Hidden Cities: Northfield


-  By Sean McSteen - For this edition of Hidden Cities, we visited Northfield, Minnesota, a widely-known city—bolstered by St. Olaf and Carleton College—home to a huge variety of artists and makers, businesses and schools, and protected forests and prairie. All of these elements combine to make up a vibrant Minnesotan culture. Our exploration of Northfield was very different than past towns visited; where in the smaller towns, we had to really dive in and try and find every little hidden gem. With Northfield, we found that everywhere we turned there was an interesting store to go into. A cafe to try. Or a park or nature path to explore.

With a beautiful main street, walking through downtown Northfield is a delight. The some 65 buildings that make up Northfield’s most unique businesses are all historically preserved and maintained in order to allow the town’s roots to live on. And rather than old saloons, drug stores and banks, the town’s buildings house some very cool businesses and restaurants.

After grabbing a delicious coffee at Goodbye Blue Monday Coffee, we began our exploration of the town with a marathon of antique stores that were all just enough different from the next to keep things interesting. I have always loved walking the intricately laid-out paths winding through the space like an antique-ridden maze, trying to not miss a thing lest there be a tiny treasure hidden amongst the rest. We got our first taste of what the Northfield community is like in the first antique store we visited when, after buying a strange dagger and set of Russian nesting dolls all painted with a different Communist leader, the store employee recommended we visit the other antique stores in town as well. Another nearby antique store and museum definitely worth checking out is Hot Sam’s Antiques. Located about 20 minutes north of Northfield, Hot Sam’s is a large property comprised of crazy, colorful sculptures and art pieces made from old cars and scrap metal parts. There is even a plane “crashed” into the pond edging the park.

It was on our search for the other stores scattered across the downtown area that we came across Makeshift Accessories, a store loaded wall-to-wall with art, jewelry and other incredibly cool creations made entirely out of recycled and refurbished metals and scraps. One of the most unique things we found in the front of the store was a handcrafted chess set with pieces built from smaller engine parts and other scrap metal. After meeting Devin Johnson, the owner of Makeshift, he took us into the back half of his store to show us the workshop he uses and also allows others to use to work on their own pieces. With the back wall lined with every kind of tool you could think of and the side walls covered with scrap metal, boxes filled with seemingly any and every metal utensil possible, and old brass instruments long forgotten until Devin saw potential within them; the workshop was stunning.

Walking around Northfield, I was surprised at how consistently the intertwinement of arts and community arose. Whether it is the store, SWAG, which sells the works and creations of all kinds of artists; anything and everything from rooster sculptures made from single, strips of metal to intricate quilted portraits. Or, the Northfield Arts Guild itself, which had just opened a gallery showcasing the work of local high school students; the work was incredibly impressive and had I gone in blindly, I would have thought it was a professional gallery. It was a beautiful thing to see how the town cares for, fosters and shares the art and culture of not only those who were born and raised in Northfield, but also for those who bring in the different influences and perspectives of the world.

Boasting the nickname as one of the Ivy League of schools the Midwest, Carleton College is woven into the Northfield landscape east of the Cannon River. And with St. Olaf resting on the west, the atmosphere of the town has this comforting combination and intermingling of older and younger generations. From speaking with people around the community, we got the impression that those who live—and have maybe lived their whole lives—in Northfield are genuinely interested in supporting and nourishing any spark of originality or ingenuity that arises; whether from an international student attending school at Carleton or St. Olaf or an aspiring artist or musician just entering Northfield Public High School.

One local story that we discovered while exploring Northfield was a relatively new, local distillery called Loon Liquors. We were initially worried we would not be able to see it because was closed the first day we were in town—a Tuesday—but luckily, we were able to return that same Friday to check out their space and meet the co-founders, Simeon Rossi and Mark Schiller. Simeon and Mark have been friends from a young age having attended high school together in Northfield, but it was not until the last five or so years that the two decided to create their own liquor business. Trying to use as many locally and sustainably sourced ingredients, Loon Liquors currently distills whiskey and gin, and were just beginning their first batch of vodka on the day we visited. Making us a few cocktails off their very extensive menu and even pulling a sample from one of their aging barrels for us to try, Mark and Simeon made us feel right at home in their converted warehouse space furnished all with pieces that they made themselves. The quality of liquor matched the quality of hospitality and we couldn’t in our right minds leave before buying a bottle of their whiskey, appropriately named Loonshine.

One of the most enjoyable things about adventuring and exploring Northfield was the nature and how close it hugged the city. With the Cannon River running through the center of town, there is already a vein in which to explore, which if you follow, leads you to either more parks or beautiful walking trails through the forest and sand banks bordering the river. Or, if you were visiting Carleton’s picturesque campus, we highly recommend visiting the college’s Cowling Arboretum. You can explore the protected area of about 880 acres on walking paths that wind through the arboretum like branches of a fallen tree. And when you have had your fill of exploring the nature that Northfield has to offer and want a bit of relaxation, there are plenty of places back in town to do just that.

Whether it be Froggy Bottoms River Pub, the balcony patio of Tavern, or the outdoor riverside space of The Contented Cow; when the bugs aren’t bad, an evening drink and/or meal by the river is a perfect way to wind down. And we did just that. The city is truly a place where they love their own and care about both the past and the future of the city, while at the same time promoting and supporting a global community as well as a local one. Should you ever get a chance to take a little break driving and stop off the highway to do a little exploring, we suggest you choose Northfield.

Helpful side note: Oh, yeah. There’s a town history museum there as well, but all we found was technically a four-roomed space supplying minimal information of the failed bank robbery of Jesse James and his gang. Though, two of the rooms were recreations of the bank itself (for the bank had been where the museum is now) and the fourth differed completely from the rest, highlighting the antique photographs of two former townspeople. So, all in all, at five bucks a person, you are not really missing out should you decide to go ahead and skip it.