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A down-to-earth city

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HAGER CITY -- From the familiar aromas of Red Wing to the oddly recognizable whiffs of dog food, my five-minute trip to Hager City opened my eyes and nasal passages.

Just a jog from the border, the unincorporated census-designated village is located in the township of Trenton in Pierce County.

From the passersby perspective, the city amounts to an industrial playground as Thomas & Betts Corporation and Nestle Purina Petcare Company line the each scenic highway.

Grateful not to be another passerby on this particularly breezy blue day - I obeyed the signs and scents to find the soul of city.

Outnumbered by semis, pickup trucks and Wisconsin license plates - even 2 miles from the border - I took a sharp left from the intimidating highway onto County Road VV.

As the cornstalks seemed to engulf my surroundings and glimpses of the bluffs scattered my horizon, an oasis of civilization and color captured my attention with a bang.

Island Fireworks has been operating from its large pole shed location directly off County Road VV for 17 years --attracting not only the explosively-enthused but also baffled bystanders.

"We get lost people looking for directions all the time," said Sharon Gardas, owner of Island Fireworks.

Open year-round, the fireworks shop is lined with endless options of crowd-pleasing sparkling gadgets and wisely added road charts. "They come ask where they are," Gardas added with a grin, "trying to find street numbers that lead to nowhere - we have maps here now."

East on VV to the crossroads of 165th Street, I found an aged bar and with an intricate story.

Constructed in 1895, Veiths Bar stands as one of the original buildings in the community. Complete with authentic cooler cork insulation from the 1950s in the custom mahogany bar, the once general grocery store-turned-bar has been a staple for the community throughout the eras.

"The first customers came by horse," said owner John Vieths. His grandfather, Fred Vieths, established the haven in 1914 after purchasing the building from the Goodhue County Co-op. "Grandpa had an eighth-grade education," Vieths said, "and took a nine-month business education class in Red Wing; they put a lot of trust in him."

After the Prohibition era ended in 1933, alcohol was added to the general store's menu and business boomed.

"I've been told Vieths was the place to be during the WWII years," Veiths said. "There was great entertainment from people who could play the piano and others would drink and sing-along. There were no TVs then."

Although the hitching-posts out front are long gone, the piano still stands as do the stories and memories.

Outside and water-bound, I traveled on a reverse alphabetical journey from County Road VV to K - following river odors to Everts Resort.

The quiet retreat welcomes visitors with fresh views of the water and an intimate approach.

"This area used to be the town of Trenton," said Jim Egelston, manager of Evert's Resort, "it was later turned into a resort."

With a late lunch looming over my thoughts, my last stop required little effort for an unforgettable bite.

Perched on the highly-traveled corner of U.S. Route 63 and State Highway 35 sits Hager Heights Drive-In.

The eclectic eatery has been a family-operated collaboration since the beginning of the early '60s. The broasted chicken has captured the taste buds of thousands. "People come from all over the place," said owner Russell Duden. "Someone even has it Fedex-ed to them."

Sprawling scents aside, the surprising acreage and heart of Hager City is evident from the loyal patrons emitting their down-to-earth personalities and charisma - or even from the front yards of residents displaying their untold stories.

Getting to know Hager City


2.7 miles ... from the heart of Red Wing, Highway 61 and West Avenue to the heart of Hager City - U.S. Route 63 and State Highway 35

Place for $15 bite

Hager Heights Drive-In

The family-owned and operated eatery since the 1960's, Hager Heights offers broasted chicken with an old school approach - complete with original drive-in style awnings for patrons.

Try a famous chicken dinner topped off with a root beer float. "Use your change at Island Fireworks to finish your evening with some fun," added owner Russell Duden.

Where: W7866 170th Avenue, Hager City

Summer hours: Daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m., closes at the end of September

More info: 715-792-2118

Fun fact

The unincorporated village of Hager City was named after the president of the St. Paul Land Company, whose last name was Hager. The company owned a large majority of the land in the area in the late 1800s.

Stacy Bengs-Silverberg

Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.

(651) 301-7880