Photo Bar Hopping in Rural Minnesota

The municipal liquor store in my hometown of Vesta, photographed in 2009 at sunset. I've always loved the unique tile exterior on this building.

The municipal liquor store in my hometown of Vesta, photographed in 2009 at sunset. I’ve always loved the unique tile exterior on this building and the signage.

The small town liquor store or bar rates as more than simply a place to grab a cold one or wolf down bar food.

New Richland watering holes photographed in 2011.

New Richland watering holes photographed in 2011.

Oftentimes, these rural establishments serve as community gathering spots. Locals belly up to trade stories, talk crops, solve the world’s problems. There’s a certain comfort in that, in the familiarity of sharing gossip and opinions and woes within the confines of a dark space, sheltered from reality.

The seemingly popular Cabin Bar in Nicollet, photographed two years ago.

The seemingly popular Cabin Bar in Nicollet, photographed two years ago.

Sometimes these places remain as the sole business along an otherwise vacant Main Street. On a Friday or Saturday, vehicles line the streets. Folks gather to shoot a little pool, drink a little beer, tell a few jokes.

The Monty Hotel & Bar anchors a corner of downtown Montgomery.

The Monty Bar, with great vintage signage, anchors a corner of downtown Montgomery.

For awhile, troubles vanish, the body rests, a sense of community togetherness prevails.

Signage for a bar and grill in Kilkenny.

Creative graphics for a bar and grill in Kilkenny.

All of this I imagine as I photograph the exteriors of small town Minnesota bars and liquor stores. Unique signage, creative names, architecture and more draw me visually to these watering holes.

The Roadside Bar & Grill is a popular spot in Wabasso, especially during the weekly in the summer.

The Roadside Bar & Grill is a popular spot in Wabasso, especially during the Tuesday evening “roll-ins” during summer months.

Each holds a story. And if you, a stranger, venture inside, heads will swivel, eyes will bore and the locals will wonder. What is your story?


The Ridin' High Saloon in Cobden caters to bikers.

The Ridin’ High Saloon in Cobden caters to bikers.

Across the street from Ridin' High, Tubby's signage draws the eye.

Across the street from Ridin’ High, Tubby’s signage draws the eye.

The rather non-descript R & L Pit Stop in Hope.

The rather non-descript R & L’s Pit Stop in Hope, photographed in 2011.

Signage aplenty at Old Town Tavern during Morristown's 2013 Dam Days.

Signage aplenty at Old Town Tavern during Morristown’s 2013 Dam Days.

A misguided attempt, in my opinion, to improve the exterior of the West Concord American Legion, photographed in 2010.

A misguided attempt, in my opinion, to improve the exterior of the West Concord American Legion, photographed in 2010.

This post is cross posted at

About Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Audrey Kletscher Helbling, a native of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota, has been blogging at Minnesota Prairie Roots since 2009. She brings a passion for sharing the stories of rural Minnesota to her work, capturing the essence of small town life in her words and images. Audrey appreciates Sunday afternoon drives, garage sales and thrift stores, hanging laundry on the clothesline, gravel roads and anything that reconnects her to the land. She's lived in Faribault for more than 30 years where she continues to professionally pursue her passions for writing and for photography. An enthusiastic writer of poetry, her award-winning poems have been published in places from anthologies to billboards. Follow Audrey's blog at

13 thoughts on “Photo Bar Hopping in Rural Minnesota

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I love small town dives. What’s great is that these bars represent the last truly public use of charming downtown storefront stock that we’ve otherwise neglected for 70 years. The bars might not always do the best upkeep or restoration, but in general they protect some of these downtown buildings from ruin and they let the public come in and enjoy the type of places we used to have (even if it’s on a Saturday night they might not remember too much).

    I smell a Streets.MN dive tour road trip coming up….

  2. Minnesota Prairie Roots

    That’s a good point about these establishments keeping buildings from being torn down along our small town Main Streets. These taverns possess singular character and therein lies part of their charm.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    You can just declare that the West Concord legion was indeed misguided. And to think it was more recent.

    Many small town storefronts suffered during the 70s/80s energy crises, when they had huge, inefficient windows removed and framed in. We see this in Minneapolis, too (NW corner of Franklin/Lyndale, anyone?) We now have window technology that can be energy efficient and still look good!

    I’ve always thought it would be great to create some sort of trust fund or revolving loan fund for owners of small town main street buildings to restore fenestration to their original openings.

    It should also be illegal to put vinyl siding, barn steel, or painted wood clapboard in place of a period storefront at sidewalk level. If they can’t restore it to period, they can put in an honest storefront window system to cover the opening. And no $79 Menards Special exterior doors to get into main street businesses. The horror!!!!

