Rock crawling park, concert venue comes to Atwater, Minn.

An abandoned gravel pit south of Atwater will soon be home to off-road vehicles, but first, it will hold a concert to raise money for ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Rock crawling
Jeff Thompson of Cologne stands in front of a 5-ton military vehicle used at the new Freedom Ridge park being constructed for rock crawling south of Atwater. (Tribune photo by Jacob Belgum)

An abandoned gravel pit south of Atwater will soon be home to off-road vehicles, but first, it will hold a concert to raise money for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The Chris Hawkey Band will headline the Aug. 22 show at Freedom Ridge, 1.5 miles south of Atwater on Kandiyohi County Road 2. Tickets are $25. The Plott Hounds and Copperhead Creek will also perform.
“For 25 bucks, I don’t think you can go wrong,” said Jeff Thompson of Cologne, along U.S. Hwy. 212 west of the Twin Cities. Thompson is one of Freedom Ridge’s two “key” owners, along with Brian Ohland; 11 other small investors compose the rest of the ownership group.
Thompson’s group actively searched for a location that could sustain their rock-crawling (or off-road) park, and they felt Atwater was the perfect spot. The property’s natural hills and cliffs along with the 2 million pounds of trail-building material Thompson and Ohland trucked in make the park intimidating for non-rock crawlers and thrilling for those who enjoy the hobby.
“(It) looked like just a beautiful site to do the rock crawling that we want to do,” Thompson said. “The people in the area were very receptive to our plan and what we wanted to do.”
Atwater might not be a typical hotspot for business, but its proximity proved to be an asset when Thompson was considering places. Both Litchfield and Hutchinson have active four-wheel drive clubs, and Atwater is only 80 miles west of Minneapolis. Even a club from Rochester contacted Thompson, saying it can’t wait to see the property.
Thompson said he studied the market, and to this point, the nearest, decent rock-crawling spot is in Gilbert, a mere four hours from Atwater in northeastern Minnesota.
“(Gilbert is) a long haul with your truck and trailer,” Thompson said. “A lot of the local people are very excited to see a close place to go wheeling.”
The Hawkey concert then will not only raise money for ALS, but will also bolster awareness for Freedom Ridge’s mission to become an off-road, rock-crawling destination. The park’s location has been, for all intents and purposes, vacant since the last Rumble to Revy’s (Atwater’s motorcycle rally) in 2007.
“I thought it’d be a cool thing to have, ‘cause it’s kind of sad just to see those empty pits down there,” said Shane Hagstrom, Atwater City Council member.
Rock-crawlers are utility task vehicles like Jeeps or half-Jeep, half-buggy contraptions. They would not look out of place on Fury Road in “Mad Max.”
The park exists for those vehicles, not speed demons like 4-wheelers. Freedom Ridge spans 40 acres, less land than an ATV rider would typically like to cover.
“(ATVs) travel at high speeds, where the rock crawlers go three-quarters of a mile an hour,” Thompson said.

ALS benefit
Awareness for ALS traveled faster than any vehicle after the Ice Bucket Challenge exploded in 2014. It raised more than $100 million for the ALS Association and gathered tons of celebrity endorsement. By now, most people with a wi-fi connection know of ALS’s presence.
Freedom Ridge’s owners certainly do -- hence the concert benefit.
Ohland’s brother suffers from ALS, and Thompson said he has seen, firsthand, its familial devastation. (He assured the money raised would go to the ALS Association and not directly to his ailing friend.)
According to the Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota chapter of the ALS Association, two Minnesotans are diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and two people succumb to it each week, on average. ALS causes people’s muscles to degenerate and can eventually lead to paralysis. People usually live between two and five years after being diagnosed, though some live longer thanks to improved medical care.
“If we can raise some money to help some of these families get through their suffering a little bit and help these people live a little better quality of life, we’re going to do what we can to help,” Thompson said.
Thompson said his ownership group will donate 100 percent of concert’s profits to the ALS Association. It has worked to keep costs low, but Thompson said 1,000 spectators must buy tickets for the show to break even.

Looking ahead
“The community, I think, will support (Freedom Ridge) just because of the way the community is,” Hagstrom said. “Hopefully (the owners are) in it for the long term.”
Thompson makes it sound like they will be.
He said that the Hawkey concert is not a one-time entertainment plan, that he intends to put on future concert festivals and eventually build a campground to boot.
“We would like to do an annual charity fundraiser, along with some other events that we’ll do for our own gain,” Thompson said.
Currently, Freedom Ridge is not fit to host much more than a concert. When the concert date hits, the rock-crawling portion of the site will be only 15 to 20 percent complete, according to Thompson. Despite having a long way to go, Pat Walsh, owner of Atwater Ford and a new friend of Thompson, said he is impressed with the park, which features a chasm dubbed “carnage canyon.”
“I took (my wife) Sandy out there and just showed (the park) to her … she was terrified just looking at it,” Walsh laughed.
Freedom Ridge’s owners hope people turn that fear into adrenaline and try their hand at rock crawling.




What: Freedom Ridge presents The Chris Hawkey Band
(Featuring The Plott Hounds and Copperhead Creek)
Where: 1130 195th St. SE; Atwater, MN 56209
When: Saturday, Aug. 22; gates open at 2 p.m., music begins at 6 p.m.
Cost: $25 in advance, $30 at the door, $10 for camping

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