Sinclair Lewis, Sauk Centre native and the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, had this to say about winter in Gopher Prairie, the fictional name for his hometown in “Main Street”: “Winter is not a season in the North Middlewest; it is an industry.” Later in the same chapter, he describes the onslaught of the season: “There is so sharp a division between the panting summer and the stinging winter of the Northern plains that they [small boys] rediscovered with surprise and a feeling of heroism this armor [mittens and boots] of an Arctic explorer.”
And in an article that Lewis contributed to the O-sa-ge, Sauk Centre High School’s yearbook, he wrote nostalgically of his youth, including “sliding down Hoboken Hill.”
Winter winds off Sauk Lake still sting at times, and kids still find sledding hills. Yet winter no more completely defines Sauk Centre than does its most famous son, though both have a strong presence in town.
Stand at the corner of Main Street and Sinclair Lewis Avenue in downtown Sauk Centre (population 4,300) and you can feel the pulse of the town that Lewis immortalized.
Lewis, or “Red,” worked briefly at the Palmer House Hotel at this same intersection. He grew up in a frame house 3 ½ blocks to the west, and he is buried in the cemetery east of town.
As an internationally renowned author, Lewis lived many places, dying in Rome in 1951. It was a blustery January day in Sauk Centre when Frederick Manfred delivered the eulogy at Lewis’ funeral and poured his ashes in the grave.
Lewis’ fame has certainly marked the town: There’s Sinclair Lewis Park, the Gopher Prairie Motel and the Main Street Theater. The local sports teams are called the Mainstreeters.
But just as a prophet is not honored in his hometown, some residents don’t understand why Lewis buffs from around the world make the pilgrimage to Sauk Centre.
Others don’t like the hoopla surrounding Lewis, especially since he bluntly questioned myths commonly held about small towns.
Sinclair Lewis himself may have agreed with the “what’s the big deal?” sentiment. He frequently skewered boosterism in his novels.
Sauk Centre has a broad base of agricultural, high-tech and manufacturing industries. More than a dozen fishing lakes are nearby (including Sauk Lake), as well as a few city, county and state parks. The community is proud of its schools, hospital, vibrant downtown, new homes and small-town lifestyle.
The lake is a popular ice fishing destination and snowmobilers pray for snow so they can play on the surrounding trails.
Sinclair Lewis knew that the joys and heartaches of life are pretty much the same in small towns or big cities.
“If I seem to have criticized prairie villages,” he wrote, “I have certainly criticized them no more than I have New York, or Paris, or the great universities. I am quite certain that I could have been born and reared in no place in the world where I would have had more friendliness. It was a good time, a good place, and a good preparation for life.”
What to do
Ice bowling on Sauk Lake: What started with a group of ice fishermen who weren’t catching anything one day 17 years ago has evolved into a good-natured team competition complete with a traveling trophy. The competition brackets are full for this year’s event, but there is plenty of space for spectators (Feb. 7 at 1 p.m. on Sauk Lake).
Polar Bear Plunge: Also on Sauk Lake on Feb. 7 is a benefit for Special Olympics Minnesota sponsored by the Sauk Centre Rotary Club ($75 per person; check-in is from 10 a.m. to noon; plunges start at noon).
Farm Toy Show: The 27th annual event showcases over 80 tables of collectibles, toys and merchandise of all types. It takes place on Feb. 14 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Elmerz Event Centre, next to McDonald’s off the freeway. ($3 admission; www.saukcentrechamber.com; 1-320-352-5201).
Where to eat
Jitters Java Café is a great place for camaraderie, coffee, baked goods and homemade soup and sandwiches (www.jittersjavacafe.com; 1-320-352-1390).
Main Street Coffee Company features an intimate, comfortable atmosphere with homemade recipes. (www.mainstcoffeecompany.com; 1-320-351-8000).
Where to stay
The Palmer House Hotel, on the National Register of Historic Places, was where young Sinclair Lewis worked as a night clerk. (www.thepalmerhousehotel.com; 1-320-351-9100).
Jim Umhoefer is a travel and outdoor writer/photographer from Sauk Centre.