Community Builders -

Alison Bunge Leathers

By Steve Harris | Winter 2023-24 Inspire(d)

Alison Bunge Leathers Learns You Can Come Home (And Build Community) Again

Alison Bunge Leathers is a boomerang. No, not the Australian hunting tool that flies back to the place where it was first thrown. The word “boomerang” finds new meanings these days, describing adults returning to their hometown to live. And like the word, Alison is finding new meaning in her life.

Brad and Alison Leathers with their kids Waldo and Elsa. / Photo courtesy Alison Leathers

After growing up in Preston, Minnesota, a Southeast Minnesota town of 1,300 people, and graduating in 2005 from Fillmore Central High School, Alison’s goal to study environmental horticulture took her first to Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, then to Minneapolis/St. Paul and the University of Minnesota, and finally on to Tennessee State University where she got her Master of Science degree in Agricultural Education, Leadership, and Extension. She met her future husband, Bradley, while working one summer at Yellowstone National Park, and after they married in 2011, they settled in his hometown of Nashville.

“We loved living close to Brad’s family, but I hoped we might consider moving to Minnesota someday,” Alison says. In 2018, her hope came true. The couple and their then-two-year-old son, Waldo, headed north.

Alison “boomeranged” not just to her hometown of Preston, but to a very familiar workplace. “Thirty years ago, my family created a 15-unit lodging business in downtown Lanesboro called the Cottage House Inn,” she says. 

It truly is the epitome of a family-run business.

“My father, Andy Bunge, designed and built it, my grandparents, Waldo and Marilyn, first managed it, my aunt, Mary, and my uncle, Eric, are owners as well. And my cousin, Lynn Susag, was the manager at the time we moved back,” she says. “I’d worked there as a teenager with many of my high school friends, so I knew the Cottage House very well. Seeing it as an adult was different, though.” 

In Nashville, Alison worked in hospitality at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, and discovered a love for serving people. When Alison and family returned to Minnesota, her cousin Lynn was transitioning out of her role as Cottage House manager. Alison took this as an opportunity to apply her new love for hospitality to her old love of this family business. She began to learn from Lynn – everything from scheduling to bookkeeping to ordering supplies. At the onset of the pandemic two years later, she became full-time manager.

Left to Right: Cottage Street Inn builder/owner, Andy Bunge; founding owner, Marilyn Bunge; current manager, Alison Bunge Leathers with son, Waldo Leathers; owner, Mary Bunge Docken; former manager, Lynn Susag. / Photo courtesy Stacey Schultz

With Brad now working at the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester, and the birth of their second child, Elsa, in 2019, the Leathers family boomerang had gone very smoothly. 

“While it was hard leaving our Nashville family, we were eager to become part of a new community,” Alison says. “It’s harder doing that in a large city. Living in Preston and working in Lanesboro opened as many doors for us as we wanted.”

Those “open doors” were great for Alison – and for those communities. In the past five years, she’s been a board member (and past president) of the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce, board member for the U of MN Extension’s SE MN Rural Sustainable Development Partnerships, a member and event planner in the Lanesboro Businesses Promotion group, is the current president of Lanesboro’s Sons of Norway Lodge, serves on the board of the Preston Area Community Foundation, and is an active member in their home church, Christ Lutheran of Preston. Alison also recently wrote a successful $50,000 grant to the Blandin Foundation to help Lanesboro explore and expand its winter tourism potential, and she is a member – and past chapter officer – of P.E.O. International, a women’s education organization.

“My love for serving others in hospitality extends into a desire to serve my community,” she says. “It’s fun to get involved. I enjoy the camaraderie of making friends and getting inspired by other people. It’s also fulfilling to see the impact of your work. I love all of it!”

All those volunteer hours, while managing the Cottage House full-time, plus being a busy wife and mother of two small children, may seem a bit overwhelming. But Alison is nothing but enthusiastic. The positive seeds of community-building were planted in her early, she says.

Lynn Susag (left), former Cottage House Inn manager with Alison Leathers (right), current Cottage House Inn manager. / Photo courtesy Alison Leathers

“I grew up with adults in my family and small town who showed me how to serve others. I learned so much watching them; it feels like I stand on the shoulders of giants!” she says. “I learned that connecting with people, and sharing a purpose to make a community better, is fun for everyone!”

Fun, yes, but still, lots of work. A great team at home and in the community makes it easier.

“Lots of credit goes to my husband, Brad. Good family support and local childcare helps, too,” Alison says. “I try to do work and volunteer projects during the day, so they don’t take away from evening family time. We have fun, too, going biking, hiking, swimming, and camping. We hit up all the local playgrounds. My main hobbies are gardening and landscaping. With good planning and some juggling, it all seems to work.”

Alison’s commitment to serving is one way to be a good role model for her children, just as her parents and family were to her. It’s important to her to exemplify the fact that one person can make a difference, and that we can find common ground with those around us.

“Our world today has so many divisions,” she says, “and they can even show up in a small town. You may not always agree with everyone, in politics for example, but you can choose to work together to make the community you share an even better place to live.”

Community-building in a small town helps keep her own perspective positive as well, she adds.

“Current world events can leave you feeling overwhelmed and dismayed. When that happens to me, I find solace by helping in local projects and making a positive difference where we live and raise our family,” she says. “I see other people doing that, too, and it creates bright spots for me. We all need more of those.”

Steve Harris

Steve Harris, a freelance writer and author of the book “Lanesboro, Minnesota,” can be reached at

For More Info:

For more information about the Cottage House Inn, visit or call (507) 467-2577.