One local tradition returning this weekend is the “Traditions” concert of the Northfield High School (NHS) choral department. Titled “Sure on This Shining Night,” the upcoming performances — at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, both at Skinner Memorial Chapel on the campus of Carleton College — will feature 132 student singers from seven separate groups.
“I’m avoiding using the word ‘normal,’ but this is exciting and it feels good to get back to offering music for a live audience,” said Kyle Eastman, NHS choral director. “The kids have echoed that thought, because it’s great for them to be together doing something they love with their friends for the benefit of their families and the community.”
In December 2020, Eastman created a virtual choir video of the number “Winter with You,” as well as a video compilation of photos and audio recordings from NHS choral performances from 2017, 2018 and 2019.
“That was satisfying, but it felt like something was missing,” said Eastman. “There just isn’t a substitute for singing together in person as an ensemble, let alone for an audience.”
Senior Oden Hoff, president of the NHS Concert Choir and a member of two additional ensembles, concurs.
“It was really frustrating to have to do an online project after doing ‘Traditions’ as a freshman and sophomore,” said Hoff. “Anticipating this [live] concert is a highlight of December.”
The seven groups singing this weekend include Cantabile (ninth- through 12th-grade treble voices), RaiderKor (ninth- through 12th-grade tenor/bass voices), Uno Vox (10th-to-12th-grade treble voices), the 48-member Concert Choir (10th-to-12th-grade mixed voices), the 25-member Chamber Singers (a cappella mixed voices) and two student-led a cappella groups (Cattywampus and BCG).
“Cantabile is singing a great new arrangement of the ‘Gloria’ text by Michael John Trotta, and RaiderCor has a beautiful piece called ‘Remembering December,’” said Eastman.
“Uno Vox will present a really unique arrangement of an old Latin text, ‘Cuncti Simus,’ that involves some unique ways of working instruments into the piece.” Eastman also mentioned the title piece (“Sure on This Shining Night,” concert-opener with all singers), Robert Sieving’s “La Bonne Nouvelle” and the “Traditions” concert’s defining number: “Carol of the Bells.”
“‘Carol of the Bells’ is the one song that returns annually,” said Eastman, though discovering which group will sing it is always part of the fun. Among the concert’s 21 musical moments is something special: the Concert Choir’s presentation of John Ferguson’s “I Saw Three Ships” arrangement, including a four-hand piano part played by Ferguson and Ruth Legvold.
“John wrote this as a dedication to the Concert Choir and our longtime accompanist Ruth,” said Eastman, “and John and Ruth are dear friends.”
Eastman, now in his 11th year at NHS and 19th overall as a high school choir director, incorporates aspects of his undergraduate choral experience at Luther College into this distinctive performance.
“It’s a continuous concert, with music always happening, bodies moving from place to place and some singalongs involved,” said Eastman. He’s not the only one who finds the concert’s location adds to its mystique.
“I know we put our heart and soul into everything, but you can really feel the magic with this one,” said senior Lydia Buckmeier, a proud alto member of the Concert Choir and the ensemble’s vice president. “We are so fortunate to use Skinner Chapel, because it adds so much; it’s gorgeous and has wonderful acoustics. Being in Skinner is one of my favorite parts because it elevates the whole concert.”
Hoff, her fellow choral officer, agrees. “It’s cool to be in Skinner, and the acoustics are so grand,” said Hoff.
Despite the constant accommodations Eastman has made over the past year to allow his singers to rehearse and perform at all — hybrid schedules, masks, social distancing — the renewal of “Traditions” is energizing.
“This is a hopeful moment to try to restore that sense of community we lost,” said Eastman. “We’ve been working super hard and thinking about what this concert means in the context of what we’re going through,” said Hoff.
Added Buckmeier, “The idea of bringing hope, joy and light, and being present with everyone, is something we’re trying to emphasize through the music.”
The winter wonderland for which organizers of Northfield’s 22nd annual Winter Walk fervently wish may materialize after all.
Scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Thursday, Winter Walk resumes, following its understandable 2020 break, in the wake of a Tuesday snowfall and a forecasted 50% chance of further fluffy white stuff falling on the prescribed date.
“It was dubbed Winter Walk for a reason,” said Jane Bartho, director of membership and events at the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism. “The only thing we don’t have control over is gently falling light snow, but I would love that, because it makes things magical.”
“It feels like you’re in a snow globe when we have snowfall for Winter Walk,” said Carrie Carroll, interim executive director of Northfield Shares, a group that sources some of Winter Walk’s numerous volunteers.
Northfielders know this is a night not to miss, with downtown shop windows glowing, merchants beckoning, music playing, Santa bending to kids’ whispered lists, elves and carolers strolling, warm drinks abounding and more than 1,000 luminaries illuminating all the charm the historic downtown shopping district offers.
“This is one of our favorite events of the whole year,” said Joan Spaulding, owner of the HideAway Coffeehouse and Wine Bar on Division Street. “It’s just a joy-filled evening and a fun kickoff to the holidays, because you see so many friends and neighbors out enjoying Northfield. And it’s a great night for all downtown businesses, because it’s a feeder for the rest of the Christmas season.”
Spaulding, voted the Chamber’s 2021 Businessperson of the Year, does her part to share Winter Walk pleasure by providing live music (a string bass/piano duo is on tap), hot chocolate, mulled wine — and half-price bottles of wine — a regular HideAway feature on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
“That conveniently coincides with Winter Walk,” said Spaulding.
Bartho emphasizes that retailers and restaurants of all sorts display their warmest hospitality at Winter Walk, and the list of offerings, special deals and entertainment options is lengthy.
“Winter Walk’s theme is ‘Share Joy, Shop Small,’ and that’s the Chamber’s goal — keeping things local,” said Bartho. “There isn’t too much you need that you can’t find right here in Northfield.”
Among Winter Walk’s numerous delights are the “showmobile” with featured entertainment, starting with Santa’s arrival on a firetruck and his ceremonial lighting of the Bridge Square tree (sponsored by Hometown Credit Union) at 5 p.m.
“Mayor Rhonda Pownell will say a few words, the lights will go on and the sixth graders will sing,” said Bartho, noting the brief opening ceremony’s elements.
Leading those singing sixth graders is Michelle Bendett, choir director at Northfield Middle School (NMS).
“Winter Walk performances have been an NMS choir tradition for many years, so we were disappointed when last year’s event was canceled,” said Bendett, who surely had good company in that disappointment. “It’s thrilling for us to bring back our music to our beloved Northfield community, and the enthusiasm from our singers and their parents is stronger than ever.”
With a repertoire ranging from contemporary numbers to holiday favorites, Bendett will lead with her sixth grade singers at 5 p.m., her seventh graders at 6 p.m. and her eighth graders at 7 p.m.
The middle school choir kids are far from the only music-makers at Winter Walk; Bartho assures that carolers croon and instrumentalists play along the lit-up streets, which are conveniently closed to traffic for the evening. Bartho and Chamber CEO Lisa Peterson are also on the lookout for a mysterious trumpeter who materializes at each Winter Walk to beautifully serenade strollers and shoppers.
“It adds so much,” said Bartho of the various music performers.
The Northfield Public Library gets in on the fun, too, starting with craft stations at 4 p.m. and various other interactive activities for kids (and trivia contests for adults), throughout the night. (Visit nynpl.libcal.com for a full listing of the library’s Winter Walk schedule.)
One relative newcomer to the downtown Northfield scene is hairstylist Carissa Erickson, who since August 2020 has provided color and cuts “for all humans’ hair” at Coiffure Salon near Cakewalk.
For her first Winter Walk, Erickson plans to offer free gift wrapping (for goods purchased anywhere downtown) to all comers, and she has several dozen small salon-related gift bags to distribute.
“I like working with my hands, and I enjoy gift-wrapping — but I don’t like paper cuts,” said Erickson. “And I hope it snows so we can get the full Winter Walk experience.”
