Surprise! Trains return to Lanesboro through summer art activity

By Bretta Grabau


Art and history are important to communities and when putting the two together can create a pretty special opportunity for everyone.

On Tuesday, June 23, children from Lanesboro, the surrounding area and beyond had a chance to learn both subjects and give back to the community at the same time.

For the past three summers, residents and tourists in Lanesboro have seen surprise sculptures appear suddenly all over the town. The activity, organized by Lanesboro Arts and its many partners, provided the perfect opportunity to learn about the era of Lanesboro when the railroad was active and construct their own, personal train.

"I truly love this program. It's a great way to engage local youth in beautifying their community, learning about the history of a place and contributing positively to the public," stated Courtney Bergey, Lanesboro Arts' director of advancement.

Surprise Sculpture began in 2013 when members of the community realized there was not much artistic activity available for children to partake in after school let out for the summer.

"We saw the need for some artistic activities because there was nothing for them other than sports," Bergey said.

So they came up with an idea to create something for kids to enjoy, learn from and share with others. An added bonus is that Lanesboro Arts is able to offer these opportunities at no cost to the participants.

After a brief break from school, Surprise Sculpture begins, running for six weeks on Tuesdays starting at 12 p.m. Children from as far away as Winona, Rushford and Rochester come to Lanesboro to be a part of the activity. This year, Surprise Sculpture will continue through July 14.

There are many organizations in the community that have collaborated with Lanesboro Arts in this project, including the city of Lanesboro, the school, Sons of Norway and many others.

For producing the train, Lanesboro Arts partnered with the Lanesboro History Museum. Sandy Webb from the museum and her husband, David, interacted with the children, telling them some of the history behind trains, and the long lost art of producing them by hand.

"One hundred years ago, steam engines (trains) were running through Lanesboro," David stated.

At one point in history, Lanesboro was a busy railroad hub. In fact, 12 trains went through the town per day, according to Sandy.

As time progressed and new, more modern machines, especially cars, continued to evolve, the railroad was used less and less. Eventually, the track was removed. However, another use came into play for the bed of the railroad — the Root River Bike Trail.

Not only did the children learn some of the history of the railroad, but they got to look at and draw the tools once used to produce trains by hand.

"Steam engines did not have robots to make them. They were virtually hand made, so that gets to the artistic part of the job," David said. "If you needed a part, the person in the foundry would make a mold of sand and all the tools were used to shape the sand cast."

Once the sand was cast, molten iron was poured into it to form the part. Still, if the part needed to be smooth, carbon black was sprayed into the mold by an interesting little gadget David's grandfather invented, which made it possible. The gadget looks like a flatter, early version of a spray can.

After learning about and handling the tools that helped create the trains once frequenting the town, the kids began work on their sculpture.

Surprise Sculpture operates on a little to no budget and uses upcycled and recycled materials like cardboard boxes. However, this year Lanesboro Arts did have the support of the Arlin Falck Foundation of Caledonia for the program.

The Surprise Sculpture experience is a blast for kids, allowing them to show their artistic sides and teaching them to give back to the community.

"I like it," said Ellie Anderson who started coming to Surprise Sculpture this year. "I never had anything like this at my old school."

Likewise, Bailey Erwin enjoys Surprise Sculpture after beginning to attend this year. "I like it because I get to make stuff and find things out. This is my favorite one because I can paint."

Once each sculpture is made, it is on display for a couple of weeks, weather permitting, for the community to enjoy. Oftentimes the art draws attention to areas of town sometimes overlooked.

"No one has ever said no to us putting a sculpture in their space, and we get so much positive feedback from the community," Bergey related.

Depending on the place and area the sculptures will be placed, most of the projects Surprise Sculptures produces come from the traditions and cultural assets of the town.

The recent walking tour of Lanesboro brought on the idea for creating a train.

The Surprise Sculptures sessions are attended by an average of 20 to 30 kids from Lanesboro and beyond. Even if the children are not from the area, kids from other communities are certainly welcome to experience the arts Lanesboro is often known for.