In Praise of ...
|The Ding Dong Cafe
(Sauk Centre, Minnesota)
Hi Ho Restaurant (Sauk Centre, Minnesota)
The Belgrade Crow (Belgrade, Minnesota)
Debbie's Home Style Kitchen (Fergus Falls, Minnesota)
Omni Hobby and Games (Fargo, North Dakota)
Stearns County Fair (Sauk Centre, Minnesota)
The name, railroad-themed décor inside, and toy train pictured on the menu are reminders that the Ding Dong Cafe used to be near a railroad. The Ding Dong didn't move: The railroad went away, leaving Lake Wobegon Trail in its place.
The cuisine is what I think of as typically Midwest-American: chili, hamburger, steak, corn dogs, that sort of thing.
When you step into The Ding Dong, you're in a smallish room with a row of tables between you and a short, low counter. A cash register sits at one end of the counter. A pile of newspapers and a basket of phone books keeps a telephone company at the other end.
On the wall to your right there's a white board with the day's specials written in colored markers. The white board's wide wood frame holds ads on coppery plaques. A doorway on the back wall leads to the dining room.
Aside from the train-related decorations, this low-ceilinged cafe is like many small town eateries from the "good old days." This isn't some sort of Midwest Brigadoon, though, stuck in 1963 or 1957. There's a digital watch here, a cell phone there, e-mail addresses and URLs on the take-home menu's advertisements. Pop bottles in the glass-fronted cooler behind the counter are plastic, the cash register is digital, and the telephone has a keypad, not a dial.
The Ding Dong is a town meeting spot, just off Lake Wobegon Trail on Elm Street. If you live in Sauk Centre, you're likely to see someone you know inside: When I dropped in there one Wednesday, three or four guys I knew were talking at one of the tables. The mid-morning crowd was about what I'd have expected: a professional-looking young man at a corner table with a newspaper; and about about a half-dozen older men talking at one of the center tables. Some wore duckbill caps and all had cups of coffee before them.
One Friday afternoon I had a cup of coffee and a (really good) piece of apple pie at the Ding Dong's counter. As I ate, a little girl sitting on the stool next to me drank hot chocolate and chatted with her mom (who was working the counter), and with me. Later, those two had an animated conversation with an older man and two ladies at a table behind me.
As I left, I noticed a small plaque by the door. It read, "Complaint Department - For Service Press Button." The button is on the trigger of a mousetrap. I also saw a sign that read, "If you are grouchy, irritable, or just plain mean, there will be a $10 charge for putting up with you."
Good food, good memories, gone forever.
The Hi Ho once dominated the northeast corner of 12th and Main, near Interstate 94. This was a traditional restaurant, with booths and a counter to the left as you came in, and a dining room with tables to the right.
True to its name, garden gnomes graced the interior. So did a fine relief map of Sauk Lake, a circular saw blade painted with an outdoor scene and more artwork. Windows running up to the ceiling topped the western wall, giving everyone inside an eyefull of the sky, and the occasional spectacular sunset. The interior felt spacious, with a ceiling that followed the roofline, right up to the air handling equipment's box above the entrance in the center of the western wall.
The Hi Ho's food was good: some of the best in Sauk Centre. Not fancy, but good. You have to go to Trucker's Inn, across the Interstate, to get its like today.
Times change. After two decades of meals and memories, the Hi Ho closed its doors for the last time on December 31, 1990. Not long after that, the building was demolished, and in 1991 a Holiday Super Stop stood in its place. Now the Hi Ho is one with the Colossus of Rhodes and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon: a memory and nothing more.
Eighteen feet of avian inspiration: the world's largest crow.
New York City has the Statue of Liberty. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge.
Belgrade, Minnesota, has a huge crow.
This handsome bird perches on a sculpted branch 25 feet above the ground, its head a towering 43 feet above a memorial and picnic grounds. It's part of the Belgrade Centennial Memorial, started during the 1988 Minnesota state centennial. Since July 4, 1994, the flags of all fifty states, and the American flag, have been flying here.
There's a compact museum inside the base of this sculpture. Among other things on display there is a commemorative Frisbee from the Centennial celebration. Push a button, and you'll hear a fairly detailed account of why Belgrade chose this particular symbol, and why the memorial is there.