    Anyways, great piece Audrey.

  4. Minnesota Prairie Roots

    I suspect the issue today is often money as indicated by your suggestion that some sort of funds be available to owners. From whence would those monies come? I doubt these businesses would want to borrow money given many are likely just clearing enough to pay the bills. That’s a generalization, of course, and not an excuse, but probably reality.

    I, too, dislike the period inappropriate fixes. And I especially dislike boarded/bricked/whatever windows. Appearance matters. History matters. What’s the answer?

    Thanks for starting the discussion, Matt.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Dark windowless pubs seem pretty much an all American deal. A leftover from prohibition speakeasy’s?

      I wonder if they’d have fewer money problems if they had large windows and doors like pubs in the rest of the world? Throughout Europe pubs are quite inviting and consistently some of the best food (and beer) you’ll find.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Actually that’s an interesting thing about bar design, whether in small towns or in Mpls (think Sunrise Inn at 34th/46th)…. many even had glass block windows so you couldn’t see the patrons inside. This was from a time when there was no middle ground on drinking like there is today, where moderate social drinking is now quite acceptable and gender-neutral. The Ken Burns doc on prohibition gives great insight into the social dynamics of alcohol 75-100 years ago.

        1. Dave P

          The Sunrise Inn is also a historic 3.2 bar. It’s pretty incredible that the place is sitll in business only selling 3.2% beer in this millennium, especially given the craft beer boom.

  5. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I have BEEN to West Concord. I met George there, who grows amazing tomatos in his yard on the end of main street by the grain elevator.

    Thanks for all the great photos, Audrey!

  6. Minnesota Prairie Roots

    That’s the great thing about small towns like West Concord, people like George.

    When I was there, I popped into Colleen’s Salon & Gifts, where I photographed an elderly woman under an old-fashioned hair dryer with Fonzie the beauty shop dog lounging on the chair next to her. It was one of those slice-of-life moments that is totally endearing and, oh, so worthy of a photo.

    Glad you enjoyed the bar/tavern photo series.

  7. Minnesota Prairie Roots

    In most small towns, I don’t think the addition of large windows and doors would impact business.

    Just this evening my husband and I dined at a bar and grill in downtown Faribault (not a small town) and the place was packed. It was BINGO night, which apparently draws people in for fun and food and beer. The long and narrow bar with booths along one wall is packed other nights, too, so we were told. Likewise the dining area was busy. And that’s a room with one small window. No windows in the bar part.

    What does this tell us? Probably that it’s more about the atmosphere, people, food, drink and fun times that equals success for a bar than anything.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I agree that it’s much about the atmosphere.

      If places are that crowded then they should be doing much more than just clearing enough to pay the bills. That said, I’d much rather see a place in a small town packed and just clearing enough to pay the bills, than not exist at all.

      A couple more thoughts.

      When we’re visiting a small town we are extremely unlikely to go in a place that we can’t see in to. This doesn’t create a welcoming and inviting town. Completely the opposite outside the U.S. (and in some east coast towns).

      Pubs outside the U.S. are often filled with just as many families as adults. Bars in the U.S. are often adults only (in some states by law). Mom or dad, or mom and dad, heading off to the bar isn’t doing much for raising responsible kids (nor keeping mom and dad acting responsibly while they’re out).

      Street life around these places is usually pretty dead (except at closing time). If people can see in and out they’d be much more connected to the street. Better, put some tables outside. Even better, make much of the front with french doors or windowed foldable doors so much of the front can be opened to the street. This would make for more appealing architecture and more appealing street life.

      Off my soapbox now 🙂

  8. Dave P

    I love it! Thank you for sharing these. Anyone else watched the movie Nebraska? These main street bars have a feel similar to the setting for that movie. Particularly the Monty.

    Rural Minnesota can’t even compare to the Wisconsin bar/supper club status, however. I am always shocked and the ubiquitous nature of bars in Wisconsin. It seems like you can’t go a mile on any county road without coming across one. The patrons are mostly friendly and a bit more apt to chat up a stranger.

    In February I was eating dinner a bar near Townsend, WI with a few friends. About an hour later I was sampling an 80+ year old German immigrant’s homemade wine in his house, which was heated by a wood stove. He had grown 100% of the ingredients. It was surreal and the wine was surprisingly good. I’ll have to start taking more pictures of the bars and less pictures of the woods and snowshoe/mountain bike trails next time!

    1. Minnesota Prairie Roots

      Just drove across Wisconsin this past weekend and saw a lot of those bars you reference. No time to stop, though.

      That story about ending up in the German Immigrant’s home sampling wine is great. He sounds like quite a character.

      I’ll have to check out that movie, Nebraska, and the interior of The Monty the next time I’m in Montgomery.

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