LANESBORO, Minn. — Tucked into a wooded valley in the southeast corner of Minnesota, it could be easy to overlook the village of Lanesboro. With a population of just 754, it appears in tiny font on the state map but lures visitors from throughout the Upper Midwest.
Yet in this Land of 10,000 Lakes, it's not swimming or water skiing that's the draw. Lanesboro is in the only county in Minnesota — Fillmore — that doesn't have a single lake.
Stop a few out-of-towners and ask what brought them here, and their answers almost always will be the same: bicycling and eating. And not necessarily in that order.
Since 1986, the Root River State Trail has followed the route of an old railroad line that once paralleled the lazy river. The 46-mile paved trail cuts through carved bluffs and, in most places, is so level that it's easily maneuvered even by wheelchairs.
The trail has been a godsend to locals, who had seen their village languish for decades after the demise of the grain mills that once defined prosperity. With the arrival of bicycle-toting cars came the need for places for their occupants to sleep. Several majestic Victorian homes dating from Lanesboro's heyday were converted into bed-and-breakfasts.
The Lanesboro area boasts 15 B&Bs, so many per capita that three years ago state legislators designated Lanesboro as the Bed-and-Breakfast Capital of Minnesota.
"Running the bed-and-breakfast is like Christmas every day of the year," said Nancy Huisenga, co-owner of the Habberstad House Bed and Breakfast. "People are looking to getting away, … to connecting with other people and relaxing, so there's positive energy."
"We get to tap into that. We get to foster that," the retired nurse explained. She and her husband, Dave, a former fire chief in St. Paul, bought the 115-year-old house in 2000.
"I love B&Bs," said Karen Strandt of Green Bay, Wis., over a convivial breakfast at the Huisengas' place. "I meet the most interesting people and hear the most interesting stories."
Nancy and Dave share cooking duties for the bountiful breakfast. On a sunny June morning, they brought to the dining room table heaping helpings of fresh fruit with cream; a puffy Dutch pancake filled with apples; rhubarb pie; and bacon.
"We're going to have to double our mileage to burn off this breakfast," said bicycling enthusiast Robert Mutel of Iowa City, Iowa, one of the nine guests gathered around the table.
Throughout the town, similar scenes of chowing-down and contentment played out at other B&Bs. At the Scandinavian Inn, breakfast featured a Persian omelet stuffed with, among other ingredients, spinach, feta cheese and pine nuts. At Hillcrest Hide-Away, Carol Eggert showed off her abundant baking skills with a feast that included orange bread, chocolate banana bread and her baked French toast.
There's more, though, to Lanesboro than big breakfasts and bicycling, however. The mild-mannered Root River is great for canoeing and tubing, and local outfitters cater to tourists who don't bring their own gear. The small downtown also is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the surprisingly large and growing arts community.
About 20 years ago, Parkway Avenue, the town's main drag, was "moribund," according to Hal Cropp, who runs the Commonweal Theatre Co.
"Many storefronts were empty at that time," Cropp recalled of the early years of Lanesboro's revival. Now in its 24th season, professional thespians perform April through December in a 186-seat venue that once housed a cheese factory.
"We have a resident ensemble. There are 12 of us who live and work here year-round," he added.
Next door to the Commonweal, the St. Mane Theatre — yes, the village has two theaters — is home to "Over the Back Fence," a radio show performed weekly in front of a live audience.
"It's like a throwback to the old-fashioned '40s and '50s variety shows on the radio," said John Davis of the Lanesboro Arts Center, which owns the St. Mane and nurtures the program's talent.
"It's perhaps a little more like Lake Wobegon than Lake Wobegon," said Davis, comparing the Lanesboro show to NPR's "Prairie Home Companion," also set in rural Minnesota.
Davis also oversees the center's art gallery, located in the next block.
"The gallery building features work from more than 80 different artists from around a three-state region. We also have the art lofts, which are available for lodging, not just for artists but for anyone," he pointed out. "We also feature an artist-in-residence program. We do a national call for artists every year, so we have artists come from across the country to do residencies right in Lanesboro."
The arts center thrives thanks to a cadre of more than 150 volunteers. That means an astounding 20 percent of locals donate time to the local arts scene. A $1 million-plus fundraising drive is under way to expand the offerings and encourage even more people to visit.
"There's been a lot of receptiveness to Lanesboro being an arts destination," Davis pointed out. "I think there are people that get the big picture of what a small town can be."
If you go
The Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce (100 Milwaukee Road, 800-944-2670, lanesboro.com) provides a wealth of visitor resources. Its website features links to the community's many B&Bs.
The Root River State Trail, dnr.state.mn.us/state_trails/root_river
The Commonweal Theatre Co. 800-657-7025, commonwealtheatre.org
The Lanesboro Arts Center and St. Mane Theatre, 507-467-2446, lanesboroarts.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun