In one rural Minnesota town, old buildings get new life as arts spaces
Farwell, Minn. has a population of about 50. It doesn’t have traffic lights or a gas station. But as of this summer, four buildings — most of its remaining town center — are now open as renovated arts and community spaces.
Arts workshops, concerts, gallery shows and pop-up art sales, all by local artists, are scheduled every Saturday through September in the new venues, bringing new energy to the community southwest of Alexandria.
"Maybe it is true, if you build it they come," said Gloria Pfeifer, who organized the artist lineup, and has been heavily involved in the renovations of all four buildings.
Pfeifer, of Starbuck, Minn., is quick to point to the many volunteers who have been involved in the project over the last five years.
MPR News is Member Supported
What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount today to support this resource for everyone.
It began with one building: the Farwell Norwegian Lutheran Church, built in 1907. Pfeifer said that when work began, the building was at the tipping point of being unsalvageable.
“Part of the roof was falling down, the steeple — it was a mess. So everything had to be redone," she recalled.
For over 20 years, the church had sat vacant, except for the bats who’d taken up residence in the outhouse. Slowly but surely, the old church was rebuilt and restored. Pfeifer replicated the original stenciling around the ceiling. And at Christmas in 2017, when the newly refurbished space hosted its first open house, hundreds of people came to see it.
“Everything kind of grew out of that project,” said Ted Irgens, a Minneapolis attorney who bought the failing building and hired Pfeifer to do the painting.
Irgens’ great-grandparents were founding members of the Farwell church, and he grew up in nearby Alexandria hearing family stories. Irgens said that community outpouring had a reunion atmosphere, and it proved they had something special.
Next came the one-room schoolhouse from 1886. Rather than raze it, the town gave it to Irgens, who had it moved to the center of Farwell next to the post office. With Pfeifer at the artistic helm, the building opened as an art gallery in 2018. These were major projects.
“There were definitely times where [it felt like] 'OK, what are we doing?'" Irgens said. "But those two buildings kind of made sense. They put it all together."
Then the old corner garage became available. Then the creamery. Renovations and repainting continued through the pandemic, and all four buildings are now open, drawing locals and lake people alike to see the changes to this quiet town.
A Saturday afternoon earlier this summer found Kori Williams of Alexandria performing an informal concert inside the refurbished corner garage. Its big rolling doors were open to let in the breeze, and a dozen or so people had spread out at tables for a stamping class.
The former garage office now houses a weekly pop-up art sale. The day’s featured artist, Vianne Olson of Farwell, said she’d sold a few lefse earrings and lutefisk lip balms, but the day was mostly social, as expected.
Visitors crossed the quiet street between the corner garage activities and the watercolor show in the schoolhouse gallery. People called out to others they knew and shared memories of the old spaces, restored to new life.
Paul Anderson, 88, grew up on a farm near Farwell and remembers the big to-do of coming into town as a child, back when Farwell was a stop on the railroad, with two grocery stores, a bank and a feed store. He remembers getting milk from the creamery with his parents.
The refinished creamery has dark wood floors, cow paintings on the wall, and a polished counter that drew “oohs” of appreciation from visitors. Pfeifer has worked hard to keep the original design and feel of the buildings, and she said hearing people’s stories has been one of the joys of this years-long project.
“Something wonderful has happened here,” agreed Deb Holmes, who drove in from Lowry, about five miles down Highway 55. She’s volunteered as a gardener, planting the flowers that run between the buildings.
“This is the life of rural America,” Holmes said. “We're all gonna sink or swim together. I mean, we have to work together; we have to support each other in our little communities, because otherwise — Farwell would be long gone. And I think everyone had written Farwell off until this started, and now the possibilities are endless.”
There’s no place in town to buy food right now, and the arts crowds on a regular Saturday aren’t large enough to lure a food truck. Shipping delays have slowed the finishing touches on the creamery, but eventually it will have a commercial kitchen to make and sell refreshments. In the meantime, Pfeifer has been bringing assorted snacks and water and setting them out for folks to grab.
Pfeifer said she knows it’s a commitment for an artist to put on a show in a new, small venue. She marveled that every artist she’s invited to perform or display work has said yes. She said she thinks the small size might be appealing for some emerging artists, musing that “maybe big is overrated.”
“Maybe here where it is so rural, there’s a need,” she said.
As for next steps, Irgens said they are in the process of creating a nonprofit, the Farwell Community Arts Association, to keep doing what they’re doing now: building community, through art.