The Oak Center General Store looks like every general store you’ve imagined existed “back in the day.” Just off Highway 63 as you travel north from Rochester to Lake City, there’s a standalone building with large windows and solar panels on the front façade. Inside you’ll find produce, coffee beans, miscellaneous items and, usually, Steven Schwen. If he’s not in the building, he’s probably around the farm working. At least that’s what the note at the checkout counter says, along with a request for customers to figure their own total and leave it on the counter.
That wouldn’t fly in most stores, but here, it does. That’s because the Oak Center General Store is much more than a throwback to another era; it’s a farm, a gathering space, and a place where protecting and preserving the earth is not an afterthought, but its main purpose.
Steven has lived at the store since 1976. A self-described hippie, his faith in pesticide-free produce and co-operative ideals have been the driving force in his life, and a stable foundation for his lifestyle and political ideology.
For the last 40 years, Steven has maintained dedication to the store, the farm, and all it stands for. In the 60s, he left his third year of medical school at Mayo to focus on “creating a healthy co-operative food system,” he says. “There was so much hope and optimism for a utopian transformation after victories in civil rights, and the end to the war in Viet Nam…it seemed the forces of conscience and reason, (and the) stewardship of the Earth were in motion…I was joining in the wave of people trying to find ways to change the world for good,” a philosophy he still tries to follow through his lifestyle and relationships.
There has been a lot of communal activity at the store, a veritable epicenter of education and camaraderie. Paul Wellstone visited often, before he was elected Senator. Congressman and Senator Gene McCarthy held two different poetry readings at OCGS. There have been weekend-long conferences on holistic medicine (along with being a master woodworker, Steven is certified in homeopathy), alternative energy, and organic farming, which included workshops on grafting, greenhouses and horse-based farming.
From this flourish of activity, music has risen above. What began as a concert to raise money one month has turned into a weekly folk forum from October through April (summer months are used for farming and selling at farmer’s markets).
“Music took over because musicians were begging to play here,” says Steven. “I didn’t have to go through a whole lot of effort to line stuff up,” which is huge when you’re a one-man operation, as he is. All he needs is volunteers for the day of the event, and he usually has plenty of willing and regular helpers, from ticket sellers to dish washers.
Past musical performers include Dean Magraw, Erik Koskinen, Pop Wagner, and Charlie Parr. Upcoming shows this spring include Reina del Cid, Root River Jam, Monroe Crossing, and Joe and Vicki Price. For full schedule, visit oakcentergeneralstore.com/events. There’s more than just music on these Saturday evenings, there’s a generous meal to kick everything off. Tickets are $15, or whatever you can afford to pay. The shows aren’t about making money, they’re about providing a space for a community of people to gather, eat, drink and enjoy music.
Steven’s passion for life and community building is clear in everything he does. Oak Center General Store is much more than just a farm or a shopping destination or a trip back to the past; it’s a physical manifestation that there is more to life than climbing the corporate ladder or earning a bigger paycheck.
“Where there’s a need, if you shine the beacon, it’s like a lighthouse. We’ve attracted the people who want to help this planet,” Steven says. “They’ve come together, and it’s been magical for my family, it’s been magical for the community, it’s been magical for the musicians that play here. It’s a holistic way to have a gathering, it’s not just a venue for profit. That’s what people understand right away when they come.”