Small town, big wheels: How mountain biking saved a Minnesota mining town

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CROSBY, Minn. — Last December, Patrick Stoffel and Julie McGinnis opened a café in Crosby. At the Red Raven, customers can order up a turkey pesto sandwich with chips for lunch — and a new tire for their bicycle.

The two hatched the idea for their unusual business a few years ago, after Stoffel had ridden his mountain bike through the nearby Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area and shared his experience with McGinnis, his wife. They eventually quit their jobs in the Willmar area, 110 miles away, and moved here. "I was blown away," Stoffel said of his first outing on the trails.

On an overcast Friday morning in September, McGinnis managed the café — in what was once a mechanic's garage — while Stoffel worked in the repair shop. The Red Raven had a busy summer, with bikers from across the state dropping in for lunch — along with the Australians, Canadians, Germans and other out-of-towners who now come here to ride the trails.

"We've been meeting all kinds of interesting people, that's for sure," Stoffel said. "Crosby is small, but it's got kind of an international feel these days."

Yes, these days — six years after the state opened 25 miles of mountain biking trails through the recreation area, 5,000 acres of rugged land that had been left behind after decades of mining — bikers have re-energized this city of 2,400. Crosby has new restaurants, a new brewery, and a yoga studio to go along with a handful of other businesses that can be directly linked to the town's status as Minnesota's mountain biking Mecca. Since the trails opened, job growth in Crosby and the neighboring town of Ironton has been double that of the surrounding region. And last year an estimated 185,000 people visited the recreation area — more than double the number of visitors eight years earlier, before the trails had opened.

"It's been lots of fun, especially for me because I love this area," said Joel Hartman, who has been selling real estate in Crosby for 16 years. Over the past year-and-a-half, Hartman said he has sold about a dozen homes to bikers or to investors who plan to rent rooms to bike-riding visitors, and he now fields about two calls per week from people who are interested in buying what he calls "old miner homes" in Crosby or vacant lots near the recreation area. "It's good to see something positive happening. The mines came through and did their thing and kind of left the damage for us to live with."

It's also something the region is seeking to build on. During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers approved $3.6 million in bonding money for an expansion of the bike trail system to perhaps 75 miles.

Now the challenge is to create permanent awareness around Cosby's status as a biking hotspot, said Dorian Grilley, the executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, so that it becomes part of the area's lifestyle, and its identity.

"The change in Crosby?" he said. "I think it's real."

Mines once drove the local economy

For all the bike-fueled buzz, mining remains an enduring part of this region's identity. In the first half of the 20th century, mines drove the local economy, just as they did on the larger and better-known Mesabi and Vermillion Iron Ranges to the northeast. During World War I and World War II, the mines were an important producer of the manganese-rich iron ore used in wartime production. At one point, more than 30 mines operated in the Cuyuna Range, leaving behind the massive open pits, scarred hillsides and piled rock that would eventually become the recreation area.

The region was also the site of the worst mining disaster in the state — on Feb. 5, 1924, when water from a lake rushed into the underground tunnels of the Milford Mine, killing 41 miners within minutes. (In September, Crow Wing County opened a park on the site that memorializes the tragedy.)

Signs of this legacy can be found all over town — from the "Rangers" nickname of the local high school's teams to the menu at the new Iron Range Eatery, which boasts of "meals derived from the roots of the Iron Range," to the mural painted on a downtown building.

The last mine on the Cuyuna Iron Range shut down in 1984. In the wake of that closure, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board formed a committee to consider ways to make use of the old mines, which were growing thick with trees and bushes, holding water in manmade lakes and blossoming into their own kind of austere beauty. Barb Grove, a member of the committee who was working as the economic development coordinator for Crosby at the time, recalls that the town was "depressed" — not just economically but also psychologically. "Everyone had to change their minds about what these mine pits were and what they could become," Grove recalled.

Eventually, the panel settled on the idea of creating a state park that would offer some of the attractions of the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota's far north: camping, canoeing, hiking, solitude. The group rallied the support of local leaders and got the help of state Rep. Willard Munger, the late Duluth lawmaker who championed many environmental initiatives.

Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area opened in 1993, attracting campers, canoeists and hikers. But it was just a hint of what was to come.

From antiques to bikes

By the time the recreation area opened, Crosby had fallen into a kind of charming small-town solitude, many local residents recall, known mostly for its antique shops and its proximity to central Minnesota's lake country. Mayor Bob Novak, who grew up in the area, left and then moved back about 20 years ago to open an antique shop in nearby Deerwood.

In planning for the recreation area, local cyclists had worked with the state Department of Natural Resources to ensure that bike trails would be included in its management plan. That initiative got a boost in the early 2000s when two groups — Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists and the International Mountain Biking Association — got on board and began pushing for mountain bike trails. A group of local cyclists built a demonstration trail for the DNR, which unveiled the current trail system in June 2011.

