Taking a Stand Against Rural Decline
A new book by Minnesota author and former Marshall Independent editor Dana Yost highlights small towns’ challenges and triumphs. Some of the short stories, essays and poems in "The Right Place" help inform and move Minnesota’s public policy debate forward.
The following excerpt is about a speech for the 30th anniversary of the Minnesota Machinery Museum in Hanley Falls. In it, Yost talks about how small towns persevere through adversity, reinvent themselves, and thrive in a new generation.
From The Right Place, by Dana Yost
When I was the editor of the Marshall Independent from 1999-2008, I was strongly behind on the idea of cooperation and commitment to development—if we don't invest in and support the things most vital to us, we will, indeed, struggle even more on the prairie. Stagnation is a death sentence, and too many are willing to let that happen. But not everyone.
I have seen others, in recent years, set aside differences, set aside fears, and be willing to take a chance on something new in order to maintain a sense of the old—a sense of quality to the place they call home. Just to our south, voters in the Lakeview School District easily said yes to a referendum in 2002 to build a new K-12 school. That was quite a leap. They could have easily let their existing schools in Cottonwood and Wood Lake close, ship their students off to other towns, and not dealt with the property taxes issues. But there was, and is, a strong sense of community in the Lakeview District. The vote was a lopsided victory, and the result is a state-of-the-art school that serves its students and does everyone proud.
In Marshall, residents got forcefully behind efforts to build a new high school and a new community center, which became the YMCA.
The high school referendum failed a couple of times, but when it became really clear what was at stake—a good part of Marshall's and the region's economy in the form of the Schwan Food Co., whose top officials were publicly suggesting or threatening it might move good jobs out of the area if a new high school wasn't built—the referendum passed with 77 percent saying yes.
I have seen residents of Granite Falls, and volunteers from all over, pour into town in the spring of 1997 to fight off floodwaters of the Minnesota River and the community work to rebuild and remain vibrant.
I have seen three major local businesses—Fagen in Granite Falls, Northstar Insurance in Cottonwood, and the Farmers Coop Elevator which has operations in many cities in the region—invest in facilities and expand services. I was telling my mother about the elevator today—saying FCE owns the elevators in Minneota, Taunton, Cottonwood, Hanley Falls and more, even that big building along Highway 23 just out of Hanley Falls. She thought it was a hog barn; I said no—it's for grain, a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar, horizontal elevator with a system that constantly rotates and aerates the grain to limit the amount of dust that can cause major fires. All of this shows me that many of us are not giving up on this area.
In a different form, but equally important, is the way some rural churches have been able to stay open. I am a member of St. Lucas Lutheran Church, west of Hanley Falls. That means I am also a member of the Healing Waters Parish, with St. Lucas joining with churches in Hanley, Hazel Run, Clarkfield and rural areas to share resources and continue to serve members in its small churches. They still face concerns, but without the joining together, it's probable many of the small churches in Healing Waters would have been closed by now.
So back to [Hanley Falls’ Minnesota Machinery] museum and 1980. I've cited those other examples, but the museum and its leaders were trend-setters, ground-breakers: Among the first to take, and make, a stand against rural decline.
I know it has not always been easy since that day the doors opened, but you were among the first to see the value of and to implement major change — adaptation of an old building for new purpose, a new way to serve the people of this region, and an important way to preserve its past. That's quite a bundle all wrapped into an institution that sits in a town of less than three-hundred people. But you have made it happen.
You saw the new reality coming—a town without its school, but instead of being stubborn and sitting there, arms crossed, waiting for the end, you saw beyond defeat and into possibility. That means there was vision. And you turned possibility into what we celebrate tonight. And that means courage. And you have sustained it for thirty years. And that means wisdom, work and dedication.
And I know it connects. Just look at the museum's own Web site and the excerpts of papers written by Professor David Pichaske's students at Southwest Minnesota State University after they toured the museum.
“To my surprise, I was simply amazed by what I saw during my next two hours," one of them wrote.
Some of the other comments: “It is difficult to grasp how much time was consumed doing chores in the past as compared with how it is today, when we let machines do all the work.”
“It’s insane to think about feeding all those men until the entire crop had been harvested.”
“Realizing that people actually used these tools and other things to do daily activities boggled my mind.”
If you can get college students to set aside their cell phones, get off Facebook and react like that, you've done something significant.
And the museum has. A 30th anniversary, in the face of rural decline, is quite an achievement. You have shown that, with commitment and hard work, the prairie is still capable of producing some very good things — a lesson for us all, and proof this area is still worth believing in.