Oak Center General Store: a landmark music venue at the crossroads

Oak Center General Store
Oak Center, Minn., is an unincorporated community in Gillford Township in Wabasha County. The Oak Center General Store is its prominent feature. (Luke Taylor | MPR)

The large, clapboard-and-solar-paneled building stands at the convergence of U.S. Highway 63 and local trunk routes 75, 31 and 82 in Wabasha County, Minnesota. Built in 1913, the Oak Center General Store dominates the crossroads, a mercantile throwback serving the agrarian community that encircles it.

What's not readily apparent, if one is just driving past, is that above the general store is a music venue that's home to a Saturday-night concert series.

"It's a truly unique venue," says Barbara Jean of Dusty Heart. "The room itself feels like a cross between an old saloon and a barn loft — everything from the ceiling to the creaking floor boards is wooden, with an old potbelly stove crackling and cranking out heat from the back of the room."

Guitarist James Gould of the Federales was struck by the spirit of the place. "The vibe, the people, the room are so conducive to a great music experience for the performers and the audience," he says. "It's a very supportive atmosphere."

That atmosphere reflects its rural setting. "My first time performing there, a baby goat born on the farm that very morning was brought up to the venue during intermission for a meet and greet with all the attendees," Barbara Jean recalls. "That kind of thing doesn't happen anywhere else."

Owned and operated by Steve Schwen, the Oak Grove General Store has been hosting concerts (primarily folk and Americana), square dances and other gatherings since 1976. "Everybody says there's no place like it," Schwen muses.

How much longer it will continue is the big question.

The concerts originally began by necessity. Operating an organic farm and distributing his produce to co-ops and farmers markets, as well as running his own marquetry woodshop, kept Steve Schwen plenty busy throughout the growing season. Winter, however, posed a problem.

"The power company and the phone company were going to shut us off," Schwen recalls. "We were minute-to-minute trying to add up some income to pay those monthly bills."

A friend in Red Wing, Minn., — about 30 miles north of Oak Center — suggested Schwen and his then-wife host a rock concert to raise some money. The band supplied the music, beer and audience; Schwen provided his upper room as the venue. At $2 per person for all the beer you could drink, the evening concluded at 1 a.m. with biker-gang members sliding across the upper-room floor, splashing through two inches of spilled beer that had collected in the sagging floor at the center of the space. It took two hours and several loads of sawdust to sop up the mess.

The concert idea was fruitful enough to continue it, but Schwen and his wife decided a ground rule: "We looked at each other and said, 'Folk music.'"

Schwen didn't set out to be an organic farmer, much less a concert-venue operator. Raised in Blue Earth, Minn., Schwen's initial ambition was to be a country doctor. "I was going to go out to some rural area and do like the doctors used to do, where they had the same size house, living on the same block as all the other people in town, and did house calls if they needed to and bartered with people if the people didn't have money," he says. "That was my vision; that's what I saw when I was growing up."

Schwen began his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in 1968, and he was fascinated by the culture and events happening in Chicago. One of those events, the 1968 Democratic Convention, found Schwen and his fellow students in Chicago's Grant Park, where protests gave way to violence. "I breathed tear gas," Schwen says, acknowledging he was able to avoid the more violent areas of the demonstration. Although he left unbruised, Schwen was no less marked by the experience. "That's back when Crosby Stills and Nash were singing, 'We can change the world,' and Joni Mitchell wrote 'Woodstock' and Jefferson Airplane was doing 'Volunteers of America,' the Stones did a song called 'Street Fighting Man'," he says. "There was a whole world to save."

Following graduation from Northwestern, Schwen was part of Mayo Clinic's first class of medical students. He nearly completed his degree, but was put off by what he saw at the time as too much emphasis on palliative versus preventive care, too many surgeries and too many pharmaceuticals. Besides, the spirit of the late 1960s and early 1970s enthralled him. "It was all about going back to the land," Schwen says. "The planet needed to be healed."

As a result, Schwen left medical school, and he and his friends started an organic farm near Oronoco, Minn., just north of Rochester. Some years later, Schwen was able to purchase the land and store in Oak Center at auction, settling there.

Schwen eventually married (he was introduced to his first wife by Dan Foley, who co-founded the Electric Fetus) and began raising his family on the property. Although he didn't become a doctor, the general store gave Schwen a chance to touch people's lives in another way. Schwen launched a series called Folk Forum, which included everything from educational presentations on homesteading skills or current events, to music programming.

