History of Oronoco Downtown Gold Rush
(from Interview with Mary Lou Berg in 2011;
Photo above from 1986 Rochester Post Bulletin)
Earl and Mary Lou Berg started selling live bait and tackle from their Oronoco garage in 1961. Two years later they bought the big brick building next to the bridge in uptown Oronoco and moved their bait business there. They added groceries, picnic supplies, and beer for tourists and fishermen.
The store was open from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. They lived for two years in the back of the store in a partitioned-off area.
The brick building had been empty. It had belonged to the Ondler family and was a grocery and general store. It was still open in 1959, but was empty when the Bergs bought it in 1963.
The building was built in 1912 by Charles Postier. It replaced a building that had burned. Owners on the site had been Mark and Johanna Clay, McCray Store, Rice Store, Paul Stolp, and then the Ondlers. The Clay Brothers owned it during the Civil War. The brothers fought in the war. Mark’s wife Johanna kept things going while they were gone. Mark came back to serve the community. The other brother died in the war.
Many buildings used to be along the river. Elsie Boutelle’s book Oronoco – Past and Present gives some of the history of that area.
The south end of the building was the front of the store. The entrance was on the lower level by the river. When the present bridge was put in, the store was moved upstairs and now the front entrance is on the west side on the main floor. Down along the river, only the Oronoco Hotel building remains. The basements of the blacksmith shop and the old Post Office were buried in the early 1960’s.
The Berg family later bought the old bank building that was next door on the north side. The bank had failed during the depression. The Mayo Brothers’ names are on the abstract as shareholders. John Tiedeman was one of the former owners of that building when Paul Stolp owned Berg’s building in the 1940’s.
Bergs put in a barbershop between the buildings. George was the barber. It was called George’s Barber Shop. Bob Olson rented it after George retired.
They also planned a laundromat in that building. The water was tested and was rated the best water in the County. The Bergs soon learned that heating the water for the laundromat was too costly so they went into the antique business instead.
They bought and sold antiques from the back of the store and the basement. Earl built a stairway down to the basement from the main store.
The basement was the original general store and in later years was the Lakeside Tavern owned by the Ondlers. It is still known by its nickname “Sunken Heaven.” People still come and ask to go down there. It had a kind of “speak-easy” reputation.
Earl liked to buy and sell things, but also was very good at seeing the potential of broken things. He could fix almost anything if he had the time. He never refinished stuff; just got it in shape to sell. Many things looked unfixable. This was his fun. Mary Lou had helped her Dad with his repair business, so she made a good assistant.
Earl built the porch on the bank building. The pillars came from the old George Mohlke homestead. Earl fixed the exterior of the building across the street from the store. In the 1970’s they bought those lots to put rental canoes on. The property had belonged to Eric and Dorothy Bergstrahl who lived next door to the store. The land had belonged to Dorothy’s family, the Fiefields, in the 1930’s. They had a large hardware store that burned. The sidewalk and old gas pump and part of the foundation were there when Bergs bought the store. The foundation was used for rip-rap when the bridge and dam were fixed later. It was said that it was an “Our Own Hardware” original store.
After fire destroyed the hardware store, John Fiefield moved to the house next to Berg’s store and had a hardware store there. Dorothy and Eric lived upstairs there for a time until John passed away. Then they took over the entire house. They had lived on a farm near Mazeppa at one time.
Mary Lou states that she believes that one of the reasons their antique business was successful was because they didn’t play favorites. Everyone had the same chance. The Bergs did not call people or hold things back for anyone. They sold to a lot of dealers and many would call or come and no one got special treatment, same as retail people.
So Earl decided to try to bring the buyers and sellers together and he asked some select people to come out as vendors and present their items. He called some prominent dealers like Ordie Lutzi and Dave Caffes and they agreed to come and he’d have a flea market. They measured out lots and Mary Lou took reservations. The first time, 38 vendors set up. When some had to go home for more, they said “Let’s do this again next year!” So Earl named it “The Gold Rush Antique Show.”
There had actually been a gold rush in Oronoco in 1858 when gold was discovered there. A mining operation was started because pan mining was too slow. The gold rush was short lived however, as a spring flood destroyed the mining operation.
Gordon Yeager wrote some Gold Rush stories in the Rochester Post-Bulletin newspaper. In 1975 Wm Stark, a naturalist from Oxbow Park, and six or seven others looked for gold in Oronoco. Earl and Earl Jr. were part of a full-page story with pictures in the paper at that time. They didn’t find gold (maybe the water was too high at the time). There was a plaque on Highway 52 between Oronoco and Douglas. There is a plaque now in the Oronoco Park. There are gold stories in a book called 101 Stories of Minnesota.
