Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The irrepressible spirit of two small Minnesota towns July 15, 2011

Entering Belview from Sacred Heart at 9 a.m. on July 2, the morning after the tornado. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

THE RESILIENCE OF RESIDENTS in two small Minnesota communities recently ravaged by storms impresses me.

The folks in Belview, a Redwood County town of 375 hit by an EF-1 tornado on July 1, and the residents of Sauk Centre, a Stearns County community of 4,221 blasted by 80 – 85 mph winds Sunday evening, won’t allow storms to squelch their summer celebrations.

This Saturday, July 16, Belview will host the town’s third “Small Town Saturday Night.”

In Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis Days, which began on Sunday, continue as planned through July 16.

I mean, honestly, would you feel like partying if you were still trying to deal with the mess after a tornado or high winds uprooted trees; downed branches; damaged homes, businesses and other buildings; and smashed vehicles in your community?

But I suppose pausing to celebrate in the midst of such devastation bolsters the spirit and allows residents time to take a break, come together, share stories and support each other.

Kim Sander, who initiated the Small Town Saturday Night, once-a-month May – August event in Belview, posted recently on the Belview Blue Jays’ Facebook page: “Come join us and celebrate our small town’s ‘back to life after the storm’…from 5 – 8 p.m. there will be a cruise-in, free popcorn, First Responder’s pork sandwiches, a special display of Arctic Cat mini-bikes, etc. This is our third Small Town Saturday Night and we appreciate being able to bounce back and be ready for ‘business as usual!’ So proud of our town and its people!”

You simply have to appreciate Sander’s upbeat attitude and enthusiasm.

I first learned about the Small Town Saturday Night from City Clerk/Treasurer Lori Ryer just days before the July 1 tornado roared through Belview. She had written an article about hot air balloons in Belview and I was gathering last-minute information prior to publication in the summer issue of Minnesota Moments magazine.

Ryer told me then about the event that brings people into town with classic cars, motorcycles, tractors and such. She mentioned the free popcorn, the vendors, the farmers’ market, food, sometime-hay rides to local vineyards (Echo Creek Vineyard and Grandview Valley Winery) and added, “Bring your lawn chair.” Ryer is among Belview’s most enthusiastic boosters.

I’m sidetracking briefly here to say that I like this whole concept of a Small Town Saturday Night, tapping into the past when farmers and their families would come to town on Saturday night. Heck, I remember watching movies on the side of a building in Vesta, which is just down the road to the south and west of Belview. Vesta movie night may have been on a Saturday night; I don’t recall for certain.

Belview residents seem to be doing a fine job of promoting their little town. Each year the community holds an Old SOD Day celebration. The event, which features your usual small-town activities like a kiddie parade, car shows and more, also has hot air balloon lift-offs. This year’s celebration is set for September 17.

The boyhood home of author Sinclair Lewis was closed for the day when we arrived in Sauk Centre.

UP IN SAUK CENTRE, I haven’t talked with anyone about Sinclair Lewis Days, the annual celebration of native son Sinclair Lewis, author of Main Street and other noted books. But my husband and I stopped in Sauk Centre briefly while en route home from Fergus Falls to Faribault about a month ago. I’m a fan of Lewis and, although I had seen his boyhood home decades ago, I had not viewed the town beyond that. I wanted to see the real Main Street, the basis for his satirical writing about fictional Gopher Prairie.

While physically Sauk Centre’s appearance has changed since our visit, since powerful winds blew through the town on July 10, that won’t keep this community from celebrating. A Welsh Pony Show, fireworks, softball tournament, music in the park and Crazy Days are still continuing as planned, according to information posted online at the Sauk Centre Convention and Visitors Bureau.

I just have to say, Belview and Sauk Centre residents, your ability to continue in spite of challenges speaks volumes to your irrepressible spirits. Even Sinclair Lewis might be impressed.

The appropriately-named Main Street Theatre in Sauk Centre's downtown.

Just down the block from the theatre, the Sauk Hop Diner anchors the corner across from the Palmer House Hotel.

Sinclair Lewis worked as a night clerk at the historic Palmer House Hotel.

The typical small-town barber shop, in Sauk Centre, Tony's Barber Shop.

On a block packed with bars, six if I recall correctly, this one, the Next Door Bar and Lounge, stood out.

Another view of downtown Sauk Centre, shot several weeks ago.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling