True North

Part recreational getaway, part small town, this Minnesota gem is one of the Midwest's best finds.

True North

This is Minnesota? That was the thought Mark Brewster had when he first laid eyes on Lanesboro in 1970 as a brakeman for the Old Milwaukee Railroad. A native of Austin, (Minnesota, not Texas) Mark couldn't believe his eyes. "I was only one hour from Austin and felt like I was 10 hours away. The scenery, the valleys, the rivers-everything was different."

Lanesboro, population 788, is not your average Minnesotan's Minnesota. This is the Bluff Country of the southeast. There are no lakes here, and Willard Scott doesn't mention the winter temperatures when citing the coldest places in America.

Natural Beauty
Glacial geologists dubbed the area "driftless," because the last glaciers to steam-roll the state (which created the 10,000 lakes) missed this region near the Mississippi River. They did, however, leave a unique microclimate that nourishes limestone bluffs capped with hardwoods, deep river gorges and rushing trout streams.

From above, Lanesboro is the typical vision of rural, small-town America. Its streets are neatly platted, church spires peek through trees, and the Root River winds slow and steady around the perimeter.

The 47-mile Root River State Trail snakes through the middle of town, following the river and merging with dozens of scenic wooden bridges. Not surprisingly, the area's natural beauty has lured scores of artists who sell their works at a cooperative gallery. A professional theater company keeps locals entertained and Victorian-style B&Bs cater to visitors, as do the cornucopia of shops that occupy the century-old brick storefronts lining the main downtown streets.

"Everybody's just so intrigued by this little town," says Linda Schrupp, who recently built a log home on an 8-acre wooded lot in the hills above town.

A Noble Plan
Lanesboro's mystique is rooted in its establishment. In 1868, a collection of folks from the Lanesboro Townsite Company of New York got together and launched the community as a resort destination. 

A newspaper advertisement from the 1870s hailed visitors to the area with this testimonial: "No place in Minnesota presents more natural attractions than the romantic town of Lanesboro, surrounded as it is by beautiful coves, shady retreats, splendid boating, fine drives and breathtaking cliffs that tower above the charming valley. Switzerland, acknowledged to be the richest country in the world in natural scenery, cannot produce more magnificent views."

There was just one little problem-nobody came. And it wasn't until the 1986 opening of the Root River State Trail that throngs of cyclists began checking out Lanesboro's riches. The Commonwealth Theatre opened in the old movie house, and The Cornucopia artists collective took over an 1879 general store. More than a century after its inception, tourists had finally found Lanesboro.

New Beginnings
Mark, who owns Brewster's Red Hotel, moved here in 1986, 16 years after he saw Lanesboro from the back of a train. He came with the first wave of young entrepreneurs. "When I first got here, there were only two B&Bs and everybody was asking me where to stay," Mark remembers. "Now there are 12 B&Bs for a population of 788."

Parkway Avenue is the hub of activity in historic downtown. Along with assorted shops and galleries, there's Scenic Valley Winery, located in the old creamery building, and Daas Wurst Haus, a German deli that makes its own mustards and root beer. On the other side of Parkway, bicyclists mob the Ford Soda Fountain, once a Model T dealership, and River Trail Coffee, which sells smoothies. Further down the street, there's often live music and dancing at the Sons of Norway Lodge.

"It's not just a farmers' town anymore. Tourism is alive and well, so you get a whole variety of people," says Mark. "That creates a wonderful atmosphere."

Small-Town Allure
Despite the economic engine of tourism-Lanesboro is a place where real people live, work and support their schools and local businesses.

There are no resorts, no chic boutiques and only one national franchise, a BP/Amoco gas station. At its heart, Lanesboro is a simple small town with likeminded values. Residents share a deep appreciation for the outdoors, a respect for the past and concern for each other. "They all work together. They get an idea and work on it until it comes to fruition," says Irene Strom, assistant museum keeper at the Lanesboro Museum.

And it's this sense of community that keeps people in Lanesboro, despite the fact that Rochester, at 40 miles away, is the closest town for professionally minded residents. "If you want a real job, you drive to Rochester," says Mark. This is not the case with schools, however. While many towns in the region have had to consolidate their schools, Lanesboro has stubbornly maintained its own school system. The town has never turned down a tax hike to support the schools and boasts a 13 to 1 student-to-teacher ratio.

The Perfect Place
Lanesboro is just starting to be discovered by log home builders. There are four log homes in the area, and three of those have been built in the last year. "It's growing like crazy," says Rick Pottebaum, owner of Timber Ridge Builders in Lanesboro, which specializes in log home construction. "You've got beautiful hillsides and countryside around here. I think it's the perfect place for a log home."

There are some building challenges though-this is still Minnesota, after all. "We have some of the most extreme weather conditions in the world, so that can be hard on a house," says Rick. "To avoid shrinkage and checking, you want to get a log species that's grown in a similar climate."

For the Schrupps, who built their log home as a retreat from their residence in Winona, about a 45-minute drive north, Lanesboro and log home living go hand in hand. "We built a log home because we didn't want just another getaway house. It needed to be different-an experience," says Linda. "And this is an experience. There's really something here for everyone."

Back at Brewster's Red Hotel, between wash loads of bed linens, Mark is asked for his impressions of Lanesboro today, 35 years after he first eyed the natural wonder of the Root River Valley. His reply? "This is home."


Lanesboro, Michigan
Just the Facts: Lanesboro, Michigan

Population: 788

Residential property tax: $13.74 per $1,000

Price of typical sale of vacant acreage: $3,000 to $5,000 per acre

Price of a typical log house: $100 to $150 per square foot

Closest airports: Fillmore County Airport; Rochester International Airport

Closest medical services: Family practice medical clinic, Preston; Winneshiek County Memorial, Decorah; Community Memorial Hospital, Winona; Mayo Clinic, Rochester

Educational facilities: Lanesboro School (K-12); Rochester Community Technical College; Southeast Minnesota Technical College; Winona State University; St. Mary's University; Luther College

James A. Bowey is a writer and photographer based in Rollingstone, Minnesota.

For more information on living in Lanesboro, Minnesota find it in the September 2005 issue of Log Home Living.

Story by James A. Bowney