Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Railway Bar & Grill, next to the tracks in Sleepy Eye March 5, 2021

Twin grain elevators mark the skyline of Sleepy Eye. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO, Randy and I rolled into Sleepy Eye, a small ag-based community along U.S. Highway 14 in Brown County in southwestern Minnesota. I lived and worked there briefly as a newspaper reporter decades ago. So I’m familiar with the town, although much has changed. In recent years, we’ve stopped at Sleepy Eye Stained Glass for stained glass. Randy occasionally creates and repairs stained glass art.

But on this stop, we’d just come from neighboring Redwood County, where we saw my mom in the nursing home. We didn’t know it then, but this would be our last in-person visit before COVID-19 closed care center doors to visitors and changed everything.

By the time we reached Sleepy Eye well past the noon hour, I was hungry. It’s a running joke in our family that I need to eat on time or I get crabby. It’s the truth, not a joke.

A side view of the Railway Bar & Grill. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
Across the street from the bar and grill, train tracks and grain bins. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.
Those beautiful vintage grain elevators… Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

We ended up at The Railway Bar & Grill, appropriately named given its location near the train tracks. Next to the grain elevator. I don’t recall what I ordered other than a sandwich. Nothing memorable, but sustenance.

The condiment holder on our table. These always reveal insights into local tastes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

In a pandemic year that’s been especially difficult for bars and restaurants, The Railway apparently struggled. The business—complete with bar, two dining areas, private conference room, an outdoor patio, 12 tappers and more—is now for sale. For $165,000.

A sign posted inside The Railway Bar & Grill shows community involvement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

I’m not familiar with dining options in Sleepy Eye. But I know one thing about small towns—cafes and bars and grills are community gathering places. Spots to meet with family and friends. After a ball game. On a Saturday night. To shoot the breeze. To celebrate. To get out of the house on a cold winter evening. To BS over a beer or two. From all indications, The Railway filled that need in Sleepy Eye.

Small houses cram together in the neighborhood by the grain elevators and The Railway Bar & Grill. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

When Randy and I finished our sandwiches on that early March Saturday afternoon in 2020, I stepped outside to photograph the neighborhood while he paid the bill. I focused my lens on three houses crammed together.

The grain elevators, next to the train tracks in Sleepy Eye, dwarf neighboring buildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

And then I aimed toward the towering grain elevators next to the bar & grill. Vintage elevators always draw my eye for their architectural interest (as cathedrals of the prairie), historical importance and connection to my farming past. Silo style grain storage units will never hold the same appeal as these rectangular grey elevators soaring high above small towns. Too many of these have vanished, including in my hometown of Vesta where a local farmer moved the elevators onto his farm.

A strong message adds to the visual appeal of the Sleepy Eye grain elevators. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

On this Saturday, I delighted in reconnecting with my rural roots outside The Railway. In my memory, I heard the rumble of a train, saw grain trucks lining up at the elevator, smelled the earthy scent of harvest…

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


10 Responses to “The Railway Bar & Grill, next to the tracks in Sleepy Eye”

  1. Washe Koda Says:

    Oou It has been 45 some yrs since I was there Thanks for sharing Audrey 🙂

  2. Beth Ann Chiles Says:

    Love the name of this little town. A year later… a lot has happened in a year.

  3. I am always amazed that in places where it doesn’t seem to be required, houses are built so close together. My wife loves watching fixer upper shows, and there is one that takes places in Indianapolis. The house are literally 10 feet apart! It isn’t Queens or Brooklyn! Anyway lovely post, and I myself love those small town eateries!

    • That’s an interesting comment about the closeness of houses in an area where it doesn’t seem required. But, even in smaller communities/cities, houses are sometimes shoe-horned onto lots. It’s happened in my neighborhood with larger lots split and houses moved in. In these small towns like Sleepy Eye, farmland surrounds the community and thus physical growth is often limited or difficult.

      Like you, I love small town eateries. I will always choose home-grown over chain. The last time I dined inside a restaurant was a year ago. It will be a while before I feel comfortable doing that. Maybe once I’m vaccinated…and most others are, too.

  4. Susan Ready Says:

    Yes so sad to see local small businesses struggle. I am sure this place offered a respite to the town’s people to meet and connect. i was kinda awestruck by the price. Did not seem real high for all it came with.

    • It’s been a difficult year, for sure. Restaurants and bars are now open to 50 percent capacity in Minnesota. I’m thankful for the safety mandates, although I feel for the business owners and their employees.

      I, too, thought the price reasonable. The price started a bit higher.

  5. valeriebollinger Says:

    It is sad for the restaurant to have to close its doors. I’m sure it was a difficult decision. I hope someone can buy it and reopen it.

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