Sinclair Lewis surely would appreciate the irony: One of Minnesota’s greatest literary lions, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, is being replaced by a chain store.
It’s unclear exactly which species of cookie-cutter retail will displace Sauk Centre’s memorial to the author who burst onto the national scene in 1920 with “Main Street,” a scathing look at small-town life based on the central Minnesota village of his youth.
What’s certain, though, is that the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center is closed and the valuable property fronting Interstate 94 is being sold by the city to a developer. The Sinclair Lewis Foundation, which was housed at the interpretive center, is looking for a new home.
“Babbitt won out,” said Dave Simpkins, a foundation board member, referring to the real estate booster and title character of the Lewis novel of the same name. “George Babbitt would have loved to develop that land.”
The end of the interpretive center reflects both the financial pressures faced by small towns and a sense that perhaps Lewis has lost some relevance nearly a century after his literary peak.
“You talk to kids in school now, and they either don’t know or don’t care who he is,” said Sarah Morton, Sauk Centre’s city planner.
And it’s not just the kids, she added: “I tried to read ‘Main Street.’ I start it every winter. I still can’t get through that book.”
The ouster really comes down to money, said Vicki Willer, the Sauk Centre city administrator. The interpretive center, dedicated in 1975 by U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, was simply no longer the best use of that land.
“A lot of people felt the government didn’t need to hold that prime property and it should be in private hands,” Willer said. “We were getting a lot of push on that.
“We really heard it more from the business community: ‘We need more people to contribute to our tax base. Spread the load.’ The City Council would hear about it, I would hear about it. We struggled for many years with the decision to sell it.”
Sauk Centre has a deal in principle with Oppidan Inc., an Excelsior-based developer specializing in big-box retail, fast-food restaurants and other franchise outlets. Oppidan’s price for the 4-acre parcel will be somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million, Willer said.
The deal should bring in tens of thousands of dollars each year in tax revenue once the land is developed, Willer said, as well as provide jobs for residents and entice more travelers off I-94 than Lewis was able to do.
Residents, she said, are actually more concerned with losing a popular sledding hill that’s on the property.
“People have been doing that since they were children,” Willer said. “So we’ll try to find another sledding hill.”
With the loss of the interpretive center, the foundation’s base of operations will shift several blocks north to the author’s boyhood home, on Sinclair Lewis Avenue and not far from Main Street.
That building has its own issues; the foundation is currently trying to raise $8,500 to replace the heating and air conditioning system.
Jim Umhoefer, the foundation’s president, doesn’t think there’s been a loss of interest in Lewis. The city is gearing up for the 27th annual Sinclair Lewis Writer’s Conference on Oct. 8, which typically draws 100 or more attendees.
Umhoefer said people in Sauk Centre are still willing to support the Lewis legacy. “They understand his significance, even though they may not have read his works,” he said.
The city has helped with the move out of the interpretive center, he said, offering the foundation space at City Hall to store many of its Lewis artifacts. In the long term, Umhoefer and other foundation members hope to see the city build a new community center that would include space for a Lewis museum.
Lewis’ No. 1 fan might be Sally Parry, an English professor and associate dean at Illinois State University. Although Lewis “certainly is not in the teaching canon the way someone like Hemingway or Fitzgerald is,” she said, he still has much to offer modern readers.
“I’ve always found him able to get at the nub of what is going on in American society,” she said. “Obviously some of the trappings are kind of dated. But what’s behind it — the religious hypocrisy of ‘Elmer Gantry,’ the consumerism of ‘Babbitt,’ the tendency towards fascism in our country of ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ — in some ways, I wish he weren’t so relevant.”
Instead of banishing Lewis’ museum, Sauk Centre should be doing even more to take advantage of him, Parry said.
The interpretive center “was a wonderful way for the town to say, ‘Come visit us,’ as opposed to somewhere else,” she said. “If it’s just going to be another Burger King, there are a lot of Burger Kings on I-94.
“I sometimes think that the folks in Sauk Centre don’t appreciate what they have.”
Simpkins, who’s also the publisher of the Sauk Centre Herald, said the foundation is “undaunted. We still have a story to tell.” But, he added, “I think authors in general don’t fare well as tourist attractions.
“As Lewis said himself, America is not very good to its authors.”