Friday, June 13, 2008

My 50 Favorite Towns in Minnesota #10-1

So here it comes....the best of the best in Minnesota according to Mark....

#10. Pipestone (Pipestone County, est. pop. 4,200). Approaching the city of Pipestone on any of the primary highways leading into town, one would not expect that amidst the endless miles of flat plains is a substantial quarry containing a geologically rare rock as well as the region’s only waterfall. But less than a mile north of town, both can be found at the Pipestone National Monument, a site on the National Register of Historic Places featuring cultural demonstrations of the quarried pipestone used by Native Americans to make “peace pipes”, among other things. Pipestone is not on a reservation, but has a moderate-sized Native American population and is only a few miles east of the Flandreau Santee Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I was recently called out by another reader about my geological awareness and am still not entirely sure if the pipestone rock and the red quartzite I mentioned in my profile of nearby Jasper are one and the same or just cousins, but the red rock is nonetheless omnipresent in a couple blocks of downtown buildings in Pipestone, giving the city one of the most distinctive looking downtown sections I’ve ever seen. An unusual concrete water tower complete with a circular staircase ascending the tower a few blocks to the east of downtown adds to the community’s color. With nearly a thousand wind turbines constructed on the Buffalo Ridge about 15 miles north of town, the turbine manufacturers must have decided in favor of regional expedience as a new plant has been built manufacturing wind turbine blades a few years ago, giving the area’s economy a desperately needed shot in the arm. Politically, Pipestone leans narrowly Democratic despite the overwhelming Republican advantage countywide made possible by Dutch settlements in the southeast. Pipestone and Cottonwood Counties are the only Minnesota counties where more than 20% of the population identify themselves as evangelicals.

#9. New Ulm (Brown County, est. pop. 13,500). Most outsiders who have been to New Ulm believe it’s a decent-sized city at least twice the size that it actually is, on par population-wise with Mankato 25 miles down the Minnesota River. Approaching New Ulm from the north on State Highway 15, the city looks much more like a booming mini-metropolis than a small town. Why does New Ulm have so many people fooled? It’s all in the layout of the city, which runs parallel to the river and is about five miles long and one mile wide, with the main highway through town running the entire length of the community. New Ulm’s identity almost exclusively revolves around its monolithically German heritage, with a heavily ethnic downtown business sector, German-style architecture dominating the community’s housing stock, and the recently restored Hermann the German statue. New Ulm’s population is dominated by people of German heritage moreso that just about any other city in the country, and ethnic pride is often perceived as snobbery by outsiders or non-Germans living in the community. But my personal experiences, both as a boy tagging along with my dad visiting car lots and as a journalist interviewing some eccentric New Ulm natives, left me with a decidedly favorable impression. My most memorable interview involved an older man and his wife who repaired accordions at a shop in their home. In the course of my two-hour interview, no fewer than four customers came in to pick up their repaired accordions. Only in New Ulm could such a business flourish! As is usually the case in German communities, New Ulm has long leaned Republican, but certainly not to the extent that nearby Sleepy Eye and the rural areas of Brown County do. Recently, however, something has been going on in New Ulm. In 2005 and 2006, I started seeing letters to the editor of newspapers from disgruntled New Ulm Republicans decrying their frustration with George Bush. Still, I dismissed it as a few outliers. Imagine my surprise in the 2006 midterms when New Ulm came out quite strong for Democrats, handing Amy Klobuchar a double-digit margin of victory and DFL victories in two of three statewide offices. New Ulm even turned out hometown boy Brad Finstad in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2006, although the rural regions of the district gave Finstad even votes to narrowly avert a defeat. Perhaps it was a one-time fluke, but if the Democrats are making inroads in New Ulm, then things really are becoming hopeless for Republicans in Minnesota.