Steve Schwen stands Oak Center General Store's upper room, which serves as a live-music venue.
Steve Schwen stands Oak Center General Store's upper room, which serves as a live-music venue. Luke Taylor | MPR

Never losing his medical interest, Schwen studied holistic medicine and homeopathic healing. One of Schwen's homeopathic instructors was Julian "Winnie" Winston, who was also a celebrated banjo, guitar and pedal steel player. "So I invited him to come out here to do a Folk Forum homeopathic workshop on Friday night, and a pedal steel and banjo concert on Saturday night," Schwen laughs.

Also among the early performers at the store were Greg Brown, Bill Staines, Claudia Schmidt, Jerry Rau, Peter Ostroushko and many other folk luminaries. And like his produce, Schwen's roster of musicians grew organically. "The first time Peter Ostroushko played here, he went home to Northeast Minneapolis and we started getting phone calls from musicians saying, 'Peter told us that this was a great place to play; can I play there?'" Schwen recalls. "Greg Brown, after the first time he played here, we started hearing from people that had gone to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, they said all he could talk about was this place."

The more recent Oak Center General Store roster reads like a who's-who of established and rising Americana performers and songwriters: Pop Wagner, the High 48s, Erik Koskinen, Jillian Rae, Radoslav Lokovic, Charlie Parr, the Pines, the Federales, Reina del Cid, Monroe Crossing, Molly Maher, Boiled in Lead, Mary Bue, James Keelaghan, Hart-Rouge, Dusty Heart.

"Steve opens all the performances with an introduction that covers upcoming shows for the season, which typically shifts somewhat suddenly to his thoughts on local, national and international affairs," says Dusty Heart's Barbara Jean. "It is a true listening room, and despite the aging PA, it always sounds good in there."

Walk into Oak Center General Store, and it's a portal to another time. Two friendly dogs eagerly greet you at the door, while a charcoal cat gazes indifferently from a distance. The general store lives up to its name: occupying the shelves are grocery items — perishables and dry goods alike — as well as cookware, greeting cards, baskets, books, coffee, tea, candy and snacks. Almost all of the comestibles are organic.

In the center of the countertop is an antique cash register, a pattern of ivy laurels pressed into its metal casing. A kerosene lamp hangs overhead, and another rests on a shelf next to a merchant's scale. Affixed to the front of the counter are posters for recent and upcoming concerts: Jeff Ray and the Stakes with Hurricane Harold Tremblay; Dusty Heart; Dean Magraw; and Joe and Vicki Price.

upcoming concert posters
Posters for upcoming concerts festoon the counter inside the Oak Center General Store. The store's concert season runs October to April. Luke Taylor | MPR

A door at the rear of the retail space leads through a section of the backroom before passing through to the steep staircase leading up to the theater. At the entrance to the stairs, a handmade sign declares, "Upstairs, please turn off cell phones. All calls need to be taken downstairs or outside."

Schwen relies on volunteers to help with ushering, ticket-taking and concessions sales. In keeping with the spirit of the organic store, many of the items on sale at the counter are made on site with natural ingredients, including homemade cookies and homemade elderberry wine. "With the relaxed communal spirit, the organic store downstairs and the old-school ticketing methods, it still — thankfully — feels like you're stepping back to play in the 1960s or '70s for a night," says Ben Miller of the Federales.

The high-ceilinged room has seating for more than 100. When the venue first opened, Schwen's seating solution was a simple one: he used boards stretched across five-gallon buckets. The current seating came from a woodworking job Schwen got at the Methodist Church camp up the road in Old Frontenac. "They asked me to build cabinets for their residence halls," Schwen says. "They had a chapel at the church camp with all these chairs, banks of four chairs. They charged me a buck a seat for those chairs, so each bank of four was four bucks. And I had an old '58 International dump truck, drove down there, we loaded them all up — and no more buckets and boards!"

Three steps lead to the stage which, although not especially deep, is wide enough to accommodate two pianos. Look at the upstage wall, and what first appears to be heavy wood grain is actually the signatures of all who have performed at the Oak Center General Store. "We're almost out of space up there," Schwen chuckles.

the stage at Oak Center General Store
The stage at the Oak Center General Store has space for two pianos. Luke Taylor | MPR

Schwen says the majority of his audience comes from the Twin Cities or Rochester; curiously, he thinks only about 10 percent of his audience come from nearby Lake City. He'll also get concertgoers from Red Wing, Winona and from Wisconsin. Schwen did welcome a visitor from Pennsylvania once, and he remembers a semi-regular patron who "was a doctor in San Francisco and could arrange his schedule to consult at Mayo Clinic around our music schedule."

It's a cold April. Snow flurries dance and glance off the front windows of the general store. Schwen is sitting in a large room behind the store that serves as its business office, storeroom and kitchen. In the center of the room, a giant wood-burning stove heats the space. As the wind howls outside the thinly insulated building, the air indoors gets colder the further one moves from the hot stove.

