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Better Know a Twin Cities Suburb: Champlin

This riverside north metro 'burb is home to sprawling parks, ample yarn, killer BBQ, and one beloved dinosaur.

Facebook: City of Champlin|

Welcome to Champlin!

In Better Know a Twin Cities Suburb, Racket readers write love-letter travelogues to their suburban hometowns. Why? Because us city rats could stand to learn a thing or two about our vibrant and increasingly diverse neighbors! Want to sing the praises of your suburb? Hit up jay@racketmn.com.

Champlin
Founded: 1858
Population: 23,112
County: Hennepin
Celebrities: Environmentalist, educator, politician, and author Darby Nelson; William Stiles a.k.a. Bill Chadwell, a member of the notorious James Gang

Father Hennepin Festival 2023Facebook: City of Champlin

When my husband and I moved into our Champlin townhome in 2012, it was supposed to be a short-term thing. This was our starter home, we told ourselves; we’d trade it up soon for something in Minneapolis or St. Paul, or at least a first-ring suburb.

Fast-forward 12 years, and we're still here, with no plans to move. In part, we've stayed for the same thing that brought us here in the first place: We live next to Elm Creek Park Reserve, the largest park in the Three Rivers Park District. But we've also come to truly appreciate Champlin itself.  

Today, Champlin’s business district is situated along Hwy. 169, though historically, Champlin was a Mississippi River town. The city lies in the ancestral lands of the Dakota people, and Father Louis Hennepin was among the first Europeans to visit the area in 1680. (Champlin’s annual civic celebration is called the Father Hennepin Festival in his honor.) 

“What you could call ‘light settlement’ started in 1852,” says Michael Brey, vice president historian for the Champlin Historical Society and editor of Champlin on the Mississippi Revisited: 1852-1979.  “[Champlin] was right on the river, directly across from downtown Anoka.”

Brey explains that Champlin was a small farming community with a proper downtown until the 1950s. Then the old Jefferson Highway that once ran through downtown was replaced by a highway that bypassed it, and the businesses along the river—now located on a dead end—gradually died away.  The only surviving remnant is Mill Pond, which once powered the local gristmill.

Looking good, buddy.Champlin Sinclair

Champlin Attractions

Today, that former riverside business district has been redeveloped and city brass is making a concentrated effort to brand Mississippi Crossings as the place to be in Champlin (they even installed an Instagram-ready sign). Champlinites, however, know that the true heart of the city is a little further north up 169: the Champlin Sinclair gas and service station.

“Being at the Champlin Sinclair is like being at Cheers, everyone knows your name!” says Diana Merkl, whose husband Jim Merkl has owned the station with his brother John Merkl for nearly 50 years. “People talk about how they don’t feel connected to other people any more, but this is somewhere where we know everyone and they know us.”

The Sinclair is the oldest operating business in Champlin, dating back to the 1930s. The Merkls have retained an old-fashioned full-service model, but the station’s most beloved feature is Dino, a green brontosaurus statue Diana has outfitted in seasonal costumes for about 15 years; it started when subzero temperatures inspired her to knit a scarf for Dino, and he’s been dressed up ever since. Costumes are usually holiday-themed—the Easter Bunny, a leprechaun, Uncle Sam—and you can purchase a calendar depicting Dino’s various looks for $10, with proceeds donated to the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. At Christmastime, Dino dons Santa attire and kids can give him their letters to Santa. If they include a return address, they’ll get a response.

“They all get a Dino sticker and a Dino tattoo, with a letter from Dino that says he saw Santa last night and gave him their letter,” Diana says. “I love seeing little children out there getting their picture taken with Dino—it warms my heart to do something that makes them happy.”

Champlin’s other major attraction is the 4,900-acre Elm Creek Park Reserve.  The northeast portion of the park in Champlin has paved trails, single-track mountain bike trails, and an off-leash dog park. Elm Creek Park Reserve as a whole (much of the park lies in the neighboring cities of Dayton and Maple Grove) has just about every recreational amenity you can imagine, from an archery range to a ski hill.

Dunning School (10980 West River Rd.) was constructed in 1876 and remained in use as a school until 1947. Also known as District No. 99 School, the one-room schoolhouse was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“It opens up the possibility to get grant money to do things like make the building handicapped accessible,” explains Brey, who was involved in the nomination process. “We’re also looking at getting an HVAC system to continue the stabilization of the building.”

Members of the public can visit the Dunning School during the Father Hennepin Festival, when the Champlin Historical Society hosts an ice cream social inside the building. Brey also notes that scouting and school group tours are available by request.

The patio at Elm Creek Brewing.Facebook: Elm Creek Brewing

Champlin Businesses to Check Out

Perusing the technicolor yarns at beWoolen is my happy place. In addition to selling yarn and knitting and crochet supplies, the shop offers tuition-based classes and free social meetups, including the Twin Cities Mens’ Stitching Group.

Elm Creek Brewing Co. is Champlin’s first (and so far only) craft brewery, with great beers (I’m partial to the Through the Woods brown ale), an expansive patio, and fun events like a weekly board game/adult coloring night on Tuesdays.  

QFanatic BBQ and Grill is a destination for barbecue lovers from across the Twin Cities, garnering an appearance on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and winning the WCCO Viewers’ Choice for Best BBQ in Minnesota in 2015. Owner and barbecue master Charlie Johnson is dedicated to the craft of barbecue, as well as creating top-notch sauces and sides. (The one-time home to his Minneapolis outpost now houses the delicious Indian spot Hyderabad.)

Both Diana Merkl and Michael Brey mentioned that their favorite thing about living in Champlin is the small-town feel, and you really get that vibe at Hudy’s Cafe & The Li’l Bar. Although it’s located in a suburban strip mall, it feels like a mashup of a Main Street diner and your local dive bar, with all-day breakfast, pull tabs, and $2.25 tall boy Tuesdays.

Living in Champlin has taught me that sometimes, feeling comfortable in a place is all you need—it’s enough to stick around because you like your running route in the nearby park and hanging out at your local yarn store.  

Sometimes, home is where the Sinclair dinosaur is.

Better Know a Twin Cities Suburb

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