Residents work to preserve Sinclair Lewis landmark in Minnesota

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, July 8, 2018

SAUK CENTRE — When you walk down the main street of this central Minnesota town, there’s no escaping the presence of its most famous native son.

Signs point to Sinclair Lewis Avenue and the Original Main Street, named for Lewis’ first novel. There’s the Main Street Theatre. The high school’s sports teams are the Mainstreeters.

On the back side of the century-old Palmer House hotel where Lewis once worked as a night clerk, a portrait of the author looks out over the town whose spirit — and shortcomings — he infamously captured in his novels.

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Nearly 100 years after the publication of “Main Street,” a group of residents is working to preserve Lewis’ place in the town’s history. And as they do, they’re facing the challenges of development, and a general population unfamiliar with the author’s biting satire of American social values and institutions.

“To tell you the truth, for probably most of the people in town, he doesn’t mean much of anything, except for the name,” said Jim Umhoefer, president of the local Sinclair Lewis Foundation.

A little over two years ago, the city closed the building that housed the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center and put the just-off-the-interstate property up for sale, hoping to attract commercial development.

“I don’t think he’d be surprised by any of it,” said Sally Parry, an English professor at Illinois State University and executive director of the Sinclair Lewis Society.

“He could see why people would, say, sell the interpretive center and turn it into a fast-food place or something. On the one hand, he would certainly see the irony in it,” she told Minnesota Public Radio . “On the other hand, he’d think that they were missing a great marketing opportunity.”

Lewis’ supporters argued against the closure, but they’re moving forward: They are planning improvements to the quaint, two-story home where Lewis grew up, which is now a museum that draws about 500 visitors a year from all over the United States and beyond.

They’ve also acquired an old creamery on Sauk Centre’s Original Main Street, which they plan to renovate and turn into a new museum over the next eight to 10 years.

“He is extremely important,” said Pam Borgmann, executive director of the Sauk Centre Convention and Visitors Bureau. “He is part of the branding of this town that I believe we need to see. He is certainly famous in literary circles much larger than this small town.”

But even here in Lewis’ hometown, the Mainstreeters of Sauk Centre Secondary School are no longer required to read “Main Street” in their English classes.

Dana Boschee used to teach an introduction to the novel to his Sauk Centre students, until the curriculum changed a few years ago.

“I made a big deal out of it saying this is their birthright,” Boschee said. “They had to read the book, or at least be introduced to it.”

The novel follows an idealistic young woman from St. Paul who marries a doctor from the fictional town of Gopher Prairie. She moves there with dreams of bringing culture to her husband’s hometown.

Instead, her ideas are met with disapproval by her new, close-minded neighbors. It’s an unflinching and often critical depiction of life in a small town.

At close to 500 pages, it can be tough for younger readers to get through, Boschee said. But he said Lewis’ snarky tone and his criticism of mainstream life and the power structure in Gopher Prairie often appealed to his students.

“Some of his prose, it digs so much when he describes some people and the things they do. I think some of the kids found that interesting,” Boschee said. “They didn’t think Sinclair Lewis was that. They just saw him as someone that the town recognizes, and therefore he must be boring and old.”

When “Main Street” was released in 1920, it didn’t sit well with the residents of the real life Gopher Prairie, who recognized themselves in its characters, Parry said.

“They saw it as an attack on Sauk Centre,” she said. “And Lewis said, well, part of it is Sauk Centre, part of it is a lot of other small towns across the country. It’s not just Sauk Centre.”

Lewis’ novels pointed out both the good and bad aspects of small-town life, she said: “The nice side of small towns is people know who you are, they’ll come to your aid. The bad side of the small towns is people know your business, and they can be very judgmental — especially if you come from out of town and you’re not one of the people who was born there.”

Parry said Lewis’ work, more than a century after his birth, is still relevant. She notes that his 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” which imagines a fascist rising to power in America, rose to the top of best-seller charts shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

Lewis understood the American character is a way that many other authors don’t, Parry said.

“At one point he said, ‘I love America but I don’t like it,’ which I think is really profound,” she said. “He really admires the ideals on which the American democracy is set. But the way they play out — people are petty, people are selfish, people do stupid things.”

Lewis’ name and spirit are still very much alive in Sauk Centre’s annual traditions. The town still hosts Sinclair Lewis Days every summer — this year’s festival begins July 18 — and a writers’ conference in the fall.

And plans are already underway to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Main Street” in 2020.

But beyond Lewis, Umhoefer said, there’s a new energy in town with the creation of a community foundation that’s helping fund new murals, a community garden and other improvements.

Whether locals read Lewis’ writing isn’t as important as recognizing the uniqueness of the town’s claim to fame, Umhoefer said.

“There’s no other town in the United States that can say that the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature grew up here,” he said.