The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 29, 2012

MSU instructor's 'Wagon Wheel' book illustrates social dynamics

By Tanner Kent
The Free Press

MANKATO — Dave Engen’s book tells a lot about the Wagon Wheel and about Mankato.

But it tells even more about people.

“The Wagon Wheel Project” is being released this month by Mankato-based Minnesota Heritage Publishing. In it, Engen presents the fruit of more than 50 meticulously conducted and transcribed interviews with regulars at the Wagon Wheel Cafe on Front Street.

As the man behind the Voices from the Valley project, which explored local history through oral interviews and audio documentaries, Engen is certainly a connoisseur of local history. And the Wagon Wheel, with all its un-modern yet delightfully neighborly charms, has become something of a historical landmark.

But for this project, Engen never set out to document history. Rather, he wanted to document the nature of so-called “third places” -- the name given by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to informal gathering places between home and work that provide social enrichment.

Summarizing Oldenburg’s observations, Engen said such third places are located on neutral ground, keep a low-profile, maintain a playful mood and elevate the art of conversation.

“The Wagon Wheel is a very strong example,” said Engen, a communication studies instructor at Minnesota State University. “Maybe better than any other I’ve seen.”

The book documents the stories of people who have found solace, redemption, camaraderie and courage within the social dynamic of the Wagon Wheel Cafe.

There’s Jerry Breitkreutz, who suffers from cerebral palsy and found respect from people who “saw more than the wheelchair.”

There’s Carole Milner, who credited the regulars at the Wagon Wheel for bringing a sense of comfortability and normalcy to her life after her daughter’s death in a car accident.

There are couples who fell in love at the Wagon Wheel, parents who connected with their children at the Wagon Wheel and employees who say the Wagon Wheel keeps them in balance.

There are pastors, professors, politicians and people down on their luck. They all rub elbows at the Wagon Wheel.

“I’m very interested in the kinds of interactions that occur at a third place,” Engen said, “and especially what they do for people and what they do for the community.

Photographs for the book were taken by veteran Free Press photographer John Cross. U.S. Congressman Tim Walz provided the forward.

A portion of the stories also appeared in The Free Press as part of a once-monthly installment from October of 2010 through March 2012.

The book was supported with a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.