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Plenty of niceness, and no ice, for a Grand Old Party

Garrison Keillor rehearses ''A Prairie Home Companion'' at the Fitzgerald Theater; the midway at the Minnesota State Fair; and Mickey's Diner has been cooking day and night since 1939. Garrison Keillor rehearses ''A Prairie Home Companion'' at the Fitzgerald Theater; the midway at the Minnesota State Fair; and Mickey's Diner has been cooking day and night since 1939. (Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press/file (ABOVE); Siddiqi Ray/Associated Press/file (below right); Ben Garvin/Associated Press/file)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / August 10, 2008

Maybe the Republicans were working off an old memo when they picked "A Prairie Home Companion's" hometown for their convention next month. Minnesota hasn't gone GOP since it pulled the lever for Richard Nixon in 1972, and the city's mayor and congresswoman - and Garrison Keillor - all belong to the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party.

Keillor, who refers to President Bush only as the "current occupant," isn't likely to be throwing a cocktail party for anyone sporting an elephant tie. Still, the citizens of St. Paul are certain to welcome their Grand Old Visitors with a wide embrace. They may even buy them foot-long walleye sandwiches at the State Fair if they get into town early.

St. Paul, whose original name was Pig's Eye before it became saintly in the mid-19th century, is the capital, the older and more traditional of the Twin Cities, and a hotbed of what's known as "Minnesota Nice," a collective personality notable for its relentless, nearly submissive, friendliness to strangers.

Landing the Republican National Convention (Sept. 1-4) and its 45,000 attendees was a coup. The sibling rivalry with its younger twin is felt more keenly on the St. Paul side, since it's always mentioned second, and the residents here are quick to point out small distinctions. "WE'VE GOT IT, THEY DON'T," the daily Pioneer-Press crowed this year. "It" was a weekly TV guide, which the Minneapolis StarTribune didn't have.

Minneapolis is bigger, both in area (58 square miles to 56) and population (388,000 to 287,000) and has a skyline and four of the state's five professional sports teams. But St. Paul has the capitol, the fairgrounds, and the Winter Carnival.

It also has the classic Art Deco Mickey's Diner, which has been open around the clock since 1939 and which will be crammed with foggy-headed delegates whose stomachs are growling at 5 a.m. and who aren't sure whether they need dinner or breakfast.

Like most Midwestern cities this is not a late-night town, particularly in the winter, when the mercury frequently reads in minus numbers once the sun drops over the Mississippi. During a week in January, the temperature was 13 below zero one morning, hav ing risen from 30 below a few hours earlier.

That "Moscow on the Mississippi" nickname isn't so far off the mark. A 20-minute walk along the river turns fingers and toes to stone and produces tears that immediately freeze to cheeks. Bundling up takes on a unique dimension here.

You don't live in St. Paul if you're not a connoisseur of cold. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who grew up on the cheaper end of posh Summit Avenue, recalled coming home from school for the holidays by train from Chicago with "the street lamps and the sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow."

In 1886 after a New York journalist dismissed St. Paul as another Siberia that was "unfit for human habitation," the city decided to turn itself into a polar playground and created the annual carnival, which Fitzgerald described in "The Ice Palace."

The January event, which honors King Boreas and his Queen of Winds, features an ice-carving competition in Rice Park (this city's version of the Public Garden), which this year included a rendering of Dorothy and Friends against an Emerald City backdrop, chiseled by "Buzzsaw Bob" Halvorson.

The carnival lasts until Groundhog Day, when fire king Vulcanus Rex and his sooty-faced krewe stage their dethroning. The city, of course, stays frozen solid for another couple of months, and you often can walk across the river to Minneapolis.

This is a hockey town (the National Hockey League club the Wild plays in the Xcel Energy Center, where the convention will be) and the residents were playing the game on local ponds more than a century ago.

St. Paul, which bills itself as "the most livable city in America," is a markedly different place once the thaw arrives and flesh can be uncovered without fear of frostbite. Paddlewheeled boats cruise along the Mississippi. The fountain is turned on in Rice Park and office workers have their lunch there. The man-made stream at Mears Park in the Lowertown warehouse district flows again, and there are Thursday concerts at the bandstand. And the farmer's market, which has been operating for 150 years, is crammed with locally-grown fruit and vegetables.

