In an old mining area, friends go prospecting for antiques.
© Beth Gauper
Near Crosby, the Pennington overlook in Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area has a view of mine-pit lakes.
Out in the countryside, fall is a good time to go hunting.
There's so much to scout out — autumn colors, new trails, interesting shops. Lots of people head for the river valleys, to orchards on the St. Croix and towns along the Mississippi.
But one October, two girlfriends and I headed north instead. And in an overlooked part of the state, between Brainerd and Mille Lacs, we found a rich vein of fun.
There's another iron range in Minnesota, barely more than two hours from the Twin Cities. Its ore is less concentrated than the ore on the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges, but between 1907 and 1977, millions of tons were shipped from dozens of pits near towns dubbed Iron Hub, Ironton and Manganese.
The Cuyuna (ki-U-na) Range was named for surveyor Cuyler Adams, who mapped the 68-mile-long range on expeditions with his St. Bernard, Una. Its manganese ore was in high demand during World War II, and production peaked in 1953 at 3.7 million tons.
But eventually the era ended, and the mine pits were abandoned.
Nature took over, and now the open pits are lakes, lovely slivers of crystalline water set into deep forest.
"They're so incredibly beautiful," says Rita Hussman, a Twin Cities transplant who works at Cycle Path & Paddle in Crosby. "It's amazing to me that a big old hole in the ground not only can be reclaimed but probably made more beautiful than it was in the beginning."
A new era is starting on the Cuyuna Range. Around the largest concentration of mine-pit lakes, 5,000 acres have been preserved as the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, a playground for scuba divers, trout fishermen and sport paddlers.
"We have 26 miles of natural shoreline, and in this part of the state, it's hard to find that," says park manager Steve Weber.
Mountain-biking and horseback-riding trails will be developed, he says. But already, canoeists and kayakers have discovered the pit lakes and bicyclists the five-mile Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, along the southern border of the recreation area. Eventually, the trail will extend west to the Paul Bunyan State Trail in Baxter and east to Aitkin.
The paved trail is very popular, but that's just the start, says John Schaubach of the Cuyuna Lakes Trail Association. Schaubach envisions attracting bicyclists and other outdoors enthusiasts from as far away as Europe.
"This area has the potential for defining recreation in a different way," he says. "We're just trying to make everything possible."
New life with old finds
A giant snake named Kanabec (Ojibwe for snake) coils alongside Serpent Lake in Crosby.
The towns of the Cuyuna Range get business from surrounding resort areas, but they still can use the tourism dollars. Crosby has made a name for itself as an antiques center — "The Antique Capital of the Lakes Area," according to a 1998 proclamation by then-Gov. Arne Carlson, posted at the Hallett Antique Emporium.
"We're trying to live up to our reputation," says Phyllis Griebling, one of the three dozen dealers who share space in the building.
It began in the early 1980s, when Crosby's Main Street was lined with empty storefronts. Local resident Kay Johnson was facing a strike as a Northwest Airlines flight attendant and decided she needed to explore new job avenues.
"I thought I'd do what I love to do: antiques," she said.
She bought two of the empty buildings, using one and inviting other dealers to rent the other. More dealers opened other shops, and now they nearly fill the small downtown.
"It's really true that the more you have, the more they come," says Johnson, who still works for Northwest and owns the Den of Antiquity. "It made the town sort of cuter. It's become a destination."
Quite a few women and some men were roving the streets of Crosby when I went with my friends Judy, a whiz on antique glass and crockery, and Marie, who loves vintage clothing.
We started at the Hallett Antique Emporium, where a woman was carting away a $125 wrought-iron patio table and four chairs, and Marie immediately snapped up a $25 navy-blue peacoat its owner bought at a Minneapolis surplus store in 1949.
"Copies from Banana Republic are $200 or $300," she said, delighted. "The woman said it has been here only a week, and she's surprised it lasted that long."
Judy found a $10 early-20th-century china plate from Higbee's in Cleveland — "You want anything sold by a department store, because they're going away," she said — and a $9 Ridgway Ironstone plate with an attractive pattern.
"It's a transfer, but from an original engraving," she said. "It's really rare, though, to find brown with color on top of it."
Across the street at Abbey House Antiques, Judy was pleased to see a large array of Carnival glasses and lingered over blue Japanese platters, etched champagne glasses and an odd black-and-red plate from Norway.
"This is just full of very diverse things," she said approvingly.
We both admired a $35 striped 1920s suitcase with old tourist decals and a $59 Erector radar-scope set, complete with instruction manual. And I bought an $11 umbrella printed with historic front pages from the Duluth News Tribune.
© Beth Gauper
Antiques shops line the streets of downtown Crosby.
At the Crosby Collectible Co-op, Sharon Olson of Coon Rapids was looking at a pair of lime-green patent-leather golf shoes in her size and ribbing her father, Lyle Olson of Brainerd, about a "dragon" he'd bought.
"It's a duck, geez," he said, miffed. "I got it for $1.50."
