There's a little-known patch of heaven just off of Otter Tail County's scenic Highway 1, south of Ottertail, where everyone is welcome, all the time.
The gates to this earthly heaven are never closed, and there's never a cost to enter. Walk through, and you'll find the perfect place to rest, play, meditate and simply enjoy all that nature has to offer.
The place is called God's Acres, at it's a quiet gem of Lakes Country. A 35-acre mix of trees, rolling fields and wetlands, the property has been slowly and steadily transformed into an understated, unique site for some low-key fun and reflection.
The list of offerings at God's Acres is long and diverse. There's an extensive playground area, nine-hole disc golf course, courts for volleyball, basketball, pickleball and horseshoes, soccer and baseball fields, a mile-long walking trail, prayer garden with a gazebo, community gardens, orchards, a fire pit, picnic shelter, wildlife food plot, Little Free Library and more.
Volunteers have made it all possible, and volunteers keep it all going.
Since the mid-1980s, a committee of volunteers from Zion Lutheran Church of Amor, along with a few others from outside the church, have turned what was once a private farming plot into a public gathering spot. They maintain the grounds year-round, and plan and execute any new additions to the property. They're currently installing a labyrinth near the prayer garden, and their big plan for the future is to build an amphitheater for outdoor summer entertainment.
"It's a labor of love," says Marlys Baumann. "We get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing people enjoy it."
"It's for the body, mind and soul of the community," adds Chuck Erickson.
As longtime committee members, Baumann and Erickson have dedicated countless hours to God's Acres, volunteering both brainpower and manpower.
For example, many of the handmade creations in the playground area are of Erickson's making. There's a ride-on tractor that moves up and down when kids pedal it, and hanging musical chimes that sway in the breeze as they're played. There's a wooden obstacle course for older kids, and a playhouse, mud kitchen and water play area-complete with a working water pump and all sorts of "baking" containers-for the younger ones. The list goes on and on.
It's details like these that make God's Acres one-of-a-kind. In their planning, the volunteers have gone above and beyond the kinds of basics found in other parks.
Next to the baseball field, for example, is a chest containing balls, bats, bases and everything else a family would need to play a few innings. The fire pit has a pile of chopped wood just waiting to be used, and a keg full of water for putting the fire out when the night is done. The prayer garden is surrounded by flowers and watched over by a statue of an angel. Apples from the apple orchard are picked and donated to local food shelves at the end of every season, and the "Master Mile" walking trail has signs posted every 1/10th of a mile with inspirational Bible verses on them.
"It's a dream come true for those of us who've been working on it," says Baumann of how far God's Acres has come over the years.
Zion Lutheran bought the property more than 40 years ago from a neighboring farmer. Church leaders originally just wanted to purchase a few acres so they could expand the church parking lot, but the farmer offered the whole 35-acre tract.
At first, Erickson and other farmers who belonged to the congregation farmed the land, with proceeds going back to the church, but the land became underutilized as the number of farmers attending the church dwindled. By the mid-1980s, church members began making other plans for the property. They started by planting trees and orchards, along with some plots of native grasses and wildflowers.
More features were added to the grounds over the years and, project by project, with the creativity and hard work of volunteers, God's Acres grew and evolved into what it is today. Funding for projects has come entirely from donations and grants, and many of the materials used have been donated or salvaged.
"We had a vision, but somebody upstairs is guiding us," says Erickson. "I think we just keep doing our...things and it all just falls together."
With all of its opportunities for activity, God's Acres has managed to remain a serene spot. It draws families in for small reunions and other gatherings, parents stop by to let their kids play for awhile, and a few locals have made walking the trail a daily habit, but the place never feels too busy, loud or overpopulated.
God's Acres can be accessed from one of two arched entryways off the Amor church parking lot. The grounds are open to explore any time of the year, but are maintained for the summer from May through November. In the winter, the trail is open for walking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
For more information or to make a donation to the labyrinth or amphitheatre projects, see www.zionamor.org or call the church at 218-495-2563. Zion Lutheran Church of Amor is located at 36051 County Highway 74, rural Battle Lake. It's easily visible from Highway 1, between Ottertail and Battle Lake.