Schwen, generally jovial, takes more a somber tone. "It's financially tight," he admits. "The squeeze is on. Expenses are up. And I depend totally on volunteer help because there isn't enough cash flow to hire anybody; in fact, I can't even hire myself it seems."

At one time, Schwen says the Oak Center General Store was about the only place in southeastern Minnesota to hear Americana music, but as more venues and festivals have launched in Red Wing, Winona, Zumbrota and Rochester, Schwen says he notices it's a bit harder to fill his space.

The fact that Schwen has a performance season may help. The last show for the 2017-2018 season is April 28 (Joe and Vicki Price), and his next season, starting Oct. 6 with the Dead Pigeons, is scheduled out to Christmas. But Schwen has concerns about the Minnesota Department of Transportation's 2018 plans to pave concrete and replace four culverts on U.S. Highway 63 between Rochester and Zumbro Falls, which could limit access to Schwen's venue.

Steve Schwen in the Oak Center General Store
Steve Schwen in the ticket entrance that leads to the stairs to the Oak Center General Store's upper-room music venue. Luke Taylor | MPR

Schwen says he's in his late 60s now, and that he mortgaged his Medicare to pay for the solar panels on his building. Meanwhile, his 20-year-old boiler needs to be replaced, which is why he's heating his storeroom with a wood-burning stove. A new boiler, Schwen says, could run anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000.

"I would stay here forever if I could physically handle it," Schwen says, "but the whole place is heated with wood. There's a lot of maintenance that's going by the wayside that needs to happen."

And with the planting and farmers-market seasons just around the corner, Schwen will only get busier. He even wonders aloud if he should cancel his next season of concerts. "Unless I get somebody else — a partner or someone who wants to take the reins," Schwen says. "I keep talking to our volunteer crew, saying, 'I can't keep doing this; we should set it up as a nonprofit and try to get some donations or grants where we can hire somebody to do some of the heavy lifting.'"

Despite his relentless schedule, and the fact that he lives and works in the same space, there are those times when Schwen can find a moment of peace. It tends to happen when a Saturday concert is over and the building has emptied. "When I'm turning the lights off," Schwen says, "I get up on the stage and play the piano."


Oak Center General Store - official site

Dusty Heart - official site (Dusty Heart perform at the Oak Center General Store on Saturday, April 21, 2018)

The Federales - official site

Related Stories

  • Dusty Heart perform in the Radio Heartland studio It was almost exactly two years ago when Molly Dean and Barbara Jean were in the Radio Heartland studio playing a few tunes as a relatively new duo, Dusty Heart. Spring ahead to now, and Dusty Heart are back in the studio with new tunes from their debut album.
  • Photos: He ditched med school, became organic farming pioneer Forty years ago, Steven Schwenn was a third-year medical student at Mayo Medical School in Rochester when he felt a different calling. It was spring planting season, and Schwenn bought 14 acres of land and began organic gardening.

14 Photos

  • Oak Center General Store
    The Oak Center General Store as seen from across U.S. Highway 63 in Wabasha County, Minn. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    Musicians who have played at the Oak Center General Store have a custom of signing the upstage wall. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    Oak Center, Minn., is an unincorporated community in Gillford Township in Wabasha County. An old sign hangs in the Oak Center General Store's music venue. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    The music venue at the Oak Center General Store seats more than 100. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    Decades of posters line the staircase leading to the Oak Center General Store's upper-room music venue. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    A sign near the entrance to the Oak Center General Store's music venue tells concertgoers to turn off their phones. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    Posters for upcoming concerts, Steve Schwen's Folk Forum newsletter, and a donation jar are found at a table inside the Oak Center General Store's music venue. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    The counter inside the retail space of the Oak Center General Store. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    Steve Schwen behind the concession stand at the Oak Center General Store, which has an alcohol license. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    Goose eggs at the Oak Center General Store are sorted for shipment to a farm-to-table restaurant in Minneapolis. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • Oak Center General Store
    Windows on the Oak Center General Store invite travelers on U.S. Highway 63 to stop in and explore. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
  • The Federales
    The Federales performed at the Oak Center General Store on Feb. 3, 2018. (Darin Kamnetz)
  • Dusty Heart perform in The Current's studio
    Barbara Jean (left) and Molly Dean (right) of Dusty Heart, who play at Oak Center General Store on Saturday, April 21. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
  • Charlie Parr performs songs from his new record
    Charlie Parr's last two shows at Oak Center General Store - in 2016 and 2017 - both sold out in advance. (Evan Frost | MPR News)

comments powered by Disqus