She’s giving away more flowers than she’s selling, but that’s not going to stop Le Center Floral owner Jennifer Smisek.
The Le Center business owner gifted more than 200 floral arrangements to assisted living residents over the past week in Le Center, Le Sueur, New Prague, Montgomery and Lonsdale. Her mission? To cheer up residents who have to live under strict quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My hope is that it puts a smile on their face,” said Smisek. “And I hope that when they look at them, it just brightens their day. A lot of older people can’t have visitors right now, so any type of day brightener for them can make their day go by a little faster.”
The donations began just a few days after places of public accommodation were closed in an executive order by Gov. Tim Walz to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Smisek was unsure if Le Center Floral would be able to stay open and decided to put the shop’s aging flowers outside for passersby to pick up for free before they wilted.
But a new shipment was coming in and with weddings and funerals canceled and postponed due to the coronavirus, Smisek realized that she couldn’t sell all of her product. Wanting to put her flowers to good use, rather than let them rot, Smisek started calling Horizon Place and Carriage House assisted living and Central Health Care nursing home in Le Center to see if she could send flowers to their residents.
“They were happy and excited and they said it would make their day,” said Smisek. “So I did, and within an hour of taking them, I had a couple of phone calls from residents thanking me and the first two calls I got were from men. I was pretty excited. It brought tears to my eyes and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, even guys are appreciating this.’”
“They were so thrilled,” said Sandy Genlin, a registered nurse with Horizon Place. “They were so happy to get those flowers I’m telling you. The smiles on their face. It’s brightened their day. A lot of the flowers are still alive so they’re very appreciative. The clients are very happy to get them; Jenny made their day.”
“We are very grateful to have a store like that in Le Center and a person like Jenny to make life better for everyone,” she continued.
The gratitude she received from the residents encouraged Smisek to redouble her efforts. What had began as 50 donations to local assisted living communities and nursing homes blossomed into an operation that spanned Le Sueur, New Prague, Montgomery and Lonsdale. While selling just two or three floral arrangements a day through pickup and delivery, Smisek was donating hundreds in a couple of weeks.
“My driver says this is a nonprofit organization, you give away more than you take in,” said Smisek. “Which is true, but I can make a difference in those people’s lives right now, and I had the flowers here that probably would have eventually gone to waste, because we are not busy. So I’m happy to do that. ”
“My quest isn’t over,” she added. “As long as I can continue it on, I just think it’s such a day brightener for these people.”
Le Sueur’s movie theater officially closed its doors just nine years ago, but today, it looks like a home to ancient artifacts.
Like an archaeological dig, the theater appears as a dank, wet cave with fossils of its own: molding over film reels, a deteriorating glass refrigerator filled with long-expired Coke products and a silver screen looming before a seatless auditorium.
But this site has an archaeologist of its own in Katherine Elke, the most recent in a long line of owners in the Le Sueur Theatre’s 130 year history. Elke purchased the theater for $15,000 from Le Sueur County in 2016 and now she wants to restore it to even better than its old self. She envisions the theater as not just a place for cinema, but as a place for live music, theatrical performances, comedy shows and all kinds of entertainment.
“I never went into this for money,” said Elke. “There is no money. There is no income. There’s nothing. I’ve put quite a bit of money into paying the taxes, the this and the thats, tools, supplies, it’s added up. But I think it’s worth it in the end. There’s so many people with memories of this theater. That’s their childhood. I want to give this back to them.”
A theater in disrepair
It hasn’t been an easy job, though. While she’s had help from a hand-selected group of volunteers, Elke has largely taken on the task of clearing out 24 tons (53,000 pounds) of trash and debris from the theater by herself. Piles and piles of debris from a water damaged building and objects discarded by multiple generations of theater owners made the simple task of navigating the building a challenge.
“When I first went in, the first day I started in the lobby and there was so much debris from the ceiling and it was just trash and scooping and shoveling,” said Elke. “You had to pick and choose to make a path and then make a bigger path.”
When she bought the building, Elke said there were areas she couldn’t even enter at the time, because there was so much debris obstructing her path. The 24 tons that Elke and her team disposed doesn’t include the debris, of which there is still much more to clear.
