You need to imagine the snow. The ice-slicked logging roads. And, of course, the stench of wet, sweaty wool and unwashed lumberjacks in closed quarters.
“There are 70 men here who haven’t taken a bath in three months,” says Mike Adams, a costumed interpreter at the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids, Minn. Don’t forget they ate a lot of beans and prunes, too.
A team of interpreters leads visitors through a logging camp as if it were Dec. 15, 1900, when there were 300 camps across the northern woods. Lumberjacks took down enough lumber to build a 9-foot-wide boardwalk around the world at the equator.
“It was a heyday,” says John Grabko, another interpreter. “Never before or after has as much lumber come out of the woods.”
Interpreters explain the camp’s various jobs as if onlookers were applying for positions such as road monkeys (building roads and icing them for log-laden sleighs), cookies (slinging 500 pancakes each morning, plus potatoes, pies and sausages), saw sharpeners and blacksmiths. The actual lumberjacks — often father-son duos or brothers — had to drop 17 to 20 trees a day, often making 90 to 100 cuts in the process.
More than a century has passed since those forests were clear-cut and logs clogged the Mississippi River shore-to-shore as it thawed each spring. Trucks stacked with tree trunks do still rumble along Hwy. 169, and up to 5,000 loads may be stockpiled outside Blandin Paper Co. in town.
The view from atop a 100-foot 1934 fire tower at Forest History Center sweeps across Grand Rapids as wind whips above the trees. Sun glints off lakes and the Mississippi, providing glimpses of blue between deep-green trees. It sparks a yearning for a beach, and a nod of gratitude that the logging camp’s winter scenario is pure imagination.
The Judy Garland Museum celebrates Grand Rapids’ most famous resident, Frances “Baby” Gumm, who starred as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939. A photo of her as a grinning preschooler dancing in a homemade white net dress sits on the piano of her family’s Grand Rapids home, where she lived until age 5. The restored house connects to the museum, with an Emerald City carriage, thousands of “Oz” souvenirs, replica ruby red slippers and poignant exhibits on the hard-worked star who was given uppers as young as 14. She died in 1969 from an overdose of sleeping pills at age 47. She claimed that her only carefree years were in Minnesota.
The museum hosts its annual Wizard of Oz Festival the second weekend in June with cultural talks, games and contests, and a free showing of the movie outdoors. Museum admission also includes the hands-on Children’s Discovery Museum in the same building (1-218-327-9276; judygarland museum.com).
The Forest History Center museum has interactive forestry exhibits and films on logging and the devastating fires that roared across the region. In addition to logging camp tours, visitors can take several hiking trails and see a 1901 wanigan, a floating barge used as headquarters and a cook shack while crews escorted logs downriver (1-218-327-4482; mnhs.org).
Hill Annex Mine State Park in nearby Calumet lets visitors dip into Minnesota’s mining history with a museum showing mine labs and work areas, plus guided tours Fridays and Saturdays. A small bus rumbles down rough roads below massive red dunes, past abandoned machinery, to the plunging edge of the surprisingly scenic open pit during 90-minute tours. A fossil tour lets families hunt for shark’s teeth, clams and other Cretaceous creatures buried in the iron-red dirt (1-218-247-7215; dnr.state.mn.us).
The 68-mile paved Mesabi Trail runs from Grand Rapids to Virginia, Minn., and will eventually connect to Ely. The section east of Grand Rapids includes pretty overlooks of the Prairie River and mine lakes.
Explore the Mississippi and area lakes with kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and shuttles through Paddlehoppers. Day trips include paddling across Chippewa National Forest’s Trout Lake to explore Joyce Estates, an abandoned 4,500-acre resort with 40 buildings and a golf course (1-218-326-5853; paddlehoppers.com).
Check out solar panels painted like sunflowers, watch for birds and toss a fishing line into the Mississippi at the Grand Rapids Public Library (cityofgrandrapidsmn.com/library), which lends fishing poles and tackle. Another fishing pier can be found at Pokegama Dam, where the Army Corps of Engineers has 19 public campsites (recreation.gov).
Some of downtown’s best shopping can be found along N. Pokegama and NW. 1st avenues: MacRostie Arts Center with regional exhibits and artists; art and workshops at Stained Glass With Class; kitchenware and gifts at Jenny & Company; Minnesota-made goods at Lake + Co.; and eclectic decor at Lake Lover Vintage.
For swimming, a fishing pier, a picnic spot and a playground, head to Tioga Beach between Grand Rapids and Cohasset on the northern edge of Pokegama Lake. Nearby, Tioga Mine Pit Lake will be developed as a recreation area beginning in 2018, with about 30 miles of fat-tire and mountain-bike trails.
Where to eat
With coffee cups playfully mosaicked onto its exterior, Brewed Awakenings Cafe captures an artsy vibe with some of the town’s best eats and vegetarian options. Look for a tamale pie, gluten-free quiche, apricot hazelnut muffins, pies such as rhubarb custard, sandwiches, soups and a dozen daily gelatos (1-218-327-1088; brewedawakenings.com).
Grand Rapids’ farmers market offers an array of produce, maple syrup and honey, nuts, snacks and baked goods on Wednesday and Saturday mornings along Hwy. 2. You can find blueberries and apples at area farms, such as Lavalier’s Berry Patch and Orchard (1-218-327-9199) and TimberSweet (1-218-326-0614).
Where to sleep
There are close to 100 places to stay in Itasca County. Most fall into the mom-and-pop category, including Wildwood Resort (1-218-328-5858; wildwoodresort.net), which has rebuilt many of its cabins along Bass Lake. Ruttger’s Sugar Lake has a combination of lodge rooms, cabins and villas, plus a golf course (1-218-327-1462; sugarlakelodge.com). In town, the 84-room Timberlake Lodge features a pool and water park. Try a ruby slipper cocktail at Timberlake’s 17th Street Grill (1-218-326-2600; timberlakelodgehotel.com).
Follow Hwy. 169 north about 178 miles from the Twin Cities to Grand Rapids. It takes about 3½ hours.
Stop in the former train depot, the Grand Rapids Visitors Center (1-800-355-9740; visitgrandrapids.com).
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”