At the west edge of Columbus, near where Lake Drive crosses I-35, there’s a paved road that runs past the new Running Aces harness racing track and connects with the freeway access road next to Gander Mountain.
Along this roadway, you can see an old two-story white building and a number of small and medium sized man-made ponds.
The road has been paved and extended for only a few years, and the building and ponds are all the evidence that’s left to tell the 40-year story of Trout-Air, one of the more interesting businesses of 20th century Anoka County.
Farm-to-table, where chefs try to get food from the field to the diner as quickly as possible, is a hot trend in the restaurant business.
However, long before Twin Cities eateries started boasting of their locally sourced menu offerings, Trout-Air had its own older and more populist version of the idea.
At Trout-Air, customers could pull rainbow trout from their 38 ponds and have them cooked up right on site at the Trout-Haus.
These meals went from farm to table in an hour or two.
Anyone who drove north from the Cities on I-35 from the 70s through the 90s couldn’t help noticing the large Trout-Air billboard, and over those years quite of few of these passers-by pulled off to the access road, where a giant fiberglass fish proclaimed the nature of the available fare.
It wasn’t unusual to have thousands of visitors on a fine summer day.
The restaurant could seat over 300, and Trout-Air hosted company picnics and senior events where as many as 3,000 to 5,000 fished and ate.
The business started in the mid-60s, when Bernard Preiner, a construction contractor, dug some ponds and stocked them with trout to sell to restaurants.
Within a few years the public was invited in to catch their own, and in the late seventies the restaurant was added.
From start to finish it was a family operation, with Preiner’s children spending almost all their time on site managing the business.
In the 80s a new generation was introduced to Trout-Air, when the site became a venue for outdoor concerts.
Four to six times a year, local bands, as well as nationally known acts, played daytime shows in an outdoor amphitheater.
There were no bleachers or grandstands; concertgoers either stood or sat on the grass.
The Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Bank, Ted Nugent, Heart, Megadeth and Korn were among the headliners.
In 1985 Charlie Daniels played to a crowd of 18,000. Temperatures were in the high 90’s and the family hired water trucks to help the audience keep cool.
Finally, in 1999, the Preiners were offered a good price for the land and they decided the time had come to sell.
Times and regulations were changing, and it had become just about impossible to operate a business like that.
The huge fiberglass fish went to a resort in Wisconsin, and all that’s left on site are some troutless ponds and the old restaurant building.
Maybe, however, if you stand beside the now-paved road, and the wind and your imagination work just right, you might hear a few Charlie Daniels fiddle notes still wafting around the fields where visitors once fished, ate and celebrated.
Editor’s note: John Evans is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.