Jul 24 2010
“Build it, and they will come,” I think, while climbing the hilly roads that dance with the creeks and curves of northwest Buffalo County. They come from neighboring farms and as far away as China, but are most likely to head here from Eau Claire, La Crosse and various Minnesota cities – Wabasha, Rochester, Minneapolis – just across the Mississippi.
Hundreds come, past the cornfields and country cemeteries, sometimes riding sporty convertibles or paired up on motorcycles that whisk up, down and around this serene patch of the Driftless Area, where roads are more accustomed to slow-going tractors and thick-wheeled trucks.
Church Valley, German Valley, Norwegian Valley, Cascade Valley: Where you are depends upon your choice of route less traveled. No freeway quickly delivers you here.
The joy riders head to the Stone Barn from 5-9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from mid May to mid October. Pizza with artisan meats and veggies – locally produced, when possible – slides into a 700-degree, wood-fired brick oven, but just for two minutes.
It comes out with the most thin and pleasantly crisp crust possible, each piece barely sturdy enough to hold traditional to unconventional toppings. Expect a base of crushed tomatoes, not a sloppy sauce, or garlic olive oil instead of the tomatoes. Cheese? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Consider the Alaskan: a spread of cream cheese, then smoked salmon, onion, dill and capers.
Or the Greek, where feta replaces mozzarella, accompanied by gyro-spiced ground lamb, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, onion and oregano.
Customers choose from eight combos (including the newly introduced Muffaletta, patterned after a traditional New Orleans sandwich) or customize the toppings on their pies, which cost $18 to $23.
They typically make an evening out of eating these pizzas – each enough to quell an average couple’s appetite, then kick back with a cold beer and amble around the farmland, toward a backyard pond or through an antique shop on the premises. Some end the night with ice cream before heading home.
“People linger,” says Pamela Taylor, co-owner with David Jacobs, her husband since 2007. “We light tiki torches, kids run around and it can get pretty loud.”
By 5:30, a customer was carrying a No. 30 tabletop sign from the ordering counter. It is not unusual for more than 100 pizzas to be ordered per night.
Pam bought this property in 1991 because “I was driving around this area and loved it – even though the house was empty and the roof leaked so bad that a 3-foot-thick icicle ran from floor to ceiling in the kitchen.”
Other than that, the farmhouse was sturdy and beautiful, to Pam, full of natural woodwork and charm. At the time, she was a computer systems analyst in the Twin Cities for 21 years who took time off of work to care for her father, diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live.
He actually lived two years, enough time for Pam to ponder the brevity of life and realize that she wanted a different rhythm for herself. “I wanted to do something I really loved, instead of what I was trained to do to make a living.”
So today she says she makes noticeably less money but “I have everything – the views, the peace” and the ability to live with more freedom.
She arranged the removal of debris from a collapsed barn on the farm, but kept the structure’s walls, built with stone quarried from a wooded area at the curve of a nearby hill.
“I’ll do something with this, someday,” Pam promised herself, and “it kind of looked like Stonehenge for 15 years.”
She had visited another “pizza farm,” whose cook attracted more business than desired. “Why not try this,” Pam thought, even though “some people thought I was nuts” because of the farm’s remote location. Her neighborhood is one of practical farmers whose children also tend to choose farming as a career – or at least remain living in the area.
So the barn walls turned into the guts of a building that could double as a greenhouse with an extension for shade plants, in case the pizza plan failed. “I like to grow things, and I like to cook,” is how Pam explains it, so the Stone Barn opened for business in September 2005.
On the eve of the launch, Margaret Olson of Mondovi, a crooked 20 miles away, appeared on Pam’s doorstep. “It was her 100th birthday, and she had been born and raised here.” The stranger’s visit seemed like a good omen, and Pam has hosted a birthday party for Margaret every year since then.
The brick oven, a kitchen, customer seating and small bar (where Dave takes pizza orders) fill the greenhouse. Chalkboards list menu and beverage choices. Additional wrought iron tables and chairs dot an open-air patio, topped with a shade screen and flanked by columns of the barn stone.
Clusters of herbs grow thick in beds in this outdoor dining area, and Pam or her staff (“hard-working farm kids who live in the neighborhood”) pluck what they need for baking, sometimes minutes before a night of business begins.
Some of these seasonings also make their way into the locally raised pork and lamb that are ground and used as pizza toppings.
“It’s kind of amazing to me” that business is good, since flyers distributed locally have been the extent of advertising.
“I’m so thrilled that people feel comfortable here,” Pam says, both sweating and grinning as she works.
The Stone Barn, S685 Hwy. KK, Nelson, is six miles northeast of the Great River Road (Hwy. 35) at Nelson and 11 miles northeast of U.S. 61 (at Wabasha, Minn.). The start and end dates of the business season depend upon weather because facilities are not heated.
For more: www.nelsonstonebarn.com/index.htm, 715-673-4478.
“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.