It was Kim’s dam birthday last week and we thought it would be fun to take a dam short road trip to the Dam Store that’s next to the dam to get a Dam Burger and a slice of their Dam Pie!
Before you think we’ve jumped off the deep end with our newfound sailor-like vocabulary, we’re just talking about a historic hidden treasure of a place tucked off the beaten path in South Central Minnesota – The Dam Store located next to the Rapidan Dam.
Kim says you have to admit, it’s silly fun to say dam all the time and repeat all the obvious dam jokes. The good thing is it’s okay and nobody is going to get mad at you. Plus, you won’t get your mouth washed out with soap by your parents!
A Dam history lesson
The small little store and bait shop has been around for more than 100 years right along the edge of the Blue Earth River next to the hydro-electric generating Rapidan Dam. The county of Blue Earth has managed the dam for the past 46 years.
The massive concrete gravity dam was built in 1910 to hold back the Blue Earth River and generate power. The Rapidan power facility is a 5,000-kilowatt hydroelectric generating station operated by North American Hydro. The walk-across dam has been attracting the curious to the area for decades. The river and reservoir at the dam is also a local fishing hole for area anglers.
And where there’s fishing, there’s going to be a bait shop nearby. The Dam Store opened about a year after the completion of the dam, according to current store owner Jim Hruska. County Road 9 used to go across the new dam, so it became a convenient stop for gasoline, beer, smokes, bait, and associated tackle to passing motorists and visiting anglers.
In 1972 Hruska, and his late wife Linda, bought the store from Al Sween and spent many a long day working to repair and remodel the aging structure, including moving the bait shop outside and converting a bedroom into a new dining room. The family also added plumbing, a septic system, and restrooms so they could tear down the old outhouses located behind the store.
Visiting a place where time has stood still
The restaurant part of the Dam Store is now the tourist draw bringing in people from around the world to enjoy the burgers and the home-baked pies.
Stepping inside through the creaky front screen door is like stepping back in time. Not much has changed in the past 50 years since the Hruska family made the initial improvements. And that’s part of the charm that their customers appreciate.
Paint on the wooden dining booths, bead board paneling, and window sash is thick from dozens of coats applied over the years. Bare bulbs and florescent shop lights provide the illumination over the long service counter that separates the dining area from the milk shake machine and wall storage shelves.
Nostalgia fans will love the classic 1960s-era Wurlitzer Hi-Fi Stereo juke box that still plays actual 45 rpm records of your favorite old-school artists like The Everly Brothers, Bobby Vee, Gene Pitney, Frankie Avalon, and Ricky Nelson, to mention just a few.
A vintage red and white Coca Cola chest cooler sits behind the counter below shelves stocked with an eclectic collection stuff. Boxes of “Kahle Horizontal Fishing Hooks,” framed old photos and artwork, a couple coffee mugs, duck decoys, crafty “gone fishing” signs, a box of face masks and a lone loaf of wheat bread occupy the shelf space.
The walls of the restaurant are a visual time capsule of the Dam Store, the Hruska family, loyal customers, and local history. There is lots to look at while waiting for your food to arrive.
Even with all the endearing clutter, mounted trophy fish and a few dear skulls and antlers, the interior is clean and spotless, a testament to the love and pride the family has carried throughout their years of ownership.
Pride in ownership
The sense of pride and devotion to the Dam Store comes through loud and clear when talking with Jim and Linda’s children who now do the day-to-day operations, baking, and cooking.
David Hruska does the grilled burger and sandwich cooking but doesn’t stay back in the kitchen. He greets customers, answers questions about the menu and the history of their Dam store.
Much to our chagrin, David hopped up onto the old counter directly across from our booth to take our meal order and chat for a moment.
David’s sister Jenny Barnes wears just as many hats in the business, serving as the pie baker, shake maker and money taker. Jenny explained how she and her brother grew up at the Dam Store helping their parents.
Their mom Linda was the pie baker, and her dad was the milk shake expert. They took Jenny under their wings to teach her the pie recipes and “right way to make a shake with not three, but four scoops of ice cream and just the right amount of milk,” she explained.
We commented to each other that the decadently rich treats took us back to our youth when Ben Franklin and Woolworths stores had luncheon counters. The Dam Store makes their shakes the same way we remember from old days, served in the ice-cold tall metal mixing cup with a long spoon and straw. “These are to die for,” Kim exclaimed.
Taking over Mom’s legacy
As Linda’s health began to deteriorate, Jenny took on more and more of the work for her mom. Since her passing, Jenny bakes all the pies and puts in long hours during the summer season to meet the growing demand.
Suddenly a strange but somewhat familiar sound penetrated the din of crowd noise. We both looked at each puzzled. Then it dawned on us – “That’s a telephone ringing!”
David slowly walked to the end of the counter and picked up the wall-mounted telephone receiver on about the forth or fifth ring.
