When you talk to the people taking up challenges in rural Minnesota, you quickly find a few common personal traits: stamina, imagination, love of a community, tenaciousness, charm, and the ability to tell a good, convincing story. When those qualities come together in one or more residents of a small town, action is not far behind.
As sociologist Patrick Carr put it, "The places that have been successful seem to have the following: a core group of people who are absolutely committed. This is a group of people who have had a bunch of small and medium-sized successes. They have become good at doing things."
Grew up in: Rothsay
Where he lives now: Hewitt
He moved there because: A musician and audio engineer, Dagen and his wife Amber Fletschock, a visual artist, were looking for a cheap place to live and make art. Hewitt fit that bill, plus it had nice buildings for sale and was close to family.
What he does: Since moving to town five years ago, he has fixed up several local buildings, including Hewitt’s former public school, now its history museum and lending library. He and Fletschock also started a summer event called Barter Fest, which draws people from all over the region to trade handmade goods and listen to music.
Why he does it: He believes in a close-knit, old-fashioned idea of community where people rely on each other and pitch in to accomplish big goals. When he first moved to Hewitt, he thought he should keep to himself. Now he thinks the opposite is true.
Grew up in: Eagle Bend
Where she lives now: Long Prairie
She stayed because: She and her husband chose to live in Todd County so they could care for their parents as they aged. Family relationships are important to her.
What she does: She pulls resources from all over to fund innovative services for seniors in Todd County, including computer training and delivered meals programs.
Why she does it: She remembers that when she was a kid, her father had an accident and lost one of his hands. The neighbors came over to help build the family’s barn. She wants to pitch in and help others, too.
Grew up in: Brainerd
Where he lives now: Baxter
He stayed because: He doesn’t want to live anywhere else. He likens the bond with a town to the bond with a family member. You can’t change it.
What he does: As a planner, engineer, and writer, he urges small towns to think differently about the way they build infrastructure and neighborhoods. He’s outspoken and sometimes controversial, such as when he suggests that towns let some of their roads go back to gravel.
Why he does it: He wants small towns to be sustainable, efficient, and pleasant places to live, so they survive into the future.
Grew up in: Twin Cities
Where he lives now: Montevideo
He came because: While working at a newspaper in nearby Milan, he fell in love with southwest Minnesota’s prairie sky. Ever the philosopher, he feels that in a wide-open setting, it’s possible to “see the whole.” That might be the whole sky, the whole problem, or the whole solution.
What he does: He’s an entrepreneur and historian, a Minnesota River advocate, and an avid conversationalist. He fixes up old buildings, encourages artists to start businesses, leads canoe trips, and tries to get people who disagree to talk to each other.
Why he does it: The goal is to foster community pride in the Minnesota River and local history and art. “Self actualization is the new American dream,” he said.
Grew up in: Guatemala
Where he lives now: Northfield
He came because: After helping to launch Peace Coffee in the Twin Cities, he was looking for a place to live and came to Northfield. He immediately felt accepted there because, as he put it, the city is ideologically diverse, if not very ethnically diverse.
What he does: He trains Latino immigrants to grow food and raise livestock so they can someday own their own farming businesses. The larger goal is to create a pathway out of poverty for Latinos and to improve the way the food system works.
Why he does it: A born entrepreneur, he wants to help others discover the same skills and opportunities within themselves.
Grew up in: Redwood Falls
Where he lives now: Redwood Falls
He stayed because: He fell in love with the land he now farms when he was 11 and rented 20 acres of it. He built the house he lives in and raised his family there.
What he does: He’s a corn and soybean farmer, but he also grows wildflowers and grass and a patch of corn to feed wildlife. He employs numerous techniques to improve the water that runs from his property into the nearby Redwood River.
Why he does it: He believes farm pollution is more effectively controlled at the individual grassroots level than through top-down regulation, so he’s setting a good example. He wants his kids to be proud of the way he’s managed the land.
Grew up in: Venezuela
Where she lives now: Morris
She came because: A Spanish instructor, she moved to Morris when her husband landed a teaching job at the University of Minnesota there.
What she does: She organizes a Spanish and English language club, a multicultural book club, and other means for white residents and students and Latinos to interact and make friendships.
Why she does it: If whites and Latinos cross cultural barriers and get to know each other, they can appreciate each other’s contributions to Morris. She wants immigrants who may not stay in town forever to make more of their time there.
Grew up in: Bemidji
Where she lives now: Bemidji
She stayed because: She feels rooted in her town and has enough land for solar panels and chickens. In her words, Bemidji affords a “viable yet alternative lifestyle.” Plus, given Harmony Coop and Bemidji State University, it’s a good place to launch a local foods movement.
What she does: As produce manager at Harmony, she helped launch an incubator kitchen where food entrepreneurs can make salsa and pies. She also cofounded the Headwaters Food Sovereignty Council to build a healthy food network involving nearby counties and Indian reservations.
Why she does it: Having grown up on a farm with her parents, both university professors, she harbored a soft spot for farmers who came to Harmony to sell large amounts of produce when there wasn’t room on the shelves. So she figured out a way to help growers process food and distribute it to a larger network.
Grew up in: Minneapolis
Where she lives now: Bemidji
She came because: Her family has deep roots in the area, including on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. She attended Bemidji State University to study the Ojibwe language and thinks the Mississippi headwaters area is beautiful and magnetic.
What she does: She works with the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Headwaters Food Sovereignty Council, which she cofounded, to build a local healthy food network. She also helped launch an incubator kitchen, where entrepreneurs can make sauces and breads to sell, at Harmony Co-op in Bemidji.
Why she does it: Hunting, fishing, and growing food are long-held traditions among people in the area. She wants to build on that history and connect Native and white people to improve what locals eat. In honor of her Native American ancestors, she said, “It’s my responsibility to be a responsible citizen of this region.”
Grew up in: Milan
Where she lives now: Milan
She came back because: After living overseas for 18 years, she returned to Milan almost a decade ago to be close to her elderly parents. “I know my place here,” she said.
What she does: She has dedicated herself to revitalizing her town, having opened a gift and art shop and worked with others to turn the empty public school into studio space and an incubator kitchen. She also teaches English-as-a-second-language classes to Milan’s growing Micronesian population.
Why she does it: She shares a philosophy espoused by her parents: that your community is what you make it.
Grew up in: St. Cloud
Where he lives now: Lutsen
He came because: He landed a job with Arrowhead Electric Cooperative. More than that, he likes outdoor sports such as skiing and biking and was drawn by views of Lake Superior, whatever the season.
What he does: As director of broadband projects for Arrowhead, he is in charge of running fiber cable to every coop member in Cook County. That means solving some tricky problems such as running cable up rock faces and under lakes.
Why he does it: It’s his job. But also, he’s a natural problem solver who believes broadband will bring new economic opportunities to an area that could use them.
Fighting for an American Countryside: by Jennifer Vogel, Ground Level project of MPR News