Sunday, September 19, 2010

County Road 51

It's fall, and the best time of year for long bike rides. Cool and crisp and no wind, just blue skies. The views are starting to open up, the fields are still beautiful and, of course, the trees. Last year I took my camera out to record the ride from St. Joseph to Avon along the Lake Wobegon Trail. This year, I wanted to chronicle a ride along County Road 51 between St. Joseph and Collegeville, toward Avon and Cold Spring.

One difference on this route is the traffic. Although the road was recently widened, and there are solid shoulders, cars race down this road at speeds of 60-70 mph. The other difference is the hills. They don't call it the Avon Hills for nothing!

I think of this road as an artery of what is best about this area in terms of entrepreneurs in the local food business. I decided to make the bike trip after driving it this morning to get apples. When the road ends, you can turn left to get to Hidden Cove Orchards, which has the best Honey Crisp apples around, or you can turn right to get to Collegeville Orchards, an energetic family farm with a petting zoo and the attraction of pumpkins and the full force of fall. I'd purchased my apples and toted them home, had lunch and then headed out for the ride.

I didn't take a photo of the first sign you pass on this road, turning off Route 2 after passing under I-94. The first sign is for Flaten Taxidermy, an established old business to be sure, but probably not one I'll be patronizing.

The first local food place is Dancing Bears Company, Jim DiGiovanni's farm. It's an organic farm with a bed and breakfast attached. Lately they've also started selling lamb meat and wool at the St. Joseph Farmers' Market, where they have a popular and well-stocked stand. I bought Jimmy Nardello's sweet red peppers from them last week for my yellow tomato salsa.

The next property is not part of this story, the private home of a young, local cardiologist. He is Steve's best customer, and Steve is currently working on a big swath of prairie restoration for them. It's nice to see that it is kind of the ethos of CR 51 to restore prairie.

Farther down the road is one of my favorite businesses, Forest Mushrooms. The mushrooms are sold at all area grocery stores, but this is where they grow them. They used to be at the St. Joseph Farmers' Market, but have moved on to bigger and better things. Which is a shame, because I loved buying their special combinations of mushrooms, which I don't see anymore. One thing they do is dump all the old mushroom bales out in front of this barn for local gardeners to pick up and use. These are hay bales with a coating that was used to grow the mushrooms. The bales are smaller now, which makes them less friendly to work with, but to have access to free mushroom mulch is pretty great!

A couple miles farther down the road is Collegeville Artisan Bakery. This is a favorite at the Farmers' Market and known for their bread and also their almond croissants. It's the home and business of Steve and MaryAnn Nelson, who are good friends with my sister-in-law Amy. My husband Steve made this logo for him when he was starting out, after breaking from a family business down the highway a bit. That was a popular truck stop with lots of fresh baked goods, but not really the vision Steve and MaryAnn had for their baking operation. People take classes in bread baking here and, of course, buy baked items. Their bread is also now available at the St. Joseph Meat Market, which is a plus.

The final stop in terms of popular businesses is Thomsen's Nursery, a great source for plants. I've decided to buy all my tomato plants here (why grow from seed when you can get 4 for $1.69 already started?) and their plants are famous for heartiness and quality.

Across from Thomsen's I saw this great sign: "Rocks for Sale." If that's not the sign of an entrepreneur, I don't know who is. Stearns County is known for its rocky fields, and there are many field stone churches in the immediate area.  Still, I would imagine many people driving out to Thomsen's might appreciate some small fieldstone to border their new beds.

A few hundred feet from the end of the road, you can turn in to a nicely kept, trim house and buy maple syrup.

At the end of the road, if you're not turning left or right for apples, you can pull over for a visit to the Virgin Mary at this extensive shrine. Built in 1954, it is a Queen of Mary shrine, with Mary wearing a really nice crown. For a shrine not attached to a church or any visible landmark, it is very well-maintained and elaborate.

On the way back, I stopped to photograph the Saint John's Abbey apple orchard, and then got lured into a Johnny football game where I stopped and visited with Father Cletus for a few minutes. Finally, it was over the bike/foot bridge and back to the Wobegon Trail, which was much flatter and an easy ride home.

For a complete album of my ride, click here.

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