Ready for a change: Couples go all in on small-town life

two people stand in front of holiday decorations
Katrina and James Ball purchased a home in Battle Lake and are consciously putting down roots in the west central Minnesota town.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Katrina and James Ball were living and working in the Cayman Islands when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

They packed their bags and flew to Minnesota with two young children, heading to Battle Lake, a small town in west-central Minnesota where Katrina's parents live and where they often spent summer vacations.

“This is kind of the first spot we thought we'd come to,” said Katrina. “We thought, ‘We'll go ride out the pandemic in Minnesota, with a little more space.’”

That was mid-April 2020.

"We thought it would only be a three-month deal, that we would come here, we’d spend the summer," said James.

After living with family for a few months, they started looking for a place to rent, but rental housing was limited.

In the end, they bought a house in Battle Lake where they can walk to the school their children attend, to the coworking space that Katrina helps run in an old church and where they often spend their workdays.

a room with a computer, desk and chair
James and Katrina Ball often work at this coworking space in a community center in Battle Lake.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The couple, who are in their early 30s, also had lived for a time in Australia. Katrina said she realized it was important to be near family, especially with small children.

“I think it always came back to, ‘We should give Battle Lake a go,’” she said. “You know, if it comes to it, and if we aren't able to work remotely, we'll have to make that decision. But at the moment, we're like, ‘We can work remotely and live by family.’ This is great."

James grew up in Botswana before moving to Australia in his late teens. That’s where he met Katrina when she was on a study abroad program. They've been married for 10 years. Both are accountants, and their employers support remote work.

Now they are consciously starting to put down roots in Battle Lake.

In October, Katrina helped organize a fall festival.

“I just went and walked down to the businesses and everyone was like ‘Yeah, we'll support you. What do you need?’” she recalled.

James has been amazed at how much work volunteers put into the community, but he says in a small town it can be easier to get things done because you see city officials at the coffee shop, and it seems everyone in town is connected.

“It's just so much more approachable. And it feels like in a small town, you can do anything, if you've got the stamina, really,” he said.

And if they need a break from small-town life, Fargo-Moorhead is 90 minutes away and the Twin Cities an easy three-hour drive.

“We can go down to a Twins game if we wanted to. But we also don't have to sit in traffic or we also don't have to deal with thousands of people at an event, if we don't want to,” said James. “So to me, it's almost like the best of both worlds.”

A dozen miles away near the small town of Ashby, another couple is settling into a new life. Kate Mudge and Amy Freund are getting used to living on a small farm they bought last year.

The couple had long wanted to try country living. But Mudge, who worked for a community organization in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, said the turmoil following the murder of George Floyd was a sort of tipping point.

two people stand in front of a sauna
One of the first projects Kate Mudge and Amy Freund took on after moving to their rural home was building an outdoor sauna.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“After George Floyd's murder, Midway had a lot of stuff happening that was really difficult to see. And, although I loved being part of the community efforts and rebuilding, it was taking its toll, quite honestly,” said Mudge. “It was just a really rough time. Social media was getting kind of ugly. People sort of went to their own corners, and I was ready to take a break from it.”

And Freund says the pandemic was making the city feel a bit claustrophobic. She relishes the space and isolation at her new home.

“When we got out here, I almost felt like I could breathe again,” she said.

They made the decision to move quickly when a friend told them about the place for sale between Battle Lake and Ashby.

Freund had some concerns about how the couple would be accepted in a conservative part of the state.

"I was like, I don't know as a community out here in Ashby … how they feel about same-sex marriage,” she said. “But people here are genuinely nice and accepting.”

The couple cites numerous cases of people offering help, like the furnace repairman who watched them struggling with a hand tiller to work up a garden space.

"He looked at us and he's like, 'You want me just to till that for you?’” said Mudge. “Like, who just shows up with a tractor and tiller? I mean, it's happened over and over with people just being so kind."

They've also learned living in the country isn't easy. Mudge jokes that trips to Fergus Falls involve lists and 37 stops to get everything they need. They have to haul their garbage can down a quarter-mile driveway to the road where the truck collects the trash. And there's lots of mowing, wood cutting, snow clearing and maintenance.

Mudge has a job in Fergus Falls but works from home much of the time. Freund is retired from a career in corrections.

They both miss amenities in the Twin Cities like favorite restaurants. But Mudge said the trade-off is an overall improved quality of life.

"I don't want to say it's simpler out here,” she said. “It's certainly slower. To be able to walk out my front door and walk through woods and around the ponds with the dogs. That, for me, is one of the most pleasurable things ever."

a couple poses for a photo
Amy Freund and Kate Mudge are content with their decision to leave the Twin Cities and move to a small farm in west-central Minnesota.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

In the next year, they hope to add goats or other livestock to the farm, and they have a long to-do list. They want to create a welcoming place for friends to gather.

Mudge and Freund acknowledge they still have a lot to learn about country living, but more than a year in, they are confident they made the right choice.

James and Katrina Ball are also feeling good about their choice to settle in Battle Lake, and they keep finding connections with other people who made similar pandemic migrations.

“I don't think our story is unique. I think there's probably a lot of people that have moved back or made significant life decisions because of COVID,” said James.

“I think it's great for small towns. And I hope that in five years, people haven't kind of re-migrated back to the cities.”

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