Lanesboro, Minnesota: From boom to bust to boom again
Author Steve Harris’ book, “Lanesboro, Minnesota,” couldn’t have been published at a better time from a marketing perspective
His history on this colorful, picturesque town was released last year, on the eve of Lanesboro’s 150th anniversary celebration this year. But the timing was more a happy accident than a product of calculation, Harris said.
Harris says his fascination with Lanesboro’s origins was sparked by an experience any Lanesboro resident or tourist can relate to. As you drive down the hill leading to Lanesboro and lay your eyes on this little town set in bluff country, the moment — especially for those seeing it for the first time — can be magical.
It was for Harris. He was smitten from that moment. He wanted to know more.
“At some point, I thought, “This place is magical. What would it be like to capture that in a book?’”
What Harris discovered from his research is Lanesboro’s skill for reinvention and survival. Blessed by natural beauty, Lanesboro started out as a “planned community.” In the early 1860s, a group of investors from New York and Massachusetts discovered the railroad planned for southeastern Minnesota ran through what would be called Lanesboro.
They had a vision for Lanesboro as a tourist attraction, a hot spot that would draw world-weary city people from the East Coast. So they put in a better road, built a five-star hotel and constructed a dam to create energy and jobs for the area.
They hit the bullseye better than anyone could have imagined. Lanesboro became a flourishing boom town, drawing both tourists and German, Norwegian, Swedish and Irish settlers.
“The history fascinated me,” Harris said. “The idea that people could have a vision and that kind of dedication. They pulled it off.”
But all good things must come to an end, and Lanesboro entered a period of slow decline in the 1880s and ’90s. Agriculture was a keystone of the area’s economy. Crop failures and a general economic malaise in 1880s sapped the town’s vitality
Through the next century, there were highs and lows, but “mostly the town was kind of going downhill.” In the 1970s, a seeming death knell was delivered to the city when the railroad pulled out.
“By then, people were looking at Lanesboro as a place that might be on its way out,” Harris said.
Revival came in the form of an economic development initiative called rails-to-trails. The idea was to take old railroad lines and turn them into bike trails. The Root River Trail was built in the late 1980s. Today, its meanderings along the river and through scenic bluff country make it one of the best bike paths in the Midwest, Harris said.
Lanesboro boomed again. Out-of-towners arrived with their two-wheelers, canoes and kayaks and rediscovered the town’s charms. They needed places to stay. So the area’s stately, old Victorian homes were converted into bed and breakfasts.
A new energy surged through the arts community. The Commonweal Theatre was founded, as were other arts groups. Restaurants, bike shops and other outlets opened to serve the influx of tourists.
“There was a real synergy. The trails, the arts, the beauty of the area — all that came together, and by the 1990s, Lanesboro was reborn again,” Harris said.
Harris said his book is not just a story about a place but the people and their spirit. During his research into the town’s history, he found common threads that contributed to Lanesboro’s vitality. And while the town has certain advantages in fostering such a climate, it does not have a monopoly on them.
“The spirit that I do enjoy here — that encourages loving nature, staying active, being creative — those are things that people can do wherever they live,” Harris said. “The spirit travels well.”