By Berit Thorkelson
Antiques and the Mississippi River Valley go together like daffodils and a long-awaited Midwestern spring. One holds the power to stop you in your tracks to even better enjoy the other.
That's how it is on the southernmost section of Minnesota's Great River Road, anyway. Along the winding highway and in the sweet river towns, shops overflow with the area's unique prized finds--artfully weathered primitive farm tools, famous Red Wing pottery and stoneware, handmade Scandinavian heirlooms area settlers carried with them from the Old Country. Nature offers her own treasures here, too, in the form of tree-topped bluffs and the mighty rolling river. There's a good chance you'll catch an eagle soaring through the valley, too. Keep your eyes open and your pace leisurely. Trust me. You don't want to miss a thing.
Red Wing, on Highway 61 about an hour southeast of the Twin Cities, is really where the serious antique-hunting begins. Shops are scattered throughout the historic city, including in the busy little six-block downtown center, which springs to life right off the river. You'll have no problem homing in on the town's famous namesake pottery here, whether it dates back to the mid-1800s or is a future antique--it's still being made. You can even watch the pottery process or get in on a stoneware factory tour. Do try and resist the inevitable urge to dawdle too long in pretty Red Wing, though. Plenty more finds lie ahead.
Those finds multiply like crazy during the first weekend of May, when the popular 100-Mile Garage Sale sets up between here and Winona, along the Great River Road on both sides of the river, which forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin on this stretch. Even without that old-stuff-junkies' magnet of a sale, though, there're enough stores, and plenty of sparkling Mississippi views, between here and riverbluff-blessed Winona to string you downriver. A word to the wise: During stops, try asking locals and other shoppers for recommendations on the next store. New ones tend to pop up quietly.
Whether you continue south on 61 toward Iowa or cross the Mississippi and head back up the river's other bank to complete your waterside loop, there are plenty of glistening views and still more shops to conquer. The best part is, unlike spring flowers, your antiques scores--and the memories created tracking them down along Minnesota's beautiful southernmost section of the Great River Road--just might last forever.