Since the beginning, Minnesota’s lakes and rivers have been the engine of the region’s development and the focus of recreation, not to mention the source of a whole lot of fish. The Twin Cities, for example, have their roots on the Mississippi River, which has transported timber and grain from the Midwest to markets in the east and powered the four mills of the Pillsbury family, among others, since the early 1800s. That made the riverfront in Minneapolis primarily an industrial area. Interesting, but not particularly scenic.
All of that is changing as the city rediscovers and redevelops its waterfront. The mills and warehouses have been converted to trendy apartments and condominiums now and that section of the riverfront is part of an expanding Mill Ruins Park. It’s the sight of the Mill City Farmers Market in summer, where you can eat and buy great organic produce under the watchful gaze of some of the world’s great playwrights who look down from the Guthrie Theater next door.
Though the new version of the riverfront is more vibrant, it’s the unusual history here that makes it so intriguing. You can revisit the city’s early days in several ways. First, pick up a copy of Mary Relindes Ellis’s novel Bohemian Flats, which is named after the area slightly downriver from the mills which was home to the city’s poorest immigrants, mainly from Germany and eastern Europe (or Bohemia) who are the subject of the story. Set after World War I, the book traces the progress of a German immigrant family who settled in the ramshackle village that grew up along a low point along the river, many of whom worked in the flour mills.
Next, start a riverfront tour at the Mill City Museum, which offers an in-depth look at the flour industry and the early days of Minneapolis. It’s built into the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill. Wander the across the Stone Arch bridge for a terrific view of the river and St. Anthony Falls, which powered the mills and check out the paths and ruins along the water. Grab some grub at the Farmer’s Market and watch the river roll by as you eat.
Book lovers will want to wander down Washington Avenue to explore the Minnesota Center for Book Arts at Open Book. You can view the artistic assembly of the pages, covers, and spines, then peruse the shop at MCBA, which is a reader’s delight of books, gifts, handmade paper, and journals.
Rent one of the green bikes from one of the Nice Ride Minnesota stations near the museum and head downriver for a scenic tour. Make a stop at Izzy’s gourmet ice cream to fuel your trip. You’ll arrive at Bohemian Flats, which is no longer a wild collection of shacks, but rather a lovely park inhabited mainly by University of Minnesota students throwing frisbees. It’s a great pastoral place to enjoy the view of the river, the university campus and, in particular, the futuristic Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum. It makes quite a contrast to the image of the old Bohemian Flats on the cover of Ellis’s novel.