I grew up in Mankato in the 1960s and 70s. Actually, since I don’t want to disrespect my hometown homies, it was, more precisely, North Mankato.

A journalism career took me through a number of stops until I ended up in California, where I’ve stayed for 30 years or so. 300 sunny days a year tend to cause roots to grow.

I still have a lot of friends and family in Minnesota, and Mankato in particular, so I seem to get back about once a year. Spring, summer, or fall — obviously.

This past year I had the chance to come back twice. Something about those trips made me think about how much Mankato has changed – mostly for the better – and how certain things remain touchstones of the past.

Mankato in the spring

My family and I – wife, two kids and father-in-law – came back for a visit in late March and early April. We were immediately embraced in the warm bosom of Minnesota spring. By which, of course, I mean blizzard conditions and a couple feet of snow over two days.

We managed just fine. In fact, it was a highlight of the trip. We had a large SUV, and my muscle memory of driving in snow and ice automatically kicked in. I was soon doing 4-wheel drifts around corners and looking for snow piles to plow through.

But I also remember when…

“Kids, don’t try this. It is apparently super illegal now. Plus, orthodontia is much more expensive these days.”

The long months of snow and ice put a damper on the fun quotient of our highschool-selves. We had to improvise. We went ozarking. Kids, don’t try this. It is apparently super illegal now. Plus, orthodontia is much more expensive these days.

The lesser-traveled residential streets didn’t get plowed that often, so the street surface became a well-packed, slippery skating rink. To ozark, we’d stand nonchalantly on a corner that had a stop sign. When a car came to a stop, we’d duck behind it, grab onto the bumper and crouch into a near-sitting position. The car would take off and we’d go sliding along for the ride, at least for a block or so.

Amazingly, no one got hurt. Except for a chipped tooth and, if I recall, possibly a broken arm. But I think it was just a hairline fracture.

Sibley Park

I came back alone in July for a high school reunion. (Shout-out to the Circle Inn!) We were the last class to graduate from Mankato High before it split into East and West. The official slogan was “Brave, bold, strong are we. We’re the class of ’73!” The unofficial slogan, which a group of us had printed on gray T-shirts with some lovely artwork by Norm P., was “We like sex and beer that’s free. We’re the class of ’73!”

Even back then school officials had no sense of humor! Anyone wearing the offending shirts had to turn them inside out. Resist!

But I digress. Back to Sibley.

I drove through the park an hour or so before dusk. It was unbelievably lush, everything green and blooming, with the Minnesota and Blue Earth rivers merging just a few feet away. I was struck by how clean everything was – no litter, no empty beer cans, no fishing line in trees. California could take a lesson.

The tranquil, verdant scene bordered on idyllic. Well, OK, when I walked down to the water’s edge, there were a few bugs. Mosquitoes. Swarms, actually. But hey, no litter!

But I also remember when…

“As far as I know, there were no deaths, at least in the years I was involved. Which is one of my fondest memories of the event.”

Sibley Park was the landing site for an ill-advised but very popular raft race in the late 70s and early 80s called the R-5 – The Reporter Rubberized River Raft Regatta, sponsored by Mankato State’s daily newspaper, The Reporter, of which I was managing editor. It was a highly technological and competitive affair. The most common technique was to lash some sheets of plywood on tractor inner tubes, tap the keg, and shove off.

Again, as far as I know, there were no deaths, at least in the years I was involved. Which is one of my fondest memories of the event.

Growth

Mankato and surroundings seem to be burgeoning on all sides. Our modest childhood home in upper North Mankato once had a cornfield on one side of backyard and woods on the other. Now both field and woods are home to houses, culs-de-sac, and cavorting children. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

The upper east side is expanding toward Eagle Lake. Madison East shopping center was supplanted by River Hills, which now has competition even farther out. Perhaps that explains the giant roundabouts in the middle of nowhere? Anticipatory infrastructure, for when Mankato annexes Eagle Lake?

All of which means Mankato continues to thrive, which is heartening to see. Now if they’d just do something about those roundabouts.

But I also remember when…

There were little-known nooks and crannies in the Mankato landscape that got erased during the march of progress. I remember a nearly hidden, narrow one-lane road in the middle of town leading from a corner of the MSC campus down to the lower campus. It was strictly one way, but of course that depended on which way you were going.

Halfway down, there was a pull-out with a pretty decent view of the city lights below. I know what you’re thinking – the perfect make-out spot. Indeed it was! The last time I checked, a number of years ago, it was fenced off. Sad!

Eating

I’ve been somewhat surprised on my recent trips back home by the growing number of good restaurants in town. Mainly because when I was growing up, there were only a handful of fine dining establishments.

One was a place called Michael’s on 2nd Street. downtown, on the corner of either Walnut or Hickory. The others I remember were the Colony Club, the Century Club and Cub’s, which was the only place to get Chinese food, predating Panda Express by decades.

But there were still plenty of places to get a solid meal – hot beef commercials at the Square Deal, burgers at the Hilltop Tavern, patty melts at Gar’s 400 Café, a tiny joint beneath one of the department stores downtown. You entered by going down a flight of stairs from the sidewalk.

The mix of new and old

Perhaps the biggest change over the years has been the ups and downs of downtown Mankato. Closing down the main drag to build an enclosed mall may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out to be, well, misguided. Since then, however, downtown has bounced back with restaurants, hotels and the Verizon Center. There’s a lot happening.

But for an old-school Katoan, it’s kind of heartwarming to see that at least two important institutions remain from the pre-mall era, one at each end of the downtown section of Front Street.

On the south end is the Wagon Wheel Café, still the best place for breakfast, if for the low-tech ambiance alone. On the north end is another venerable institution, Mettler’s. (Shout-out to Mitsi, a very friendly, um, hostess.) That both have survived through several eras of upheaval is impressive, and illustrates that the truly progressive city looks ahead and plans for change, but doesn’t forget the important vestiges of the past.

So, see you at the Wheel for breakfast. Maybe around May 1.

Jeff Thomas
North Mankato native Jeff Thomas began his journalistic career as the Managing Editor of The MSU Reporter. His later roles include writing and editing stints at the Minneapolis Star, the St. Cloud Daily Times, the Dallas Times Herald and the San Jose Mercury News. Jeff lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife, Meg, and son, Sawyer, and with his daughter Inga close by.