HOW SWEDE IT IS
A Road Trip Through Minnesota Shopping Territory
A spin along the southern Minnesota–Wisconsin border leads to charming, lost-in-time towns with some of the best shopping this side of the Mall of America.
The shelves of the Palate Gourmet Kitchen Store (W12102 Hwy. 35, thepalate.net, bottles of olive oil from $20) in Stockholm, Wis., are lined with the kind of specialty items only a true foodie would love (or know how to use): Asaro-brand orange-flavored olive oil, La Perruche cane sugar, Comptoir de Famille cheese knives, etc. "If we carry it here, then we've tried it, we've cooked with it, we've tasted it," says Nancy Fitzsimons, a former home-ec teacher who owns and runs the Palate with her daughter, Shana Finnegan. "Of course, you could buy all these things at a lot of other places. But some people want a little service and advice from someone who really knows the products—those are my people."
That a small, family-run shop like the Palate can survive here, in the Upper Mississippi River Valley just south of Minneapolis, is no small feat. Not because the Twin Cities are lacking for foodies, but because the area has a sweet tooth for big-name stores. The first shopping center in the country debuted in 1956 in sleepy Edina, a Minneapolis suburb, and the 520-store Mall of America opened its doors in nearby Bloomington in 1992. Today, the Mall alone attracts more than 40 million visitors a year. The population of Minnesota: 5.3 million.
But a funny thing happened in the shadow of all those superstores. An easy drive south of the Twin Cities, old-fashioned boutiques like the Palate are thriving. Of course, you have to get out of your car every so often to get to them. But what you lose in convenience by escaping the mall is more than made up for by what you see along the way: the rolling farmland and lost-in-time towns that converge upon the Mississippi River. The 140-mile-long corridor straddling the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin is especially beautiful, with towering limestone bluffs and deep, verdant valleys—sights unseen in the otherwise pancake-flat upper Midwest.
MINNEAPOLIS TO STOCKHOLM, WIS.
Lured by the promise of spectacular countryside and homespun charm, I set out from Minneapolis on Highway 52, past exurban outposts like Amish Furniture Store and Jake's Totally Exotic Dancers. Before long, the freeway gives way to cornfield-lined roads, and I pull into Red Wing, a treasure trove of late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture. A stroll in almost any direction will lead you past handsome examples of Victorian, Italianate, and Gothic structures, such as the 1876 Pratt-Taber Inn and the 1909 First United Methodist Church, both made from river-bluff limestone.
Red Wing's shopping options are equally varied. At Hallstrom's Florist & Greenhouses rows of potted petunias vie for space with canisters of black licorice and freezers full of Door County cherry ice cream, a local favorite (317 Bush St, hallstromsflowers.com, Door County cherry ice-cream cones from $2.25). The nearby Uffda Shop specializes in Scandinavian imports, such as aebleskiver pans (for making Danish apple pancakes) and textiles, including brightly colored dishcloths (202 Bush St, uffdashoponline.com, Scandinavian dishcloths from $26). There's also the original Red Wing Shoe Store, founded in 1905, which carries heavy-duty footwear that's sold around the world (315 Main St, redwingshoes.com, factory-tour admission free). They display what they promise is the world's largest boot, a comically outsize model—16 feet tall, 20 feet long, seven feet wide, and size 638.5-D, for the record—that's become something of a roadside attraction. Between May and October, you can also tour the Red Wing Shoe factory, slightly west of town. "It's not like a car plant, where you'll see a bunch of huge machines simply rolling out parts," explains Red Wing spokesman Peter Engel. "This is true craftsmanship. There are 239 steps in the process of making every single shoe, and a lot of the procedures and the machines are the exact same today as they were 100 years ago."
That preservationist spirit is even more evident in Old Frontenac, a former trading post on the river, a few miles south of Red Wing off of Highway 61. Old Frontenac was preserved almost by accident, after the railroads built in the mid-1800s bypassed it. Even today, the Civil War-era village is served by only one paved road; all the others are gravel. There's not a single street-light, stoplight, or chain store in sight. Instead, you'll find idyllic white clapboard churches and rambling Italianate-style homes, typically painted white with green shutters and offering knockout views of the river. This is the kind of postcard-worthy place that inspires real-estate lust.