Requiem for Ink
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Requiem for Ink

Reborn on the Fourth of July.

Coffee Street in Lanesboro, MN.

It’s cool and it’s early. There are a few plastic drink cups littering the sidewalk outside the bar on Coffee Street. There often are on the mornings of a big holiday weekend. The dog pulls me hard down the hill, straining at the end of his leash. The town is jammed with tourists. There is much for him to sniff.

Bicyclists are already coming off the trail into town, taking advantage of the cool morning for a ride. A group in hip waders gathers on the steps of the Root River Rod Co. Around the corner in front of the American Legion, an elderly man in a strikingly loud Red White & Blue shirt stands on the back of his pick-up checking the flag on its tall pole. And of course there is breakfast being served at Gordy’s lovingly restored wooden diner. The neon “open” sign is redundant. If you see Gordy’s vintage Hudson Hornet parked on the street in front you know he’s inside manning the griddle.

The spring was cool and wet. It feels like summer is finally getting its legs on this Fourth of July weekend.

This little town of 754 people is like a cat that keeps discovering it has another life. The original Norwegian and Irish settlers built a dam on the river in 1868 and town saw its early boom years as a center for milling and industry. The railroad came through, businesses spread out as far as steep walls of the valley would let them, and the luxurious Phoenix hotel anchored the center of town.

Fires, wars and the Depression put an end to the boom, but the surrounding lands are fertile and the town found a good niche supporting the region’s agricultural economy.

Then in 1979 the railroad stopped running and the town had a near death experience.

Now it’s reborn as a tourist town. The rail beds are paved over and we have 60 miles of bike trails to explore. The old Victorian mansions built by the banking and milling families are turned into bed & breakfasts, and you won’t find a one of them with a vacancy this holiday weekend. The proprietors are busy stuffing their guests with pastries and baked egg casseroles. The shops along Coffee Street and Parkway sell t-shirts and fly fishing equipment instead of general mercantile goods.

Some won’t like this. A place should be what it always was, and they’ll mourn the vanished manufacturing that used to surround the old dam. But right now the service economy is treating this town pretty well. The cafes are bustling. Cars with bicycles and kayaks fastened to their roofs prowl around town looking for a place to park. The local theater has a production of The Elephant Man so good it’ll make you cry. Or if you have strong arms and a bent for the outdoors the local outfitter will drop you off upstream for a two-hour canoe paddle so beautiful it will make you cry.

I’ll take that as a good thing on this blue-skied birthday of the United States of America. If you get too caught up in listening to our sourpuss-in-chief pedaling fictions about a faded American glory you forget all about the genius of the country for reinvention. Call it Yankee re-ingenuity. It’s the spirit that brought the original Norwegians to this area to start new lives. Now it’s bringing new generations of people, only from places the old Norwegians could never have imagined. Not even my Viking ancestors, who continue to surprise archeologists with evidence of how far they got in their eighth century longships.

The town’s pretty St. Patrick’s church was overflowing on this long Fourth of July weekend. This is worth mentioning only because the diocese has been trying to shut it down due to a dwindling congregation. But enterprising parishioners convinced them to staff it during the summer months as a ministry to tourists and now it’s hard to find an empty pew. There is hope this will confound the plans to shut it down. I see this as a high quality problem for the diocese.

We left mass and onto Church Hill, the last stanza of “America the Beautiful” still ringing in our ears. “God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”

Far below in the valley the sun glinted off the water spilling over the old stone dam. The state finally has money in the budget to rebuild the dam, which is a relief to everyone in the town. An engineering study a few years ago showed the dam’s failure was imminent, with potential for a significant loss of human life. With the sun moving higher in the blue sky on this Fourth of July it’s impossible to see this town, or this country, getting swept away that easily.



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Sheldon Clay

Sheldon Clay

Writer. Observer of mass culture, communications and creativity.