Words have meaning, but they’re imprecise. It’s why there are poets. Google the phrase, “small town feel” and you’ll find over one billion entries. Prior Lake is said to have a “small town feel.” But does a collection of buildings and humans in a political subdivision have feeling — except metaphorically?

For me, the phrase conjures up 1962, “The Music Man,” “76 Trombones,” and Robert Preston and Shirley Jones parading through Mason City, Iowa; or, perhaps, it’s Atlantic, Iowa and its long main street bracketed by turn-of-the century buildings, a war memorial and city park at one end and the magnificent, all-brick, 1904 Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Station at the other; or Millerton in Dutchess County, upstate New York; or Lanesboro, Minnesota; or the countless number of small towns I’ve been through by train, car or bicycle in my 76 years.

I first saw Prior Lake in 1950. My grandfather took me on a steam passenger excursion from Minneapolis to Cologne, Minnesota via Prior Lake and back again. I recall the train stopping at the depot and a crowd congregating around the locomotive. I also remember the buildings along Main Avenue, the grain elevator, a couple railroad sidings, and some oil tank cars parked on one of them.

Four years later I was back. My dad worked at Port Cargill in Savage, and we’d just moved into a brand-new home on Normandale Road in Bloomington. It was convenient. Dad could commute over the one lane bridge across the river to Savage, and I could watch the trains of the Minneapolis Northfield and Southern rumble by our backyard.

I was a bookish kid. I’d read about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but Dad decided I needed some hands-on experience, so one Saturday we set off for Prior Lake and a morning of fishing. Our route from Savage to Prior Lake was a two-lane road that twisted and turned through open farm country and arrived in Prior Lake on what is now County Road 44 at the entrance to Lakefront Park where it turned south and became Main Avenue. The route of today’s Highway 13 didn’t exist, and Lakefront Park was, then, a farm that offered boats for rent.

The day was sunny and the lake calm. I remember the quiet. There were no power boats and no mega homes around the lake. I caught a few sunfish, but my real treat that day was seeing a Milwaukee Road freight rumble over the wooden bridge that spanned the channel linking upper and lower Prior Lake.

We came back many times after that first trip. We had lunch at a café on Main Avenue and walked around the downtown exploring the different businesses. I had a much closer look at the railroad depot and the railroad line through town — now Highway 21. I remember the movie theater, now the VFW. Pleasant Street was, then, Highway 13, and, along with Main Avenue, the route in and out of town. Pleasant Street was much leafier then — decades before Dutch Elm. Our present home was there, too. Except, then, it was 47 years old. Now it’s 114.

That’s how I’ve chosen to remember Prior Lake and its “small town feel.” I say remember, because in 1959 the Minnesota Highway Department and subsequent development changed everything. That’s the year the current Highway 13 was completed from Savage around the east side of town taking with it the original brick school building and many homes and obliterating whatever archeological evidence may have been left of the Five Hawks burial mounds. The Milwaukee Road went bankrupt and the railroad vanished in 1980.

Of course, Pleasant Street is still here, as are its homes, but it’s not as leafy as it once was and may be much less so next year after the city rebuilds the roadway and associated infrastructure. The work is needed, especially replacing what’s below the pavement. The sewer and water pipes go back to the 1930s and need renewal. The city proposes widening the street, but why not save the boulevard and plant some trees?

And then there’s the developer who proposes a four-story apartment building with underground parking for the parking lot adjoining the VFW.

Does a four-story apartment building with underground parking complement a leafy neighborhood of historic homes? And what about the “small town feel?” The Economic Development Authority and city officials should give some thought to this — and remember: a small town isn’t just about its population, its businesses or the architecture of its buildings. It’s about its history, its traditions, its sense of community and preserving them, while being open to change and new ideas.

It’s not about economic development for the sake of economic development. It’s about all the things that make Prior Lake the good place to live that it already is. It’s about its “small town feel” — and keeping it.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.

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