“Yes, right. Well, if you want a whole pie, you have to call early, like before 10 a.m.” He kindly educated whoever was on the other end. “You’re not going to get a whole pie after 12 Noon. You just get what you get, what we still have, but not a whole pie.”
Kim said the Dam Store reminds her of an old neighborhood bar or tavern, where you have the regulars mixed with people visiting for the first time.
Jenny admitted they know their loyal customer’s faces but not always their names. Kim’s late uncle used to be a regular customer at the Dam Store, driving down from his home in Mankato. Jenny asked about him but didn’t recognize his name, saying she would know him if she saw him.
“We know when all the regulars are coming in,” Jenny added. “They always order the same thing, so we have their food ready when they get here.”
What’s on the Dam menu?
The menu is iconic Minnesota coffeeshop. The Dam Store offers juicy quarter-pound burgers and their signature “two patty” half-pound Dam Burger. If burgers aren’t quite hitting what you’re hungry for that day, try a grilled cheese sandwich, fish sandwich, ham and cheese sandwich, deep-fried chicken strips or a couple of their basket meals.
Fries and onion rings, side salad, pasta or potato salad and chips are extra. Coffee, water, pop, and other non-alcoholic beverages are also available.
Famous for the Dam Pies
The pies are made in-house fresh every day, and menu changes each day. Certain days of the week feature different pies. The weekday we visited the selection of pies were Banana Cream, Coconut Cream, which Joseph loved, the Peanut Butter Cream with a layer of chocolate on the bottom, which Kim said was calling her name.
As pies are sold out, they are erased from the menu board. Remaining pies on the list that afternoon were Blueberry, Sour Cream Raisin, Sour Cream Raspberry, and Rhubarb Custard.
Our two wedges of cream pie were brought home (no room for dessert after the big burgers fries and milk shakes!) Each cream pie had a super thin but very flaky bottom crust and a dense and thick cheesecake-like consistency to the flavored cream fillings.
All the food and pies are available for take-out. We were tempted to get ours to go and head across the road to the county park for a picnic in the shelter house or at one of the many picnic tables under the trees on the grass, which lots of folks do.
They do not take credit cards. Cash or local checks only. The Dam Store restaurant is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The family shuts down during the winter for a well-deserved break.
The Dam Store hasn’t been immune to adversity over the years.
The store survived the closure of the road across the dam in the mid-1980s. In subsequent years, the Hruska’s stopped selling cigarettes and beer and later quit selling gasoline due to costs associated with new government regulations. Naysayers predicted those decisions would hurt their business, but the family continued to keep the Dam business running.
The Dam Store also survived the Minnesota mandated closures brought on by the pandemic in 2019 and 2020. The family responded by offering walk-up window service for their food and pies. The day we visited, one customer, still in the habit of ordering outside, had to be reminded it was ok to come inside to place his order.
Park and eat, sleep, hike, and fish
According to Blue Earth County, this stretch of river is one of the most natural and scenic areas in Southern Minnesota and a largely undisturbed remnant of the “Big Woods” of the region.
The area along the Blue Earth River features views of rock bluffs, wooded hills, rapids, and waterfalls on side streams.
The Blue Earth River is known for excellent fishing. Part of the park is used as a canoe launch and campgrounds, while the rest remains undeveloped conservation land. Overnight primitive tent camping sites are available for $12 per night. Small pop-up tent campers are allowed. RV’s and full-sized pop-up campers are not allowed.
Check with the park for size restrictions and regulations by calling (507) 546-9997. Rapidan Dam Park campgrounds does not accept reservations. Water is available at the campgrounds during the warmer weather months normally up to October 31.
Save the Dam efforts
Currently, the Blue Earth County Commissioners are considering tearing down the 470-foot wide, 87-foot tall Rapidan Dam. This has prompted a grass roots community effort to change the commission’s mind.
According to the Blue Earth County website a study was conducted in 2021 that identified two feasible solutions for the dam’s state of disrepair. The dam was last refurbished in 1984.
“Save the Dam” tee shirts hang above the juke box in the Dam Store and several handwritten signs posted all round the building instruct concerned customers to call or email the commissioners and show support for allocating funds to repair the historic concrete structure instead of destroying it.
The options are either to repair the dam or remove the dam. Both options have significant costs, and each has its opportunities, trade-offs, and timeframes, the county website says. Public comment was being taken through mid-June 2022. For more information, checkout the official website: https://www.blueearthcountymn.gov/1588/Future-of-the-Rapidan-Dam
No matter what the Commission’s decision is for the historic dam, the Hruska family and that Dam Store undoubtedly will survive and continue to draw thousands of visitors each year to enjoy the food and pies at their historic landmark store.
The Rapidan Dam Park and the Dam Store are less than a 20-minutes’ drive south of Mankato, MN. Take Highway 169 south to County Road 9 and turn east. From I-90 at Blue Earth, it’s about a 40-minute drive north on Highway 169 to the County Road 9 turn.