Nearby Willmar and Hutchinson oft overshadow the town of not quite 7,000 people 70 miles west of Minneapolis; but Litchfield is deliberating how to promote itself as its own draw. Unlike its neighbors and other Gopher State tourist towns, such as Ely, Grand Marais or Pipestone, Litchfield hasn’t had the funds to promote itself. That is, until now.
That marketing cash infusion becomes available November 1, after a local lodging tax ordinance goes into effect, and those funds can add up. For example, Ely, launch pad to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness, collects over a quarter-million dollars annually whether or not guests notice their room stay has a 3-percent lodging tax built in. Litch, as it is dubbed, is poised to bring in much less, an expected $43,000.
On a recent weekend, a travel mate of mine and I set out west from Minneapolis to see what Litch had to offer, across a portion of US-12 that spans over 2,500 miles from coastal Washington to Detroit, Michigan. We quickly escaped urbanity and succumbed to a more rural setting. After passing suburban Delano, the villages we slowed for gradually showed more evidence of their agricultural underpinnings: mills, creameries, silos, farm machinery and the occasional wildlife.
The first thing we saw upon arrival was Walmart and the “Anywhere, USA” part of town. We bypassed that and went straight to the heart, downtown, to walk around, sightsee and find Litch’s uniqueness. Central Park forms the town square with a central bandstand. Diagonal sidewalks crisscross it leading to a charming mix of mom-and-pop shops and civic amenities.
Our first stop, Litchfield Area Chamber of Commerce, was closed with no evident way to get information outside. To connect, we picked up a Litchfield Independent Review for $1.50. For $3, a volunteer admitted me to the main attraction for history buffs or those interested in national military affairs, Grand Army of the Republic. I was one of about a dozen (perhaps tourists) scouring displays in search of worthwhile tidbits. In the back is the Meeker County Historical Society museum with a history of the community and its relation to the development of Land O’Lakes and the state’s dairy industry.
I was sent on my way with the “Litchfield Big Fish Lifestyle Guide” which made me curious, what is the Big Fish Lifestyle? I tried downloading the app mentioned within its pages to find out but, to my dismay, it wasn’t in Android’s Play Store. The guide displays a self-guided tour of the town’s historic homes, of varying architecture, including Henry Ames House. En route to others, we were amused by a high ratio of homes with trampolines in the yard, a prudent form of local entertainment.
On the other side of the park, Meeker County Courthouse is an interesting, modern courthouse design. A short walk away is Litchfield Opera House, where if you time it right (we didn’t) you can see a show. It no longer caters to operagoers but, instead, hosts traveling theater troupes, musicals and such.
The Commercial Historic District along Sibley, the main street, is on the National Register. It’s home to Hollywood Theater, an old-fashioned movie hall with an iconic marquee, and Natural Food Coop, among other quaint storefronts. Nearby, Carnegie Library appears to have been preserved to its grandeur but for another use. A new public library is near Central Park.
We ate at Sonora’s, one of two Mexican restaurants in town. Our server informed us the owners came to the area from Sonora, Mexico, hence the restaurant’s namesake. It was quiet, as locals appeared to be nearby at the new Muddy Cow. We asked about local tourism to which we were met with surprise (as if there was nothing to see). I asked about the Rosemary Home and was told that there exist prettier homes in the Twin Cities. Rather than turn back, I chose to continue to see for myself what made the city “On Lake Ripley”—as the water tower states—special.
We took a drive around the crown jewel, Lake Ripley, one of 170 lakes in Meeker County, a third of which remain unnamed. Talk about an undiscovered place! We found parks to be ample and well equipped, but underutilized. Visible campground sites were full.
Designated bike routes were aplenty, but a call to Bikes by Bob was fruitless, as they don’t offer bike rentals. The upside? Caffeine hounds can get their fix as the place doubles as a coffeehouse.
Without a point-person to help us navigate, we were still able to find enough to see and do. We found serenity in Anderson Gardens Public Arboretum. The patriotic entrance to Ripley Cemetery was mesmerizing. Brightwood Beach Cottage (a former tourist resort, how about that?), the Gothic-style Trinity Episcopal Church and the Ness Monument, which marks where victims of the U.S.-Dakota War were laid to rest, each sparked our curiosity.
Those of us in Minnesota’s hockey community know of “LDC”, or Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato. The Dragons are the fiercest hockey team in this part of the state. Had it been winter, we’d have taken in a game at Litchfield Civic Arena. Instead, we’ll see them next March at the Xcel Energy Center if they prove themselves worthy of another State berth. We were here during baseball season. Optimist Baseball Park is where the Litchfield Blues play and, in 2016, hosted the amateur state tournament.
There exist several places to stay including AmericInn, The Marshall Estate Bed & Breakfast, Knights Inn, and very alluring Airbnb options.
Watercade, the annual festival, and Meeker County Fair are held here each summer, though community events tend to be more parochially engaging rather than have broad appeal. Everyone is sure to appreciate the 1950s-style Starlite Drive-In, one of the few drive-up cinemas left.
Pros: Litch has the basics to accommodate a tourist with historic, cultural and recreational amenities, all on the cheap (or free). Cons: There were no locally themed souvenirs to be found. No EV-charger for those of us with electric cars. It would have been nice to have technology-assist built into the local home tour, and with dairy so big here, we’d like to buy local cheeses or ice cream somewhere besides the local Dairy Queen.
Litch may become another destination for those looking to flee the bustle of the Twin Cities or experience small-town Americana. It offers a slower pace and a mix of tourist staples and unique experiences. We found leisure, amusement and overall value in our daytrip. But with growing local awareness, improvements can be made to the tourist experience. We saw nothing too extravagant, but examples of natural and built beauty largely undiscovered within and outside Litchfield.
Nathan Johnson writes about cities and people. He has been nationally recognized as an “Outstanding Small Town and Rural Planner.”