By Will Weaver
Remember the Sunday picnic? That good, old-fashioned summer event (often on Sunday after church), when parents packed up the kids, a basketful of fried chicken, or brats and buns and headed to a park? Even the drive was exciting: Adults never drove fast enough; and nearing the grounds, there was always concern that all the picnic tables might be taken. Not to worry about crowds now. Picnicking seems to have become a lost art -- a lost pleasure.
Old Mill MemoriesOld Mill's history from farm to state park
The French word pique-nique first referred to an upper-class, fashionable type of social entertainment indoors -- what we think of as a potluck dinner (everybody contributes). The word picnic evolved over time -- especially in the United States -- to embody eating out-of-doors on a summer day. The heyday of the American family picnic likely came after rural electrification and before the advent of television. "Power and light" gave farm families more leisure time; television quickly claimed it.
While Fourth of July picnics included aunts, uncles, and cousins, my parents, my sisters, and I often packed up for our own Sunday afternoon of fun. The key part of our gear was a battered green Coleman stove, powered by a little canister of white gas. Pump and pump with the plunger -- then stand clear while an adult lit the flame. This tabletop stove was for heating side dishes -- baked beans especially -- while the campground fire rings or stone hearths were for grilling wieners. My mother brought a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and odds and ends of plates and silverware. We always had watermelon for dessert.
From our farm near Park Rapids, we often went to Itasca State Park. But a smaller park, tucked away in the flat center of Marshall County, was the top draw for families in northwestern Minnesota heading out for a picnic: Old Mill State Park.
The river and the mill, where farmers brought cleaned wheat and rye to be ground into flour, was the original draw to the site. Established in 1886 by the Lars Larson family, the mill ground grain with millstones powered by water wheel, windmill, steam engine, and eventually a gasoline engine. (Today the park uses the original steam engine for demonstrations.) Long before it became a state park in 1937, the site was a community gathering place. According to History of Old Mill State Park:
Farmers and families had time to catch up on the news, relax, and have a picnic while their grain was being ground. The social aspect of the grinding mill was probably as nourishing to the oft-isolated pioneer souls as the flour itself. In a sense, this heralded the beginning of the area's use as a park.
Lars Larson Jr. allowed people to use his mill and river site for picnics, swimming, camping, kitten-ball games, and all manner of recreation. It was said that sometimes he charged a fee of 10 cents or a bit more, but dropping the name of a local farmer or friend of a friend likely would get a person in for free.
The popularity of Old Mill grew steadily through the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s -- years of peak population across rural Minnesota. While Marshall County had a population of over 20,000 in the 1970s, now it has 9,500 people -- an average of four per square mile.
Jay Backstrom was a wheat farmer from Marshall County but now is my neighbor on the Mississippi River near Bemidji. He used to go to Old Mill "all the time" as a kid -- and now would not miss a chance to go back. On a fine July day, we slip away on a "business trip."
We head northwest from Bemidji on Highway 2, gradually leaving behind trees and lakes as we pass through Bagley, Fosston, and Crookston and into the Red River valley. Farmers by nature, we point out corn plant height, feeding sandhill cranes, an old threshing machine, a bean field stressed by too much moisture, wild mustard in a wheat field.
Near Old Mill, we stop to talk with Keith Solum, whose farmland abuts the park. He has his own stories of the park. "For us farm boys, the Old Mill pond was our bathtub once a week," he says with a smile. He goes on to describe the big picnics organized by farm cooperatives, back when "everybody had cows." The coop gifts for attending farmers were 1-pound bags of flour and milk pitchers.
On any Sunday of the summer, "the place was packed," Mr. Solum says. He tells of the dance hall, the concession stands with sweet corn and "veiners," the diving board, the camaraderie of neighbors. "Old Mill was far as we went for entertainment back then," he says. "We came home well-satisfied every time."
At the park entrance booth, we stop to talk to DNR parks worker Harriet Hodne, a tidy woman with short, brown pin curls who wears a tan, short-sleeved park service uniform. She has worked at Old Mill for 34 years, and she tells us she came here often as a kid. "On the weekend we kids swam all day," she says. "Men lay on blankets on the side hill above the pond and smoked while their wives talked and socialized."
Jay and I drive through the campground (only four campsites are occupied) and on to the "amphitheater," a natural dish containing a swimming pond. Nearby, a small group of girls, probably ages 5 to 10 or so, is splashing in the narrow and shallow Middle River. Three mothers, or perhaps Girl Scout leaders, watch them.
As we sit on the shady grass and eat our sandwiches (store-bought), Jay and I both feel the ghosts of the past: men smoking pipes, women talking with other women, children running and shouting and splashing.
Jay talks about the great changes on the land and in the small towns. Suddenly, shrieks and laughter of the girls in the river interrupt him. One of the girls rushes up to me: "Look, Mister, at what I caught!" She is muddy and sandy and smiling.
"That's great!" I say. Swimming in a cup in her hand is a small river chub.
"But I'm going to let him go later," she says and rushes away.
After lunch Jay and I walk onto the swinging bridge. The suspension bridge spans 25 feet and is supported by two heavy stone pillars, each large enough for a walk-through arch. At both ends we pause to admire the stonework of the 1930s Works Progress Administration stonecutters.
Down by the pond, we see another fine example of masonry, an old fieldstone beach house. On the beach, only one other family, parents with a young son, is picnicking here on this perfect Saturday afternoon.
There is a melancholy about the pond and the vacant stone beach house. The whole of Old Mill, it occurs to me, is like the archives of a grand old library: silent, full of historical value, and just waiting to be rediscovered. Maybe the day of the Sunday picnic will come again.
Near the swinging bridge, the women are trying to round up the little girls from their river play -- but without success.
A child's voice calls, "Can't we stay a little longer?"
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