Over this past weekend, I took my annual pilgrimage to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a rite of passage dating back to the very early 1990s when my dad covered much of this territory doing vinyl repair work at car lots throughout southern Minnesota. I had a distressing revelation a few miles into South Dakota on I-90 when I discovered Lanti's Fireworks had closed. I had been visiting Lanti's every summer since 1991 to pick up some fairly low-rent bottle rockets and other fireworks at discount prices to smuggle across state lines and set off in Minnesota at my folks' place over 4th of July weekend. There's a fireworks store across the street that I don't like nearly as much yet was still open, so I had to my hold my nose and go over there to buy $28 worth of junk to shoot off. But my heart still aches for the loss of Lanti's, a mainstay on my Sioux Falls pilgrimage for a quarter century.
Generally speaking I'm not someone who deals with change well, and I really circle the wagons when it comes to institutions I have a personal connection to, and anything related to those early 90s visits to southwest Minnesota and Sioux Falls are hallowed ground. I want everything to be locked in place to preserve my memories from the early 90s, in defiance of the constantly changing world and the fact that most of these towns are losing population and can't sustain the same businesses they were able to 25 years ago. With that in mind, I thought I'd evaluate each county seat and its neighboring rural areas over the course of my 25 years of journeys there and identify what has and has not changed during that time, heading westward on I-90 to Sioux Falls and then coming back on Highway 60.
Changes have been plentiful and mostly for the worse. The community was going strong through the 90s, adding a McDonald's and Subway to the already decent selection of eating places for a town of its size just south of the interstate, but things started falling apart in the early 2000s when my beloved Hardee's closed down, the one whose sign could be seen hovering high above the freeway from nearly two miles away when heading westward. Just as bad, within the last few years, a series of God-forsaken roundabouts have replaced stoplights on Highway 169, turning the nice relaxing drive into town into a stressful navigation of roundabouts. Another heartbreaking development over the last few years has been the demolition of a charming old barn that used to hover just off the freeway about five miles east of town. The barn site has been completely plowed over now with no indication that it ever existed.
Thankfully, Blue Earth still has its share of charms despite its declining population and city fathers' efforts to derail it with the roundabouts. The 55-foot Jolly Green Giant statue still towers over the community and the Dairy Queen next to it. The Faribault County Courthouse still shines a bright red a few blocks north of downtown. And even as Pizza Huts have been closing throughout the region, the Pizza Hut just off of I-90 in Blue Earth is still in business, and I let out a silent cheer every year when I drive by and it stays open.
I've always been impressed by how strong the business selection has been in this small city of 10,000, and while there's been a fair amount of turnover they still have a pretty good thing going. Most prominently missing is the closing of Gunther Foods, the local grocery store run by the community's long-time state House representative. Also gone is Reco Motors, an old Lincoln-Mercury dealership on the west side of town that my dad got a lot of business at during his time doing vinyl repair work, and the dealership's very friendly old manager who is almost assuredly either deceased on in elder care by this point. The KFC next to that dealership has also closed, but the old-fashioned front-counter order only Dairy Queen on the other side of it remains. Just off the freeway, I recall having my choice between Perkins and Happy Chef for the occasional breakfast back in 1990, but Happy Chef closed at some point around 2000, originally replaced by a Wendy's and recently reopening as a Hardee's. Fairmont went without a Hardee's for several years during Hardee's leanest years when the old Hardee's on the southeast side of town became an Arby's. The Perkins off the freeway is still there.
More remarkable than what's different is what's the same. Aside from the aforementioned Reco Motors, it's car dealership selection has remained the same. The town still even has a mini-mall with an operational JCPenney's for crying out loud, along with an impressive selection of retail that only recently lost its K-mart. Beyond that, most of the restaurants, fast food places, and other businesses in town have remained around and largely in the same location as they were 25 years ago. Their small frozen foods business Fairmont Foods did close last year, and that's relevant because they were at one time producing a vegetarian product line from Linda McCartney, and actually had an oddball visit from Linda and Paul McCartney who held a press conference in the small, crummy conference room of this frozen foods plant in 1993.
My dad never got much vinyl repair business at either of the two car lots in Jackson so I don't have a lot of memories of the town compared to others on this list. Only one of the two car lots have survived the past quarter century though, and beyond that the impressive Hardee's just north of I-90 back in 1990 morphed into a Burger King around 2000 and has remained such, losing some of its cache for me as I'm a Hardee's man. The rest stop overlooking the Des Moines River valley remains but the cluster of highway signs in the valley itself have mostly come down. Beyond that, not much to report that has changed or hasn't changed in Jackson other than there seems to be road construction every damn time I try to drive into town.
