5 things to do in Northfield

If you drive into Northfield from the west, you’ll be greeted by a pleasant oatmeal-like aroma, courtesy of the Malt-O-Meal Factory. Malt-O-Meal operates the old Ames Mill, originally built in 1869, and Northfield is the only place the company’s hot cereals are produced.

It seems fitting that this wholesome American icon is produced in Northfield, a warm, quaint small town. With the help of Northfield residents in our Public Insight Network, we’ve put together a list of hidden — and not-so-hidden — gems to explore in this river town, just 45 miles south of downtown Minneapolis.

1. New life for old buildings

Division Street, running along the Cannon River, is lined with many historic buildings, most built well before 1900. Although a challenge for many rural communities, Northfield has figured out to successfully repurpose many of its original structures.

The old YMCA, built in 1890, is now home to the Northfield Arts Guild.  The building has a gallery space, small performing arts venue and studios. The Guild puts on its larger theater productions in its theater, which is a repurposed church with purple doors.

Carleton College recently renovated and expanded the town’s original high school (and former middle school) into the Weitz Center for Creativity. They regularly host performance, concerts and film screenings that are open to the public.

The popular Contented Cow is an English-style pub housed in the town’s former jail built in the early 1900s. Many PIN sources recommended stopping by the pub for the riverside patio and live music.

Naturally, the Northfield Historical Society, is on the list of organizations bringing old buildings to life.

In 1975, the Society purchased the old Scriver Building, which was built in 1868 and housed the First National Bank when it was unsuccessfully raided by the James-Younger gang in 1876. The failed raid is the inspiration for the annual Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, which features a re-enactment of the event. Historical Society store manager, Chip DeMann, has been involved in the re-enactments since 1970 and has been playing the leader of the James-Younger Gang for several years. “Don’t know why, but we seem to keep losing every year,” he said with a smile, as he showed the many artifacts from the raid on display in the museum.

2. Baked goods abound

Maybe it’s the milling past, but this town has a knack for baking. There’s Cake Walk, which specializes in cupcakes, Brick Oven Bakery, which bakes its breads in its namesake brick oven, and Martha’s Eats and Treats, which is technically in Dundas but is considered the “edge of Northfield,” according to PIN source Joyce Francis. “Martha has been selling pastries at the Farmers Market and has built up a reputation of ultimate yumminess,” wrote Francis. “She’s worked really hard to create fabulous pastries.  You’d have to know about her to find her off there in Dundas baking away for markets.” And make sure you know when to go — Martha’s is only open on Fridays and Saturdays.

If you’re looking for coffee to wash down those treats, Goodbye Blue Monday is the spot. Student and PIN source Emma Singer writes, “Goodbye Blue Monday Coffee Shop is the place to go if you want to understand Northfield.  Not only do they have good coffee, but the cafe offers you a real sense of the community and population of Northfield.  Here you’ll find college students and parents alike, and be able to sit down with a friend or meet someone new.”

3. Multiple cuisines reign supreme

Chapati, located in the Archer House, offers an all you-can-eat lunch buffet for $12. “Really excellent Indian cuisine of great variety including vegetarian,” writes Northfield resident and PIN source Carl Behr. El Triunfo is a small Mexican market, where you can also order food to take out or eat there. The atmosphere is nothing spectacular, but the food is, according to PIN source Michelle Martin. “Family run, always a spanish language soap opera on the TV, sopes not to be missed.” Basil’s offers a Greek take on pizza. “Their gyro pizza with tzatziki is perfect,” writes PIN source Pete Sandberg.

The Ole Store is more off the beaten path, but is well-known to locals. It re-opened recently under new ownership and has a more upscale dining feel. “The Ole Store is not a place most tourists would find because it is in a residential neighborhood near St. Olaf College,” writes PIN source Todd Orjala. “It has a rich history (est. 1889) as a rooming house and cafe, famous for its ‘Ole rolls.’  It’s a terrific neighborhood restaurant that would be right at home in south Minneapolis.”

The Red Barn Farm hosts two pizza nights every week during the summer, where the pies feature ingredients from the farm where you’re eating, making it the ultimate local food experience. PIN source Teresa Tillson sums it up, “Bring your blanket and picnic basket of drinks, spread yourself on a lovely farm hillside in front of the corn field on a summer evening, and order pizza from the Red Barn’s brick fired pizza oven. It seems like half the county is here on a summer Wednesday.”

4. Minnesota’s pastime

Minnesota is home to 320 amateur baseball teams and Northfield has easy access to two of them: The Northfield Knights and the Dundas Dukes.

Before WWII, there were over 600 amateur teams in the state, but the number dropped after the Twins came to town in the 1960s. But Minnesota still has the most amateur teams in the United States, according to John Richter, president of the Minnesota Baseball Association, which coordinates the over 50 amateur leagues in the state.

