May 28 2013

Minnesota Day Trip to the Northfield Area

On a gloomy Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, my kids and set off on a mostly-unplanned day trip.

“Kids, get your laundry put away and your rooms tidied up so we can leave.”

“Leave?  Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise!”

“Oh, I like surprises.”

Before we headed out the door, the only clue I gave them was that we were going to go somewhere related to a TV show they like to watch.

I gave them each a small notebook, and as we drove down the road, I instructed them to start writing several clues, which they would also use as a scavenger hunt once we arrived.

As we went through the list, one child was convinced we were headed to The House on the Rock.  It wasn’t until we got to “falafel” that my masterminds figured it out.  We were going to a flea market.  (Falafel was featured prominently on a recent episode of PBS’ Market Warriors.)

But first, a stop at the library.

Henderson Public Library, Henderson, MN

Here, in Minnesota, we have a marvelous system of sharing materials between libraries.  Anything borrowed from a library anywhere in our nine-county region can be returned at our home library, so we like to visit different libraries and see how their collections differ.

In Minnesota’s Sibley County, there are five small but well-used libraries, in towns ranging from 800-2300 people.  The library in Henderson is a repurposed church building complete with stained-glass windows and featured in the book Libraries of Minnesota, and we took advantage of its Saturday morning hours to check out a few books.  (An additional benefit is that my kids are very quiet in the car when they have new books to discover.)

Trader’s Market, Elko, MN

From Henderson, we headed east to Elko, where the Trader’s Market flea market is held three weekends each summer.  With discount tickets in hand, we paid our admission and entered the grounds of what was our family’s first flea market.  My first-grade daughter had her notebook so she could find all the things we had listed.  The flea market did give the kids an idea of what the Market Warriors pickers experience, but as a mother nervous about my brood being in people’s way or breaking fragile items, it wasn’t a relaxing outing.  We spent enough time on the grounds to find everything but the falafel, and left with only the little scavenger hunter thinking she wanted to go again.  (I’d love to go back without kids; it just wasn’t the best place to be with eight extra hands.)  When we left, it was lunchtime, and not wanting to go home yet, we headed down the highway to Northfield.

Northfield, MN

Northfield Riverwalk

Northfield is a hip little college town, home to both St. Olaf and Carleton colleges.  It is also the home of Malt-o-Meal cereals.  Its eclectic mix of downtown shops reminds me of Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado, and its riverwalk along the Cannon River had the kids remembering similar walks in San Antonio, Texas, and Omaha, Nebraska.  Our real reason for heading to Northfield, however, was a bit more adventurous.  In 1876, Northfield was the site of a botched bank raid by the Jesse James gang, and each year in September the town reenacts the raid in front of thousands of visitors.  Since we were visiting in May, however, we took in the next best thing:  a tour of the Northfield Historical Society.

Northfield Historical Society, Northfield, MN

First National Bank, Northfield, MN

Our guided tour of the Northfield Historical Society began with a short film about the James gang and its place in Northfield history, after which we were taken next door to the First National Bank.  This restored building is where the raid took place, and our costumed guide explained exactly how things happened.  After seeing the bank site, we were led to another room which showed more artifacts from the gang and the Northfield raid, as well as a map detailing the escape of the gang and eventual capture of the Younger brothers.  (Frank and Jesse James had split off and escaped completely.)  The one-hour tour was interesting and the guide was very knowledgeable.  Though there was nothing hands-on except a saddle and cowboy hat the kids could try out, my kids, ages 7-12, were interested enough in the story to remain attentive throughout the tour.

Before visiting the museum, I had considered going in September for the reenactment, but I think we might have gotten more of the story from the tour at a less-busy time of year.  We may instead attend the Younger Brothers Capture event near Madelia, Minnesota.

Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, Nerstrand, MN

We decided to make one last stop before going home, to Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, about 15 miles southeast of Northfield.  Minnesota has many and varied state parks, but this one is special in the spring because of its wildflowers in bloom, including one species, the trout lily, that has its only home in the world in three counties in Minnesota.

Trout Lily sign

At the visitor center, we checked out birding and wildflower kits and began our hike along the shortest of the trails, which led to Hidden Falls,

Hidden Falls, Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park

stopping frequently to identify the many wildflowers we saw adjacent to the path.  The low carpet of flowers under the tall trees made for a beautiful walk even on an overcast day.

The concensus of the group was that we need to return to this park and try more of the hiking trails sometime when my husband can come with us.

Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park

Since we didn’t have much luck with birds during our hike, we stopped by the campground site #45, where a variety of bird feeders had attracted several species, so the birdwatching group had a chance to use their borrowed binoculars and bird identification books as well.


Our day trip to the Northfield area was a success.  For families from the Twin Cities (MSP airport is just 40 miles away), spending a half-day in Northfield shopping, eating, and visiting the museum, followed by some time in the state park, would be a very doable outing that would incorporate a variety of experiences.

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2 comments so far

2 Comments to “Minnesota Day Trip to the Northfield Area”

  1. Petra on 29 May 2013 at 2:40 am

    I think that random trips like this are always so cool, we always choose some close outdoor destinations to hang out on weekends together with our kids.

  2. Julia @ on 29 May 2013 at 8:57 am

    sounds like a great day! I’d be interested in seeing the Trout Lily. They are abundant in central Iowa and I wonder if they are the same as what you have in MN. The photo makes it look like they are the same.

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