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Focus On Old Hwy. 61: Mahtowa … A Little Town With Big Charm

“Damn. It’s still the Midwest around here, no matter how many open-minded people you surround yourself with.”  ― Angela JohnsonA Certain October

by Gail Gates (posted with permission)

“It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times,” said one famous author, sort of.  If you find yourself in the tiny town of Mahtowa, MN, be prepared to get your fill of gas, charm, fifty kinds of homemade sausage and brats, and bad puns—particularly puns that include “wurst.”



I heard about TJ’s Mahtowa store early in my collaboration with the Old Hwy. 61 coalition.  It seemed like my kind of off-humor place but wondered…Mahtowa?  Where in the heck is Mahtowa? As it turns out it is north of Moose Lake, under the Soo Line Railroad bridge, and on up Old Hwy. 61.  If you reach Carlton you’ve gone to far.  To be honest, I shot right by the turnoff and I was paying attention.  And, no matter what my husband may say, I was doing almost the speed limit.

We spun around and pulled into the “parking lot” of TJ’s store. Immediately I felt a warm surge of happiness.  An outdoor, albeit covered, stage was boldly named, “Wurst Dome.”  I knew I was going to like this place.

Walking towards the store we noted ads for upcoming events:

–Mahtowa Chicken swaps start on May 8th, and continue on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month through September.

–Street markets every Sunday through September.  The events include family fun, music, vendors, animal menageries, and a playground.

–TJ’s hosts a beard and mustache contest.

–Ditto on a vintage sled contest.

Mahtawa store

Mahtawa store

After reading the schedule, we moved towards the main door.  Outside, near the steps is a flowerbox filled with growing herbs. A sign says, “Need a fresh herb or two for a meal? TJ’s Community Kitchen Garden. Just snip what you need.”

I was in love.  We opened the creaky front door and walked into the past.  There on my left was a guestbook. It was filled with names and addresses of those who had proudly visited.  Vintage objects—like a full-sized Hamm’s Bear holding a six pack of Hamm’s bear—decorated the store.

The clerk smiled at me as she glanced questionably at my camera hanging like a wounded albatross from my neck.

“I’m with the Old Hwy. 61 Coalition,” I said. “Do you mind if I take pictures?”

She waved her hand in an arc. “Take all the photos you want!”

And so I did.

My husband and I checked out the impressive array of meats lined neatly in the case.  We read all the really good bad puns.  We breathed in the smoky aroma of sausage, history, and friendliness.

Mah owa

Mah owa

When it was time to go I felt like I was leaving something familiar, haunting, and memorable.  Places that straddle the past, present, and future are few and far between. Mahtowa (which means bear, by the way), is doing a fine job of being Mahtowa.  I intend to go back soon. Maybe if you head up Old Hwy. 61 you will “meat” me at TJ’s!

Here are a few other links to learn more about Mahtowa and TJ’s:

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