Of greater importance than the Frisbee, I think, is the memorial's encircling wall which displays over 5,000 bricks. Each brick has the name and birth year of a Belgrade area resident: the town's founders, settlers, and their descendents. Folks have lived there for up to six generations now, as the twenty first century gets started.
Why a crow? Crow River Township is next door, two forks of the Crow River go through the community, Crow Lake is 733 yards away from the memorial (as the crow flies), and the Little Crow chain of lakes begins about 9 miles south of Belgrade.
"Crow" shows up in many place names here in Central Minnesota. For one thing, there was the famous Sioux warrior Chief Little Crow. Besides that, the Ojibwe names for places around here often referred to a big, black bird. For example, Kagiwegwon: "Raven's-wing or Quill." Crows aren't exactly ravens, but the English-speaking folks who came out here were more familiar with crows: and that may be why we don't have a Raven-wing River. (You might have fun, looking for "Crow" place names at the Minnesota Place Names site.)
Finally, the crow is an admirable avian. The sterling qualities of this bird make it a fitting emblem for this place. This undervalued but exemplary bird is intelligent and resourceful. One account tells of a crow which soaked a hard morsel of food in a puddle until it became edible. Another points out that if a crow sees six hunters enter a blind and five coume out, the crow will stay under cover until the sixth comes out. And, in a day of increasing interest in family values, let us also remember that the crow mates for life, and has such close family ties that young adult crows sometimes have to be pushed out of the nest.
Good food, a fish tank, and music that reminds me of the seventies.
The place that became Debbie's Home Style Kitchen was a Country Kitchen when I began traveling on I-94. Fergus Falls. Highway 210 exit wasn't as built up then. About 1990, a new owner took over the old Country Kitchen building. She has a name any restaurateur should be glad to have: Proudfoot.
Debbie Proudfoot kept what I'd call a Midwest-American style to the food. Most of the dinners evolved from the meat-and-potatoes heritage of this area: meat and chicken dinners, sandwiches, and a good salad bar. She just made it better: in my opinion, at least.
I've seldom missed getting a meal here when I travel, usually when returning with one of the kids on their birthday trip with me to the grandparents. Aside from good food, and a name that matches my third daughter's, I like the atmosphere. On weekend evenings, there's a mixed crowd of locals and travelers: from folks who can remember the Great Depression to toddlers who will probably remember big fish in the aquarium here; from two people in a booth to a dozen people in a group at several pushed-together tables.
Debbie's Home Style Kitchen is a good example of this area's roadside eateries. You come in through two sets of doors: That keeps Minnesota winter weather in its place. There's not much wasted space in the entry. You're sharing it with a pay telephone, an advertising-paper dispenser, and a bulletin board. Inside, you're facing the cash register and a salad bar. There's a coin-op candy dispenser near the door. Next to the cash register, there's something special: an aquarium with about a half dozen big fish. Tables and booths are off to the right and left, and big windows cover all but the north wall. Except for a big non-functional fireplace on the west side, that is.
The scenery is about what you'd expect near an Interstate, but there's lots of light during the day, and a view of the sky. The real visual fun is in the decorations: seasonal stickers, 'artwork. done by kids and local schools, and the odd plaque.
About the fish tank: those fish are on the staff, not on the menu. They're live entertainment, best viewed by people less than five feet tall.
On May 1, 2004, I received very good news: OMNI Hobby and Games is back in business, and in a new location. I'll quote from the message that OMNI's owner sent: "OMNI Games recently opened in Fargo at 4325 13 Ave SW. Across the street from the TJ Maxx Plaza in Fargo. OMNI is still alive and kicking. If anyone can be called the comeback kids- it'll be OMNI and I think we'll do it."
My family will be glad to learn that one of their favorite stops in Fargo, North Dakota, is still around. What follows is my entry for this place, written in the summer of 2004, when the future didn't look quite so rosy. I've left it as it is, apart from correcting "Omni" to "OMNI," polishing the first sentence in the fifth paragraph, and adding a comment [in bold].
Sic Transit OMNI.
When I visited OMNI Hobby and Games in early June of 2003, I discovered that the store was in the process of closing. Not for the day, but permanently. I realized then that the doors might be shut for good by the time I got back, later in the summer.
