Following the Yellow Brick Road to Grand Rapids
By Ellen Burkhardt
Pulling into the Forest History Center, I feel like I’m back in Girl Scouts, on a fieldtrip to get my forestry badge. Woods thick with white pine and wildlife make me temporarily forget that downtown Grand Rapids is a short drive away while reminding me of the city’s main money-maker: paper. Northern Minnesota today may be best known for its thousands of lakes (Itasca County alone has a whopping 1,000), but it was trees that put the region on the map a little more than a century ago.
After browsing interactive displays and watching a surprisingly entertaining multimedia show about forest fires in the center’s Interpretive Building, I head outside to the center’s main draw: an authentic replica of an early 1900s logging camp. Everything from Percheron draft horses to a cook shack with a working woodstove is accounted for, bringing to life a time when glass was a precious commodity and being a lumberjack was a profession, not a Halloween costume.
Grand Rapids’s other claim to fame has nothing to do with paper or trees: this was the birthplace of Frances Ethel Gumm, a.k.a. Judy Garland. As a lover of musicals, I make my next stop the Judy Garland Museum. The humble-looking building bursts with Garland memorabilia, making it a mecca for fans from around the world. Especially intriguing is the building attached to the museum: the house in which Garland spent the first four years of her life, completely restored to its days of being little Frances’s first stage.
Despite its 10,000-plus residents, Grand Rapids maintains a small-town feel. I especially feel this walking through downtown. Locally owned businesses occupy historic buildings, and I lose track of time browsing hand-painted stained glass at Stained Glass with Class and getting a history lesson of the city inside the Central School.
My hunger hits just as I’m making my way out of the school down the Yellow Brick Road—and just as the rain starts. Luckily, Brewed Awakenings is nearby and has homemade soup, fair-trade coffee, and fresh bread waiting for me. Grabbing a seat at a window-facing table, I find myself wondering if Garland called on memories of Grand Rapids while reciting, “There’s no place like home.” After my brief time spent here, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.