Unusual Tourist Sites: Sinclair Lewis's Main Street Sauk Centre, Minn.
About the unusual tourist site Main Street in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the inspiration for Sinclair Lewis's Main Street.
Sauk Centre, Minnesota
Main Street . . . Today, as America digs ever so deeply into the ground of its past, the little "Main Streets" of the U.S. struggle to survive. Running water, electricity, radio and television, along with the automobile and airplane, have wiped out most of our nation's "Main Streets."
Sauk Centre, Minn., however, lives on forever, even with its modern conveniences. Buried in the heartland of the country, you can still find small-town people here, people who have a feeling for the land and those about them.
Gopher Prairie was the name Sinclair Lewis gave to his fictional town in the 1920 novel Main Street. He described its principal thoroughfare: "Main Street is the climax of civilization. It was not only the uninspiring, unapologetic ugliness and the rigid straightness which overwhelmed her. It was the planlessness, the flimsy temporariness of the buildings. . . . Each man had built with the most valiant disregard of all the others." In his novel, Lewis disclaimed having used the Main Street in his hometown as the prototype. The Main Street in his book, he insisted, "is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois. . . ."
Nevertheless, Gopher Prairie in Lewis's sensational Main Street was based on Sauk Centre, situated 105 mi. northwest of Minneapolis off Interstate 94. A stroll down the real Main Street today reveals oversized street signs reading, "Original Main Street," and a huge banner hangs between the Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck stores reading, "Visit the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home and Museum." While Sauk Centre takes a masochistic pride in Lewis's book, a recent survey proved few of the residents had ever read any of the author's books. Still, the high school band is called "The Main Streeters."
The 4-block business district is still lined with one- and 2-story structures. Only the Palmer House Hotel--where Lewis worked as a substitute night clerk--rises a total of 3 stories (Minniemashie House in Gopher Prairie). Main Street, and indeed all of Sauk Centre, can and should be covered on a walking tour to get the feeling and flavor which the novelist's protagonist, Carol Kennicott, got when she arrived.
The restored family home stands 3 blocks off Main Street on Sinclair Lewis Avenue. It is designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, and a merit award winner for authenticity in restoration by the American Association for State and Local History.
The Bryant Library remains as one of the landmarks of Main Street and is the temporary home of the museum, which maintains a complete collection of all Lewis's works including many foreign editions. Most of the original letters and manuscripts, however, are in the library at Yale. Numerous photographs and tapes of lectures and interviews are a part of the Byrant Library's vast collection. Memorabilia also include Lewis's death certificate, and the urn which carried his ashes from Rome to Sauk Centre.
West of the business district, a scant mile along the old Burlington Northern Railroad track, is a bridge called the Stone Arch. It was here that Lewis, as a boy, used to sneak smokes. Still visible on the bridge are the initials he carved there.
Gopher Prairie might be a state of mind, but Sauk Centre remains real, even today. Lewis wrote 22 novels, including Arrowsmith, Babbitt, Dodsworth, and Elmer Gantry. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, and died alone in a clinic outside Rome on January 10, 1951. His simple gravestone stands in the family plot in the Sauk Centre cemetery, where a brother had scattered his ashes the year after his death.
Location: The Bryant Public Library is on Main Street. Admission: $1 for adults, 50? for high school students, and 25? for children; fee includes tours of both the museum and Lewis's boyhood home. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.; Sundays from 1 to 5 P.M., May through Labor Day.
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