Small-Town Charms Amid Minnesota’s Lakes

Nisswa signCompetition is fierce, but my money is on the turtle named “Speedy,” the one the announcer says has been training by running, lifting weights, and swimming laps. I have no idea which turtle among the dozens is Speedy because they all look alike, save for varying sizes, and bear no identification. It’s the fourth of July weekend, and my husband, Bill, his mom, Ann, and I are watching several heats in the turtle race in downtown Nisswa, Minnesota.

A cluster of white and yellow pails, each holding a turtle, forms the center of a circular course, with a yellow finish line drawn a couple of yards away. The children, some with parental assistance, carefully lift their turtles out of the pails, and place them on the pavement during the ready-set-go-countdown. Off go the turtles, hauling shell, and excited spectators roar in anticipation of fleet-footed performances. Some douse their scooting entries with handfuls of water, apparently believing it helps urge them forward. T-shirted turtle wranglers flank the finish line, ready to capture any wayward creatures intent on bolting into the crowd.

Nisswa turtle races

Moments later, the announcer declares a no-name winner, and boisterous applause erupts.

Rooting for turtles in the Midwestern heartland on our nation’s 240th birthday – now that’s a refreshingly simple and folksy take on celebrating the red, white, and blue.

Nisswa, a quintessential small town in Minnesota

Nisswa comes from an Ojibwe Indian word meaning “in the middle,” as in the middle of Lower Cullen, Middle Cullen, and Upper Cullen Lakes, and is an ideal setting for an endearing slice of Americana like turtle races. With only 2,000 locals, this little city feels more like a rustic Northwoods village, even from May to October when the population swells to 45,000 with the addition of seasonal residents and tourists. Nisswa is one of the gateways to the Brainerd lakes area within the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” state of Minnesota. The region’s close proximity to the major metropolises of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago make it a popular vacation destination.

Minnesota Lake

Travelers who venture to Nisswa are looking for and finding the exact opposite of a big city, according to Shawn Hansen, president and CEO of Nisswa’s Chamber of Commerce, whom I happen to meet when I stop in for some pamphlets about attractions.

“We don’t look like a strip mall,” Hansen says. “People associate us to ‘not my real life.’”

The 3.5-block downtown is one-of-a-kind – a main street flanked by 57 independently owned stores, each with its own identity. Handcrafted signs and artful display windows tout everything from Minnetonka moccasins to homemade ice cream, from home décor to sports apparel, and from custom jewelry to hand-picked Minnesota wild rice. Manifestations of the mythic figures of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of superhuman labors, and Babe the Blue Ox appear around town. Paul Bunyan State Trail, the 123-mile paved rail-to-trail used by snowmobilers, bikers (including me), walkers, runners, and inline-skaters, passes through Nisswa.

Totem Pole in Nisswa

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

Bill’s family has long made this part of Minnesota’s Brainerd lakes area their second home. Every trip up here is a homecoming for Bill, a ritual return to his childhood and the land where he and his mom, dad, and brother came for a few weeks of vacation each summer to boat, fish, and swim.

Back in the day, they stayed in a hunter green former refrigerator train car that a family friend who worked for a railroad situated on a slight rise overlooking Gladstone Lake in the 1950s. He had repurposed it as a fishing cabin. Blankets hanging on ropes strung across each end of the train car created space for two bedrooms, and a small kitchen in the middle had a hotplate for rudimentary skillet cooking and a pot-belly stove for heat.

In the mid-1980s, Bill’s family dismantled the train car and built a modern, two-bedroom cabin with a full-fledged kitchen and a garage. For the last 25 years, Bill’s mom has spent the entire summer at Gladstone Lake.

Bill lives in the present. He’s pragmatic and somewhat unsentimental, with an “it is what it is” acceptance of life as it unfolds. The infrequent times he does share remembrances of his past usually involve the lake and reveal a surprising depth of nostalgia, reminding me how integral this place is to his well-being. Here he unwinds, becomes grounded, and renews.

As we dine one night at Bar Harbor Supper Club, our server, Mary, a California native, echoes a similar sentiment of purity and simplicity. Her mother hails from the Brainerd lakes area, and she insisted her daughter visit her hometown each summer to learn “good wholesome values.”