Word spread fast among mountain bikers — helped along by a December 2011 feature in a national mountain biking magazine that called the new trail system "Minnesota's gift to mountain bikers" — and their numbers grew. And grew.

In response to the biking craze, Mayor Novak said, city leaders are now exploring initiatives that wouldn't have been on the radar even a few years ago, including an ordinance to regulate sidewalk seating to accommodate restaurants suddenly full of bikers.

Besides the Red Raven and the Iron Range Eatery, other businesses that have opened in the past 18 months or so include the Cuyuna Brewing Company and Holy Spirit Holy Yoga. Some existing businesses now cater specifically to the biking crowd; a bar called the Spalding House, for instance, offers hostel-like overnight rooms while Cycle Path & Paddle leases an array of mountain bikes.

"It definitely has had a large impact, not only on Crosby but on the Cuyuna Lakes area," Novak said. "I can't quantify it, but I can say one thing I have witnessed as a citizen is that the traffic going through town — the cars with a bicycle or two or four hanging on the back — is just amazing. All you have to do is sit at the corner at the Red Raven and watch and know it's having an impact."

He added: "There are some pockets of resistance, sure. For a long time here, people were waiting for mining to come back."

'They want good Wi-Fi — and good beer'

One of those early skeptics was Aaron Hautula, now the executive director of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, which works with the DNR on repairing and grooming the biking trails. Hautula said he doubted whether biking could turn into anything significant when bikers first began trickling into the area in 2011. "I didn't expect much, to be honest," he said. "Before then, I wasn't a mountain biker and when I had biked it was on old sandy ATV trails. That was my default setting as to what I thought these would be."

Then a friend encouraged him to try the trails. Hautula spent $200 on a Schwinn, sped to a high point along "Easy Street," the main trail in the system — and promptly threw up from being so out of shape. But the views were amazing. He was exhilarated and thought to himself: "This is the best thing ever. Period! This is going to be huge."

Since that fateful ride, Hautula, who also runs a communications firm in Brainerd, has become the recreation area's leading spokesman, a biking proselytizer who has traveled to seminars in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Germany to talk about the "bicycle-nomics" of Crosby. In September, he hosted a group of civic leaders from the Chicago area who wanted to know more about the local bicycle scene.

Hautula said the biking movement has tapped into a cultural moment, a time when many millennials are branching off of traditional sports into the pursuits that are popular in the Cuyuna: canoeing, hiking, paddle-boarding and — most significantly — biking. Bikers can download trail maps on their smartphones and upload photos onto their Facebook accounts. The winding trails have the feel of video games.

"That is where the world is heading," Hautula said. "This is a hybrid that speaks the language of technology, and it makes for an amazing outdoor experience."

Or as Hartman, the realtor, explained: "Bikers — they want good Wi-Fi and they want good beer."

'Growing and growing and growing'

The Cuyuna Recreation Area had been open for about a decade in 2004 when Jenny Smith opened Cycle Path & Paddle, hoping to capitalize on the growing number of people who were using the recreation area for hikes or canoe outings. By 2008, when the Great Recession hit and business took a dive, she thought about closing.

And then the bikers began to show up. Smith decided to keep her business open. The biking movement "just kept growing and growing and growing and business just kept growing and growing and growing," she said. These days, the shop floor is lined with bikes, many of them dusty with the trails' telltale red dirt. She continues to sell canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, as well.

Hartman, who had carved out a decent business selling lake homes, noticed the change, too. "People started looking at these homes that were typically entry-level homes," he recalled. "And then, all of a sudden, people started buying them and using them as, basically, affordable base camps." Today, he said, landlords who once leased homes to residents for $600 a month are now leasing them to bikers for $600 a week.

Crosby, Ironton and Ironton Township added 132 jobs between 2011 and 2016 — a 7.7 percent growth rate that was about twice the rate for the region, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. Eventually, local leaders hope, the area will draw a manufacturer or some other large employer. A few new homes will get built. A few more students will attend the schools.

"I can't see why this culture wouldn't prevail," said Novak, the mayor. "This whole bike trail system that we have going is one of the top-rated in the United States. We are attracting people from other countries, as well. All that makes me think that we can sustain this."

'I like the serenity and the quiet'

At the recreation area, in a parking lot near the Pennington Mine Lake, Kevin Block took a bicycle frame out of the trunk of his car and began attaching the wheels. A salesman from suburban Apple Valley, he was making his fourth straight weekend trip to the recreation area. It was a 2½-hour drive from the Twin Cities, but considerably briefer from a fishing house he kept on a lot on Lake Mille Lacs.

Asked why he kept returning, he said: "I want to experience new trails and I want to feel like I am out of town. I like the serenity and the quiet of the place. It really does feel like you are in the BWCA, and that is a happy spot to be in."

Block had little doubt that mountain biking enthusiasts — having found a place that one publication recently ranked the 18th best mountain biking trail in the country — would keep coming back, too.

"Mountain bikers are fanatics," he said.

MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota. This story was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust.