Vicki Starks-Hudson acknowledges she didn’t really know what she was doing when she bought the building in Lanesboro, the one that someone had used a chain saw on to remove a wall, and make a giant hole in the floor, the one that was bowing off its foundation, and the one with the electrical system and plumbing systems that could make a building inspector wake up in a cold sweat.
But it was a more-than-100-year-old icon by the side of County Highway 10, a grocery store at one time, and a gathering spot for the small town east of Lanesboro proper.
Until yesterday, when it closed.
Vicki, the owner, wants to sell the place because her mom does the cooking and announced she’s ready to retire. When I visited last week, I didn’t get to meet mom until I cleared our dishes — after a splendid meal — and walked them back to the kitchen where I also met Rob, who is a route driver for Schwann’s. He volunteers at the place washing dishes and he was just finishing a giant stack, indicating that business in town is pretty good.
The old people in the town are pretty bummed out by losing the place and Vicki says if you want to buy it and reopen it, you better like old people. There are plenty of them in the town. And you should be interested in providing healthy food. There isn’t a deep-fat fryer in the place. Much of the food she served came from local farms. Some of the veggies came from the garden out back.
Vicki, a Minnesota native, arrived here five years ago from Fort Lauderdale. Her mom already was working as a cook in a much smaller room at the side-of-the-road location. Vicki had designs on heading to Iowa, for no particular reason other than Iowa sounded like a land of some opportunity. But she ended up buying the building and fixing it up — actually having it fixed up by volunteers in exchange for hot meals.
She says she has no idea what the building is worth now. She’d like to fix it up some more, perhaps, so the next owner can reopen it as a restaurant and store with some outside dining. But there’s no guarantee it will ever see a paying customer again.
For all of the accurately-deserved reputation for icy coldness that Minnesotans have, the people couldn’t have been more of a contradiction. And that apparently is the way the place runs.
Henry Rotering, right above, was just leaving when we walked in. He volunteers to play the piano from time to time at the cafe and when we ordered lunch, he agreed to stay to provide suitable entertainment for the city slickers. He became a regular because he let it slip that he played piano one day when he was having lunch.
A couple from Decorah, Iowa revealed once that they sing and knew a little Norwegian song. So they were encouraged to sing it to the assembled. And when they finished the Norwegian national anthem, Vicki says, there were tears and a request to sing it again. And so, they did.
When you ate at the Highland Store, there were no bills at the end of a meal. You had to keep track of what you ordered and pay accordingly. Vicki’s stories are free, she noted, as she took a picture off the wall and pointed out with some astonishment that at one time, there were four sets of twins in the old school in nearby Peterson.
Yesterday, the fans of the place turned out for its closing and to honor Vicki’s mother on her retirement. “Bring a card,” she advised everyone. “And don’t be a Norwegian and just sign your name. Write something nice in it!”
Though the place closed yesterday, it will still open up for the annual Christmas show. Vicki says she’ll play her usual part as the person who carries the star. She doesn’t have any other talent, she reports.