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Minnesota Oak Country: Uncrowded Splendor : LEAVES

September 23, 1990|MARY MAPES McCONNELL | McConnell is a free-lance writer living in Colorado Springs, Colo. and

CHATFIELD, Minn. — The annual fall migration of maple leaf spotters to New England is a travel industry all its own. Colorado's golden aspens also have their legions of fans.

Less well-known are the red oak forests of southeastern Minnesota. These dense woodlands produce a tonal range that color connoisseurs appreciate for its depth and richness.

One hundred miles southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul on Highway 52, and 10 miles south of Interstate 90, the Chosen Valley marks the beginning of the only area in Minnesota that wasn't scraped flat by glaciers during the last Ice Age--a fact that sets it apart not only geographically but socially.

This hilly, heavily wooded region is rural, traditional and picturesque. Family farms are small--pastures interspersed with wood lots, cornfields lying along river bottoms and farmyards where pigs and chickens are out in the open air.

It's not hard to find someone out in the country who's willing to stop and talk, suggest things to see and give directions. Whether you're in a car or on a bicycle, you'll find great leaf viewing without the traffic that plagues fall excursions to better-known areas.

A group of private citizens in Chatfield, a charming town of 2,000, has printed up several self-drive leaf tours. Averaging 15 miles, each itinerary is annotated with historical and contemporary comment and mile-by-mile directions.

Several of the tours follow the various branches of the Root River, which flows east through the Chosen Valley on its way to the Mississippi.

The Loughrey Valley tour follows the middle fork of the Root River and offers some of the area's best color. The hills above the river and its tributary creeks are blanketed with oak, maple, walnut, elm and hickory--part of the primeval hardwood forest that once covered much of the East and Midwest and survives today only in areas too steep for agriculture.

Although predominantly oak, the variety of species forms a symphony of color. From clear top notes of yellow and chartreuse, the scale runs through oranges and scarlets to bass notes of raw umber and burnt sienna.

The Stone Bar tour features an immense drive-through structure that measures 100 feet long by 40 feet wide. The barn was built in the late 19th Century by Tom Ferguson. This traditional stonemason cut more than 100 cords of stone in a nearby quarry and hauled them to the site in a horse-drawn stoneboat.

With his horse powering a gin pole, he lifted the blocks three stories and laid them with mortar made from burned lime rock. Gary and Deb Anderson, the current owners, welcome visitors to stop and look at this masterpiece.

Just north of Chatfield is Harvey Bernard's art studio and gallery. The gallery is in the one-room country schoolhouse that Bernard attended as a child. Visitors can sit at antique cast-iron and maple desks, a few bearing the carved initials of former pupils. They can ring the original school bell and write on genuine slate blackboards.

Bernard's highly detailed pen-and-ink silhouettes depict the era of farming when horsepower was giving way to tractor power. The designs are silk-screened on pine plaques of various sizes. Over a hundred designs, which are marketed nationally, are for sale.

Visitors to Chosen Valley often base their excursions at Lund's Guest House in Chatfield. This five-bedroom cottage is decorated in the style of the 1920s and '30s. The only concessions that Shelby and Marion Lund have made to modernity are the mattresses and the microwave.

Everything else is authentic to the period: Art Deco bedroom sets, working Victrolas and console radios, clawfoot bathtubs, Chinese checkers. Comments in the guest book attest to the fact that overnight visitors love the feeling of living in a time warp.

One of the Midwest's premier bicycle trails starts 11 miles south of Chatfield near the town of Fountain. Completed last year, the trail follows the old Milwaukee Road railbed 30 miles to the town of Rushford. The trail roughly parallels the Root River, so riders starting at Fountain have the advantage of traveling downriver.

It takes a strong rider to complete the round trip in one day. Most cyclists arrange for a car shuttle between the trailhead and the old depot in Rushford, both of which have ample parking.

A few miles into the ride, you'll pass the Old Barn. This small resort is centered around a huge renovated barn that originally sheltered race horses. The Old Barn provides trailer hook-ups and both dormitory and private rooms that are reasonably priced.

Since 1974, more than 100 Amish families have bought land in the area. They farm with horses and without electricity. During recent decades, the Amish have moved farther and farther west from their original settlements in Pennsylvania to find good farmland at reasonable prices.

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