The “Gold Rush Antique Show” continued and doubled in size. Vendors came every year. Bergs charged $2.00 a space and later $3.00 to cover advertising. Earl and Mary Lou and their four children did all the work. They later used more property down the street. The VFW and the Auxiliary decided to have their chicken dinner on the same weekend. The Oronoco Volunteer Fire Department decided to have activities at that time, too. Also the ball game tournaments were going to be held at the same time. So the entire City of Oronoco got very busy on Gold Rush Days!
The Bergs tried to make it a great thing for the vendors to choose their own area for shade or for handicap needs. So it was a challenge because the vendors were Berg’s year-round customers so it was sometimes a delicate balance for them.
When the Berg’s daughter was planning her wedding, Mary Lou wanted to put her time and effort into giving her daughter the “wedding of the Century.” Mary Lou decided to “hang it up” with the Gold Rush business. Earl had never done the paper work. So he was ready to give it up, too. He went o the City Counsel and asked if they would take it over, but they declined. It would be a lot of work for no profit, to be sure!
Another Oronoco couple, Joyce and Ole Fuchs, wanted to help out with the Gold Rush. They said if they could borrow the name, any profit they got could help with the project. Bergs let them use the name. Joyce and Ole developed their own mailing list and set up vendors without help from the Bergs, although they were consulted. The vendors dealt directly with Joyce and Ole. They did a very good job and kept expanding it, renting land, etc. They made enough on the first show to buy some t-shirts for the ball park and later bought lots of things for the city and the area; equipment for the fire department, police, and sheriff; and playground equipment; repairs to the Community Center building; and the kitchen. A lot of good things came from their work. The Gold Rush show was very successful and was well received.
After a few years with spending their own money for gas, etc. the group that helped agreed Joyce and Ole should benefit for their work. With some vendors making big bucks on one weekend and Joyce and Ole working on it all year for nothing, it seemed fair that they should benefit too. Besides that they were making all those donations to many village projects.
Olmsted County decided to close the bridge by the Berg store and replace the top and widen it. Work needed to be done and even though it would lessen the sales for the Bergs, they did not oppose it. It left them on a dead-end street for 9 months and most fishermen could not get to their place. It pretty much ruined their bait and tackle business, as well as their sales of groceries, newspapers, and vending machines. But the antique dealers kept coming and Bergs were looking forward to the Gold Rush show that year.
Joyce and Ole were told that the bridge wouldn’t be done in time for the Gold Rush. Parking was promised on the south side of town and property was available to hold the show there for one year. Some buildings could be used for events and dinners for local groups.
The Oronoco mayor and his wife decided they’d have a show of their own at the Community Center and on the north side of the bridge. Joyce had already made promises to her vendors and wouldn’t break that trust, so both sides went on with shows. It would have been fine, except that the north side group used the same name and people were very confused. It would have been fine to have two shows, but it caused trouble for some folks.
The Mayor got a group together and tried to drive Joyce and Ole out. It took three court cases and in the end, it was decided that Joyce and Ole had the official right to the name and the shows. Those on the north side of the bridge named their event “Downtown Oronoco Gold Rush.” They passed an ordinance to limit overnight parking.
Earl went down and asked for a permit for a real show and they laughed in his face. Their customers and vendors had no place to park.
Once the bridge was connected, it would have been possible to combine the shows, but some folks did not want to do that. So Earl told Joyce and Ole he would give them money to rent the Fairgrounds in Rochester for the show until it could come back to Oronoco. The show in Rochester, with all the buildings and 50 acres, was a huge success. Some people didn’t want to come back to Oronoco.
So the split stayed. When Joyce passed away, her mailing list, etc. was sold to a professional promoter. That Gold Rush Antique Show is held at the fairgrounds in Rochester to this day.
The Bergs still owned the logo, and the name “Oronoco Gold Rush” was confirmed by a judge in one of the cases. Both shows are well attended. People who buy and vendors on both sides are still friends and associates with the Bergs. Some people thought the Bergs wanted their customers to move to the show in Rochester, but that isn’t true.
Eventually, the Bergs retired from the Gold Rush shows and started going south for a few weeks every winter. They took some antiques along and sold them there. In January 1997, Earl died in Texas while they were having a show there. He is buried in Zumbrota.
Mary Lou continues to run the business. She considers their children her biggest success, and anything else was a bonus. She planted the Crimson King Maple tree across from the store in Earl’s honor. She invites visitors to come to the store and see the pictures and newspaper articles about the first “Gold Rush.”
The Downtown Antique Gold Rush is held the third weekend in August. The entire city is involved in making it the best possible event.