Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

All about community in Emmaville, a nostalgic place in Minnesota’s northwoods February 19, 2014

I’VE NEVER VISITED Emmaville, Minnesota, population four two.

And up until last week, I’d never even heard of this unincorporated settlement, a remnant of an early 1900s logging town located 12 miles north of Park Rapids along Hubbard County Road 4 deep in Paul Bunyan country.

The Emmaville was dark and empty when the Sprys purchased it in 2010. They did a lot of cleaning and renovating before reopening the cafe and convenience store in January 2011.

The Emmaville Store stood dark and empty when Mike and Melinda Spry purchased it in 2010. They cleaned and renovated the combination cafe, bar and convenience store before reopening the business in January 2011. The vintage motel and gas signage dates back to the 1950s or 1960s.

But thanks to the folksy writing of Mike Spry, co-owner of the Emmaville Store along with wife, Melinda, since 2010, I’m now endeared to this place.

In his blog, “Rediscovering Emmaville—The adventure continues,” Spry shares his love for Emmaville in a way that only one intimately familiar with a people and place can.

Snowmobilers frequently stop in Emmaville.

Snowmobilers frequently stop in Emmaville.

Spry begins his recent “The Emmaville Shuffle” post:

You know it’s winter when you witness the Emmaville Shuffle. The dancers walk up to the counter in our store and start patting themselves. They grab their butts, pause briefly to think, and then start unzipping their outer wear. They stretch and grope inside their suits, and sometimes undo more zippers and straps before their hands dive back in. We sometimes feel the need to avert our eyes.

You might think we’re running some kind of backwoods burlesque show here, but all we’re really talking about is snowmobilers trying to find their money. We call it the Emmaville Shuffle.

From those opening paragraphs (you can read the rest by clicking here), I was hooked on this blog, which focuses on “creating and sustaining community.”

Mike and Mel Spry, Emmaville's only residents, decided not to mess with a successful marketing tool

Mike and Mel Spry, shown here, “decided not to mess with a successful marketing tool” created by a previous owner although the population today is only two.  “The Biggest Little Town in the World,” advertising the population as four, dates back to the 1980s. At that time the store’s owner, his wife and two kids lived in Emmaville.

I needed to know more about these business owners, this settlement’s only permanent “residents” although Mike says those living in the surrounding woods and along area lakes also call Emmaville home.

The couple, now in their early 50s, grew up in nearby Detroit Lakes. Mike hunted and fished in the Emmaville area as a boy. Both attended Bemidji State University. Eventually, they would leave the region, only to return after Mike sold his shares in an environmental consulting and engineering firm.

Mike, in an email exchange with me, can’t pinpoint precisely why he and his wife decided to purchase and reopen the vacated Emmaville Store. The business venture also includes a cafe, bar, cabin, four-unit motel, a 10-site campground and seasonal storage units. But he calls the endeavor a labor of love.

“We love being a part of a rural community where people look out for each other and support each other,” Mike says. “In our previous life we traveled and moved around a lot, so we really long to be part of a community.”


Hanging out in Emmaville.

And that they are, as noted in a May 2013 blog post titled “Clayton is back!” Mike writes of seasonal resident Clayton, a 91-year-old who claims “the second bar stool from the right, where he can hear the TV good” and who serves as official Ambassador, Welcoming Committee, Handyman, Tour Guide and Historian:

You’ll be happy to know that Clayton is back in Emmaville, having arrived safe and sound last Thursday. However, upon seeing him in the flesh, Mary and Mel became concerned. To them, he seemed just too skinny. Clayton explained he had exercised all winter to work off all the weight he gained at Emmaville last year. So the ladies have rolled up their sleeves and are bound and determined to plump him up.

Three squares a day, plus all the pie and ice cream he can eat ought to do it.

With offerings like fresh-baked cinnamon and caramel rolls, banana bread, bars and other sweets, I expect Clayton regained weight in no time. The cafe does most of its business during breakfast and lunch, Mike says. The Emmaville Store website promotes a “famous” Sunday Brunch and Buffet from mid-May to early September and suggests trying the French toast made from cranberry-wild rice bread.

Friday evenings you’ll find, among other selections, an All-You-Can-Eat Taco Bar. And on Saturdays, it’s “Burgers in the Bar” night.