PIN source Thomas Neuville describes watching the Dukes play at Memorial Park as a “Field of Dreams” experience. “They play in an rustic old park and you can sit in the stands, or along the sidelines, in your own lawn chair,” he writes. “The Dukes are Class B baseball, and annually have teams which compete for the state title.”

5. The (literally) hidden gem of Northfield

Carleton’s campus is home to the Cowling Arboretum (also known as “The Arb”), almost 900 acres of woods and prairie. Many Northfield residents and students use the miles of trails through the arboretum to walk, run and cross country ski, but if you’re not a local it’s not so easy to find. Don’t try searching for the arboretum in your GPS or Google Maps because they will not bring you where you want to go. The arboretum is split in half by Highway 19, but you can’t access it from that road. Head to Carleton’s campus and follow the small blue signs to the Arboretum. Parking is available in the Recreation Center’s lot, where you’ll see a small kiosk marking the arboretum trail head.

Arboretum Manager Matthew Elbert’s favorite spot is the 250 acres of prairie restoration. Until the late ‘90s it was all farmland, but now it’s been replanted with native prairie seed and is home to upwards of 70 species. The arboretum and trails are open to the public from dawn until dusk every day.

Bonus: Walking, strolling and relaxing

Walk around the campuses of St. Olaf and Carleton. In particular, listen to music at St. Olaf’s Christiansen Hall or stargaze at Carleton’s Goodsell Observatory -Megan Durkin

The riverwalk along the Cannon River is a nice place to stroll and the waterfall is mesmerizing.  The entire town has beautiful architecture, very Americana. -Annie Witkamp

What suggestions do you have for people visiting Northfield? Share your tips in the comments.

  • Pyro Geknik

    Carleton College also has a small but lovely Japanese Garden “hidden” on
    campus. It was rated one of the top Japanese gardens in the U.S. in one
    poll. Since finding it is one of the pleasures, I won’t mention its location here.

  • Thanks for the attention to Northfield, Molly.

    I enjoyed following you around, taking photos of the journalist taking photos:

  • leanne stremcha

    The Tavern in an old speakeasy in the Archer House. The Archer House. B and L’s Pizza. A fabulous co-op, Just Foods with a selection of deli goodies. All the great shopping on Division (main) Street– Eco Gardens, Rare Pair, Eclectic Goat, Nest, Kitchen Store, The Sketchy Artist, Studio Elements……..and lots more. In October, there’s a great fall studio tour, http://www.studioartour.com/. Northfield is a great daytrip destination with a fabulous history and much intrinsic beauty!

  • Mary Schier

    Great list, Molly! One of the things that makes strolling around Northfield so enjoyable is the public gardening that is done by a small cadre of very dedicated and talented volunteers. The library (one of those great old buildings downtown), the Archer House hotel, the post office, Bridge Square and the river bridge are all enhanced with plants. It makes downtown feel almost like a European town in summer.

  • Kristi

    There’s a great community of small CSA farms and others you can visit: Little Hill Berry Farm has great U pick organically-grown blue berries and in the Fall Fireside Orchard is delightful, too!

  • Jane Greenwood

    Also if you are into “green” shopping, right behind our wonderful food coop Just Food you will find the Clothes Closet located in the River Park Mall. Treasures abound!!

    And all proceeds go to help fund the Community Action Center’s many programs such as the Food Shelf, Transitional Housing, Operation Backpack and many others.

  • Karen Mayo Chewning

    We plan to visit Northfield sometime soon, so this article is really helpful! As a 8-, 9- and 10-year-old, I spent a week each summer visiting at Lashbrook Dairy Farm, owned by my grandmother’s sister and husband. We’re anxious to find Lashbrook Park, as well as the above-mentioned spots. I remember that some of the children of Edna and Howard Hong were about my age, and since the farm was just down the back hill from St. Olaf, I played with, and spent time with the Hong family.

  • Lauren Peck

    St. Olaf has 700 or so acres of lovely natural lands to explore too. And I second The Tavern for delicious food, and can’t forget Hogan Brothers either.

  • RW

    Quality Bakery Finest!!!

  • orickp

    And the Riverwalk Market Saturdays in the summer 9 to 1 with music, produce, arts, crafts and real Northfielders to talk to.

  • disqus_BFluDCuRZc

    When listing baked goods you completely forgot about the Quality Bakery! If you head over there on Crazy Daze you can get an alaskan donut — a glazed donut the size of your head — and on Jesse James Days you can get a “de feet of Jesse James” pastry (it’s shaped like a foot). Everything they make is delicious, and absolutely worth a mention.

  • Thank you for including my quote-that made my weekend!