Back to Main Street

During the summers of my boyhood, between the ages of 7 and 11, I was sent to stay for a week with my maternal grandmother in Sauk Centre, Minnesota each year. In that small (population about 3000 then; these days, about 4300) town I enjoyed the glorious freedom to wander anywhere, unsupervised, for nothing bad could possibly happen in such a little place in those innocent 1950s. Besides, the local weekly, the Sauk Centre Herald, published a list of who was visiting from out of town each week, so the little boy from Minneapolis was duly noted, and everyone kept their eyes on me, I am sure.

The town wasn’t very big, but I had the run of the place. There was a drugstore, hardware store, a movie theatre, a couple of cafes, several bars (I wasn’t allowed in those), two banks and Sauk Lake, right next to downtown, as is the case in s many little lakeside towns of Minnesota.  Across the lake from the beach was the Minnesota Homes School for Girls, the euphemistically named girls reformatory, now a historic district, considered an excellent example of the cottage plan of state institutional design. From the shore. I stared endlessly at it, squinting my eyes, hoping to catch sight of a wayward girl or two, but never caught a glimpse of anything but the cottages.

Best of all for a little boy was the railway station, with its telegraph clacking away, and the twice daily visits of the Great Northern Railway’s streamliner, The Red River, the highlight of the day.  I was allowed to ride the Red River the hundred miles to Sauk Centre, the second stop out of Minneapolis, all by myself in the parlor car, my mother tipping the porter to keep an eye on me and bring me Coca Cola as needed. I loved staring out the curved windows at the rounded back of the car, watching the scenery recede as we zipped along.

I am back to Sauk Centre for a brief visit before attending my fiftieth (how can it be?) high school reunion in Minneapolis. Both the town and I have changed. About a mile down Main Street is an interchange on Interstate Freeway 94, with a Walmart. As a result, most of the shops on Main Street are out of business, unable to compete with Walmart's low prices. There are some vacant stores, some new specialty businesses (religious items in one), and one entire block of old brick storefront buildings has been torn down for new businesses, built strip mall style, with parking in front. One is a much larger version of the First State Bank, with a lot of parking, and the other is a coffee house/cafe, called Jitters. In the fancy coffee market, there is evidently business enough for two coffee houses. The Starbuckification of taste has reached Main Street, USA.

You may have heard of Sauk Centre via its most famous native son, Sinclair Lewis, the first America to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis’s 1920 novel Main Street was set in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, but nobody, least of all the residents of Sauk Centre, was fooled. Gopher Prairie was Sauk Centre, and a number of my grandmother’s friends were known to be thinly disguised characters in the novel. “Red” Lewis, as he was known to the townspeople, gained fame, fortune, and his Nobel Prize by disparaging small town America as a place of narrow-minded gossips, and the wounds had only begin to heal by the mid 1950s. But today the town stakes its claim to fame on Main Street, which has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places:

The other major street in town, one that also has a freeway interchange, has been named Sinclair Lewis Avenue, and on it stands his boyhood home, now a museum and now like Main Street, on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is a bit less vibrancy than the next town up the freeway (and formerly on the railroad), Alexandria, which sits among a number of resorts and has attracted some newish sizable factories, including one belongong to 3M. Sauk Centre has a couple of successful and growing manufacturing businesses as well, making welded products for agriclture.  No deindustrialization in this area -- quite the opposite.  But the freeway actually killed not only the Main Street shops, but the railway line that used to go to the town; it is now a bicycle trail, the Lake Wobegon Trail, 62 miles of paved pathway through cornfields and small towns. If I had the time, I’d like to return and ride it someday. Before he became a bitter old leftist, Garrison Keillor who created the imaginary Lake Wobegon, the "town that time forgot," fairly accurately and affectionately captured the foibles of little towns like Sauk Centre. He was a kinder and gentler version of Lewis.

Thomas Wolfe wrote a posthumously published novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, like Lewis’s Main Street a disparagement of America and small towns. But I think he was wrong. You can go home again, and find things worthy of respect and fondness. After all, having made himself world-famous and hobnobbed with the elites, when he died, Sinclair Lewis had his ashes returned to the town of his youth, which now celebrates him.

Apparently, time does heal all wounds. Or most them, anyway.