While St. Paul's downtown is compact and walkable, it's primarily a city of outlying neighborhoods (15 in all) with names like Frogtown and Swede Hollow. You'll need a car to see the more interesting ones like Summit Hill, with its Gilded Age mansions built by robber barons such as railroad magnate James J. Hill or Grand Avenue with its shops and coffeehouses or University Avenue with its ethnic eateries.

St. Paul is more strollable than driveable, as former governor Jesse Ventura infamously observed on the "Late Show With David Letterman," when he said that the streets had been laid out by drunken Irishmen.

The city is far less Hibernian and Scandinavian these days than it once was. Over the past two decades, its ratio of nonwhite residents has grown to 1 in 3. There are more Hmong here than in any other city in the country and so many Mexicans that there is now a consulate on the East Side.

Yet St. Paul retains its Midwestern soul. Rice Park's two statues honor Fitzgerald and Herb Brooks, who played hockey at Johnson High and coached the Boys of Winter to their miraculous Olympic gold-medal triumph over the Soviets in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y. And across the way at Landmark Plaza are three bronze sculptures of Peanuts characters created by cartoonist Charles Schulz, who was born in Minneapolis but grew up here.

Up the street and around the corner is the Fitzgerald Theater (with his silhouette gracing the marquee), where Keillor does his Saturday afternoon broadcasts of "A Prairie Home Companion" for Minnesota Public Radio.

St. Paul may not be on the prairie and the mythical Lake Wobegon isn't in the vicinity, but it may have more of the Minnesota soul to it than does Minneapolis, which is decidedly more cosmopolitan. The state fair, which runs from Aug. 21 until Sept. 1, is a homestyle festival featuring livestock judging (everything from ducks to llamas), live entertainment ranging from Toby Keith to Trampled by Turtles, and even an Agri-lympics with four events (cow milking, animal calling, wool pack-o-rama, and butter carving).

The food stands offer Minnesota classics like Tater Tot hotdish (a favored carnival casserole), porcupine meatballs (wild rice and ground pork), and lefse (a soft Scandinavian flatbread) with lingonberries.

For year-round comfort food, there's Mickey's, which was built in New Jersey and shipped here on a flatbed railcar and which has been on the Register of Historic Places for 25 years.

Mickey's offers "America's Favorite All-Day Meal," an artery-busting plate overflowing with eggs fried in butter, hash browns, a choice of breakfast meat (including a pork chop) and a pile of toast. Besides the usual diner staples like burgers, fried chicken, and liver with onions, Mickey's makes its own bean soup with a diced ham hock and whirs up hand-dipped malts and shakes on a spindle. No reservations, and no take-out.

The diner is an easy walk from the Xcel Center, where the Republicans will be aligning themselves for four days. Any of them who emerge wondering "where's the beef" can find it 24/7 at Mickey's.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

If You Go

How to get there

Northwest flies nonstop from Logan to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Where to stay

Saint Paul Hotel

350 Market St.

800-292-9292, 651-292-9292

saintpaulhotel.com

Since 1910, it's the city's version of the Plaza. Dead-center of downtown. Rooms from $219.

Crowne Plaza Riverfront

11 East Kellogg Blvd.

651-292-1900

crowneplaza.com

A favorite for fans attending sports events at the Xcel Energy Center. Rooms from $189.

Holiday Inn River Centre

175 West 7th St.

651-225-1515

ichotelsgroup.com

Across the street from the arena. Rooms from $134.

Where to eat

Kincaid's Fish, Chop & Steak House

380 St. Peter St.

651-602-9000

kincaids.com

Beef entrees from $28, seafood from $19.

Pazzaluna Urban Trattoria

360 St. Peter St.

651-223-7000

pazzaluna.com

Plenty of pizza-soup-salad-pasta-risotto options. Pasta from $15, meat dishes from $20.

Mickey's Diner

36 West 7th St.

651-222-5633

mickeysdiningcar.com

"America's Favorite All-Day Meal" will keep you fueled in sub-zero weather.

What to do

Minnesota State Fair

1265 Snelling Ave. North

651-288-4400

mnstatefair.org

From Aug. 21-Sept. 1.

"A Prairie Home Companion"

Fitzgerald Theater

10 East Exchange St.

651-290-1221

fitzgeraldtheater.publicradio.org

Garrison Keillor holds forth on Saturdays starting Oct. 4.

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