A vintage photo shows the Emmaville Store shortly after it opened in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

A photo from the late 1930s or early 1940s shows the Emmaville Store shortly after it opened.

Nostalgia, as much as gas and food, likely draws customers off the county road to Emmaville. Itasca State Park lies only 20 miles away and the recreational Heartland Trail and North Country Scenic Trail are even closer. Emmaville also sits along state-funded snowmobile trails connecting Itasca with Bemidji, Park Rapids and Walker.

Tourists, hunters, anglers, seasonal residents, bikers, snowmobilers and more all find their way here.

Dining at the Emmaville Store cafe.

Dining at the Emmaville Store cafe.

No matter who walks in the door, whether local or visitor, Mike says, “We try to be warm and welcoming to everyone. We want them to feel like family. It’s a place where they can step back in time and remember when they used to come up north when they were kids. It’s also a place for locals to gather for coffee, meetings and celebrations.”

Business can be slow sometimes, though, including in March and April. Yet the Sprys have managed to make enough money to pay the bills. The challenge has been finding time to get away. “It’s a lot like owning a dairy farm,” Mike says. “You can’t leave it easily.”

As Mike says, the Emmaville Store is a labor of love for him and Mel. His down-to-earth heartfelt writing about the people and happenings in Emmaville proves that.

Mike emailed this bonus photo from Emmaville of the 1907 schoolhouse, labeled by previous owner Cal Jensen as the University of Emmaville.

Mike emailed this bonus photo from Emmaville of the 1907 schoolhouse, labeled by previous owner Cal Jensen as the University of Emmaville. Jensen was a colorful character, Mike says, who posted several witty signs to attract tourists. The Sprys have refurbished that signage like “The More People I Meet, the More I Like My Dog.” Today the old schoolhouse is owned and used by two brothers as a hunting cabin.

FYI: Want to read more of Mike’s musings from Emmaville? Click here to reach his “Rediscovering Emmaville” blog. And click here to reach the Emmaville Store website.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos courtesy of Mike Spry


Transforming an historic building into Seven Sisters Coffee, a community gathering spot & more in rural Minnesota October 23, 2012

This 1892 former bank building and 95-year bakery anchoring a corner of Lamberton’s Main Street is being renovated into Seven Sisters Coffee by a young couple with connections to this area of southwestern Minnesota. After the business opens, the upstairs will be renovated into loft style apartments.

DAVID AND MICHELLE can see beyond the crumbling mortar, the moisture damage, the buckling floor boards, the teal paint.

Just barely into major renovation of an historic 1892 bank building and former long-time bakery in downtown Lamberton, this couple is thoughtfully and methodically working toward their summer 2013 goal of opening Seven Sisters Coffee.

This shows the side and back view of the building, with the rear part added on to the original. Soot from a 2005 fire, which destroyed Plum Creek Crafts next door, mars the brick. Behind the building, a tree was removed and plans are to install a patio area for outdoor dining. They saved a slice of the tree to build a table.

Even the name, Seven Sisters, holds special significance for the pair as Michelle is one of seven sisters and three brothers who grew up in Lamberton, a strong agricultural community of 822 in Redwood County on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. Additionally, Michelle notes that Seven Sisters possesses multiple meanings—in Greek mythology, astronomy and even as a mountain range.

The old sign for the former Sanger’s Bakery still graces the building.

The couple may, perhaps, feel at times as if they are scaling a mountain to reach their goal of establishing a combination cafe, coffee shop and entertainment venue in the 1,900 square foot first floor of the 8,000 square foot brick building. But they are purposeful and focused and driven every week to travel 2 ½ hours from their home to proceed with their project on the prairie.

Michelle and David  are keeping the original candy and bakery goods counters and the vintage cabinet, photographed here in the front part of the building. This area of the former bank and bakery will house the cafe and soda fountain. The couple discovered a dumb waiter hidden in the area behind them in the corner.

David envisions Seven Sisters as “an artistic haven as well as a community space.” He expects “townies,” he says, to frequent the front Main Street side of the building, the bright and cheery cafe section offering a full breakfast and lunch menu and ice cream treats from a soda fountain.

Fifty loaves of bread could be baked in this 1960s vintage two-ton rotary oven. It occupies much of the space in the middle room which will become a cozy coffee shop. This room and the front former bakery/soda fountain area were painted teal after Bob’s niece first chose that hue for the bathroom. Bob loved the color so much that he painted the rest of the place teal. The color has been on the walls for 50 years. No, they are not keeping the teal color.

