Day-Tripper

Call these places the heart of the heartland. Or call them the middle of the middle of nowhere. One thing is certain: When you picnic on truck stop food in the cemetery beneath the oil refinery, you won't have to worry about other tourists

Inside the Copper Kettle I found black vinyl booths, a lunch counter, American flags, homespun art (including a black velvet portrait of a German shepherd), and a board that listed the daily specials of meat loaf and hamburger hot dish. The booths and tables were occupied by an equal mix of senior citizens and groups of men who obviously get their hands dirty for a living. A John Wayne movie--honest to God--was on the television over the counter.

The food was tremendous, and obviously made from scratch--all of it. Craig Stark, who owns the place with his wife and lives upstairs, does most of the cooking, and the couple generally spends 15 hours a day in the restaurant, allowing themselves a day off on Monday and half a day on Sunday (after serving breakfast). His wife bakes all the pies, cookies, and rolls, and Stark hand-peels, cuts, and boils all the potatoes (bought from local farmers) that he uses in his mashed potatoes and home fries. He also buys much of the meat he uses from one of the oldest surviving meat markets in the area, and creates his own barbecue sauce for his popular Friday night rib specials.

Stark, a huge man with a big moustache who looks more like a retired professional wrestler than a small-town restaurateur, laid out a philosophy that wouldn't be out of place in the kind of food magazine that has breathtaking ads for $11,000 ranges. "I've always figured if you're going to run a local business you should buy local," he said. "That's obviously not as easy as it used to be, and it would obviously be a whole lot easier if more people would think that way. Nowadays we get quite a bit more business from travelers than we do from the locals. Truckers are good to us. I guess they get a little bigger meal at a little better price, and we still have real mashed potatoes; the truckers really seem to love those."

Brad Zellar

When a fellow burly guy came up to the counter to pay his bill, Stark introduced him to me as Tim Carroll, a local character who logs with horses. I chatted a bit with Carroll and invited myself to his farm outside of town to see what he was up to.

That seemed just fine with Carroll, even though I arrived to find him in the middle of supervising the cleanup of damage from a recent storm that resulted in a bunch of downed trees on his property. He was also in the process of loading a Federal Express semi-trailer truck with a shipment of handcrafted furniture from his wood shop.

After he got the truck loaded and on its way, Carroll walked me through his Cedar River Horse Logging and Wood Products operation. For 12 years Carroll, along with his teams of Percheron horses, has been engaged in what he calls "equine forestry." That basically means, he explained, logging and land management with horses instead of mechanical equipment. "Horses," Carroll said, "can get in and out of places you just can't get with machinery. And in the process of hauling out the logs they do a whole lot less damage to the other trees and the land. Machines have the tendency to wreck a lot of things."

Part of the appeal for hardwood buffs who might want to selectively cut a few oak, walnut, or cherry trees is aesthetic, but for Carroll there are also environmental and purely practical considerations. He has a 930-pound portable Lucas sawmill he can transport to sites in the back of his truck, so there's no need to haul the logs away to be milled. He figures he puts $1.48 a day into each of his horses, which cost him on average $1,200. Besides their work in the woods, Carroll also uses his horses in the hay fields and to plow the driveway in the winter. Not to mention the fact that he's now into his third generation of Percherons: "I've never seen a piece of machinery that can reproduce itself," he said. "It's all about harvesting renewable resources with renewable resources. I suppose I've got maybe $5,000 invested in all of my equipment--how long do you think it'd take you to pay off a $100,000 tractor? There's a reason it only takes the Amish something like seven years to pay off their farms."

After giving me a tour of his shop, Carroll walked me across the road to introduce me to his horses. The massive animals were gentle and attentive, and swarmed Carroll (and me) like a pack of dogs, nuzzling and leaning their huge heads in for a scratch. "I try to spend as much time as possible just grooming them," Carroll said. "It really does a lot to build up trust and connect you to the horses. We're together so much, and they learn something everyday, and so do I."

 

ON YOUR WAY HOME, WHEREVER THAT MIGHT BE:

From Lyle, I would suggest you meander steadily west and north, zigzagging at right angles along various county roads and state highways. There are a bunch of sadly beautiful--and just plain beautiful--towns down there between Austin and Albert Lea to the south and Waseca and Owatonna to the north. Try Hollandale, Maple Island, Geneva, Hope, or Otisco.

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