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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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