History in the making at Grand View Lodge

I learn that another celebration is happening near Nisswa – the 100th anniversary of Grand View Lodge, a 640-acre grande dame beachfront resort on Gull Lake, so I head over to learn more.

Grand View Lodge staircase

I meet up for a private guided tour of the premises with Frank Soukup III, director of marketing. He, too, shares a theme about providing a lifetime of family memories. Many of the guests, who come mostly from Minnesota but also from around the world, return time and again to Grand View Lodge, which ranks at the top of multiple “best of” lists and is on the National Register of Historic Places. They’re drawn by the lush and serene setting, but also the comfortable and varied accommodations, three golf courses (two are championship), seven restaurants, and the restorative spa.

As part of its centennial, Grand View Lodge this very day is inducting the History Center, a living museum fashioned from the 1924-era cabin once occupied for 50 years by Grand View Lodge’s original owners. Historian Steve Hanson welcomes me into the cabin, which is open for events. The interior is filled with quaint period pieces, including an old phonograph, fishing gear, wall telephone, and a combo gas cooktop and oven topped with antique spice containers. Unlike the hands-off policy of most museums, all items are touchable, the better to tell their stories.

Grand View Lodge History Center kitchen

A hit parade

The final event before Bill and I return home is the annual Independence Day parade in Nisswa. Along with fireworks and cookouts, parades to me spell July 4th. At once solemn and kitschy, this one doesn’t disappoint.

The parade route runs the mile or so between Carlson Hardware and Dairy Queen. Multi-generational spectators have begun positioning foldup canvas chairs along the parade route some eight hours beforehand to claim their spots. The parade begins with a procession of Stars and Stripes-carrying war veterans on foot and in vehicles. The applauding crowd reverently responds with shouts of “Thank you for your service,” and chants of “USA.”

Nisswa parade veterans

Parade participants toss fistfuls of penny candy, beaded necklaces, and water balloons at the feet of spectators. Children in the know have come with buckets and bags to collect tootsie rolls, smartees and taffy, probably garnering as much sweet loot as they would from Halloween trick-or-treating.

Floats, classic cars, the mayor, local royalty (Miss Brainerd, Little Miss Nisswa), glad-handing politicians, marching bands, a horse-drawn fire wagon, and boats – lots of boats – on trailers pass us. Three trumpet-playing gents seated on the back of the Salvation Army float belt out “When the Saints Go Marching In,” while “Born in the USA” blasts from a tri-colored speedboat.

Nisswa parade historic fire wagon

My favorite is the walking slice of pizza representing Rafferty’s, the improbable Irish pizza restaurant with the leprechaun logo. A red-pigtailed, freckle-faced girl walks by, doing her best Wendy impersonation for the hamburger chain. People wearing inflatable blue fat suits pose as ripe blueberries, promoting the pick-your-own feature at Jake and Scout’s Excellent Berry Farm. A giant inflatable flamingo glides by, evidently having taken a wrong turn from a warmer, southerly climate.

Nisswa parade Rafferty's pizza

Surely life in Nisswa attests that the American spirit is alive and well. Need an antidote to your daily cares? Try a dose of Minnesota’s small-town geniality.

4 thoughts on “Small-Town Charms Amid Minnesota’s Lakes

  • July 13, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    Nisswa is in the middle of lower Cullen lake, Clark lake & Nisswa lake. Google it.

    • July 14, 2016 at 2:13 pm

      Hi, Hans. Thanks for your comment. I agree with you in terms of geography. I was talking about the derivation of the name Nisswa, and I used information provided by the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce. They told me the reference to the “middle” was to the three Cullen lakes. I heard two other explanations for what constituted the “middle,” and went with what the Chamber told me.

  • July 12, 2016 at 8:14 am

    Mary, your story is a true reminder of the many years of happiness of our family and Bill’s family going to Gladstone Lake. Still today we have many memories of the past while making new memories with each visit.
    Thanks for a great review of a summer week end in

    • July 12, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      Hi, Sue. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like the post. I fully relate to your families’ fondness for summers at a lake. My family spent summers at Lake George in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, and those are precious memories to us as well.


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