An egret raises his lacy tail feathers and fans them almost like a peacock as he calls out and puffs up his chest. Whether it’s to attract the ladies or claim his branch on a tree colonized by egrets and cormorants, he makes himself known.
Gangly birds gracefully fly grasses and sticks to nests along the shores of Grotto Lake in Adams Park in Fergus Falls, Minn. The primordial coo and chatter of well over a hundred birds hums through the air as people quietly watch from their vehicles.
My human brood mumbles an obligatory “wow” and bolts from the bird-watching to something bigger: the 150-foot Otto the Otter. A local mascot since the 1970s, Otto offers an odd juxtaposition — a supersized statue contrasting with real wildlife; an old-fashioned postcard fodder inspiring digital postings.
Our tweens have hit the age of hounding for overhyped frappe-whatever, but they giddily cartwheel through the parking lot of Dairyland Drive-In — a Fergus Falls icon on Old U.S. Hwy. 59 since 1955. They happily eat mixed mouthfuls of cheese curds and popcorn chicken. Photos from the local classic car club line the walls, and the lunch stop morphs into a sneaky history lesson on the golden age of automobile travel, pre-interstate highways, and the sweet relief of ice cream and icy root beer in the days before air conditioning.
Owners Jean and Pat Connelly point out Dairyland’s old intercom system that’s still on the wall from carhop days, but modern customers prefer the drive-through or dining inside with air conditioning. We take the third option of outdoor seating on a sunny day, with cup-shaped ice cream novelties on a stick dripping down our wrists. A young man who spotted our cartwheelers shows off a backflip, and happily repeats his performance. Our girls grab phones to take videos, blending bytes with bites of nostalgia.
Across from Dairyland is the former state hospital that served mentally ill and disabled patients from 1890 to 2005. We pause to think of the stories within those walls, and talk about the evolution of treatments. Mostly, we marvel at its Romanesque design and imposing size, sturdy and castle-like. We leave with the hope that it finds a new purpose and a fresh chapter of Minnesota history.
Take a birding hike: Follow the 1-mile loop trail to enjoy prairie blooms and birds such as bobolinks and meadowlarks at Prairie Wetlands Learning Center along Hwy. 210. The visitor center tracks bird sightings and offers exhibits on the 325-acre native and restored prairie landscape that’s part of the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail (1-218-736-0938; midwest.fws.gov/pwlc).
Learn about pioneers: Bird songs, threshing machines, saloon pianos and train whistles are among the sound effects that enliven Otter Tail County Historical Society’s life-size dioramas that guide visitors through American Indian encampments to pioneer homesteads and past the businesses on a turn-of-the-century Main Street (1-218-736-6038; otchs.org).
Stroll downtown: Leave time for tree-lined Lincoln Avenue and its historic brick buildings, with specialty stores such as Victor Lundeen’s (office supplies and gifts, since 1914), Nordic Galleri (gifts), Kaddatz Gallery (regional artwork), and the Market (gourmet foods, accessories and whimsical gifts). A vintage theater marquee illuminates A Center for the Arts, which hosts touring and local theater productions, films and free summer concerts Thursday nights at Roosevelt Park. Less than a block from Lincoln Avenue, a walkway passes City Hall and follows the Otter Tail River.
Where to eat
In a town with a flour-milling heritage, it makes sense that bread dominates the menu of several favorite eateries.
City Bakery, with its vintage green sign, adds character and timelessness to downtown with the sweet fragrance of fresh-baked rolls and sugary glazes that has wafted out the door for more than 90 years. Cream horns, mocha bars, bismarcks, up to 22 kinds of cake doughnuts and temptations such as caramel bacon apple fritters line the cases. They ladle up hot soups and serve sandwiches, too (1-218-739-1100; CityBakeryFF on Facebook).
116 Cafe, attached to the Market boutique, has a hot and cold gourmet sandwich menu featuring Falls Baking Co. breads (see below). Servers also bring soups, such as spicy shrimp and sausage, and vegetarian fare, including sesame noodle salad and black bean burritos, to the assorted Formica-topped dining tables. Desserts range from beignets to double chocolate bread pudding (1-218-998-3780; cafe116.com).
Falls Baking Co. near Dairyland sells nutty loaves of Dakota multigrain bread, chewy monster cookies, pecan bars, homemade graham crackers and more locally made products such as egg noodles and cashew crunch brittle from an Amish farmer. Stumbeano’s Coffee and Terroir Chocolate bars are made with slow-roasted, stone-ground chocolate with flavors including lavender or basil raspberry (1-218-739-0888; fallsbaking.com).
Where to sleep
AmericInn Lodge and Suites offers newly updated rooms, an indoor pool, daily hot breakfast and evening appetizers Monday through Thursday. Designated rooms are pet-friendly (from $100; 1-218-739-3900; americinn.com).
Known for its pool shaped like the state of Minnesota, the former Best Western The Falls Inn and Suites at Bigwood Event Center is going through a transition and rebranding. For booking information call Bigwood at 1-218-739-2211.
Take Interstate 94 west from Minneapolis about 180 miles. It’s about a three-hour drive.
Fergus Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-218-332-5425, visitfergusfalls.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and the ninth edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”