Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Update: Without financing, couple’s dream of opening a rural Minnesota coffee shop ends July 19, 2013

The former Sanger's Bakery, back on the market and photographed last week.

The former Sanger’s Bakery building, back on the market and photographed last week.

FOR DAVID AND MICHELLE, the dream of opening a coffee shop in an historic 1892 building in Michelle’s hometown of Lamberton in southwestern Minnesota has become just that, a dream.

About three weeks ago the old bank and long-time Sanger’s Bakery property, purchased last year by the couple, went back on the market. It was a move necessitated by an inability to secure financing for restoration of the massive brick building.

The Van Engens had planned to use the original lunch counter in their coffee shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from October 2012.

The original plan called for using the original lunch counter in the coffee shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from October 2012.

They had planned to open Seven Sisters Coffee as a local eatery, community gathering spot, entertainment center and artists’ haven this summer in this community of 820 residents along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway in southern Redwood County.

The Van Engens began working on this back space last fall in an area intended for entertainment and an artists' haven.

The couple began work last year on this back room intended for entertainment and an artists’ haven.

The pair made numerous attempts, David says, to secure funding through several banks, all of which eventually classified the planned coffee shop as a restaurant and thus would not approve financing. Likewise, agencies such as the Redwood Area Development Corporation and local business coalitions could not provide the level of funding needed for the restoration, he says.

An Iraq War veteran, David is disappointed by what he perceives as a lack of support from the Veterans Administration and the Small Business Administration, through which he was working:

“We had completed exhaustive research on equipment, renovation, overhead, etc. All of the banks and organizations said our business plan and loan proposal were better researched and prepared than anything they had seen before.

The restoration and research was a joy. There is an enormous amount of history in that building. The end came as a dark and bitter disappointment. My wife and I are both hard-working, industrious people. Between her professional marketing acumen and my passion and skill sets; I thought we had a sure thing. The numbers were good…”

David and Michelle posed behind the original candy counter last fall. Michelle has sweet memories of coming here for candy as a child. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

David and Michelle pose behind the original candy counter last fall. Michelle has sweet memories of coming here for candy as a child. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Having met the pair last October during a tour of the historic building, I, too, thought if anyone could succeed, this enthusiastic and ambitious couple could. They were, at the time of my visit, sorting through 80 years of accumulated possessions inside the old bakery and have since removed hazardous materials, repaired the roof of the 3,250 square foot two-story structure and more.

The yellow sign in the front window advertises the property for sale through Scenic City Realty.

The yellow sign in the front window advertises the property for sale through Scenic City Realty.

A peek inside the old bakery last Saturday revealed half-painted walls and further restoration halted and that “for sale” sign posted on the front window.

“The coffee shop was a nice dream,” David says, “but it will have to wait for now. Despite the outcome, it was a good learning experience.”

To possess that positive attitude after months of hard work and time and money invested in the couple’s dream impresses me.

A side view of the massive building.

A side view of the massive historic building.

FYI: I spoke with Mike Kaufenberg, the broker/realtor who has the old bank/bakery listed at $37,000 with Redwood Falls based Scenic City Realty.

The building, he says, would provide a great place for a retail and online antiques business with room for additional retail and/or office space. Some antiques remain in the building and are part of the property offering. Two apartments are located on the second floor and could provide rental income.

To see the complete listing, click here.

I think this historic building has many possibilities for reuse, if you have the vision, drive, passion, time, energy and money. How would you reuse this building?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


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