The theater’s current condition was a result of neglect from a previous owner, said Elke. When she took a look inside the building for the first time, she saw tubs and bins placed strategically to catch water from the leaking roof.
“One time, I had touched the headboard, because I had been up there and it just disintegrated in your fingertips,” Elke said of the conditions. “On the bed, it had two mattresses completely soaked with water and a giant garbage can that had been collecting water for over 12 years. It wasn’t doing a very good job, because the mattresses were trashed, the carpet, the floor, everything below. You would find a dresser in a heap, you didn’t know it was a dresser, but you did, because there would be some type of board.”
The theater closed its doors in 2011, went into tax forfeiture in 2016 and was bought at a Le Sueur County auction by Elke.
The theater was originally opened in 1884 as Snow’s Opera House by W.C. Snow after he converted it from a warehouse. It was a premier spot to attend balls, plays, orchestra concerts, vaudeville productions and watch short motion pictures on Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope. The opera house closed for three years when city officials asked the owner to add exits for fire safety, but it reopened in 1910.
Snow sold the building to a woman named Henrietta Starkey and her son, Ed, in 1916. Starkey renamed the opera house Star Theatre and increased the seating capacity to 250 chairs. Movies started playing for an audience on the silver screen, and it became a growing pastime at the little theater.
In what was declared one of the worst fires in years, the Star Theater was burned down in June 1933, leaving only the front wall and part of one of the side walls standing. In an article in the June 14, 1933 edition, the Le Sueur News-Herald said:
“Jack Hobday was called early Monday morning to get a truck from the country and bring it to town for repairs. He was working underneath the truck, in front of the Weiland Motor Sales garage, opposite the Star Theatre, when he heard a noise like breaking glass. He looked around and discovered a small amount of smoke issuing forth from one of the windows in the theatre building. By the time he got on his feet the flames were bursting out. He immediately called the central office and notified them of the fire. The fire was a hard one to fight and three streams of water were poured into the building for two hours before the danger to nearby buildings had passed.”
The theater was rebuilt on the same spot and opened that November, now named Le Sueur Theatre. That building remains standing.
Over the years, the theater shifted toward film; it fell into the hands of many different owners. One such owner was Chet Werner, who ran the theater until this death in 1985. Todd Yancey worked for Werner, as a teen between 1974-1985, doing various jobs, like cleaning popcorn cups, selling concessions and running the film projector. Back then, Yancey said the theater was integral to the Le Sueur community.
“Having a movie theater in the town you live in as a kid, it becomes part of the town just like the local drive-in,” said Yancey. “And all those things were prevalent to that era. Everybody went. It was a cool town to grow up in.’
Yancey described Werner as a manager who was both frugal with his resources and lenient on his staff — a man who put his life into the theater. It was known for its free Saturday matinees, where kids could watch one of the hundreds of cartoons Werner kept stored, as well as Werner’s cat Figero, a black feline with a knack for occasionally scaring patrons when it escaped into the auditorium.
The theater was home to plenty of treasures, including an original, functioning Carbon Arc projector from the 1930s. The projector served as a backup and was one of the few of its kind that was still operational.
For Yancey, the theater was a significant part of youth. It was where he learned responsibility, where he hung out with his friends, where he picked up girls and where he even snuck in to see his dad and Werner enjoying themselves with drinks and games of pool and dice. The theater was never the same after Werner’s death, said Yancey.
“That was the finality that the theater was over,” said Yancey. “Chet didn’t make a lot of money there, but if he didn’t have that, he wouldn’t have had anything to do. So he did it out of love for the community and the fact that it was his way of life.”
Yanced continued “My twin brother and I could have bought the theater for $70,000, and we looked at the numbers, but it just wasn’t there to support it. At the end of the day, it didn’t make financial sense, and it might have even risked financial well-being to try it, so we didn’t, and I regret it. Part of me wishes we went ahead with it and bought the thing.
For Yancey, movies just don’t satisfy like they used to at the old Le Sueur.
“I’ve been to one movie in my entire life since I left the theater,” Yancey added. “It’s just one of those things that will never be the same.”
Making a return
To ensure the theater has a long life ahead of it, Elke has worked diligently to restore the building. Outfitted with a face mask, gloves and a protective suit, she’s spent two weeks working to stop the damage. She and her team have put up tarps with hoses attached to drain the water dripping through the roof. Volunteers took a sledgehammer to the theater’s 280 seats to clear the area. The theater’s many historic assets, including movie posters, old tickets, film reels, books and old advertisements have been preserved as much as possible, though some assets have been too water damaged to be recovered.
Elke has made some surprising discoveries as well. A pair of boots belonging to former owner Chet Werner, photo albums, a phone dating back to the 19th century, a viewing room on the second floor reserved for mothers and children, a printing press used to print flyers, and even birth certificates.
As a volunteer and former theater employee, Yancey was allowed to take home one of the prized discoveries: an old popcorn machine. Everything else stays with the theater and Elke’s hope is to take much of the memorabilia and decorate the theater with the artifacts.
Also on the docket: restore the terrazzo flooring and floral mural in the theater lobby, expand the women’s bathroom, install comfier seating in the auditorium, convert the viewing room into a balcony, repair the roof and a whole lot more. Elke’s desire is to preserve the history of the theater while updating the facilities to be successful in the modern day.
“I think that’s the right approach,” said Yancey. “At the end of the day, she’s got to market this business, so I think it’s a good way to bring the old theater back to life and give it the new life that’s going to allow it to survive, so it’s not lost to history forever.”
But all of these projects are still a ways out. Right now, Elke and volunteers have been focused on clearing debris so that an engineer can evaluate the roofing conditions and advise Elke on what needs to be done. While there are plenty of repairs in store, there’s no need for the layout of the building itself to be altered.
The project has sparked plenty of public interest. Elke has recorded her activities on Facebook and her own website, sharing daily updates, photos of the theater and found memorabilia and GoPro footage of the volunteers hard at work. More than 800 people are following the Le Sueur Theater page on Facebook, awaiting plenty of updates.
“I think Katherine’s on the right track for the project,” said Yancey. “I think, in the general scheme of things, she’s risking everything cleaning that mess up and it takes somebody with the gumption to do that … If she ties the nostalgic part to the new part, the people of Le Sueur will be able to relive that heritage at the same time as living the new part. I think the whole thing is really positive, I really do.”
Officials from the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed that Le Sueur County now has three confirmed COVID-19 cases transmitted through community spread.
Community spread means the confirmed cases cannot be tracked to another confirmed positive case, making the source of the illness unknown. It indicates that an individual, who did not know they had the virus, passed it to someone else.
Le Sueur County has 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of the April 6 report from the MDH. It’s the most confirmed cases among counties in south central Minnesota.
MDH Infection Disease Director Kris Ehresmann told the Le Sueur County News that there are no confirmed cases at congregate care settings (like nursing homes) in the county, meaning the virus has passed among individuals and families. She noted, though, that there a number of different reasons why Le Sueur County might have more confirmed cases than its neighbors, including a group of people just having better access to testing.
“There are a lot of factors,” Ehresmann said. “We really feel that COVID-19 is quite widespread across the state.”
She further noted that people shouldn’t look to place blame, as the disease is expected to grow in numbers across the state, and while residents can take action to slow the spread, there is no way to completely stop it.
“Everyone is so hyped about this, and upset and kind of want to blame someone, but it’s so important for people to realize that this isn’t just because one person didn’t do something right. This virus is coming in from multiple places,” she said.
Ehresmann continues to provide the same advice for Le Sueur County as for anywhere else in the state.
“I have been saying, literally for several months now, stay home if you’re sick,” she said. “And certainly, if people have not been heeding that message, that is a way it could be spread in the community. Knowing you do have cases in your community, you want to be very attentive to shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders.”
In a Saturday morning release, Le Sueur County Public Health confirmed: “Aggregate data regarding the Le Sueur County cases that can be shared at this time include: none of the 20 individuals were hospitalized; 15 had traveled domestically; 17 had contact with a lab confirmed positive case; three of the 20 cases are considered community transmission since they did not have contact with a positive case. The ages of the lab confirmed cases range from 9 to 62 years with an average age of 38 years.”