Growing up in Watertown, South Dakota, a small city just over the Minnesota border, I remember a divide among my teenage friends. There were those who planned to stay in town and those who couldn’t wait to leave for someplace more exciting, which at the time felt like just about any place beyond Watertown.
Among my cohort, there was a belief that those who stayed were somehow less ambitious than the rest of us, that they didn’t have big dreams. The evidence, it seemed, was all around. People worked demanding, blue-collar jobs. The stores on Broadway were barely hanging on or closing. Nobody seemed able to pay their bills without a struggle.
It wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis at age 16 that I realized the same conversations about leaving take place here. It’s natural for some to flee the towns they’re from, since only by moving can a person become somebody new. At least that’s what I used to think.
These days, all manner of reinvention is taking place in small towns, as we’ve documented in a new Ground Level project—also MPR News’ first ebook—Fighting for an American Countryside. Across Minnesota, locals and transplants from bigger cities are building new economies in small places. Whether a Barter Fest in Hewitt, a rural solar initiative in Pine River, a commercial kitchen to anchor a local foods movement in Bemidji, or a push for the arts in Montevideo, small towns have become incubators for new ideas.
This is out of stark necessity. The rural economic picture has dimmed in recent decades as farms have become larger and industrialized and factories have become more automated or moved to Mexico and beyond. The perception that there is no future in small towns has hastened their depopulation. Never has such a small portion of the American public lived in rural areas—currently the ratio is one in six people. In Minnesota the slice is slightly larger, around one in four.
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The feeling is that if somebody doesn’t do something, the downhill trajectory will continue. And perhaps some small Minnesota towns will disappear from the map altogether. This has made some small towns receptive to new ideas. It’s also made them grateful for the people who push to bring these ideas to fruition.
Midwestern small town life has changed since I was a kid in the 1970s an '80s. It’s less about row crops than it used to be. High speed Internet has brought the rest of the world closer. Green energy, arts and local foods have bestowed upon many places something that borders on cachet. Small and hand-made are in fashion, and these are the fortes of rural towns.
“People are coming back to this area who grew up here or are new people," said Ann Thompson, who returned to her hometown of Milan in western Minnesota after living abroad for nearly two decades. "With modern technology you don’t have to live in the metro areas. They see opportunities here, affordable studio space and affordable accommodations. One local farmer-slash-artist told me, if you are a starving artist in a metro area, you have to spend 90 percent of you time trying to live, whereas here the percentage of time it takes to earn a living is greatly reduced. That’s a very attractive thing for people."
Thompson summed up this new attitude in a video clip, included in Fighting for an American Countryside. “When I was growing up, if you stayed here you were kind of a failure,” she said. “But that’s changed.”
When I visited Watertown for the 4
of July several years ago to introduce my new husband to my aunt and uncle and cousins, I found a town more vibrant than the one I left. A new art museum dedicated to local-boy-made-good Terry Redlin had been constructed at the edge of town, and the ancient Goss Opera House downtown would soon reopen. The economy was more diverse, with new businesses filling the stretch between the freeway and the center of town. Even the zoo, where the bison pen used to be the most exciting exhibit, had expanded to include exotic birds and an Australian Adventure feature.
The population, just under 16,000 in 1980 when I was in junior high, has ballooned to more than 21,000 as Watertown has become a regional hub.
We camped in a tent on the edge of Lake Kampeska, among a herd of white campers the size of mobile homes. As I stood with my family one evening, watching a parade of hotrods snaking through the campground on their way to the nearby racetrack, I realized that some things about my town will never change. But I also noted that these appreciative observers liked where they lived. They weren’t talking about the next stage of their lives somewhere else. They were home and making the most of it.