Photographs by David Bowman
Morgan Creek Vineyards is as picturesque a setting as you’ll find in southern Minnesota.
When my wife and I head west on US-212, eventual destination New Ulm, we depart close to dawn. As a kid I’d pile into my dad’s rusty Jeep Wagoneer in the wee hours and amble onto 212 to go pheasant hunting, so I have a hazy idea that the Grant Wood farm country that grabs the landscape just past Chanhassen and doesn’t let go until the great mountains of the West is best experienced as the rooster crows. While the sun creeps up somewhere back beyond where we came from, the shadows of silos point us onward past the bent-over cornhusks of fall.
It’s just two lanes, 212, and arboreally threadbare, but driving headlong into its infinity, the bitter bite of impending winter forces you to appreciate the austerity of the fertile land’s last hurrah. Fields tanned and muddled, stripped of their annual yields, exposing the farms for all their hard-won patina. Farm after farm, town after town—Cologne, Bongards, Norwood Young America, Glencoe—invite us through as they rest. And, occasionally, pop!, a grove of trees with newly won bright canopies. We get to Sumter Township and hang a left.
On MN-15 we’re heading south. Only a half-hour to go until New Ulm and Schell’s Brewery and Oktoberfest—things that might be a boisterous clamor, but amidst this serene drive a part of me hopes are not. More farms and then, pop!, another brilliant tree grove. And then, pop!, pop!, another and another. Pop!, pop!, pop!, until eventually groves give way to forest as we wind our way down into the Minnesota River Valley, and with it New Ulm.
As we slide into the valley in our hiccupping old Volvo wagon, it’s easy to see why German settlers picked the fertile land at the confluence of the Cottonwood and Minnesota Rivers to build their “utopia” in 1854. We aren’t sure what to expect on Friday of the second weekend of their 34th annual Oktoberfest. Months prior I’d had to pull some strings to get a room at what I was told was the central point of the Oktoberfest celebrating, the Best Western, a fact that had painted the picture of a small town bursting at the seams with beer steins and Bavarians. So as we turn onto Broadway and are upon the Glockenspiel there, the Kiesling House there, Hermann the German waaaay up there, the Brown County Historical Museum, the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, the Wanda Gag House, the Lind House, and Turner Hall there, there, up there, and there, it’s not only the history that strikes me, it’s the people not there, there, there, or there.
We pass the Taco John’s there, the Econo Lodge there, and the Pizza Ranch, the Perkins, and the HyVee there, there and there, and come to a Best Western that’s wearing the clothing of a Bavarian chalet. The parking lot’s packed, so I expect to find a throng of revelers crowding the lobby anxious to get to Oktoberfest to fade into ziggy-zaggy, ziggy-zaggy oblivion. In reality there is only one reveler, a small grey-haired fellow in old lederhosen, a Trachten shirt, an alpine hat adorned with Oktoberfest pins, and Velcro sneakers. He inquires about the hours of the hotel’s Green Mill, then shuffles off toward the sound of an accordion in a distant room.
“You’re taking a vacation to . . . New Ulm?” I’d heard that a few times leading up to the trip, including from my wife and from my editor, and after driving across a sleepy town only to end up in a full yet sleepy hotel, I might’ve agreed had that not maybe been what I was hoping for. I wanted to visit New Ulm in part because experiencing Oktoberfest in a German brewery town seemed like a worthy adventure, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t also choose it in part because it seemed like a nobly unlikely choice. People are supposed to drive north to Lake Superior in the fall or drive southeast into the Driftless, but driving southwest? Why would somebody drive southwest? Because nobody else seems to, I guess.
Unlike outstate destinations suspended in amber in an era that suits a tourist’s idea of them, New Ulm is more of a living organism. Thanks to trucking, machining, and a Kraft Foods and 3M presence, the city is a blend of folksy small town and modernized working-class suburb. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than on Minnesota Street.
Minnesota has everything you want in a main street: view of the river, more parking spots than the city has cars, and a postcard patchwork of centenarian brownstones. And just as those gilded buildings originally had tenants like mercantiles and hotels and saddleries that existed to serve townspeople, they still do today, only now what residents need are no longer saddleries and mercantiles. Stately buildings from the 1800s with ornate cupolas and magnificent stonework house less stately-seeming businesses like insurance agents and office supply stores in addition to more quintessential occupants like cafes and bars. The most modern building on the strip, a stand-alone Wells Fargo, shares a fence with the Kiesling House, the only wooden structure in downtown to survive the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. We grab cash (still king in New Ulm), walk around the fence into the once-embattled front yard, and take a selfie with a wooden cutout Frederich Kiesling. That’s Minnesota Street.
New Ulm not being all that busy, even during Oktoberfest weekend, is great. We summit the 102-foot Hermann Monument, tour an 1887 Queen Anne Victorian that was built by Minnesota’s second Democratic governor, John Lind (a one-handed Swede living in a town full of Germans), hit the history museum, and grab dinner at a startlingly cosmopolitan joint called Lola, all for less than $60 total and mainly all by ourselves.