An oversized mixer also occupies space in the middle room.

The smaller middle section, once a post office entry, baking area and even home to the Sanger family, will be transformed into a warm and intimate coffee shop.

The back room, with focal point brick walls, will become an entertainment venue and artists’ haven.

And in the rear area of exposed brick walls, David expects artists and others to hang out in a more energetic and modern New York loft style space devoted to music and art and private event rental.

Tour this building, inside and out, with David and Michelle and you can see the overwhelming amount of work, inside and out, that needs to be done before Seven Sisters becomes a reality in a community already embracing the business venture.

Locals as well as those living in neighboring towns such as Revere, Jeffers and Tracy and even farther away in the regional hub city of Marshall are ecstatic about Seven Sisters, David says.

Original coffee cups and Bob Sanger’s special cup are stacked under the lunch counter.

The older gas burners Bob Sanger apparently used to make coffee, etc.

When locals George and Vern, for example, stop by to check on the renovation, David invites them inside for coffee. The two were coffee klatsch buddies of Bob Sanger, long-time bakery owner who died in March. Sanger purchased the bakery from his father, Nick, in 1961. Between Bob, Nick and previous owner, Martin Kuhar, the building has housed a bakery in the First National Bank building for 95 years.

A vintage photo of bakery owner Bob Sanger who died in March at the age of 80.

A vintage photo of the First National Bank.

Says David of his and Michelle’s decision to purchase the former bakery after Bob Sanger’s death:

The building is positively gorgeous and has a fascinating history. We had admired it for some time. The quality of the construction is superior to similar buildings of that era. We’ve always talked about opening our own business and the location and timing were right.

Our review of the local economy and the needs of the surrounding area indicates a very strong potential for growth and a serious need for a business of this kind. By offering excellence in service in three different approaches (cafe, coffee shop, event space) we will offset some of the inherent risk of this type of business. In short, it was a perfect confluence of events. We got lucky.

The pair is determined also to buy local as much as possible. Dry goods will come from Griffith’s Grocery across the street. They plan to work with Brau Brothers Brewing and Fieldstone Vineyards, located in the region. They’ll grow their own herbs.

It is clear in talking to David and Michelle that they appreciate the historic gem they’ve purchased.

A section of this original lunch counter built by Bob Sanger will be refurbished and topped with granite.

They’re attempting, they say, to retain as much of the natural charm as possible. For example, they plan to refurbish the soda fountain built by Bob; relocate an original bank fireplace facade and tile into the coffee shop and install an electric fireplace; refinish the wood floors; keep the tin ceiling; reuse the candy and bakery counters; restore an old player piano; and more.

Wooden floors, like this behind the lunch counter, run throughout the building. In one section, however, where the bank vault once stood, the floor is made of pipestone granite.

This shows a section of the original tin ceiling in the front part of the building. Ceilings are a lofty 12 and one-half feet high.

Plans are to move the facade and tile from the this original First National Bank fireplace into the coffee shop, which David will manage. 

The couple is also uncovering and sifting through collectible treasures like WW I and WW II artifacts, signage, rocks, and more accumulated by Bob. So much was damaged though, beyond saving, by moisture problems in the building, David says. But they are saving what they can, possibly incorporating some of their treasures into Seven Sisters.

A pile of recently found treasures.

Among the old books uncovered was this one on poultry. Bob Sanger kept a flock of 100 chickens at his house, Michelle says. He used the eggs at his bakery and also sold eggs.

Another find, a vintage bomber transport chart damaged by water, like many of the old items found in the building.

Inedible silver cake decorating balls remain from Bob’s days of baking wedding cakes.

The couple found empty candy boxes (pictured here) and candy still in boxes inside the former bakery.

Michelle has fond memories of coming to Sanger’s for sweet treats. She remembers penny Tootsie Rolls and gumballs and candy cigarettes sold at the candy counter:

Thinking about the hundreds of people who have memories of this building, I really hope we can fill that same role for the next generations.

FYI: Lamberton is located along U.S. Highway 14 about 10 miles east of Walnut Grove, childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House children’s book series. The area is a strong draw for summer tourists interested in Wilder’s books and the Little House on the Prairie television series set in Walnut Grove.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling