Trains and bicycles work well in tandem as complementary modes of transportation. The train does the heavy lifting, moving you across considerable distances while giving you space and time to watch the landscape slowly transform out the window, without the distractions of driving. The bicycle, in turn, extends the range you can move once you’ve stepped off the platform into that unfamiliar landscape. The access you have to a full range of experience in the open air seems less limited than what you might have on foot.
Walking obviously gives you a more intimate, closely observed view of your surroundings, but the bicycle gives you some critical distance. As Valeria Luiselli writes, “the cyclist’s gaze is like the foreigner’s, because you’re not committed to every inch of space in the way you are when you inhabit a space as a local. There is a perfect distance.” The train takes you far enough out to experience some sense of unfamiliarity, and the bicycle lets you move around farther and faster, taking cursory notes as you go and giving the option of exploring as a pedestrian if the need arises. I’d do all my travel by train and bike if I could.
Of course, I can’t. Which is why, when I am able, I like to bring a bicycle on the Northstar commuter rail. Someday the Northstar will extend all the way to St. Cloud, but until that day, you’ve still got 40 miles of Twin Cities suburbs slowly yielding to exurban countryside along the Mississippi River to explore. On the weekends, the train leaves Minneapolis once in the morning, and makes a trip back in the late afternoon, so it’s easy to throw your bike on the bottom level of the train, get off at the station of your choice, and explore the country roads of central Minnesota for a few hours. Pack a picnic, bring a fishing pole, leave room in your backpack or pannier in case you find a roadside stand selling sweet corn, call your boyfriend or girlfriend or whomever: instant romance. You, too, can live the idyllic life of a figure on the label of a bottle of mid-range Irish cream!
Which is sort of how it works, but not entirely. Even the stations toward the end of the line, 30 or 40 miles outside the Cities – Ramsey, Elk River and Big Lake – are really more exurban than rural in nature. You have to fight your way past some pretty bleak interchanges to get to those country roads. It can be done, though. At the end of the line, two great day trips await you at the Big Lake station: go west about 10 miles, through Monticello, and you’re in Lake Maria State Park. Bike east the same distance, and you’re at Sand Dunes State Forest.
I’d done both of those before, so I wanted to give Elk River a try. The train trip up is pleasant enough, and once you arrive at the Elk River station – a little platform surrounded by boxy, beige developments surrounded by fields – you can choose your own adventure: north to downtown Elk River, or south to the Oliver Kelley Farm, a working 1860s farm operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.
I chose the farm first. This was the right decision; it was excellent. Sadly, I can’t really recommend bicycling to the Oliver Kelley Farm to anyone but the most masochistic cyclist. The only way to the farm, short of portaging the Mississippi River from Otsego, is biking down Highway 10 from the Elk River station. Highway 10 has the distinction of being surgically grafted to U.S. 169 for a few miles between Anoka and Elk River proper, and the only way to the Kelley farm is to hug the shoulder and hope for the best. The posted speed limit is 65, which means most people are doing about 80. It’s a really, really terrible experience. If you attempt it, you’re guaranteed to get a middle finger or two. The romance of the open road dissipates pretty quickly under those circumstances.
However, if you do it anyway, the Oliver Kelley Farm is absolutely worth suffering through 169. (I asked the woman working the front desk at the visitor center if there was an alternative route on the way back. “Well, uh, hmm, no,” she said. “But,” she added optimistically, “you look like a seasoned cyclist.”) It’s open through October, so get there while you can, however you choose to convey yourself.
An afternoon on the Kelley Farm gives you a point of entry for experiencing just about any facet of rural cultural history you may be interested in. If it’s social movements, civics, economics and politics, you’re in luck. Oliver Kelley, a Yankee from Boston who came west in the 1850s to give farming a try, was the founder of the Grange movement, a mixed-gender fraternal organization that combined the social, ceremonial and quasi-mystical aspects of Masonry with the political and activist aspects of the labor union. The farmhouse has a Grange meeting room set up, and you could spend a long time perusing the manuals, sashes, banner and medallions on display.
If your interests run to the purely agricultural, you’re in good hands, too. The weekend I visited, it was threshing time. This meant the mechanical thresher, powered by two horses on an inclined treadmill, separated the grain from the chaff and spit out a steady stream of oats, tended to by a volunteer army of eager kids scooping them into metal pans and bagging them up. I pitched hay for about 15 minutes at the request of a woman in a bonnet, and then spent a few minutes hanging by the well pump to enjoy all the cool, earthy water that came up. It was a hot weekend, so the poor chickens were all hiding in the shade in their coop, wheezing and hacking away. Ah, life on the farm.
