Lanesboro 'urban expatriates' embrace new home

Frank Wright with tourists
Frank Wright, left, talks with Shotaro Ohashi and other members of a tourist group from Misato, Japan, in his spoon-making shop on Monday, June 11, 2012, in Lanesboro, Minn. Wright has made at least 30,000 spoons -- or so he guesses. He's stopped counting.
AP Photo/Alexa Wallick

By ADAM VOGE, Winona Daily News

LANESBORO, Minn. (AP) -- Lanesboro is a city of formers.

Former firefighters and company executives own and run bed-and-breakfasts. Former scientists run gift shops. A former railworker runs a seasonal dining cart.

While there's a population of homegrown Lanesboro residents, a community of Lanesboro imports -- which resident Frank Wright calls the "urban expatriates" -- have moved into the small tourist town along the Root River to open tourism-based businesses.

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Here are three stories of urban expatriates who own businesses in Lanesboro -- one new to town, one who recently moved and another who's been in Lanesboro for nearly 20 years.

Frank Wright Spoons

Unfinished wooden spoons crammed into Cafe Bustelo coffee cans litter a wooden desk in a small Lanesboro workshop.

Along one wall, a number of buffers, sanders and grinders. Along the other, chunks of wood. Just outside the shop, more wood dries. Some are relatively new. Other blocks are marked "2000." Twelve years hasn't been quite enough time for the wood to dry properly. It will soon.

Frank Wright spends most days here, listening to the music of Edith Piaf, hand-crafting spoons and chopsticks and losing track of time. He calls the phenomenon having a "flow experience."

In layman's terms, Frank Wright does what he loves -- and makes a living doing it.

Wright's career didn't begin in spoon craftsmanship.

The Michigan-born Wright spent most of his life a veterinarian. He worked mostly at zoos and migrated to the Minnesota Zoo in 1980. Eight years later he left zoos for good, taking occasional work as a propmaker at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

Wright stumbled into spoonmaking because of his own utensils' shortcomings.

"I woke up one morning and decided mine were crummy," he said. So Wright grabbed some firewood and went to work. After two weeks, he had a bucket full of spoons and hands full of bandages.

It's been love ever since.

Wright began showing his spoons at art shows -- including at Lanesboro's Cornucopia Art Center, the project of a friend. By 1994, he so loved the small bluff town that he moved there.

It wasn't just the town that called him -- it was in Lanesboro where he met his wife, Peggy.

Wright makes each spoon, chopstick and stirrer by hand. He uses wood gathered by hand, usually from trees cut by friends.

The process can take minutes or hours, depending on the piece of wood and design of the spoon.

Like any skill, Wright's has improved with practice.

He used to spend hours taking a block of maple or ash down to spoon size, only to discover a deformity that would sidetrack the entire process. Now it takes only minutes to add the shaped piece to the "designer firewood" pile.

Wright loves the craft for its constant-but-changing nature. Each piece of wood feels and shapes differently.

He's made at least 30,000 spoons. Or so he guesses. He's stopped counting.

"When you're doing something involved, there are always opportunities for getting more proficient," he said. "You just get deeper and deeper into the process."

A young girl visiting Wright's store once pointed to his woodshop.

"It that your playroom?" she asked.

Wright smiled.

"Yeah, basically."

If you go

Where: 106 E. Coffee St.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Open until 7 p.m. through the summer

Another Time Ice Cream Parlor & Chocolates

Kathy Kasten went to Lanesboro to see a play and ended up buying an ice cream shop.

In March, Kasten was looking for a vacation. She brought her daughter to a play in Lanesboro, where her uncle lived.

It didn't take long for the Kastens to fall for Lanesboro. Kathy and husband, Ron -- both from Spring Valley, Minn. -- wanted to be close to home.

Kathy was also looking for a new business opportunity. Her previous career, alpaca farming, fell through because of health issues. The career before that -- an employee morale manager for a large Twin Cities company -- didn't suit her.

She found the Trail Picnic Basket -- a small ice cream shop and restaurant -- whose owners were looking to sell. Kathy and Ron began gutting the building in April before they'd even closed the sale.

"We didn't want to waste any of the season getting ready," Kathy said.

The shop opened in early May after a month of rebuilding, renovation and menu change.

Kathy Kasten and customers
Kathy Kasten, owner of Another Time Ice Cream Parlor & Chocolates, greets customers outside her store Monday, June 11, 2012, in Lanesboro, Minn. Kasten and her husband, Ron, bought the shop in late April 2012.
AP Photo/Alexa Wallick

Another Time won't offer the sandwiches available at the Picnic Basket but will continue to sell ice cream. They also added Caribou Coffee and chocolates to the mix, a challenge to Kathy, who didn't know a mocha from a latte.

"I don't drink coffee," she said, laughing.

The Kastens haven't completely settled into Lanesboro. Ron still works in informational technology at Thrivent Financial in the Twin Cities and hopes to move to Lanesboro when he retires -- whenever that is.

Kathy, meanwhile, rents a townhome blocks from the shop and tries to visit her husband at least one day every week. Ron commutes to see his wife on weekends.

"We haven't done this since we were dating," Kathy said.

Kathy said she's happy with the move to Lanesboro, despite the forced separation. She hopes to travel with Ron during the shop's off-season, and can visit her former herd of alpacas, which she sold this year to a farm in Spring Valley.

"We're on a whole new start of life," she said. "I feel like we're fresh out of college again."

If you go

Where: 100 Parkway Ave. N.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days per week

Essence of Lanesboro

Peter Bilkey learned early -- after 1,153 experiments, about a quarter of which were successes -- that research yields more failures than successes.

"I used to think you need to be born with a good nose," he said. "No, you have to practice."

Bilkey, owner of Essence of Lanesboro, has had plenty of practice.

He calls his first experiment -- an attempt to make a bar of soap -- a terrible disaster.

Peter Bilkey
Peter Bilkey stocks his shelf at Essence of Lanesboro in Lanesboro, Minn., on June 11, 2012. Bilkey opened in 2008 after 15 years of being a plant biotechnology researcher. Bilkey said his research background has helped him create his lines of scented products like body wash, soap and lotion.
AP Photo/Alexa Wallick

"I had to throw that one out," he said.

He has since created recipes for body wash, soap, lotion, shampoo and bug repellent, among others. Not to mention his line of scents -- together totaling more than 9,000 products, all sold from a small converted house in Lanesboro.

Bilkey hasn't always dedicated his life to soaps, lotions and scents -- he went to school for plant biotechnology and worked for 15 years as a researcher. He started developing recipes for soaps and lotions in 2005, looking for a trade with more immediate results.

Also motivated by a desire to live in a smaller city, Bilkey -- then a resident of Madison, Wis. -- began looking for a new home. He found Lanesboro in a book of the best small art cities in the United States and moved in 2006.

He immediately shifted his career focus, devoting his full time to developing his line of products.

"It's a matter of the importance of creativity in my life," he said. "I'm not saving the world by making these products, but the result is quick. In biotechnology, the impact is significant, but it takes much more time and effort."

If you go

Where: 100 Parkway Ave. S.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday