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In Minnesota: Birthday Bash for a Native Son

7 minute read
Jane O'Reilly

Every 15 or 20 years someone with a note pad and pencil arrives in Sauk Centre, Minn., and asks cosmic questions: How’s it goin’? What’s the mood? Whither America? These visitations have been going on since 1920, when a native son named Sinclair Lewis published a best-selling satire called Main Street about a town he dubbed Gopher Prairie, which no one ever seriously doubted was inspired by Sauk Centre. Gopher Prairie was drawn as smug, suspicious and stuck in its ways, and that was a liberating vision for a newly urban America about to plunge into the jazz age. Main Street became a metaphor for a certain kind of narrow-minded, self-satisfied, credulous America; Lewis’ Babbitt and Elmer Gantry completed the picture. In 1930, when Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sauk Centre’s role as national small-town bellwether was set for good.

This year is the 100th anniversary of Lewis’ birth. A postage stamp will be issued from Sauk Centre this month, and in June there will be a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The summer will see the annual Sinclair Lewis Days road race, beauty pageant and parade. The Sinclair Lewis Eagles Aerie and Auxiliary 3847 are selling popcorn at birthday events, and the Centennial Committee is offering souvenir T shirts, mugs and tractor hats. As Richard Lingeman writes in Small Town America: Lewis certainly would have “appreciated the transubstantiation of his indictment of Main Street into positive thinking.”

The hoopla isn’t all commerce; a lot of it is pride and affection. “He put Sauk Centre on the map,” approved the 8:30 a.m. coffee crowd at the Palmer House Hotel. True enough. No one ever made a metaphor out of neighboring Long Prairie or Gutches Grove or Alexandria.

Sauk Centre has 3,709 people, a number that has not changed much in 100 years. Says Betty Schmitz of the Chamber of Commerce: “We want growth to keep our children in town.” But two of her five have already left, following a pattern set by the young over the past century. Sauk Centre is flat and prairie plain. Despite the scattering of dairy farms and silos and little groves of trees, the landscape rolls open as the ocean right up to the edge of town. Winter lasts about eight months, and at 7:30 on Feb. 7, the birthday morning, the view from a frost-coated Palmer House window was of what a local writer, Chuck Rathe, calls glittering bitterness–a sub-zero refraction of sunrise on salt and ice and frost, sparkling through clouds of steam and smoke, the air itself turned to veils. The cold and the seeping, whistling presence they call “that wind!” are eerie and somehow ominous.

Grade-school children decorated place mats for the official birthday dinner. One contributor had drawn the yellow line down the middle of Main Street in an oblique, Miro-like style, an imaginative effort to contain its unwieldy width, its absence of definition by such amenities as regular curbs, trees or design coherence. Another, apparently in a very early grade, drew a psychic space showing the hero of the day surrounded by pictures labeled Minnesota, Pigout, The Dude, Breakdance, Camper–and a list of the National Football League teams.

The grownups had their minds on other issues. The town was still trying to recover from the deaths of two volunteer firemen. The funeral was in the high school, and everyone came. The teachers still had not settled on a new contract, the town of Sauk Centre being one of a handful in Minnesota holding out against higher pay. (During a strike a couple of years ago, “teacher lover” became an epithet thrown at anyone supporting the picket line.) The Main Street merchants were, as always, keeping a censorious eye on anyone seen taking money away from Main Street to the shopping center in St. Cloud.

The biggest fear is that Sauk Centre will become part of a kind of credit dust bowl. Probably 60% of the people earn a living from agriculture: farming, feedlots, machinery, the Kraft cheese plant in nearby Melrose. Bruce Buchanan, who runs a food market on Main Street, shook out the dice to see who would pay the bill for the 10:30 a.m. coffee crowd and said of the President’s State of the Union address: “Oh, he’s great. When he gets done, we’ll have the rich and the poor. But he’s great.” Even a visitor primed by years of listening to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion is not sure whether this is a deadpan Minnesota joke, a political opinion–or both.

The reiteration of once successful jokes and pleasantries is peculiarly Middle Western. The familiar rumble fills the lunchtime air at the Ding Dong, the Hi Ho, the Short Stop, the Tic Toc. “But we have no Dew Drop Inn,” laments Lucille McClain, the hostess at the Palmer House. She is pouring another cup for Matt Norcia, who has probably heard 3 million times the rest of the 3:30 coffee crowd’s joke about his family connections “in Palermo ho ho.” It is a sociability with built-in defenses and proscribed limits. At another table some post-’60s people visiting from St. Cloud for the centennial celebration are talking about sharing their feelings. But their “sharing” is as formal and ritualized as the jokes of the coffee crowds, or the refrain echoing around John’s Place, where retired farmers with bits of fingers and hands lost to farm machinery and ears warmed by highly idiosyncratic Minnesota caps play whist and pinochle all the wintry days and repeat as an incantation: “One thing for sure, it’s going to be warmer by May.”

Sauk Centre, like most of Minnesota, is a great place for contrasts, for progressive thinking and dug-in resistance, for surprises. The minister of the First United Church-of-Christ is a woman, the Rev. Donna Van Voorhis. Women in Sauk Centre have come a long way since Carol Kennicott, the heroine of Main Street, left home because “solitary dishwashing isn’t enough to satisfy me $ –or many other women.” Minnesota has a long liberal political tradition, but the state also teems with right-wing extremists like the vigilante group called posse comitatus. The whist players at John’s Place solemnly declared Sauk Centre “the best town in the state,” and the post-‘ 60s people in the Palmer House insisted it has the worst alcoholism rate in the state. Both assertions were examples of old-time boosterism: Sauk Centre isn’t really the very best, or the very worst, at anything.

Nowadays, Sinclair Lewis’ books are usually described as social documents, meaning that things are supposed to have changed since then. But the astounding observation about Sauk Centre is how little it has changed. Of course it has confronted Boy George, personal computers, television, the serious culture of Minneapolis two hours away and the bright lights of gambling Fargo, N.D., in the other direction. But Sinclair Lewis was writing about a state of mind that still informs the country. Twentieth century Americans are people who can be impressed, as the reporter in the movie version of Elmer Gantry was when he said to the preacher: “. . . and the way you strung certain words together! America, home, mother, heaven, hell . . . love, hate, sin!” Lewis hated the gullibility, but he couldn’t, in the end, resist the naive trust underneath George Babbitt’s boosterism: the pig- headed belief that the Middle West was somehow going to be the place to prove the perfectability of human nature.

There was a cake-decorating contest for the birthday, and 13-year-old Phyllis Olson entered a yellow and white creation, with rosettes, showing an open book with Lewis’ most ironic description of Sauk Centre picked out in icing: “Main Street is the climax of civilization.” Well, why not?

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