Minnesota’s Colorful Ethnic Heritage




Minnesota is home to people from many cultures: Ojibwe and Dakota Indian, European, African, Hispanic, Southeast Asian. These rich ethnic traditions are reflected in an array of intriguing restaurants, shops, museums and festivals. Here’s a sampler of sites to visit to get to know Minnesota’s cultural roots. Rich Tapestry of Cultures at Home on the Range

Perhaps the most ethnically diverse area of Minnesota outside of the Twin Cities is the Iron Range in north eastern Minnesota, stretching roughly from Hibbing to Hoyt Lakes. It took a lot of manpower to work the iron ore mines here, and immigrantas from over 40 European countries settled here, with Italians, Finns and Slavs among the largest numbers.

You can get a glimpse of what life was like for some of these early pioneers here by taking the Sisu Heritage Pioneer Homestead Tour. Local guides ride with tour participants or lead a car caravan to visit several sites connected with Finnish settlers, including four log homesteads, complete with a sauna. The guides tell about the history of the site and the family who lived there. The tours leave at 10 am and 2 pm daily during the summer from the visitors center at Hwy. 135 and Co. Rd. 21 near the town of Embarrass. The three-hour, 20-mile tour costs $5 for adults, $2 for children aged 5-12.

The St. Louis County Historical Society can provide information on self-guided tours of the Eric Wirtanen Finnish Farmstead near Biwabik. There are 16 buildings at this 1904 homestead, including a house, horse barn, shingle mill and hay shed. Call 218-733-7580.

Ironworld Discovery Center at Chisholm provides a picture of the multiple ethnic roots of the Iron Range. The interpretive center gives details on the immigration to the Range, telling the stories of individuals who left all they knew to start a new life in Minnesota. A simple miner’s cabin is typical of the homes these families lived in. Every day, a different handcraft is demonstrated, including weaving, bobbin pin lacing, and Ukranian egg painting. There are also cooking demonstrations, making ethnic specialties like strudel and potica. The restaurant and outdoor food court feature calzone, cabbage rolls, sausages and other ethnic fare.

An especially good time to visit is during one of the ethnic festivals held at Ironworld. This summer, there’s a Scandinavian Holiday July 8, Festa Italiana July 15, Festival Finlandia July 22-23, and All Slav Days Aug. 12-13.

Ironworld Discovery Center, on Hwy. 169, is open daily from 9:30 am to 5 pm from June 10 to mid-September. (Special note: this year, Ironworld is extending its season, and will be open weekends through Oct. 15.) For more information, call 800-372-6437.

There are plenty of things to see and do in this area, and a good information source is the Iron Trail Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-777-8497; see their web site at www.irontrail.org.
Bavarian Influence Colors New Ulm

Shopping, food and architecture are German treats in New Ulm, where Willkommen is the oft-used welcome. More of Minnesota’s settlers came from Germany than any other single country, and New Ulm has retained many of its German roots.

At the heart of downtown is a Glockenspiel, a clock with moving characters, a German tradition. Shopping has a distinct Bavarian flavor in New Ulm, and Germany’s role in establishing many Christmas traditions is evident. Christmas items are featured year-round in a couple of shops. Gift shops also carry cuckoo clocks, Swiss music boxes, Bohemian glass pieces, nutcrackers and exotic European chocolate.

There are still chances to savor German dishes at such places as Veigel’s Kaiserhoff (Weiner Schnitzel favored here) and The Heidelberg at the Holiday Inn.

To wash down hearty German foods, August Schell Brewery has provided 140 years of local brew. Every truly German town needs its own brewery! Set on a hill overlooking town, Schell’s features expansive gardens, a gift shop, museum and deer park.

New Ulm’s architecture also helps maintain the German look and feel. New Ulm’s two tone brick, Bavarian-influenced 1910 post office is now the Brown County Historical Museum. One exhibit recalls New Ulm’s Sister City, Ulm, Germany, the source of many early New Ulm settler. Towering over the city in a hilltop park is the Hermann Monument, built in 1897, which memorializes an ancient Teutonic hero considered the father of German independence.

New Ulm is well known for its Heritagefest, July 14-16 and 21-23,with a full offering of German foods, dancing and music on five stages. The line-up always includes German groups as well as New Ulm’s own, acclaimed Concord Singers. Appearances by masked characters called “Narren” and gnomes (Heinzelmannchen) rekindle an Old World tradition.

For more information, call the New Ulm Convention and Visitors Bureau at 888-463-9856, or see www.ic.new-ulm.mn.us.
South Minneapolis a Cultural Buffet

Once, south Minneapolis was home to thousands of Scandinavian and German immigrants and their families. By the mid 1900s, their descendants had been joined by African Americans and Mexican Americans seeking a new home in the north. And in the final decades of the century, waves of immigrants came from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As a result, the neighborhoods to the south of downtown Minneapolis are now a rich blend of cultures.

In the past few years, a wide array of tantalizing ethnic restaurants have sprouted up in these neighborhoods. There’s a world of flavors to be found along Nicollet, Lyndale, Franklin and Lake Streets. In fact, a long stretch of Nicollet Avenue has been dubbed “Eats Street” for its bounty of intriguing restaurants: Greek, German, Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Middle Eastern and Mexican. You’ll find Ethiopian cuisine at a Franklin Avenue spot and a fine Japanese restaurant on Lyndale.

To make eat easier for visitors to try out these dining spots, the “Arts & Eats Express” bus stops at the downtown convention center and hotels hourly and makes the run down Nicollet Avenue. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is just off Nicollet.

