill. This farm-supplied shop and eatery sits off the highway 10 minutes east, in Center City, their menu of bison burgers, grilled cheese, and fondue also boasting wine.

But I recommend going to the source: WineHaven Winery and Vineyard, in Chisago City. Award-winning reds, whites, and fruit varieties use ingredients grown locally and on the 50-acre estate, including a Wisconsin-cranberry and a cinnamon-forward pumpkin wine vying for the Thanksgiving table. Best known? A gold-medal-collecting mead, Stinger Honeywine. Thank the site apiarist, who corrals bees to singular flower sources for strong honey flavor.

St. Croix Chocolate Co.
St. Croix Chocolate Co.

Photo by Isabel Subtil/Courtesy of St. Croix Chocolate Co.

Thirty minutes south, in Marine on St. Croix, the St. Croix Chocolate Co. makes award-winning goods perfect for giving, or just treating yourself. This year, via the International Chocolate Salon: gold for a peanut-butter-and-wild-grape-jelly chocolate bar and silver for one called Lemon S’presso. Scratch-made seasonals await at the counter. The Mamacita gives a delicate cayenne kick. A plump lemon-and-vanilla bonbon turns inside-out like a silk pocket, surprisingly dense and tart. Chocolate-making classes in the production lab—where you can mix ganache, hand-roll truffles—get a little Great British Bake Off.

Next to WineHaven, you might as well check out the most Swedish of footwear: Sven Clogs is like a folksier Foot Locker. Fabled for the arch support they provided Nordic farmers, these wooden-based slip-ons span styles and materials, custom for men and women.

Swedish utilitarian design shines in Scandia, too, at the Gammelgården Museum, made up of five original-settlement structures—including Minnesota’s oldest still-standing Lutheran church. In the museum’s main building, a winter exhibit tells of munificent, candle-crowned Saint Lucia. A “tomte takeover” packs the gift shop with holiday goods and décor, imputed to gnome-like folk creatures. Upstairs, heirlooms abound: Illustrations capture a rainbow of traditional dresses; a hulking wooden machine would have wound yarn in the 1870s; candlesticks adorn six tables available to rent for parties. The popular Swedish motif of a fruitful stalk appears on dinnerware.

The Christmas service at Gammelgården Museum puts pageantry into the Scandinavian history of the Chisago Lakes area
The Christmas service at the Gammelgården Museum brings pageantry to the Chisago Lakes area’s Scandinavian history

Courtesy of Gammelgården Museum

Settlers craved farmland and opportunity. But they also missed Sweden, a tour guide stressed, noting that you could swap out “Swedish” for any American immigrant group.

My last stop, 20 minutes north, in Shafer, took me to a different sort of homestead. At Franconia Sculpture Park—which just hired Ginger Shulick Porcella as its new executive director—artists live on-site. They build in an open-air workshop and populate more than 40 labyrinthine acres with whimsical, philosophical, autobiographical titans: A suspended farm shed, about the threat of urban sprawl. A satellite-nest interested in “formative, physical, and emotional” types of home. A pink, fabricated-steel alien that dreams of belonging to other worlds, other times.

Leaving Scandia, I felt a bit like that alien, passing a herd of homelier statues: the piñata-looking Dala horses. A red one by the grocery. A Dalmatian-spotted one near the fire department. I didn’t take one home—even a small figurine, at $60, would’ve made my biggest expense. But I left with something more valuable: a sense of placement. I’m the follow-through of an old immigrant mission, on the other side of that prairie.

Watershed Cafe
Watershed Cafe, just across the river in Wisconsin

Courtesy of Watershed Cafe

Eat, Play, Stay in the Chisago Lakes Area

Eat: Across the St. Croix River, in Osceola, Wisc., Watershed Cafe serves farm-to-table breakfast (Wisconsin-cheese omelets), lunch (Peterson Craftsman Meats burgers), and dinner (skin-on trout—fishy perfection—with wild rice) on the edge of Geiger and Cascade Falls, next to the Harry Potter-evoking Looking Glass antique store.

Play: Gammelgården Museum toasts the town’s oldest resident, Annie, with coffee parties (Nov. 2; Dec. 7, 21); holds sausage-making classes (Nov. 2, 3); hosts a traditional dinner at the Scandia Community Center (Nov. 21); and lights candles for a Swedish Christmas service (Dec. 8) in Minnesota’s oldest still-standing Lutheran sanctuary.

Stay: Autumn House Inn, in Osceola, Wisconsin, offers massage, kayak/canoe rentals, and five-course dinners; the bluff-topping Summit Inn Bed & Breakfast, in Center City, enjoys proximity to the Swedish Ring towns; and Country Bed & Breakfast, in Shafer, features a hygge “Scandinavian room.” Plan to book your Chisago Lakes B&B a few weeks in advance.

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