Crookston isn't known for being a major tourist destination, and that's one of its charms. Located in the Red River Valley, 70 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead, the town of 8,000 is a place where you can escape harried city life and relax at your own pace.
Touring the historic downtown, situated on the Red Lake River, visitors can imagine what life was like at the end of the 19th century, when the town was a booming commercial center served by multiple railroad lines.
Walk into history
Crookston has the largest, most architecturally intact concentration of late 19th- and early 20th-century commercial buildings in the region. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the historic business district includes about 30 structures. Free self-guided walking tour booklets are available at the Crookston Area Chamber of Commerce (1-800-809-5997; www.visitcrookston.com) in the Morris Building, a former jewelry store that's individually listed on the National Historic Register.
Local architect Bert D. Keck designed the Morris Building and two others on the tour that have individual National Historic Register status: the Crookston Carnegie Library, built in 1907, and the former Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a Gothic Revival-style church built in 1912. Other notable buildings include the imposing and vacant Palace Hotel, now under threat of demolition; the Fontaine and Anglim block, once owned by Louis Fontaine, the grandfather of movie stars Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine; and the former City Hall and fire station, built in 1899, which houses a delightful gift and antiques shop, Willow & Ivy (1-218-281-3104).
A grand place for a movie
Catch a movie at the Grand Theatre, one of the nation's oldest continuously operating movie theaters. Built in 1910, it has since been divided into two screens; the lobby and larger theater have retained some original decor. Although prices aren't as low as they were a century ago, the tickets are still pretty cheap: $4.50 for an evening show and $3.50 for a matinee.
Your sweet tooth may lead you to Widman's Candy Shop (1-218-281-1487), which opened in 1911. Owner George Widman is the grandson of the original owner, also named George Widman. (Family members operate other candy shops in Grand Forks and Fargo, www.carolwidmanscandyco. com). The shop's interior is original, and the candy is hand-dipped in the store's back room. Be sure to sample the store's best sellers, the "Chippers," chocolate-covered potato chips made from locally grown potatoes.
Crookston celebrates its pioneer heritage every August with Ox Cart Days. This year's festival, the city's 21st, is Aug. 19-22. Featured events include a medallion hunt, bed races, tractor pull, a brat and corn feed, a classic car show and a battle of the bands.
The Polk County Historical Museum also showcases pioneer artifacts in 11 buildings, including an 1868 log house, an 1890 schoolhouse and a 1910 summer kitchen. You can also find photos of the city's Grand Opera House, built in 1891, and the devastating fire that destroyed it in 1987. Mark Twain gave a lecture there in 1895, and John Philip Sousa's band performed on the stage in 1899 and 1902. The museum is open late May through mid-September, and admission is free (1-218-281-1038; www.mnhistoricnw.org/Polkchs).
Step into nature
The Glacial Ridge Nature Conservancy, billed as the largest prairie restoration project in history, is 12 miles east of Crookston. The 24,270-acre site is home to prairie chickens, the Dakota skipper butterfly and other native species, and is open for birdwatching and hiking, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter (1-218-637-2146; see www.nature.org/minnesotapreserves for guidelines on visits).
Before leaving town, be sure to snap a photo of the tribute to fur trader Joe Rolette and his ox cart next to a giant ox in front of the Red River Valley Shows Building north of downtown, or with the giant ox cart on the grounds of the historical museum.
Joy Riggs is a freelance writer based in Northfield, Minn.