By Berit Thorkelson
The life and landscape here in southwestern Minnesota has long sparked artists' inspiration. Among the more well-known are Jim Brandenburg, Frederick Manfred and Robert Bly. Drive the southern portion of the King of Trails Scenic Byway to discover the small towns, prairie wildlife and patchwork of farmland that ignited their imaginations and fueled their work. Who knows? You may even find some inspiration of your own.
Famed nature photographer and environmentalist Jim Brandenburg grew up in Luverne, at the byway's far southern end. His roots here on the wild Minnesota prairie fanned his desire to capture nature's beauty. Brandenburg's shot for National Geographic since the late '70s and has accumulated many high honors including a Magazine Photographer of the Year and Environmental World Achievement Awards, and even an Emmy nomination. He's snapped wildlife worldwide and now calls northern Minnesota home, but the southwestern Minnesota landscape still holds a special place in his heart.
That much is evident at the Brandenburg Gallery in downtown Luverne. Housed in the renovated Rock County Courthouse Square, the gallery showcases over 100 Brandenburg photographs, including a special local section. Books and prints are for sale. Conveniently enough, the gallery shares a roof with two local history museums as well as a visitors center, making it the perfect jumping-off point for any local exploration. Check out the Prairie Moon Gallery, with work by area artists. Two Brandenburg-lover must-sees: Touch the Sky Prairie, funded in part by the photographer's Brandenburg Prairie Foundation, just northwest of town; and Blue Mounds State Park, on the opposite side of Highway 75.
Brandenburg snapped his very first wildlife photo in Blue Mounds State Park, which remains the subject of his photos today. This land also inspired literary legend Frederick Manfred, author of novels including "Boy Almighty" and "Lord Grizzly." The writer-naturalist often set his big adventures in what he termed Siouxland, the ruggedly beautiful section of land right here, where Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa meet.
In 1959, Manfred built a home into a prairie slope, dotted with boulders and cacti, just south of the park. He wrote in a windowed turret studio that jutted above his house and the prairie horizon. From this vantage point, the landscape that so inspired him spread out for miles upon miles. Manfred eventually sold his house and the land surrounding it to the state. It's now the Interpretive Center for Blue Mounds State Park, home to a huge expanse of native tallgrass prairie and the only state-owned buffalo herd in Minnesota.
Small towns and crop fields line the 100-mile drive up the King of Trails to Madison, once home to poet and activist Robert Bly. Minnesota's first poet laureate was born here. As a teen, he'd work the family farm atop a putt-putting tractor, with his nose buried in a book. After college, the Navy and a stint in New York, Bly returned to Madison to write and raise a family. He penned his first published collection of poetry, "Silence in the Snowy Fields," from a studio tucked into a grove of trees on a farm outside of town. He's since gone on to publish over twenty poetry collections and books including the international bestseller "Iron John."
In the '90s, his studio, complete with books and furniture, was moved to the Lac qui Parle County Historic Center grounds, right off the King of Trails in downtown Madison. The museum's chock full of county history — buffalo robes and corn husk rugs and dishware bearing the monogram of the local Lutheran church. There are a few outbuildings, too, including a pioneer cabin, a one-room schoolhouse and Bly's studio. Poke around. Soak in the atmosphere. Perhaps you, too, will find inspiration tucked here among the small towns, prairies and quiet fields of southwestern Minnesota's King of Trails.