Mankato is much more than a lively sports town. Yes, the Minnesota Vikings train there in the summer, and the Minnesota State University campus is a hub of collegiate athletic competition. But the Minnesota River Valley city also is home to architecturally significant buildings and a thriving arts community, and its unique literary history attracts visitors from across the country and the world.
A literary landmark
The Betsy-Tacy Houses (332 and 333 Center St.; www.betsy-tacysociety.org/houses) are a must-see for fans of the fictional Betsy-Tacy series by Mankato native Maud Hart Lovelace. The books are based on Lovelace's experiences growing up in Mankato at the turn of the previous century, although she used a fictional name, Deep Valley, for the town. Lovelace wrote 24 books for children and adults, including "Early Candlelight," a historical novel set at Fort Snelling. She also inspired a children's choice book award, the Maud Hart Lovelace Award, now in its 30th year.
Lovelace's childhood home was under threat of demolition when the nonprofit Betsy-Tacy Society rescued it in 2001. After years of careful restoration, the society opened Betsy's House for public tours in 2009. Across the street, Tacy's House, the renovated home of Lovelace's best friend, Frances Kenney, serves as an interpretive center and gift shop.
In May 2010, the Betsy-Tacy Houses were designated Literary Landmarks by the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations, a division of the American Library Association. The only other Minnesota site to receive that distinction is F. Scott Fitzgerald's boyhood home in St. Paul.
The houses are open 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and by appointment. In the summer, they have extended hours. Call 1-507-345-9777 for more details.
Art and architecture
The Betsy-Tacy Houses are about five blocks south of triangle-shaped Lincoln Park, established in the 1890s. The neighborhood around the park contains block after block of gorgeous architecture -- it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered one of the state's most intact late 19th- and early 20th-century residential neighborhoods outside of the Twin Cities.
Mankato has a number of buildings listed individually on the National Historic Register, including the Hubbard House (606 S. Broad St.; 1-507-345-5566; www.bechshistory.com/hubbard_house/). Built in 1871 and enlarged in 1881, it's described as one of Mankato's finest homes. Now owned by the Blue Earth County Historical Society, it's open to the public in the summer and is available for private group tours by appointment.
Another building on the National Register, the former Carnegie Library, has been given new life as the Carnegie Art Center (120 S. Broad St.; 1-507-625-2730; www.thecarnegie mankato.com). The largest visual arts center in south central Minnesota, the Carnegie hosts monthly gallery exhibitions featuring the work of regional artists. It also operates a gift shop. It's open 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1 to 7 p.m. Thursdays.
The best place to get information about all the art exhibits, concerts, dance and theatrical productions, and other cultural events in Mankato and beyond is the Twin Rivers Center for the Arts (523 S. 2nd St.; 1-507-387-1008; www.twinriversarts.org), located in the Emy Frentz Arts Guild. Visitors can tour the art gallery and pick up brochures for activities like the monthly Third Thursday Gallery Walk and the self-guided downtown walking tour of public art.
The Twin Rivers organization is co-sponsoring an inaugural Arts by the River fine arts fair June 11-12 in the city's Riverfront Park. The park, in the Old Town area, is the connecting point for the Sakatah, Red Jacket and Minnesota River trail systems, which provide more than 60 miles of continuous off-road trails from Faribault to Rapidan. A map of the city's bike trails is at www.startribune.com/a256.
Old Town shopping
If you're in the mood for shopping, the historic Old Town District is the place to find stores in buildings that date back to the 1800s. Trendy women's clothing and funky jewelry are featured at Pieces (613 N. Riverfront Dr.; 1-507-625-8126). Mary Lue's Yarn & Ewe (605 N. Riverfront Dr.; 1-800-208-9822; www.maryluesyarn.com) offers a wide selection of yarns, plus knitting and crocheting supplies and cute sheep-related collectibles. Sweet Peas (515 N. Riverfront Dr.; 1-507-345-5400; www.sweetpeasmankato .com) sells products and gifts for moms-to-be and babies, and imaginative toys for children ages 1 to 6.
You'll probably need sustenance after all the shopping; luckily, the nearby Coffee Hag (329 N. Riverfront Dr.; 1-507-387-5533; www.thecoffeehag.com) offers homemade soup, sandwiches and a tantalizing array of baked goods. If you have to choose only one item to accompany your coffee drink, go for the fudge oat bar.
Waterfalls in the spring
Visitors who want to explore the natural surroundings outside of town have two waterfall options, and spring is the best time to view them. Minneopa State Park (www.startribune.com/a257) is home to the biggest waterfall in southern Minnesota. The park is 5 miles west of Mankato on Hwys. 68 and 169. Minnemishinona Falls (www.startribune.com/a258) used to be on private land but now is owned by the county. The site is 3 miles west of North Mankato along County Road 41.
Joy Riggs is a freelance writer based in Northfield, Minn.