The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Grand Rapids

Navigational headwaters of the Mississippi River, Grand Rapids (pop. 10,869) is a small Frank Capra-esque kind of place, known for its 4 large in-town lakes (there are over 1,000 in this part of the state) and a great bridge over the river. The town—which is proud of its recent rating as the 49th Best Small Town in America—can be a bit confusing in its layout, but its compact size makes sightseeing manageable.

The city sits along the western edge of the famed Mesabi Iron Range and includes viewing sites at a handful of open pit mines. The iron mines are a thing of the past, but Grand Rapids is still a major lumber town. The impossible-to-miss UPM Blandin Paper Mill (218/327-6682, Wed.-Fri. 10am-3pm, free) stands along the river and US-169. One of the world’s largest paper producers, Blandin owns most of the surrounding forests and turns the trees into the stock onto which magazines like Time and Sports Illustrated are printed.

Three miles southwest of Grand Rapids, well signed along the Great River Road and equidistant via US-169 or US-2, the fine Forest History Center (218/327-4482, Tues.-Sat. in summer, weekends in rest of the year, $9) is a living-history replica of a 19th-century logging camp, complete with nature trails through the surrounding woods and energetic lumberjacks rolling logs and telling tall tales.

Grand Rapids’ real draw is the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Collection of Judy Garland Memorabilia,” she of ruby-slipper fame having been born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids on June 10, 1922. Truly a cradle-to-grave biographical assembly, the collection displays everything from her first crib to photos of her early performances as part of the Gumm Sisters, a family vaudeville group, to a final shot of her tomb in Hartsdale, New York. There are posters from most of her movies and a copy of her costume from The Wizard of Oz (although the ruby slippers were stolen some years ago). All of these artifacts are on display, alongside the house where she was born, at the Judy Garland Museum (2727 S. US-169, 218/327-9276, $8). The Itasca County Historical Society and Judy Garland Gallery (201 N. Pokegama Ave., 218/326-6431, free) also gets into the act.

 

Grand Rapids

UPM Blandin Paper Mill (115 SW 1st St.)

Forest History Center (2609 County Rd. 76)

Judy Garland Museum (2727 S. US-169)

Itasca County Historical Society and Judy Garland Gallery (201 N. Pokegama Ave.)