Little Falls is a picturesque small city along the boundary where the forest and the prairie meet. Go west twenty miles west and you’ll be in farm country, but if you go twenty miles north, you’ll be in the pine forest. The folks are friendly and laid back, and there’s enough around here to keep a visitor happy for a couple of days.
The Mississippi River passes over a small series of waterfalls here that the Ojibwe called Kakabikans (the little squarely cut off rock, or little fall). A dam now obscures the falls, but there are still plenty of cut-off rocks strewn about.
Just north of town where the Little Elk River meets the Mississippi was an important crossroads for generations; it was the site of an Ojibwe village (and the residence the renown Chief Hole-in-the-Day or Pugona-geshig, who is buried on a nearby bluff) and also a fur trading post.
European settlement of the area began in 1848 when James Green staked out a squatter’s claim on the east bank of the Mississippi River, at a site that is within the current city limits. He built a sawmill that was powered by water from the river, but didn’t have a chance to do much more; cholera took his life in 1850.
Much of the town’s initial growth was fueled by the Little Falls Manufacturing Company. They built a dam and sawmill in the late 1850s, but the dam failed in 1859, was repaired, then was destroyed the next year by a flooding Mississippi. The town languished for the next decade.
A new dam was completed in 1888 for a hydroelectric power plant. The completion of the plant triggered a bit of a boom with the construction of several new businesses, including two flour mills, a sash factory, a paper pulp mill, and an iron foundry.
Sawmills were the biggest business in the early years, however, and the Pine Tree Lumber Company was one of the busiest. It was founded by Frederick Weyerhaeuser and Peter Musser in 1891, who turned over management to their sons, Charles Weyerhaeuser and Drew Musser. The two families also lived in neighboring houses on the Mississippi River in Little Falls.
The best known native is a guy named Charles Lindbergh. He was born in Little Falls and grew up in a house next to the Mississippi River. Lindbergh wasn’t a fan of going to school, at least until he enrolled in flight school. He built his piloting credentials first as a barnstormer, then by flying mail around the country. He became the first person to fly solo from New York to Paris on May 21, 1927 and quickly became one of the most famous people in the world. Lindbergh was not comfortable being in the public eye, though, a feeling that only intensified after suffering a terrible tragedy when his 20-month old son was kidnapped and murdered in 1932. The case was so sensationalized that Lindbergh and family moved to Europe for a while after Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the crime. After returning to the US, Lindbergh spoke out against US intervention in Europe as Germany was blitzkrieging its way across the continent—something he was heavily criticized for—but he switched his views after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He continued to reinvent himself, becoming a respected writer and a passionate conservationist.
Little Falls is also the hometown of accomplished author Louise Erdrich, whose titles include Love Medicine and The Bingo Palace.
The sawmills may be long gone but Larson Boats has been a steady employer since the 1920s.
Exploring the Area
Little Falls has a number of city parks along the Mississippi River:
- LeBourget Park (Larson Memorial Dr.)
- Maple Island Park (Kidder St. SE at 3rd Ave. SE)
- Green Park (1st St NE at 8th Ave NE), which is a pleasant place to stroll along the river and chat with folks, especially in the evening.
- Mill Park (Lindbergh Drive), which incorporates the ruins of the former Hennepin Paper Mill as public art.
On the west side of town, 57 aces of virgin red and white pine have been preserved at Pine Grove Park (Hwy 27 next to the zoo); the tract was donated to the city by local lumber barons. Walk around to get a sense of what the old pine forest of Minnesota was like.
The Charles A. Lindbergh House and Visitor Center offers guided tours of the Lindbergh family home with stories about their lives.
The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum and Home Site is the base for the Morrison County Historical Society and has some interesting exhibits on the county’s history.
Seasonal tours are offered of the former homes of the Charles Weyerhaeuser and Drew Musser families at the Linden Hill Historic Mansions.
If there’s a fishing enthusiast in your family, you’ll want to visit the Minnesota Fishing Museum and check out the displays on spearing, decoys, replicas of record fish caught in the state, and old motors like the 1902 6v submersible from the Electric Motor Company.
Sacred Heart Chapel at St. Francis Convent has a gorgeous Romanesque chapel that is open to the public.
The Great River Arts Association has three galleries featuring the work of local and regional artists. .
South of town, Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is a large wetland preserve with good birding.
Where to Stay
Charles Lindbergh State Park has about 40 campsites in a heavily wooded area that was once part of the Lindbergh family estate.
Two Rivers Campground is a large, full-service campground (over 200 sites) about 12 miles south of Little Falls on the Mississippi and Platte Rivers.
Clifwood Motel has 18 clean budget rooms in decent shape.
Bed and Breakfast.
The Waller House Inn has five rooms in a restored Victorian home just three blocks from the Mississippi River.
If you are traveling with a group, you may be able to arrange lodging at the Linden Hill Historic Mansions; give them a call to inquire (320.616.5580).
Where to Eat
Three generations have run Thielen Meats, where you can get a variety of fresh meat products including handmade sausages to barbeque next to the Mississippi River.
Stop at Pete and Joy’s Bakery (121 Broadway East; 320.632.6388) for fresh pastries and bread or for a light lunch.
Little Fiesta (310 12th St. NE; 320.632.2445) is the place for good Mexican food and good service.
A.T. The Black and White offers fine dining with a casual feel in a historic downtown building.
Next stop downriver: Royalton and North Prairie
Next stop upriver: Belle Prairie
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2012