Wheels of Fortune

Lanesboro’s promoters have always erred on the side of hyperbole. In the 1870s, one journalist, describing the city’s sylvan surroundings, crowed that even the cow-studded cantons of mountainous Switzerland “cannot produce more magnificent views.” More recently, in an effort to attract entertainment-industry dollars to the state, the Minnesota Film and TV Board has touted the 788-person city as “so painfully scenic and striking, it’s like chewing aluminum foil.”

Boosterism and worries about dental work aside, though, Lanesboro is indeed a city blessed by beauty. Shoehorned into one of the narrowest cuts made by the Root River as it serpentines through Fillmore County, the city’s bucolic site was a favorite camping and hunting ground for the Sioux, Chippewa, and Winnebago Indians until Norwegian and Irish homesteaders arrived for a permanent stay in the 1850s. Hoping to capitalize on the area’s picturesque assets, not to mention a decision by the Southern Minnesota Railroad Company to route its tracks and trains through the valley, a group of New York financiers purchased most of the city’s current acreage in 1868 and began platting and promoting it as a veritable Athens of the West. Just eight years later, the town was booming—with nearly 1,600 residents, a three-story hotel, a brewery, and a dam that powered several mill operations.

Nowadays, Lanesboro is fueled by a different engine: slow tourism. On weekends, hundreds of helmeted bicyclists roll through the city, a popular stopping and starting point for users of the 42-mile Root River State Trail, which follows the abandoned path of a railroad line from nearby Fountain to Houston. Van tours to Amish farms and workshops cater to the less athletically inclined. The mills are gone, the brewery has folded, and the famed Phoenix Hotel was, ironically, reduced to ashes in a fire more than a century ago. But Lanesboro still retains its most important asset: natural good looks.

The 320-foot bluff that towers over the city is among the most stunning scenery in the area. But for an up-close encounter with the sinkholes, trout streams, and stands of hardwood forests that give the area its Garden of Eden reputation, wheeling through on a bike is your best bet. Several outfitters in town rent cycles, including tandems and recumbents.

Visitors who prefer paddling to peddling can rent kayaks and canoes from the Little River General Store, which also provides shuttle service.

At first blush, it might appear Lanesboro has more B&Bs per capita than any other burg in Minnesota. Overnight visitors can select from several gingerbready gems, including the Habberstad House, Mrs. B’s, Berwood Hill Inn, and the Historic Scanlan House, among others. The city’s newest inn, the Stone Mill Suites, is housed in a former cold-storage facility, built in 1885 to hold ice cut from a nearby pond. The fortress-like building, now outfitted with modern conveniences—like heat—opened to guests in 2001 with 10 themed rooms (the Farm Suite, for example, features red-barn knickknacks and Holstein-bedecked wallpaper borders, as well as a double whirlpool).

At dinner and lunchtime, the best (and most expensive) eats in town can be found at the Old Village Hall, which serves such gourmet plates as Scottish salmon with cucumber aioli, prosciutto-seasoned wild rice, and citrus-romaine salad. For a more casual meal, sample the brats and Braunschweiger at Das Wurst Haus (just “7,599 miles” from Munich, according to a sign in the waiting area). City types suffering from Starbucks withdrawal can come by a depth charge or chai latte at the River Trail Picnic Basket. Locals, however, get their coffee, pie, and news at the Chat N’ Chew, near the municipal golf course.

Lanesboro residents tend to prefer pickups to Volvos, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an eye for culture and art. The Commonweal Theatre Company, a nine-person repertory troupe, tackles Shakespeare, Molière, Oscar Wilde, and Tennessee Williams year-round and also hosts an annual Ibsen festival. The Cornucopia Art Center regularly mounts small shows featuring Minnesota artists and sells ceramics, paintings, fiber art, and metal sculptures in its shop. Scandinavian glassware is sold at Liv Blomma, and an array of well-oiled, begging-to-be-touched utensils are available in the wood shop of Frank Wright, Spoonmaker.

The area has a history of homemade craft. Amish farms dot the countryside that surround Lanesboro. Tours are available, but women in white bonnets selling homemade butter and ribbon baskets can also be seen at the farmers’ market in Sylvan Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer months. Their black buggies, parked within earshot of water thundering over the city dam, are a reminder that life moves at a slower speed in Lanesboro—and, hyperbole aside, it’s best enjoyed that way.