Lyle Oral History Project Phase 2: School and Business

(from the grant application)

Project Summary: Record and transcribe 10 oral history interviews about Lyle community schools and businesses from the 1930s to present and their role in the community.


Lyle is a small community (population 551) south of Austin in Mower County on the Minnesota-Iowa border. The first settlers to Lyle came in the late 1850s and the City of Lyle was established in 1870. Lyle is a primarily agricultural community with a number of farms that have been in the same families for as much as 150 years. Despite its small size, Lyle still operates an independent school district and hosts a number of events that showcase civic pride such as the Lyle Cancer Auction fundraiser and the annual Fourth of July celebration. The City of Lyle will celebrate its sesquicentennial in the year 2020.

Like many small rural towns, Lyle has seen a number of changes that have greatly impacted the character of the area and lifestyles of its residents. As a small rural community with no active newspaper, Lyle has large pieces of its recent history missing from the written record. The oral history interviews will help fill in these gaps and help spark interest in the community for the Lyle sesquicentennial. The expected phases of the Lyle oral history project

  • Phase 1: Organizations and Churches - COMPLETE!
  • Phase 2: Businesses and Schools (this project)
  • Phase 3: Rural Lyle

This second phase of the Lyle oral history project will focus on the schools and businesses in Lyle and their impacts on the community. Lyle has had a high school since the late 1800s and it consolidated its country schools in the late 1950s. Lyle was once home to a number of businesses that have long since closed their doors. Ravaged by 3 major fires and following the decline common to rural communities, few businesses remain. This project will explore the history of the businesses and schools that no longer exist while documenting those that have survived. Topics will include (for example):

  • Rural schools: Nevada, Minnereka, Woodbury, Enterprise, Ames
  • High School: current high school, past buildings, student life and sports history including state tournament trips
  • Businesses gone: Dahl's hardware, Copper Kettle, grocery store,
  • Existing businesses: ethanol plant, Agri-Steel, Cenex station, Huntting Elevator
  • Daily life conducting business in Lyle and going to school in Lyle

Interviewees will be selected with a mix between: city and country residents, old and young, members and leaders. Interviewee list is to-be-determined by the interviewer and project director.

The oral history interviews will be conducted according to professional community oral history standards using the Community Oral History Toolkit by Quinlan, MacKay and Sommer and following the guidelines outlined by the Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Department. The interviewer will record brief information about the interviewee at the time of the interview, and the interviewee will be required to sign an oral history release to MCHS. The project will be managed under MCHS standards, added to their archives and made publicly accessible at their office.

Need and Rationale

Finding information for very small communities such as Lyle is difficult. Lyle has been without its own newspaper since 1951. Two small history books exist, one written in the 1950s and one written in the 1970s. However both focus heavily on the early history of Lyle in the 1800s and early 1900s then leave a sizeable gap until a brief mention of Lyle businesses at the time of publication. As a community of only 551 residents, there are correspondingly smaller numbers of artifacts that have been preserved by a correspondingly smaller number of historians. By recording oral history interviews, this project will add much-needed insight into poorly documented periods of the history of Lyle.

Businesses in Lyle have been in decline since the 1950s. At one point there were as many as seven bars, a hardware store, multiple grocery stores and service stations, an implement dealer and a butcher. Now there are two bars, no grocery stores or dealers, and a single gas station. Yet there are glimmers of hope-- in the past 10 years, a local agricultural construction company built a new $1M building on the south end of town, and a multi-million dollar ethanol plant was built less than a half mile south of Lyle. There are many people alive today that remember Lyle as a bustling small town, have seen businesses come and go, and remain hopeful for the future. Lyle's business history will become much more clear by capturing the memories of those people who once owned, worked for or patronized Lyle businesses.

Lyle High School plays a major role in the identity of Lyle as a community. In phase 1 of the oral history project, nearly all of the 10 narrators cited the school as the most important institution keeping the town alive. This rich history will be captured in the oral history interviews covering topics such as the closure of the rural schools in the late 1950s, state tournament basketball trips in 1962 and 2015, the murder of a teacher in 1983, contentious voting on a new school in 2004, and school life at Lyle through the decades. Lyle's very small (average around 20 students per grade) yet still independent school district is a rarity in Minnesota. This project will document life at such a small school and its importance in a small town.

The interviews will be added to the phase 1 interviews in the collections at MCHS. MCHS will serve as the long-term archive for the oral history interviews and will adhere to professional standards in their documentation, preservation and storage.