A day in Little Falls

In aisles of glass cases, shrine-like arrangements of feathery lures and shiny hooks surround photos of their former owners. These donated collections sit alongside hand-carved lures, wooden canoes and replicas of the largest fish caught in the state, making the Minnesota Fishing Museum a display of earnest nostalgia.

89 year-old owner Al Baert walks over to the replica hunting cabin and points to the neatly folded blanket on the cot. “My mother made that blanket. It’s nearly 100 years old,” and then cheerfully launches into an explanation of how to use a fishing spear.

Al Baert, founder of the Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls, Minn., stands in front of a donated collection of fishing gear on July 27, 2012. (Photo by Tom Baker for MPR)

The downtown Little Falls museum exemplifies the best of what the town has to offer: a generous helping of history, a dash of camp and a lot of friendly people. The town has been around since 1848, making it one of the oldest in the state. There are Victorian-era houses, crumbling remains of a paper mill and the rambling old Mississippi itself, which pauses at the Little Falls dam. And then there are places like the Minnesota Fishing Museum, built in 1998, that also recognize what’s going on today, with modern fishing equipment and an exhibit about the danger of zebra mussels.

We asked Little Falls residents in our Public Insight Network to tell us more about their town. Based on their responses, we’ve planned some activities for potential day-trippers.

10 a.m.: THE SPIRIT OF LINDBERGH

Little Falls is dotted with historic homes of lumber barons, but it’s Charles Lindbergh’s childhood summer home that’s a must-see. Lindbergh’s home on the banks of the Mississippi is full of artifacts: the crates he used to incubate chicks in the dining room, the piano his mother Evangeline played in the parlor, the bed on the porch that Lindbergh slept on, even during cold winters.

Cheri Verley guides vistors through the Charles A. Lindbergh House on in Little Falls, Minn. On July 27, 2012. Lindbergh’s childhood summer home was built on the banks of the Mississippi River. (Photo by Tom Baker for MPR)

The house feels lived in, like the Lindberghs have just stepped away for a moment. The 1916 car Lindbergh drove as a teenager from Little Falls to California is still in the garage. Moving at a speed of 25 miles per hour, Lindbergh took 40 days to make the trip.

11 a.m.: WALK AMONG THE RUINS AT MILL PARK

There isn’t much left of the Hennepin Paper Mill save for some brick arches, iron spiral staircases leading to nowhere, and giant metal paper rollers, but what’s left has a stark beauty. Sitting along the Mississippi River, grass and wildflowers have grown up among the ruins and a walk through park feels like a treasure hunt as you find remnants of the mill tucked behind brick walls and along the footpath.

These arches, seen here on July 27, 2012, used to support the Hennepin Paper Company. Now in ruins, the crumbling structures in Little Falls, Minn. have become Mill Park. (Photo by Tom Baker for MPR)

The entrance to the park is not well marked and as you drive down the dirt road to reach the park you can imagine you’re the first to stumble upon the ruins.

12 p.m.: BRUNCH TIME AT ZOOMSKI’S

The menu at Zoomski’s Midtown Cafe is about as simple as its decor — picture the kinds of foods you could make for yourself at home, served in a space about as fashionable as a church basement. Owner Ron Lyschik grows his own vegetables and bakes his own bread, giving the back-to-basics fare a freshness that you won’t find at your average diner.

Ron Lyschik, owner of Zoomski’s Midtown Cafe in Little Falls, Minn., cooks a breakfast sandwich in the kitchen of this Little Falls eatery on July 27, (Photo by Tom Baker for MPR)

The family-friendly and vegetarian-safe Zoomski’s has a drive-through — a hold-over from the building’s days as a fried chicken shack — so you can grab your latte and omelet on the go.

1 p.m.: EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT FISHING

The only way to enter the Minnesota Fishing Museum is through the “O-fish-el” gift shop, and that’s your first heads-up that this isn’t an average museum. Everything is a love song to the bait-and-hook lifestyle. Replicas of fish that have won state records line the walls. Life-size ice shanty models stand in their own showroom and a 1920s-era fishing cabin takes up a corner. Amid the fishing memorabilia, you can find a display of commercial artist Les Kouba’s work, who is probably best known (at least among fishermen) for the wilderness beer can art he designed for Schmidt. Kouba was also a prolific painter of wildlife-inspired art and designed logos for Old Dutch and Red Owl. And he redesigned Coca-Cola’s logo.

2 p.m.: DOWNTOWN ARTS STROLL

Driving the streets of Little Falls’ downtown, you’ll catch a few chances to enjoy the arts, like a tiny cinema showing recent releases and the inescapable murals of local artist Frank Gosiak, which to seem be everywhere downtown. The Great River Arts Association, a nonprofit and private local arts agency that’s been around since 1992, has a large arts center in the middle of downtown Little Falls. A hub for artists and appreciators alike, it has a free art gallery, classrooms, ceramics studio and retail consignment shop that sells the pottery and jewelry of Morrison County artists. “There are so many amazing artists right in the county,” said Michelle Miller, the assistant director of the arts association.

3 p.m.: FAIR TRADE FARE

Walking into Reality Roasters, the smell of freshly-roasted coffee beans is deliciously strong. The roaster sits behind the counter alongside burlap sacks of green beans waiting to be processed.

Reality Roasters of Little Falls, Minn. doesn’t sell coffee by the cup, but there are beans aplenty. (Photo by Tom Baker for MPR)

You can pick up coffee-scented soap, bean grinders and pounds of fair trade coffee from all over the world. Reality Roasters doesn’t sell coffee by the cup, but the owner will grind you up a custom blend to take home and will likely pour you a generous sample. Given the diversity and quality of these beans, it’s no wonder that many restaurants and cafes in town serve Reality Roasters coffee.

4 p.m.: CHILL OUT BY TAKING A QUIET WALK

Before you leave town, go for a meditative stroll around the campus of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. Following with the Roman Catholic sisters’ mission, the property doubles as a community center, hosting events like the Green Fair Folk Festival and housing a recreation center that has a swimming pool, weight room and racquetball court. On a weekday afternoon, the campus feels even quieter than the rest of Little Falls, which isn’t a noisy town to begin with. From the Sacred Heart Chapel to the community gardens out back to the labyrinth by the cemetery, there are a lot of places to rest and have a good think before you leave Little Falls for the day.

You can find this grotto on the campus of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minn., seen here on July 27, 2012. (Photo by Tom Baker for MPR)