Fergus Falls rebuilt its downtown in 1919 after experiencing one of the worst tornadoes in Minnesota history. More than 90 years later, the west-central Minnesota town is enjoying another rebirth as a regional center of arts and culture. Its renovated theater serves as a focal point for year-round entertainment, and a historic hotel has been repurposed as an art gallery.
Other downtown attractions include unique restaurants and shops, and the milelong River Walk, which meanders past the falls for which the town is named.
Where the arts thrive
A major draw for locals and out-of-town visitors is A Center for the Arts in the renovated 1921 Fergus Theatre. A former vaudeville house, the 450-seat performing arts center hosts a variety of music, dance, theatrical, literary and film events. It's also home to a mighty Wurlitzer theater pipe organ, whose console rises on a platform from below the stage. It's played for concerts and before movies (124 W. Lincoln Av.; 1-218-998-2787; www.fergusarts.org).
Across the street, the 96-year-old Hotel Kaddatz has been converted into artist lofts and a visual arts gallery featuring the work of Fergus Falls native and printmaker Charles Beck. Artspace of Minneapolis bought the hotel in 2001, and the nonprofit Kaddatz Galleries opened in 2009 (111 W. Lincoln Av.; 1-218-998-4405; www.kaddatzgalleries.org). It offers regional artists' works, lectures and classes; closed Sundays and Mondays.
A shopping and dining tour
The best way to begin a tour of the walkable downtown is by visiting Cafe 116 (116 S. Union Av.; 1-218-998-3780; www.cafe116.com) for an artfully made latte. Coffee is roasted locally by Stumbeano's Coffee Roasterie (www.stumbeanos.com), and scones are from Falls Baking Co. (1217 N. Union Av.; 1-218-739-0888; www.fallsbaking.com). From-scratch breakfasts include plate-sized buttermilk waffles; lunch is also served.
Next door, The Market (120 S. Union; 1-218-998-3663; www.marketfergusfalls.com) is stocked with colorful kitchen gadgets, cookware, toys and games, bath and body items, and a selection of gourmet foods. The home of Stumbeano's Coffee Co., it also sells a variety of whole beans.
Along Lincoln Avenue, the town's main street, you'll find the City Bakery (219 W. Lincoln Av.; 1-218-739-1100; citybakeryff.com). Gaze at the glass display cases filled with tantalizing sweets, like the popular moon pies (which bear no resemblance to the packaged kind), and frosted doughnuts topped with breakfast cereal. The bakery also sells roasted meat sandwiches on freshly baked breads and rolls.
Other fun shops along Lincoln Avenue include Crates of Yarn (202 W. Lincoln Av.; 1-218-531-1033; www.cratesofyarn.com), which carries knitting and crochet supplies; Biffley's Bookmark (119 W. Lincoln Av.; 1-888-999-4360; www.biffleys.com), stocked with an impressive selection of board and card games; and Victor Lundeen Co. (126 W. Lincoln Av.; 1-218-736-5433; www.victorlundeens.com), which opened in 1914 as a printing shop, and now also sells new books, cards and gifts.
Before leaving downtown, explore the River Walk, a paved path along the Otter Tail River's south bank. The path meanders past historic buildings, like Fergus Falls City Hall, and across the Central Dam bridge, the former site of the falls that gave the city its name.
The Otter Tail County Historical Society (1110 W. Lincoln Av.; www.otchs.org) occasionally offers guided group tours of the River Walk and the historic downtown. Call 1-218-736-6038 for more information.
Side trips near downtown
A must-see while in Fergus Falls is the site of the former Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, at 1400 N. Union Av., built in the 1880s as the state's third mental hospital. At one time, the facility served about 2,000 patients. It closed in 2005. Drive through the grounds for a look at the imposing eight-story Kirkbride Tower.
For a completely different field trip, visit the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center (602 E. Hwy. 210; 1-218-998-4480; www.fws.gov/midwest/pwlc). Founded in 1998, it's the first residential environmental education center operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The site has 330 acres of native and restored prairie, 28 wetlands and 3 1/2 miles of walking trails. The visitor center is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and occasionally on Saturdays; the trails are open daily, sunrise to sunset.
Joy Riggs is a freelance writer based in Northfield, Minn.