Few towns in the entire state have changed as much as Worthington has since 1990. Back then it was in the early stages of a huge demographic shift as cheap labor was imported en masse to fully staff their Swift pork packing plant as well as the now-defunct Campbell's soup plant. The town would have still been about 90% white back in 1990 but in the 2 1/2 decades since has transformed into one of only three towns in Minnesota with more than 5,000 people that is majority-minority. The business landscape has thus changed considerably as well with a healthy spattering of new stores serving the Latino, Asian, and East African populations. Until the last couple of years the town had a mall that was fading quickly and went completely when their JCPenney closed down. As of yesterday the entire mall had been bulldozed and a new business of some sort seemed to be going up in the considerable lot. Worthington has also been blighted by a couple of those absurd and confusing roundabouts in the last few years too.
With all of those changes, there are a few mainstays including the town's weird layout, one of the few Hardee's that never closed that I recall stopping for ice cream at back in 1990 on a blistering hot day, and two of the three car lots where my dad got vinyl repair work remain open. The list of changes in Worthington nonetheless vastly exceeds the list of things that have stayed the same.
I was most fascinated back in the day with the fast food selection in these towns and Luverne had a good selection for the size of the town a quarter century ago. Nowadays, things aren't going so well. Hardee's...gone. Country Kitchen....gone. Pizza Hut....gone. Dairy Queen....gone. A McDonald's and Subway have come to town but beyond that all that remains is the franchise that seemed the most unlikely to be in small-town Luverne in the first place...Taco John's. Beyond that, there's a new Pamida south of the freeway and a veterans home on the north side of town. Luverne looks and feels the same outside of that.
The hardest change to deal with from Sioux Falls was the closing of Lanti's Fireworks this year as cited above, but beyond that, it's been generally good news for the city, which has grown by nearly two-thirds in the 25 years since I first visited there. Back in the day, there was almost no development off of I-90 but at some point in the mid-90s an interstate exit emerged with a flurry of businesses that from the freeway looks like it goes on quite a distance. But it was only when I got off the freeway to explore that I discovered this was a stand-alone development that is at least two miles from the northeastern fringe of the city itself. A freeway shortcut linking I-29 to I-90 (229) has been added in the last 15 years, wrapping around the east side of the city.
Most of the city's development has been along I-29 running north and south, and I explore a pretty good chunk of the city every year. The freeway itself keeps adding lanes and the busiest exits such as the 12th Street exit off of 29 that I usually take has been altered to accommodate higher traffic volume in the last 10 years. Obviously businesses have come and gone along my typical route through town since 1991 but there are mainstays that always help me identify my location. Best of all, the Arby's on 41st Street across the street from the Empire Mall, both of which I first visited in 1991, are still exactly the same, and the continuity there is even more important to me than Lanti's Fireworks.
Getting off the freeway at Worthington and heading northeast on Highway 60, the collection of "elevator towns" that run along the tracks have seen substantial change, most prominently due to Highway 60 upgrading from two lanes to four and diluting some of the rural charm the stretch of highway had. Hurt the most was Heron Lake, the largest of this string of small towns which the old two-lane went right through but the current four-lane lurches west to avoid. The gas station that used to be front and center in town on the old 60 has long ago closed. The gigantic grain elevators on this stretch have remained though, and if anything have only increased in capacity.
The town of Windom itself looks remarkably close to what it did 25 years ago. Even though it added a McDonald's, its original Hardee's co-existed along with it even as so many other Hardee's closed. Godfather's Pizza has thrived there for years along with an old Dairy Queen near downtown. Even the small Happy Chef that used to occupy a site on 60 held on until the last three years or so. Windom also has the purest "town square" of any county seat in Minnesota, entirely unchanged in a quarter century. Its car lot seen has changed some, and the Ford dealer with a block of new trucks encircling his store has scaled back considerably.
I have a much more comprehensive history with this town since I started my professional career here and lived in the town for three years (2002-2005) but going there every year since I left town 11 years ago I can safely say that the things that meant most to me about the town disappeared before I moved there since I moved away. There was a Ford and a GM dealership in St. James in the summer of 1990...in fact the very first two dealerships where my dad got vinyl repair business. And there was a Hardee's on the west edge of downtown where we went to eat after finishing up our work and returned again a few times. As the years went on, both dealerships managed to get snuffed out on weird technicalities, and the Hardee's closed in the months before I moved to town in 2001.
There's still plenty to like about St. James, including its scenic lake setting and still-vibrant business sector (as long as you're not in the market for a car!) which expanded to Highway 60 once 60 expanded to four lanes. There aren't too many towns of 4,500 that still have two small-town grocery stores but St. James does. The community also seems to have had better luck than most in assimilated a very large Hispanic population which was in its relative infancy back in 1990.
Even in the tiny towns along I-90 or on state highways coming back from St. James, there are still things I pick up on driving by....things that either changed considerably since 1991 or haven't really changed much at all. And this particular route only constituted one stretch of what my dad did for his vinyl repair route, as towns such as Mankato, New Ulm, and St. Peter, among several others, constituted towns I navigated thoroughly that summer and still revisit annually, albeit on a different road trip. Not sure if it's more therapeutic to see the things that have stayed the same or more depressing to see the things that have changed but since I keep going back I must get far more positive than negative vibes revisiting these communities. Hopefully that will continue as I keep visiting even as things I held dear about that era continue to change.