Made famous by Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis, Sauk Centre embraces the legacy of its native son. Lewis' novel "Main Street," published in 1920, initially angered residents because of its satiric depiction of life in the provincial, fictional town of Gopher Prairie, modeled after Sauk Centre. But the town eventually forgave him. Now, visitors can tour Lewis' boyhood home and stroll down a quaint yet modern Main Street that features a historic hotel, an art deco movie theater and a family department store.
Small town, big author
Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre in 1885 and left home after graduating from high school. He wrote 23 novels during his lifetime. In 1930, he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize and won it once, although he turned it down. He died in Italy in 1951, and his cremated remains were returned to Sauk Centre and buried in the Greenwood Cemetery. The town named a street, a park and a city festival after him.
The 2011 Sinclair Lewis Days festival is July 11-16. As though lifted from a Garrison Keillor monologue, the events include a Miss Sauk Centre pageant, a street dance, turtle races (bring your own turtle) and the First Lutheran Church pie social (proceeds benefit world hunger).
Those interested in learning more about Lewis can tour the interpretive center at the junction of Interstate 94 and Hwy. 71 (1220 S. Main St.; 1-320-352-5201; www.saukcentrechamber.com). Visitors can watch a 10-minute movie on Lewis' life and see his writing desk. Other items on display include character summaries and maps he drew of his fictional town, family photos and his collection of kaleidoscopes.
The Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home (810 Sinclair Lewis Av.; 1-320-352-5201) is three blocks west of the intersection of Main Street and Sinclair Lewis Avenue. The restored home was built in 1880 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It's open in the summer for guided tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and by appointment. Admission is $5 for adults, seniors and students, and $3 for ages 12 and under.
Amusements on Main Street
As a young man, Lewis worked briefly as a night clerk at the Palmer House Hotel (500 Sinclair Lewis Av.; 1-866-834-9100; www.thepalmer househotel.com). Famous hotel guests have included outlaw Cole Younger, authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck, and bandleader Lawrence Welk. The 1901 establishment is on the National Register of Historic Places and is said to be haunted -- although not by Lewis. The hotel offers historical tours on the second Sunday of each month or by appointment ($20 per person). If you don't have time for a tour, visit the lobby and read the collection of guests' comments about their encounters with the spirit world.
The downtown historic district isn't large, but it offers plenty of shopping and dining to keep visitors busy for a morning or afternoon. If you value service or yearn for the days of family-owned department stores, stop at Mead's Department Store (306 Main St.; 1-320-352-6696; www. meadsdepartmentstore.com) to browse the selection of name-brand clothing and shoes for men, women and children. Of special interest to kids will be the store's giant gumball machine.
If it's a sunny day, enjoy a latte or a fruit smoothie on the pleasant garden patio of the Main Street Coffee Co. (604 Main St.; 1-320-351-8000). Movie fans can catch the latest releases at the six-screen Main Street Theatre (319 Main St.; 1-320-352-3596), which opened in 1939. After a movie, enjoy a chocolate malt at the '50s-style Sauk Hop Diner (303 Main St.; 1-320-351-3512).
Enjoying the outdoors
Outdoor enthusiasts can choose from 70 campsites at the Sinclair Lewis Campground, on the southern end of Sauk Lake. The city-owned campground borders Sinclair Lewis Park, which has a boat landing and an 84-foot fishing dock; it's across the street from the Lake Wobegon Trail head. The campground is open May 1 -Oct. 15 (1-320-333-9546; www. saukcentre.govoffice2.com).
Canoeists can find access at Conservation Park, below the Sauk River dam on Main Street. The Sauk River is a designated state water trail (www.startribune.com/a473).
Golfers will find some greens to their liking in Sauk Centre: GreyStone Golf Club, a Scottish links-style course designed by professional golfer Tom Lehman (10548 Andrews Drive; 1-320-351-4653, www.greystonegc.net); the Lynx National Golf Course (40204 Primrose Lane; 1-320-352-0242; www. lynxnationalgolf.com), an 18-hole championship course; and the Sauk Centre Country Club (606 Lakeshore Drive; 1-320-352-3860; www.saukcentre countryclub.com), a nine-hole course that opened in 1921 and is among the state's oldest golf clubs.
Joy Riggs is a freelance writer based in Northfield, Minn.