By Henrylito D. Tacio
MENTION “Grand Rapids” among Americans, and Michigan comes into their mind. After all, Grand Rapids is the second largest city in Michigan after Detroit.
So, when I told that I would be staying with my sister in Grand Rapids in Minnesota, they were all caught by surprise. “Is there Grand Rapids in Minnesota?” they wondered.
“There is,” I told them. “And I had been there once.” That was in 2004 when my sister and her family moved from Livingston, Montana. Now, I am back in this place once more!
Unlike the people-packed Grand Rapids in Michigan, Grand Rapids in Minnesota is quite, serene and amazing, too. “Outdoor adventures, scenic beauty and preserved heritage come together in the 1,000 Grand Lakes area for an experience visitors will remember,” says its tourist guide brochure.
What’s so unique about Grand Rapids, Minnesota? For one, it is the place where the grand Mississippi River – the second-longest river in the United States after Missouri River – starts. (The rapids in the river reportedly gave the town its name.) Actually, the water comes from Lake Itasca. In 1832, Henry Schoolcraft determined that the lake is the river’s source.
The word ‘Mississippi’ comes from the Ojibwe name for the river, “Messipi” (or Misi-ziibi in contemporary spelling), which means “great river,” or from the Algonquin ‘Missi Sepe,’ meaning “great river,” or poetically, “father of waters.”
In the past, the Mississippi River was noted for the number of bandits which called its islands and shores home, including John Murrell who was a well-known murderer. His notoriety was even featured in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. The river was also a decisive part of the Americn Civil War. If you can recall your history, you will remember that the Vicksburg Campaign called for Union control of the lower Mississippi River.
So much for history. The Blandin Paper Mill, which is nearly as large as the town itself, dominates the downtown of Grand Rapids. Pick up a magazine or catalogue you have lying around the house – Newsweek, Time, JC Penny, etc. – and examine the good quality coated paper it’s printed with. Chances are that paper was made in Grand Rapids. The front entrance to the mill is right in the middle of downtown Grand Rapids.
“Papermakers,” a statue located across the street from the mill’s main entrance, is a tribute to the trade and it’s practitioners that has always been Grand Rapid’s primary reason for existence. Grand Rapids began as a logging town in 1870. History records showed that in 1891 the town was incorporated and in 1902 the Itasca Paper Mill went into production. That mill has operated continually ever since and is now called Blandin Paper Company. It employs about 850 people, with another 2,000 jobs indirectly attributable to the company’s local operations.
Another claim to tourist fame of Grand Rapids is Hollywood legendary Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in the film classic The Wizard of Oz. It was here that the Frances Ethel Gumm – as she was then known – was born on June 10, 1922.
Don’t fail to visit the Judy Garland museum located in the heart of the city. (Her actual birthplace is a few miles out of town should you for some reason want to take the drive.) Some of the familiar items are the Abraham Lincoln carriage used in the 1993 classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” and Judy Garland’s special Tony statuette. An award-winning festival is held each June to celebrate her life and talents. During the festival, you can mingle with the original Munchkins, guest celebrities, collector’s exchange and seminars.
In the heart of downtown, the Old Central School is a must-see. Built in 1895, the school is designed in the Richardonian Romanesque style. It was in use until the 1970s. In the 1980s, a major renovation was begun. Today, Central School houses the Heritage Museum, maintained by the Itasca County Historical Society, as well as a number of unique shops with a distinct and friendly local flavor.
Definitely, children will have a lot of fun at the Children’s Discovery Museum. Inside the 15,000 square foot museum are a series of hands-on exhibits that are both fun and educational for the family. There is Exchange City, a child-scale town of 10 shops where can be on both sides of the counters. Then, there’s the River Water Table, an exhibit which brings a replica of the Mississippi up close, allowing children to control water flows with dams and see their effect.
Not far from the downtown is the Forest History Center. Here, you can step into pages from the past and discover the history of the logging era. Use your power of imagination to experience life as it was in 1900 at the Forest History Center. Walk back in time to Northwoods #1, an authentically recreated white pine logging camp complete with cook shack, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, office wanigan, filer’s shack and horse barn. Stop and visit with the cook, clerk, bull cook, blacksmith and other lumberjacks who may be in camp. Try your hand at sawing and pet the Percheron draft horses.
Wander down to the 1901 Mississippi River Wanigan, drop in on the 1934 Forest Service patrolman and get a bird’s eye view of the forests from atop the 100-foot fire tower. Explore the visitor center’s interactive exhibits and browse the gift shop featuring items unique to northern Minnesota.
Grand Rapids serves as the southern gateway to the Chippewa National Forest, where nature’s finest awaits in the towering pines, diverse wetlands and pristine waters. Catch of glimpse of bald eagles soaring in flight in this, the home of the largest breeding population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. The Lost Forty also awaits, a majestic stand of old-growth white pine ignored by lumber companies during the logging era.
The Chippewa National Forest is also home to a portion of the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway — awarded the status of National Scenic Byway in 1996 – and Suomi Hills, a semi-primitive non-motorized recreation area. Suomi Hills features kilometers of hiking, biking and Nordic skiing trails running through rolling forests and calm lakes.
If you love fishing, the Grand Rapids area is a fishing mecca. Fishing season begins just after the early spring warm-up and fishing opener in May, through summer and on to autumn when fish go on a feeding binge in preparation for freeze-up. However, the fishing doesn’t get put on hold with the thickening of lake ice during winter. Ever heard of ice fishing?
If hunting is your main thing, then Grand Rapids is the place to visit. White tail deer hunters can find a prime location within a short drive of the city. The mixed hardwood forests and numerous lakes provide excellent habitat for white tail deer. Steeped in rich tradition, deer hunting opener weekend is practically a holiday of its own in Grand Rapids.
Nothing enhances your vacation like great food! People here provide a full menu of dining experiences, from gourmet cuisine to finger food and everything in between! Round up the whole family or group for pizza, escape with your sweetheart to a table for two, kick back and watch the game or dine al fresco, overlooking a lake. From pastries to seafood, wild rice to creme brule, fast food to fine dining, the choices keep everyone in the group well-fed! Among Asians, there’s a Chinese buffet in the heart of the city.
Located just over three hours from the Twin Cities, Grand Rapids is an easy drive from the metro area. If flying is your preference, local charter service is available. Commercial airline service in the nearby cities of Hibbing and Duluth is also an option.
Visit, see and have fun at Grand Rapids, Minnesota! — ###