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Focus on Old Hwy. 61: Willow River Dam, and a “Dam”

By Gail Gates (posted with permission)

Does your partner/lover/spouse cringe when you say something like, “I have an idea. How about if…” Mine does. Heaven only knows why.

The other day I got to thinking about how much I’ve always loved spring flooding. Winter is crabby about getting the boot and, as a result, spits and sputters and throws snow tantrums. Spring shrugs all of this off while causing rivers, lakes, and roads to flood. There is something raw and wild about water gushing wherever it wants to go. My heart never fails to stir from water’s power.

I remember, as a kid, pounding a nail in a piece of scrap board, tying a piece of cloth to it as a symbolic (albeit pathetic) sail, and sending it through our road’s culvert. Spring creek water ran fast, foamy, and brown. I had to race to get to the other side of the road before my “boat” shot beyond my reach and off into the mysteries of farm life. Good stuff. Muddy, amazing-I-didn’t-kill-myself, stuff, but good.

A friend of mine recently reminded me that there is a dam on the north outskirts of Willow River, MN. It is on the right-hand side of the road as you head out of town on Old Hwy. 61. My imagination got to raging, and I had to know if the flow this time of year would be loud, proud, and worth visiting. Hence the statement to my husband, “I have an idea. How about if I/we leave at five a.m. and drive to Willow River to catch the sunrise by the dam?”

He groaned, rubbed a weary hand over his face, and searched my eyes to see how serious I was. I gazed lovingly back. I tossed in a “love me?” smile for good measure. He caved.

“Okay. I’m in.”

“I’ll buy you breakfast,” I said. “There’s a place in Willow River, Peggy Sue’s Café; that sounds interesting. I’m not sure the offer made getting up at 4:30 any more enjoyable, but his face brightened when food was mentioned.

In case you are wondering, it is still mighty dark at 5 a.m. On this day, it was also chilly. I turned up my car’s heater, put KBEK 95.5 on the radio, and gave my husband’s knee a gentle pat. “Thanks for doing this.”

He yawned in response.

By six a.m. we were in Willow River. It was still dark, still cold, and still laced with intrigue. We noted a park near the dam and pulled in with caution. Why is it happy places like parks take on a creepy feel at that hour of the morning? Keeping my husband close, we ventured onto the walk over the dam. I could feel the rumble and hear the rush of barely contained water. This is what I was seeking.

As the sky brightened just a bit, I could see how beautiful the area was. Standing by the dam, and looking across Old Hwy. 61, you can see the Willard Munger State Trail, with a bridge spanning the river.

It was quiet and moonlit, and a perfect place to pause and watch the sunrise.

After I had taken some photographs, my husband made a huge, “ahem,” sound.

Knowing him as well as I do, I said, “Breakfast?”

“Yes, please.”

We drove back into Willow River and spotted Peggy Sue’s Café on our right.

There was something cheerful about it right from the get-go. Two men—locals I assume—glanced up from their breakfast as we clambered in. We smiled in that strange, we’re–from-out-of-town-but-mean-no-harm, kind of way and took a booth. Peggy herself came out from the kitchen to welcome us. She noticed my camera and asked what brought us to town. I explained that I’m roaming around taking photographs along Old Hwy. 61, and she offered up some excellent tidbits about Willow River.

“This place, for example, is over 100-years old,” she said, “and has been renovated several times. Our house is also over 100-years old. Some of the grand old places have been torn down, but there is still life here.”

We ordered our food—I went for the eggs benedict while my husband took the #1– eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast. Delicious.

The café is charming. Polished wood floors, mismatched (by design) furniture and dishware, and a collection of vintage salt and pepper shakers on a long wall shelf lend a familiar comfort that makes you feel welcome to linger for a second, or third, cup of coffee.

Peggy showed me a few vintage photos of the area and checked to see if the guy who runs the mercantile store was around. “He has a lot of historical items in his building. But I don’t see his pickup out front, and that’s how I know if he’s there or not.” I thanked her for the information, the warm welcome, and the hearty breakfast. “Maybe I’ll catch him next time,” I said.

As we headed home, my husband said, “That was great.” A few minutes later he was sound asleep.

Ah well. He needs his rest. You never know when my next, “I have an idea!” will arrive.

Have any of you stopped by Peggy Sue’s? What did you think? What would you recommend? I hear she has wonderful cinnamon rolls on Thursday mornings!

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