Somewhere over Grand Rapids

by Ellon Labana


Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

“There’s a land that I heard of,” so goes a line of a song. “And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true,” says another line.

Of course, you probably heard the song before.  The title: “Over the Rainbow.”  Although it is very popular, not too many Filipinos know that it was Judy Garland (the mother of Oscar-winning Liza Minnelli) who sang the original song.  It was featured in the film classic, The Wizard of Oz.

And the truth is — my dream of going to that place where dreams really do come true finally came into fruition.  Two years ago, I was in Grand Rapids — no, not in Michigan, but Minnesota — where Judy Garland herself was born and grew up.  In fact, there is a museum built in her honor by local artist Jackie Dingmann.

Located near the restored home where she — then known as Frances Ethel Gumm — spent her formative years, the Judy Garland Museum features some mementos from the movie: the carriage, the young star’s test dress for the movie, the winkie sword, and the Over the Rainbow gold record presented to her, and the emerald city bell-bottom coat.  (You can’t find the famous red shoes since they are displayed at the American museum in Washington, D.C.).

In addition, Garland’s special Tony statuette and the original work permit (issued to her to allow her to perform her vaudeville act at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco, California, when she was only 11 years old) are on display.

More than 100,000 people have visited the museum, the person in charge at the museum told us during our visit.  I was with my sister Elena Chase (who now lives in Grand Rapids having moved from Livingston, Montana) and my two nephews, Erik and Philip.

Too bad, we visited the place during summer.  We missed the award-winning festival that is being held every June to celebrate Garland’s life and talents.  During the festival, my sister said that you can mingle with the original Munchkins and guest celebrities from Hollywood.

If you happen to visit the Judy Garland Museum and have a child or kids, don’t forget to bring them also to the nearby Children’s Discovery Museum.  Inside the 15,000-square foot museum are a series of hands-on exhibits that are both fun and educational for the family. There is Exchange City, a child-scale town of 10 shops. Then, there’s the River Water Table, an exhibit that brings a replica of the Mississippi River up close, allowing children to control water flows with dams and see their effect.

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

Just a couple of minutes away by car from the Judy Garland Museum is the historic Old Central School.  Built in 1895, the school was designed in the Richardonian Romanesque style.  It was in use until the 1970s.  Then, in the 1980s, it was turned over to the city government and was renovated. Today, Central School houses the Heritage Museum, maintained by the Itasca County Historical Society, as well as a number of unique shops with a distinct and friendly local flavor.

Grand Rapids, which was ranked 49th in the Prentice Hall publication, The 100 Best Small Towns in America, is the place where the grand Mississippi River — the second longest river in the United States after the Missouri River — starts.  (The rapids in the river reportedly gave the town its name.) Actually, the water comes from Lake Itasca. In 1832, Henry Schoolcraft determined that the lake is the river’s source.

Actually, Grand Rapids started as a logging town in 1870. History records showed that in 1891 the town was incorporated and in 1902 the Itasca Paper Mill went into production. That mill has operated continually ever since and is now called Blandin Paper Company. It employs about 850 people, with another 2,000 jobs indirectly attributable to the company’s local operations.

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

The Blandin Paper Mill, which is nearly as large as the town itself, dominates the downtown of the city.  Browse a magazine at any newsstand in the United States and examine the good quality coated paper it’s printed with. Chances are that paper was made in Grand Rapids.

The front entrance to the mill is right in the middle of the city’s downtown.   “Papermakers,” a statue located across the street from the mill’s main entrance, is a tribute to the trade and its practitioners that has always been Grand Rapid’s primary reason for existence.

Not far from the downtown is the Forest History Center. Here, you can step into the pages of the forgotten past and discover the history of the logging era.  However, you have to use the power of your imagination to experience life as it was in December 1900 as related by the tour guide who is wearing the same clothing used during those times.

For instance, you can walk back in time to Northwoods #1, an authentically recreated white pine logging camp complete with a cook shack, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, office wanigan, filer’s shack and horse barn.  You can stop and talk with the cook, clerk, bull cook, blacksmith and other lumberjacks who may be in camp during the visit. Try your hand at sawing and pet the Percheron draft horses.

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

There are more you can do: Board the 1901 Log Drive Wanigan, a floating cook shack used when the men and logs headed downstream.  Sit on the porch of a 1934 Forest Service Patrolman’s cabin.  Climb the 100-foot fire observation tower; the view from the top will amply reward your effort.  My sister and I tried to climb the tower, but when we were in the middle part, the tower seemed to move so we decided not to proceed.  We were not able to get the certificate that awaited us if we had done it.

For finale, explore the visitor center’s interpretive museum, which houses pictorial displays and exhibits to forestry and logging.  This was where my two nephews had fun; they played with those toys made of woods.

Grand Rapids serves as the southern gateway to the Chippewa National Forest, where nature’s finest awaits in the towering pines, diverse wetlands and pristine waters (which are good for swimming, particularly during the summer months!). Catch a glimpse of bald eagles soaring in flight as it is home of the largest breeding population of bald eagles.  The so-called Lost Forty also awaits, a majestic stand of old-growth white pine ignored by lumber companies during the logging era.

The Chippewa National Forest is also home to a portion of the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway — awarded the status of National Scenic Byway in 1996 — and Suomi Hills, a semi-primitive non-motorized recreation area. Suomi Hills features kilometers of hiking, biking and Nordic skiing trails running through rolling forests and calm lakes.

If you love fishing, the Grand Rapids area is a fishing mecca. Fishing season begins just after the early spring warm-up and fishing opener in May, through summer and on to autumn when fish go on a feeding binge in preparation for freeze-up. However, the fishing doesn’t get put on hold with the thickening of lake ice during winter. Ever heard of ice fishing?

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

If hunting is your main thing, then Grand Rapids is the place to visit. White tail deer hunters can find a prime location within a short drive of the city.

The mixed hardwood forests and numerous lakes provide excellent habitat for white tail deer. Steeped in rich tradition, deer hunting opener weekend is practically a holiday of its own in Grand Rapids.

Nothing enhances your vacation like great food!  People here provide a full menu of dining experiences, from gourmet cuisine to finger food and everything in between! Round up the whole family or group for pizza, escape with your sweetheart to a table for two, kick back and watch the game or dine al fresco, overlooking a lake. From pastries to seafood, wild rice to creme brulé, fastfood to fine dining, the choices keep everyone in the group well-fed! Among Asians, there’s a Chinese buffet in the heart of the city, where my sister and her family usually visit.

Located just over three hours from the Twin Cities (Saint Paul and Minneapolis), Grand Rapids is an easy drive from the metro area. If flying is your preference, local charter service is available.  Commercial airline service in the nearby cities of Hibbing and Duluth is also an option.  

Visit, see and have fun at Grand Rapids, Minnesota!

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