Typically, that experience includes free horse-drawn wagon rides up and down Division, and this year, Neuger Communications will host an outdoor warming area in their parking lot. Also good to note: Northfield Community Church, 713 Division, is offering its restrooms and other indoor spaces for nursing mothers and/or warming. Additional free public restrooms are available at the library and in the Northfield Historical Society, where an indoor Santa will provide an alternative to the Bridge Square St. Nick.
The Chamber credits all sponsors who make Winter Walk’s special features possible, as well as its roughly six dozen Winter Walk volunteers.
Those volunteers assist with everything from placing and lighting the 1,000+ luminaries to dressing up as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph or elves to assisting people on and off the wagons.
“This is what makes us run,” said Bartho. “The sponsors and volunteers behind us help make Winter Walk look effortless and appear magical.”
With three additional roundabouts expected to open by the end of 2025, Rice County motorists may soon feel as if they're going in circles.
One of the three is planned for 30th Street and Hwy. 3 on Faribault's north side. The other two are included in Rice County's 10-year (2022-31) Transportation Improvement Plan. One is set for the western edge of Lonsdale at County Road 2 and Hwy. 19 and planned for 2025. The other — at the eastern Hwy. 19/Interstate 35 interchange — is far bigger, both in size and cost, and could start next spring.
Rice County commissioners, concerned about traffic safety, have for years pressed for upgrades to the east side of the interchange. A traffic light added to the west side of the interchange more than a decade ago helped control traffic, but with growth in both Lonsdale and Northfield, and improvements to the Flying J Travel Center, traffic counts on Hwy. 19 have skyrocketed. And with it, safety issues and frustrations.
Commissioners Galen Malecha and Jeff Docken have pushed for improvements, focusing on the difficulties northbound travelers have when exiting the interstate and wanting to head west. Docken has mused that anyone looking to turn left from the off ramp at certain times of day should "pack a lunch."
Malecha, too, has concerns about backups on the exit ramp that stretch to the interstate, and the hazards — especially for semi-trailers — in trying to turn left at the intersection.
"We want to make sure that people coming and going on the interstate are safe in their travels," he said.
Because Hwy. 19 is a state road, the roundabout project would normally be led — and funded — by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. But after MnDOT urged county officials to take the lead, they began looking for ways to get the project done.
A roundabout, County Engineer Dennis Luebbe has said, makes sense, because it will keep traffic moving and decrease the likelihood of fatal crashes.
A 2017 MnDOT study showed an 86% decrease in fatal crashes and an 83% reduction in serious injury crashes at intersections where roundabouts had been installed. Overall, the study showed a 42% reduction in the injury crash rate.
Chad Sweeney, assistant Rice County engineer, says the roundabout "will be designed with trucks in mind." That means large farm equipment will also be able to navigate the circle.
A concept plan unveiled at a community meeting earlier this fall shows a six-legged roundabout with a 224-foot radius. That's large enough to accommodate the largest vehicles allowed on the interstate, 67-foot trailers. And it's a full 75 feet wider that the roundabout at County Road 1 near Millersburg. The six legs include two for Hwy. 19, the on and off ramps for northbound I-35, and the frontage roads north and south of Hwy. 19.
The project's on the books for 2022, but how that will shake out hasn't yet been decided.
Sweeney says that staging, when each portion of the project will be done — and how traffic will move during construction hasn't been decided. Staging will also determine how quickly the project can be completed. If the county were able to close off the area, the roundabout could be finished rather quickly. But that's unlikely, said Sweeney, meaning work could run into a second construction season.
The biggest concern for engineers is money. So far, the county's got $2.4 million in grant money and pledged another $750,000 of its own for the project, which Luebbe believes could cost up to $3.5 million. If that happens, county leaders have asked, where will the balance come from? After all, the county will be working on a state road.
Sweeney, Luebbe and County Administrator Sara Folsted all say they're being proactive in asking the question.
"We don't know if (a shortfall) is going to happen," said Sweeney, "but we want the state to be aware."