For years, OMNI Hobby has been a regular stop for me and my children on their birthday trips. Among other things, we've been picking up model railroad HO-scale buildings, one at a time.
Each time we stopped at OMNI, we took our purchases home in one of those bright red, clear, OMNI bags. The bags were completely plain plastic: no logo, no words, just that stand-out red color, and clear so that the treasures inside showed through.
OMNI Hobby opened a week before Christmas in 1989. The name of the place was going to be a great deal longer, but one of the rules at the store's original location was that the stores. names had to be spelled out in big, expensive, individual lighted letters.
Since each letter cost several hundred dollars a pop, the owner of this nascent hobby store wanted as short a name as possible. From the original, over a dozen letters long, he whittled it down to four: "OMNI." A good choice, since the store has carried everything from model rockets to fantasy gaming books, model railroading supplies, toys and airplanes.
Times change. OMNI Hobby moved from its original location at a mall near West Acres to a Main Avenue storefront on the south side of Fargo's downtown. Finally, changes in people's buying habits spelled the doom of OMNI. Well, not "omni," just OMNI Hobby and Games. Folks won't be carrying home railroad cars, buildings, airplanes and other bits of embodied imagination in those bright red bags any more. On a more positive note, Lenny Tweeden, OMNI's owner, will finally be able to take a day off! Owning and running a retail store hasn't left much free time during the last fourteen years. He's got a managerial position lined up with a retail food store in the area, and can look forward to much more regular hours, with a day off now and again.
On August 23, 2003, my oldest daughter and I stopped by OMNI Hobby and Games. "Going out of business" signs were in the windows, but the store was open. We looked over the store, I bought an HO model kit for my youngest child and a few other items. Then we walked out the door of 320 Main. I think this will be the last time. We walked to the van and got in. I put my purchases, in that clear red plastic bag that OMNI used, on the floor between me and my daughter. Then we drove away.
My children and I will miss those shopping trips to Omni Hobby. I wish we could keep on carrying those bright red bags home, but we've got years of good memories. Thanks, OMNI!
[The paragraphs after "Sic Transit OMNI" are obviously outdated, as I learned in May of 2004, but I'll let them stay here, for 'historical interest.. As of spring, 2004, OMNI Hobby and Games is in business at 4325 13 Ave SW in Fargo, across from the TJ Maxx Plaza. On May 16, 2004, I visited the store with two of my children. OMNI Games had been in its new location for about 4 weeks by then, and was almost through moving in. There is less of the model building, and more role playing game materials, but it is the same store I've gotten to know. Welcome back, OMNI!]
During four days near the end of July each year, folks come to Sauk Centre for the Stearns County Fair.
This is the place to see today's massive farm equipment, and the draft horses we used in my grandfather's day for the same purpose. People bring horses, cows, pigs, ducks, and the occasional very odd-looking chicken to be judged. The livestock barns are a fine place to experience this area's rural atmosphere up close and personal.
Steel buildings house exhibits between the livestock barns and the midway. 4-H booths cover almost half of the floor of one exhibit building. Most years, you can count on a good display of home crafts and model rockets, and usually a decent photo and art display.
The west half of another building houses the Conservation Club's live wildlife exhibits during the fair. One year I found out what a coot looks like: the avian kind, not the "old coot" I used to hear about. Larger creatures, like deer, are on the north side, and a three-pen fish pond occupies the middle of the floor. Smaller critters, like that coot, foxes, prairie chickens, or whatever, are on the south. The displays change each year, so this place doesn't get stale.
No matter what you come to see at the fair, what you encounter most is people. Folks squeezing past each other at the exhibit booths, walking between buildings, tending to livestock, examining equipment, or sauntering down the midway. And there, at the heart of it all, right off the midway, a Knights of Columbus bingo booth is tucked in between a big, round beer stand, a food concession, and the race track.
As I write this, in 2003, the 102nd Stearns County Fair is less than two months away. I'm looking forward to another good time with my family there: immediate and extended. We live close to the fairgrounds, so some of the uncles, cousins, and aunts park on our drive when they come to the fair. They stop to say "hi," so it's a chance to see relatives!
The Ding Dong Cafe
The Belgrade Crow
Debbie's Home Style Kitchen
Stearns County Fair
Text copyright © Brian H. Gill 2003-2004
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