When I got to the counter with a $4.50 African-style bowl, my friends already had piled up their finds. Judy had a $24.50 glass refrigerator box, a $12.50 glass pitcher and a $10.50 tablecloth, which would be a Christmas gift. Marie had found a pair of embroidered pillowcases, $16.50, and a pair of wool mittens, $4.50.
"These mittens would've been $35 in Iceland," she said.
Marilyn Alery of Deerwood, a dealer who was taking her turn at the register that day, said business has been brisk.
"We have a lot of people in Stillwater come up and take things back to their shops," she said. "They say it's quicker to shop at our shops, because it's cheaper."
At the Den of Antiquity, I bought a $22.50 yellow-plaid Troy Robe wool throw that Judy said was worth eight times as much. Among us, we'd made quite a haul.
"It's amazing how different the shops are," Judy said.
"And how there are so many levels of taste," Marie said.
Pictures of serenity
I already had bought a box of goodies at the Crosby Bakery that morning, but before it closed at 1 p.m., I made a second trip to buy more of its delectable, 25-cent chocolate cream puffs; when I asked for six, the baker threw in an extra one.
Then, we picked up sandwiches and drove into the Cuyuna recreation area, bumping up an old dirt mining road to the Cuyuna/Pennington Overlook.
The three of us sat on one of the dark-red chunks of iron ore that lined the edge, eating our lunches and taking in the view. Once, a hoist squatted at the edge of Inland Steel's Pennington Pit, and trucks belching smoke pulled ore up its sides.
The early miners worked long hours for low pay, and their struggle galvanized a young Swede named Karl Emil Nygard; in 1932, Crosby elected him as the first Communist mayor in the United States.
© Beth Gauper
Crosby's Main Street is lined with antiques shops.
That day, we saw only serenity. Far below, serpentine lakes stretched in every direction, surrounded by a lumpy blanket of treetops in russets and golds. At the edges of the overlook, clumps of sumac waved in the breeze.
In summer, visitors can learn about local history at Croft Mine Historical Park, on the site of an underground mine that operated from 1916 to 1934. Underground mining was dangerous; in 1924, 41 miners died when mud and water from a nearby lake flowed into Milford Mine, owned by town founder George Crosby.
Croft Mine, on the edge of Crosby, also is the eastern trailhead of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail. As we got ready to ride on the trail, Sharon Jendro of Brainerd and Mary Hylden of Battle Lake were just finishing their ride.
They'd come mainly to bicycle, Jendro said, but first had spent 5½ hours in the antiques stores, much longer than they'd intended.
"She just kept saying, 'There's another one,'" Hylden said.
"We had good luck," said Jendro, who comes to Crosby with friends several times a year.
Even from town, the bicycle trail was winding and wooded, giving it an intimate feel. After crossing Minnesota 6, we followed the shorelines of Portsmouth Lake, then Pennington and Huntington lakes, all former mine pits.
It was nearly dusk, but people still were out on the trail; John Schaubach says whole families now are buying bikes for the first time.
We rode slowly, but too soon, we were back.
"That was such a beautiful trail to ride at sunset," Marie said.
The end of the mining era meant hardship for the Cuyuna Range. But for locals as well as visitors, the return of nature has brought a silver lining.
Trip Tips: Crosby and the Cuyuna Range
Getting there: It's 2¼ hours from the Twin Cities in light traffic. The fastest way is via Interstate 94 west to Rogers, then Minnesota 101 to U.S. 169, which follows the west shore of Lake Mille Lacs.
Cuyuna Country Recreation Area: There's good camping, paddling and fishing.
Cuyuna/Pennington overlook: From Ironton, just west of Crosby, take County Road 30 to the edge of town. At the Trail Xing sign, turn left; the road follows the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail and enters Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Just after the road turns to dirt, turn left and follow it up to the overlook.
Accommodations: The Country Inn in Deerwood has an indoor pool and rooms that include breakfast. Pets are allowed. 218- 534-3101.
Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge, eight miles south of Crosby on Bay Lake, is a full-service resort, the oldest in the state that's still operated by the same family.
The original 1901 cottage has been absorbed into the main lodge, which includes the 1922 log dining room. Lodgings include villas, cottages, condos and lodge rooms; there's an indoor pool and an Aveda salon and spa.
In October, it celebrates Oktoberfest, with German music, food and dancing, plus children's activities and an arts and crafts fair, open to the public. 800-450-4545.
On Turtle Lake near Deerwood, Camp Holiday has cabins and vacation homes as well as campsites.
Dining: In downtown Crosby, the Iron Range Eatery, a satellite of Brainerd's Prairie Bay restaurant, serves pizza, burgers and sandwiches with big-city flair.
Five miles south of Deerwood at Ruttger's, Zig's Restaurant serves fish, steak and ribs but closes for the winter after Thanksgiving.
Information: Cuyuna Lakes tourism, 218-546-8131.Last updated on July 26, 2019