Tiny Stockholm big draw for summer tourists

The too-quick darkening of sky near twilight means a storm is approaching, but most of the dozen fishermen don’t seem to notice.

A stocky guy with multiple piercings and a deep pink Mohawk is an exception. He totes ashore his catch of the day, a 31-inch northern pike. Not a bad way to end a Tuesday.

The fisherman, Homer Prebe, lives just across the waterway. We size up his fish while standing on a pier of rocks in Stockholm – not Sweden’s capital but one of the tiniest incorporated communities in Wisconsin.

I don’t expect fish this big or fishermen this conspicuous in a village defined by its Swedish flags, freight train traffic, mix of genteel artists and small-town sensibilities.

“Most people are more than they appear,” says Alan Nugent of Abode Stockholm, a home furnishings boutique and gallery of regional art. So the presumed bumpkin or eccentric may well be a retired professor, well-heeled executive – or simply visiting from Minnesota.

Nugent, formerly with a Twin Cities interior design firm, opened his Stockholm business in 2005. His sister, Janet Garretson, opened Stockholm Pie Company next door, three years later.

“You may come for the day but leave with a house” is how Nugent explains it, because of the captivating nature of the area’s bluffs and lakeside, which connects to the Mississippi River.

Most people who visit Stockholm come for the day. They stop to stretch and shop while driving the state’s 250-mile Great River Road.

The population sign says 97, a gross inflation according to Village President Wally Zick, a retired Minnesota chemist.

“More like 65,” he suggests, noting that the village was at its fattest around 1900, when about 400 people lived here. “We have about 100 properties, but 60 percent are commercial, seasonal or for just weekend use.”

The tiny town is big in contrasts.

The village pier stretches 700 yards onto Lake Pepin and adjoins a park where RVs venture almost right up to the shoreline for an overnight fee of only $12. Pay $2 less to pitch a tent, but everybody staying here takes a chance, since no reservations are accepted.

Most Stockholm bed and breakfast rates exceed $200, but I pay $100 for homey quarters that include a kitchenette and classical music library at the Spring Street Inn, part of a downtown building whose history as a hotel harkens to the 1880s, when the area thrived on commercial fishing, farming and easy railway access.

Might want to lock the front door, innkeeper Paul Larson advises, not because it’s unsafe but because people are accustomed to turning doorknobs while hopping from shop to shop. My doorway faces Spring Street – a main drag, adjacent to Larson’s bookstore and across from a general store full of Wisconsin products.

Two doors away is the Stockholm Institute, a local history museum in a former post office. Visit on weekends, and notice the photo of Sweden’s crown prince, paying a visit in 1938.

Stockholm flaunts its Swedish heritage, although many with personal or business investments are recent transplants with no such ethnic ties. That’s a source of progress or frustration, depending upon whom you ask.

You’re not a veteran of the village until you have a relative buried here, surmises Elise Graber of Ingebretsen’s av Stockholm, a Scandinavian gift shop. She has lived here since 1976 and is Norwegian.

A rebirth of genuine enthusiasm for local history happened in 2006, when 85 Swedes initiated a pilgrimage to Wisconsin, to perform an emotion-filled play about their Bjurtjarn ancestors who settled Stockholm.

“It was a powerful story, and you didn’t have to be of Swedish descent to appreciate it,” says Pat Carlson, who is Zick’s wife. “When they got here, it was like they were touching sacred ground.”

“It was almost a melodrama here,” adds Nugent.

Now Stockholm and Bjurtjarn are unofficial sister cities whose personal bonds are deepening, and the Sweden group will return with another play in 2011.

It is typical for tourists to linger at the Bogus Creek Cafe with mimosa and Swedish pancakes, or sip a locally brewed Rush River beer with a BLAT (add avocado to the traditional BLT sandwich). They sign up for a mealtime cooking class at The Palate or tote home cardamom-cinnamon bread and peanut butter fudge pie from the pie shop.

Add quilting supplies, Amish furniture, wearable art, hand-dipped chocolates and hand-thrown pottery from other shops. The assortment makes Stockholm atypical for its size.

Few also would expect the clunky bicycles, each painted a bright Swede blue, which appear in racks at key locations. The community bikes are free to use.

“They’re safe and work but are pretty tough riding,” Zick says. Most have only one gear.

He sings in the Traveling Shoes, a 70-member regional Gospel choir that raises money for local charities, and is the minister at St. Sophia, a liberal Catholic church surrounded by farmland, a couple of miles outside of town.

“We dropped the Latin and have complete freedom of conscience and belief,” Zick says of his 30-member congregation.

Drop in on a Tuesday night for a rehearsal of the Hot Flashes, 20 local women who perform bebop. Visitors are welcome, “but you can’t say a word to distract them,” Carlson warns.

The Hot Flashes rehearse at the same time a rural neighbor feeds hundreds, but she’s a feisty cook who doesn’t want more business from just anybody. Kind of like the Soup Nazi on “Seinfeld.”

I’ve been chided into secrecy, but local businesses might share details and directions with those who choose to spend the night.

Overnight guests in Stockholm should expect little company, outside of train whistles, after sun sets. Wails of the rail – six in two hours, when I chose to count them – seem to define the village as much as the little Swedish flags that flap above flower boxes.

Nugent works hard to build a sense of community. Upstairs from his Abode is a long-ago opera house that also has been used as a high school basketball court and roller skating rink. Now it’s Widespot, a performance space and gathering area for potlucks, talent shows and film showings.

Zick welcomes such efforts to unite but also laments the struggles between commercial and residential interests.

“It’s happened to so many other places that have become successful,” he says. “People move in but want to change it. So many quiet little towns have been destroyed by short-sighted change … once you have a successful formula, you should guard it.”

Stockholm is on Highway 35 in Pepin County. For more, visit stockholmwisconsin.com or call 715-442-2266.

Swedish recording artists perform June 26 at the Midsommer Swedish Festival, also featuring Scandinavian games, foods and art. David Rhodes, author of “Driftless” – a novel about the rural Midwest – headlines the first Stockholm Dog Days, Aug. 13-14, a dog-friendly event that also involves writing workshops, pet photography, a pet parade and pet product vendors.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.

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