If it’s domestic life that you find most interesting, you’ll also be richly rewarded. There’s a working kitchen, informed by the once-ubiquitous Buckeye Cookbook, a mid-19th-century Midwestern farm staple published first in Ohio and later in Minnesota, and dedicated to “those American housewives who cannot afford to employ a French chef.” Volunteers in period clothing staff the farm, but the nice thing is they’re not in character: You can ask questions and they will tell you the answers in contemporary English. They are a knowledgeable and easy-going bunch, and patiently fielded my dorky questions about Catholic/Protestant sectarianism in the Grange movement.
They are busy working away in the kitchen, too, and a number of delicacies from the Buckeye Cookbook are available for tasting, including some cucumber and ginger-nutmeg pickles brined in pure vinegar. The intense taste of vinegar on these is almost too overpowering, until you consider how invigorating those pickles must have tasted in the depths of winter, in the midst of a months-long diet of potatoes and root vegetables. It’s a reminder that the cliché of the bland Upper Midwestern diet is a fairly modern invention. The Buckeye Cookbook, and the dishes cooking away in the kitchen, were full of curry, horseradish, sweet peppers, ginger, cinnamon and cayenne.
After a few hours on the farm and another harrowing ride down 169, there was still downtown Elk River. The main strip is well-preserved, and there’s a charming little park down by the Mississippi River. The strip is a standard assortment of bars, antique shops and storefront businesses. The main attraction, for me at least, was two businesses located on Jackson Avenue Northwest, right off Main Street. On the bottom floor of a 19th-century commercial brick building, down a flight of stairs out front, was Diamond City Bread. It was too late in the day for the garlic cheddar bread I was hoping to get, but the loaf of honey wheat I took home was great. On Tuesday, they have a blue cheese and wild rice bread, which I’d have loved to get my hands on. Upstairs is Pompeii Pizza, serving an extraordinarily good oven-fired pizza. The clientele struck a good balance of people who seemed to have traveled from the Cities (or maybe stopped off on their way north to a cabin), and regulars from the immediate area.
Finally, when visiting anywhere, one of my favorite things to see is the cemetery. It really gives you a sense of the values, demographics and history of a place and the people who’ve lived there in a more immediate way. (I always try to peek in on the churches, too, since they’re usually cemetery-adjacent and the best-preserved buildings in town.) There are a few cemeteries in Elk River: Vernon Cemetery, mostly inhabited by Protestants with New England names (Judd, Plummer, Henderson, Palmer, Emerson), and St. Andrew’s Cemetery, the Catholic cemetery across town. Both date to the 1860s.
I only had time to visit Vernon, unfortunately. But the early death dates (a lot of hard-working farmers expiring in their 40s and 50s), the Masonic and other fraternal organization affiliations, the Yankee names, and the plain, unadorned expressions of religious conviction imparted a sense for the lives of some of Elk River’s citizens in the distant and recent past. I guess this all sounds sort of grim, but I don’t find it uniformly grim. People die. It happens everywhere. The cemeteries of a small town or city are a chance to see some wonderful expressions of love and devotion, appreciate some craftsmanship on the elaborate carvings on the headstones, and watch little stories of family life, heroism, tragedy and ambition play out in the names, relationships and dates.
At Vernon Cemetery, I also encountered one of my favorite names in recent memory: the cemetery is dedicated to one Mac “Bup” Hamlet, who led the Elk River football team in the 1910s, served in the military, and lived to the ripe old age of 97. I later learned that “Mac” was in fact a nickname for William. A man who ended up with two nicknames is a man who led a good life.
As a bonus to you the reader, here is a recipe for hawkeye mangoes (also confusingly referred to as mangoed mangoes) from the Buckeye Cookbook, a dish that was in fact being prepared at the Kelley farm last weekend. There’s a few editions of the cookbook, but this one is from the 1905 edition published in St. Paul. It’s similar to the recipe in the 1880 edition, but a little easier to follow. In this sense, “mango” is an obsolete 19th-century Midwestern term for a pickled vegetable or fruit with a spicy stuffing. The recipe calls for “muskmelons,” but on the farm, they referred to them as “mango melons.” Both are terms for the Cucumis melo, so I am pretty sure they refer to the same fruit, a small, green or yellow melon you scoop the guts out of with a spoon.
Take green muskmelons, prepared [removing a piece the length of the melon, an inch and a half wide, and scooping out the seeds] and soaked in brine, as directed, and scald them in vinegar spiced with cinnamon and cloves. For filling, chop fine two medium-sized heads of cabbage, sprinkle with salt and let stand overnight; add one pound each chopped raisins, white mustard and celery seed, three pints grated horse-radish, one of nasturtium seed, a little ground mustard, ounce turmeric, pint olive oil, cup sugar, one nutmeg, grated, and a few small pickles added if desired. When melons are filled, sew in piece, place in jar and cover with vinegar, either hot or cold, adding a little sugar, if wished.
Bring some with you next time you go for a bike ride in the country.