New Ulm feels like our town as we explore it, but the fact is it’s a company town and that company was founded in 1860 by August Schell. Still run by his direct lineage (now the Martis) more than 155 years later, August Schell Brewing Company is so ingrained in the fabric of Minnesota Street that cracking a Bud at 100-year-old B&L Bar would be a sin akin to driving a Toyota through Detroit. The only difference is that working-class Detroiters don’t hang out with the Fords, whereas in New Ulm the Martis belly up to the same bars as the people keeping their brewery in business. Literally. That night after taking a tour of the brewery, we head back downtown to have a beer at B&L. Above the back bar’s ornate woodwork hangs a six-foot-long Schell’s banner showcasing Jace Marti, the sixth-generation heir to his father Ted’s brewmaster throne, working atop a massive brew kettle in a pose one might describe as heroic. And there below it, in front of a row of Schell’s taps, Jace in the flesh leans against the bar in a similarly heroic pose, holding court with the doting next generation of Schell’s drinkers.
August Schell's austere mansion on the grounds of Schell's Brewery.
Saturday morning we awake to the dulcet tones of Oktoberfest at the Best Western. Polka echoes in the distance as I don the authentic lederhosen that, despite my wife’s protests, I’d purchased on eBay specifically for the trip. We take a peek into the ballroom where the hotel’s Oktoberfesters (whom we’d since realized were, like the man from the front desk the other day, made up of a vastly greater generation of revelers than I’d originally imagined) start their day’s celebration and head up to Schell’s.
Even though the brewery is hardly a mile from town, it feels like its own nation-state. Flanked by Flandrau State Park and the Cottonwood River, and nestled into the side of forested river bluff, Schell’s still utilizes much of its original infrastructure. Consequently, it’s as understated and approachable as the town that rallies around it. There’s no grand entrance, nothing that stops you in your tracks and says “BEHOLD!” Nope, Schell’s Road just meanders up into the woods and plops you into the middle of a working-class brewery that pulls no punches about being hard at work. In the twilight the day before trucks were being loaded for deliveries while Jace’s brother Kyle, a good-looking linebacker of a kid, set up for Oktoberfest, hoofing massive tables and signage, before hosting the tour we’d gone up there to take.
In the light of Oktoberfest Saturday, the interplay of the ancient brewery and it’s wild surrounding becomes more whimsical. Outside of August Schell’s austere mansion—more of a monument these days—deer and peacocks roam without much concern for the celebration now swirling around them.
And a celebration it is. The routine of having New Ulm to ourselves is erased by droves of revelers, young and old, sloshing herculean beers and dancing and hooting and hollering with a zeal unmatched by their more earnest brethren down the hill. Pretzels the size of Hermann the German, a limitless succession of sausages and kraut, Schell’s Hobo Band spitting out more renditions of “Beer Barrel Polka” than a saner man care enjoy, and bottomless beers in steins of unquantifiable volume take hold.
But before the day becomes a Bavarian blur, before we find our way back down to Minnesota Street for ribs at Veigel’s Kaiserhoff and beers at the oldest bar in Minnesota (Turner Hall) and, of course, Jace and the youth of New Ulm at B&L Bar, I see what I now understand is the true beauty of the city. There, as the town whirls in the bacchanal, Jace and Kyle and the other crown princes of the Schell’s fiefdom do what calloused-handed princes do: serve beer to their blue-collar citizenry.
The phantom Oktoberfesters of the Best Western are long gone by the time we drag ourselves back through the lobby on Sunday. It’s unseasonably warm, so we make the most of our journey home by first going in the opposite direction to have brunch at Morgan Creek Vineyards, owned by Ted Marti’s brother Georg’s family.
The dozen-mile drive takes us even deeper into the undulating Grant Wood fieldscapes. It feels like an impossible location for a vineyard until, pop!, we round a bend into a tree-lined valley, a wooden swing on a lone oak, a red barn, a crick gently encircling it—bucolic in every way. We linger for a bit—eating, drinking, savoring—and then we pile back into the wagon and reverse course.
By the time we hit US-212, east this time, the sun’s peaked and soon the shadows of the silos that had shown us the way there are pointing us home.
When To Go
Oktoberfest: Oct. 7–8 and 14–15, 2016
How To Get There
US-212 west to MN-15 south.
Where To Stay
- Best Western: The sleepy epicenter of Oktoberfest hosts events both weekends. 2101 S. Broadway St., New Ulm, 507-359-2941, bestwesternnewulm.com
- Bingham Hall B&B: Four-bed Victorian. 500 S. German St., New Ulm, 507-354-6766, bingham-hall.com
- Deutsche Strasse B&B: Five 1884 bedrooms. 404 S. German St., New Ulm, 507-354-2005, deutschestrasse.com
Where To Eat
- B&L Bar: The town bar. 15 N. Minnesota St., New Ulm, 507-354-2610, theblbar.com
- Lola: The poutine-esque Hot Mess (brisket, fries, and gouda) is an oozing pile of wow. 16 N. Minnesota St., New Ulm, 507-359-2500, lolaamericanbistro.com
- Morgan Creek Vineyards: A bucolic wood-fired brunch just outside of town. 23707 478th Ave., New Ulm, 507-947-3547, morgancreekvineyards.com
- Turner Hall: The oldest bar in Minnesota. 102 S. State St., New Ulm, 507-354-4916, newulmturnerhall.org
- Veigel’s Kaiserhoff: Get the ribs. 221 N. Minnesota St., New Ulm, 507-359-2071
What To Do
- August Schell Brewing Company: Open weekends. Call for information on their new sours-only brewery Starkeller opening across town in May. 1860 Schell Rd., New Ulm, 507-354-5528, schellsbrewery.com
- Brown County Historical Society and Museum: Go here first. 2 N. Broadway St., New Ulm, 507-233-2616, browncountyhistorymn.org
- Hermann Monument: Climb America’s third-tallest copper statue. 14 Monument St., New Ulm