The “Sites & Bites Express,” a similar bus, can take you to interesting shops and restaurants on Franklin and Lake streets. (For current information on both of these routes, call 612/373-3333.)

Mercado Central, at the corner of Lake and Bloomington, is modeled after the outdoor markets found in many Mexican towns. There are over two dozen merchandise stalls and several eateries, all owned and operated by Hispanics, primarily serving the local Mexican-American community. Vendors offer a wide variety of crafts: jewelry, leatherwork, blankets, furniture, and onyx figures, plus Spanish-language books and music, and much more. A bakery, tortilleria, and several other stands serve up an authentic taste of Mexico.

For an appreciation of Minnesota’s American Indian heritage, visit the new Northland Native American Products gallery at the corner of Franklin and 12th Avenue. This beautifully laid out shop features the work of Plains Indian artists, including paintings, sculptures, and jewelry. Among the more unique items are cribbage boards fashioned from deer or moose antlers. Birch baskets packaged with wild rice, maple syrup, honey, jams and more make perfect gifts. All of the merchandise sold in the store is produced by Ojibwe, Dakota and other Plains Indians. Gallery owner Ken Bellanger travels throughout the area to purchase one-of-a-kind pieces from Indian artists.

His shop is part of a complex called Ancient Traders Market, still under development. This new multi-cultural mall will have galleries, shops, a restaurant and coffee shop, and outdoor plaza.

For more information, call the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, 888-676-6757 or 612/661-4700.
Chisago Lakes at Heart of Swedish Circle

By 1930, over a million Swedish immigrants had settled in the New World, and Minnesota drew more of them than any other state. The Chisago Lakes area north of the Twin Cities was the largest Swedish settlement in the state, and remnants of that heritage are still evident in this cluster of communities sometimes called the “Swedish Circle.”

Founded in 1851, Center City was the first permanent Swedish settlement. The best place to get a glimpse of what life was like for these early settlers is in nearby Scandia

Gammelgarden Museum is a collection of six buildings constructed by Swedish immigrants in the 1850s through the 1870s, including a church, parsonage and home, all log construction. There’s a frame immigrant hus, the first, tiny, basic home a settler lived in. The larger, more comfortable Prast Hus, or parsonage, and barn are original to the site. The cozy “Stuga” is the type of humble cottage many Swedish emigrants left behind. All are furnished, portraying the everyday life of these early Minnesotans.

Gammelgarden is open Friday through Sunday afternoons beginning mid-May. It’s on Co. Rd. 3 a half-mile south of Hwy. 97. For more info, call 651/433-5053.

For a special visit to Gammelgarden, there are “Kirsten” tours, a big hit with little girls familiar with the American Girl dolls and books. The tour guide tells stories of pioneer life in Minnesota from the point of view of Kirsten, an American Doll character. The three-hour event includes lunch and Swedish craft activities, such as rug braiding and Dala painting. The tours are offered Tuesdays through Saturdays, at 9:30 am and 11 am, from June 3 through August; cost is $20 per person and reservations are required.

The life of these Swedish immigrants was vividly portrayed in four novels by Vilhelm Moberg. The stories chronicle the fictional characters of Karl Oskar and Kristina and their journey to Minnesota. The Swedish author wrote this saga after visiting the Chisago Lakes in 1948. Moberg used an 1880s homestead in the area as the basis for the characters’ home described in the novels. The “Karl Oskar”house has been restored and moved to the Kichi-Saga Park off Co. Rd. 25 south of Lindstrom.

In town, there’s a statue of Karl Oskar and Kristina. The water tower in Lindstrom looks like a giant Swedish coffee pot. And in nearby Chisago City, there’s a statue of Moberg.

For more information on the Chisago Lakes Area, call the chamber of commerce at 651/257-1177 or see the web site at: www.chisagolakeschamber.com.

For another look at Swedish heritage, visit the American Swedish Institute in south Minneapolis. This elaborate 33-room mansion built by the prosperous newspaper publisher Swan Turnblad is now a museum focusing on Swedish immigration and culture. Call 612/871-4907 for more information.
Mille Lacs Museum Focuses on Ojibwe Culture

For centuries, Minnesota has been home to two major Indian tribes–the Dakota (Sioux) and the Ojibwe (Chippewa). The Mille Lacs Indian Museum north of Onamia is an excellent place to become more familiar with both the history and contemporary community of one group of Minnesota Indians–the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. They have made their home along the shores of Mille Lacs Lake for over 250 years.

The museum, a collaborative effort between the band and the Minnesota Historical Society, displays a large collection of Ojibwe objects. The Four Seasons Room has life-size dioramas depicting seasonal activities of the Ojibwe of 200 years ago–maple syruping, gathering berries, harvesting wild rice, hunting and trapping.

Other exhibits describe the current community: the sovereign status of the band, its clinic and school, its economy, and the significance of powwows. There are frequent demonstrations of beadworking, birchbark basketry, traditional cooking, canoe building and other crafts.

Next to the museum is the old trading post, restored to its 1930s appearance. The shop here sells craftwork made by a variety of American Indian tribes, including flutes, baskets, quillwork and moccasins.

The museum is on the southwest shore of Mille Lacs Lake on Hwy. 169, 12 miles north of Onamia. Summer hours are 10 am to 6 pm Monday through Saturday, and noon to 6 pm Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, and $3 for ages 6-15. For more information, call 320-532-3632, or see the Minnesota Historical Society web site: www.mnhs.org. Two Historical Society sites along the Minnesota River to the southwest–Fort Ridgely and the Lower Sioux Agency–offer insights into the history of the Dakota tribe.

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