Nestled in the limestone bluffs of southeastern Minnesota is the Root River valley. As trout fishermen from all over the state made their pilgrimage to the Root River this past weekend for the opener, many stopped in the town of Lanesboro to see the wreckage.
A fire earlier in the week destroyed three businesses and displaced four families. The townspeople are still in a state of shock. On Friday they learned that the Lanesboro police chief had confessed to starting the fire to impress an ex-girlfriend.
About 15 shiny red and blue bicycles are parked in front of the heap of blackened bricks and wood. A charred mattress and a melted bike tire are the only recognizable remains sitting behind the yellow "Do Not Cross" police tape.
The smell of smoke still sits in the valley. And many stop to shake their heads at the historic downtown's gaping hole, left by the loss of the Ford building, the Little River General Store and Ice Cream Garage, and apartments above them. But tourists have come - many to see the destruction. And they are starting to fill the town's void.
Restaurants are full, and a few bikes from the Little River General Store have been rented out for the day. The General Store is destroyed. But about 25 bikes were saved before the building was torn down earlier in the week. A cafe across the street has volunteered to help out the bike shop.
Kirsten Mensing ran the shop and adjacent ice cream parlor. She and her family also have the Scanlan House Bed and Breakfast down the street. Tourist season began two weeks ago. She says the fire was financially devastating, so she's counting on the remaining bikes and the bed and breakfast to do well this year.
Mensing couldn't believe Lanesboro Police Chief John Tuchek confessed to the crime. She's still shocked about the arson news.
"The first thing I said is, 'It's not even funny, don't even joke about that,'" Mensing says. "(I was) totally stunned - then furious. You can't even believe you lost all of our possessions, and every dime we had we put into that business. That business was for my parents' retirement and mine...so their retirement is totally lost."
She says Tuchek had helped Mensing and the other families displaced by the fire.
"To think this guy looked us straight in the face for four days and talked to us, and how sorry and digging in the rubble for his supposed girlfriend's stuff," Mensing says. "That's really something. To think I actually...thanked him. To think we actually just thanked this guy for burning our place down."
The St. Mane family owned the buildings. Jeff St. Mane, his wife, sister and a couple friends dig through the pile for any salvageable family heirlooms.
"There's a couple picture frames that had particular sentimental value, that were my mom's," St. Mane says. "We found one of them but it was charred, and the other one's not in sight."
St. Mane and his five siblings grew up in one of the buildings.
"We've spent so much time here," he explains. "Mary and I have been married for 30 years and we spent almost all our Christmases here. We lost both our parents recently, and it's almost like losing our parents again. All those memories are gone."
He and his brothers restored the buildings in the mid 1990s. In the '60s, their father was instrumental in making downtown Lanesboro an official historic district.
The historic district, the bike trail and the theater have drawn tourists to town over the last couple decades.
Bob Seaquist parks his bike next to the Root River trail. He came over from La Crosse to see the aftermath of the fire.
"I am a little worried with the tourism here," he says. "Lanesboro has done so well with the tourism, you don't want to see anything harm that. If the buildings burn down I'll keep coming to the town. So you lose a couple buildings. I don't think it will stop things - it certainly won't stop me from coming here."
On Friday, Lanesboro's Commonweal Theater had almost a full house on opening night of its latest play. The theater's executive director Hal Cropp says he's not worried about the economic impact. "The economic recovery will be challenging, but easier than the emotional recovery," Cropp says. "Buildings will be rebuilt. The town will retain the historic look and feel. I don't think it will put a huge damper on the number of tourists coming to town, or our ability to service them."
None of the building or business owners have sufficient insurance policies. City officials estimate the damage at about $500,000. The chamber of commerce has started a relief fund, and many in town have volunteered to write grants.
Hal Cropp says the town will not let the space sit idle for long. He's more concerned about the emotional void left by the fire. But he's confident the people of Lanesboro will eventually heal.
"For as long as those buildings are missing, and for years after buildings might be reconstructed on that site, there will be people who will look at that spot and remember what was there before," he explained. "And that hole, while it may be filled, will never be totally eradicated. I think it's really important to forgive - but it's also really important not to forget."
The town of almost 800 people is a mix of life-long locals and newcomers. Many, like Cropp, are part of the art community. Olive Haugen, 77, has lived in Lanesboro all her life. She works at the tourist office three days a week.
"A couple years ago we had that big flood and the trail was washed out. They came back," she says. "Hopefully the tourists will come more than ever. I just have a feeling everything will be OK. It always has. The buildings will be built back up again and we'll come back stronger than ever."
Many talk about the spirit of volunteerism that exists in a small town.
"Small towns and the people in small towns pull together when there's trouble," says Ted St. Mane, co-owner of the Ford building. "It's really affirming to know that kind of small town structure is still there and thriving in America. And the people in Lanesboro are good people that have risen to the occasion."
St. Mane says he and his brothers are not sure how they will rebuild, but are committed to being a part of Lanesboro. He says the town's resilience and optimism will help them rebuild - economically and emotionally.More Information