By Berit Thorkelson
History doesn’t reside solely in museums along the Glacial Ridge Scenic Byway in west-central Minnesota. Experience the past in a variety of ways here among the lakes, woods and prairies. Eat in a former train dining car, watch Model Ts rule the roadway or spend the night in a century-old inn that played a role in a Nobel Prize-winning author’s work. Along the byway’s 245 miles, every step back in time is a step toward a great Minnesota getaway.
In downtown Alexandria on the byway’s northern end, snap a photo with Big Ole the Viking, standing 28 feet tall on the southern shores of Lake Agnes. The words on his shield declare Alex "The Birthplace of America."
Investigate this claim at the Runestone Museum, just a couple of blocks away. The museum houses the controversial 200-pound stone inscribed with a story that puts the Vikings here before Columbus.
Two blocks down, the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum is packed with a truly impressive collection of antique and classic boats, plus resort and fishing memorabilia. Further immerse yourself in history with dinner in a railroad-car-turned-fine-dining-restaurant called Weston Station, east of town. And the Cedar Rose Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in a residential neighborhood that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, is a natural lodging choice for history buffs.
Sauk Centre, also on the byway’s north end, is often defined by novelist Sinclair Lewis, the town’s native son. Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His hometown makes appearances in his work, such as Main Street, famous for its depiction of small-town life.
There are many ways to appreciate the author here. Pay homage at the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center and Boyhood Home, soak in life on Main Street today at Sinclair Lewis Days in July, or check into The Palmer House, a century-old hotel, bar and restaurant on the National Register of Historic Places. The author once lived and worked as a night clerk here.
During the last Ice Age, glaciers leveled this countryside, then slowly retreated, sometimes dropping massive rocks and chunks of dirt along the way. They created a lovely set of hills that run right through Glacial Lakes State Park, mid-byway. The park also holds two other ways to experience the land’s history: clear lakes and native prairie.
It’s easy to picture long-ago life in central Minnesota at the Terrace Mill Historic District, also mid-byway. Take in historic photos, Norwegian folk art, and local artists’ work during a tour of the vintage flour mill. The grounds also hold an 1870s log cabin and a 1950s Scandinavian-style cottage—both with period furnishings—plus a century-old general store, now a gift shop and restaurant. The mill holds events summer and fall; September’s Fiddlers’ Contest is a popular one.
Transportation is the historical theme in Willmar, on the byway’s southern end. It’s about trains and more at The Kandiyohi County Museum and rare world-class antique and classic boats and motors at the Mikkelson Collection. And each September, Model Ts travel the byway, north to south, during a 2.5-day car run called the Model T Tour. Stumbling across clusters of the very first popular American car in small towns and zipping down roadways truly transports you back in time.
For history lovers here along the Glacial Ridge Scenic Byway, that’s definitely a step in the right direction.