#8. Northfield (Rice and Dakota Counties, est. pop. 18,000). Northfield is an anomaly being a culturally and politically progressive community in exurbia. The conservative commuters ruining the politics of nearby Lonsdale must be carefully avoiding Northfield. The foundation of Northfield’s progressivism is connected to the two liberal arts colleges (Carleton and St. Olaf) located in town with a combined student population of around 5,000 and a reputation around the state for valuing education at every level. There is also a working-class contingent in Northfield, with a Malt-o-Meal plant in town, one of the few remaining agribusiness refuges left in a town whose economy used to revolve around agriculture and flour mills. With the colleges present, Northfield assuredly has the youngest average age of the towns in my top-50, most of the rest of which are rapidly graying retirement communities. Another staple of Northfield’s history and present-day cultural folklore is the thwarting of a bank robbery by Jesse James and the Younger Brothers back in 1876. The bank has since been converted to a museum and a reenactment of the incident is held every September in downtown Northfield. As previously alluded to, Northfield is the liberal stronghold of southern Minnesota, with DFL margins almost always in excess of 2-1. The needle has changed little in the last 20 years even as exurbia spreads its tentacles perpetually deeper into the Northfield area. The legacy of Northfield progressivism will always be personified by Paul Wellstone, the U.S. Senator who taught at Carleton College for many years before getting into politics by scoring one of the most unlikely upsets of an entrenched incumbent in recent political history. For me, Wellstone’s connection to Northfield is by itself reason enough to qualify the city for top-10 designation, but there are no shortage of other impressive attributes to the city either.

#7. Karlstad (Kittson County, est. pop. 800). As previously established, I routinely visited family in Thief River Falls as a boy, and it was on a weekend safari to Winnipeg, Canada, in 1989 that I first visited Karlstad in Minnesota’s northwesternmost county. I immediately took notice of the rapid change in landscape, where the flat pasture lands and wheat fields of Marshall County yielded to a more traditional “north woods” look near the Kittson County line. Most memorable was a sign in town identifying Karlstad as “the Moose Capital of the North”, complete with moose statues in the city park and advertisements for the annual “Moose Fest” held every August. The heavily wooded pocket north and east of Karlstad features a number of yellow traffic signs warning drivers to beware of crossing moose, an image that definitely stands out for a southern Minnesota native used to seeing only images of deer on yellow signs. The welcome deviation in landscape and the memorable nature of the town always helped Karlstad stand out in subsequent trips to Winnipeg in the years to come. Revisiting the town 10 years later as an adult, Karlstad proved to be a brief oasis from 95-degree heat on the August day I visited. I stopped at the corner gas station and, preparing to fill my tank, found myself getting approached by an attractive college-age girl greeting me warmly, but before my ego was allowed to get too inflated, she gingerly swiped the gas pump handle from my hand and informed me this was a full-service station, a concept that has become all but obsolete in the world I hailed from eight hours south. Crossing the generational divide, I then found myself buying a can of Sprite from the pop machine (yes, I’m an Upper Midwesterner…I call it “pop”) and getting into a friendly conversation with an elderly woman talking about the heat and apparently believing I was a local. I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise. As the name indicates, Karlstad is an overwhelmingly Scandinavian town, where “diversity” is defined as half the town being Norwegian and the other half being Swedish. Karlstad is a swing town politically, leaning very narrowly Democratic in comparison to the much more solid DFL allegiance in the agriculture precincts of Kittson County, where Democrats usually win by margins of 80% of higher.

#6. Biwabik (St. Louis County, est. pop. 950). In my first safari through the Iron Range as a 14-year-old boy in 1992, I was struck by the well-kept little town on the east side of the range with the red cobblestone sidewalks and the red lampposts lining its streets. The only problem is that I thought the town that so impressed me was next-door neighbor Gilbert, and held onto that erroneous impression for the next 12 years until I drove through the Iron Range again in 2004. Driving through Gilbert, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed, wondering if the town had either changed that much since my last visit or if I had simply imagined the “town painted in red” imagery etched in my brain. The disappointment ended quickly when I drove seven miles east to Biwabik and was reintroduced to the town I had long thought was Gilbert. Like most of the Iron Range towns, Biwabik has a gritty interior beyond the commercial streets, but the polished red look gives the town a tremendous source of identity compared to its numerous peers on the Range. Other amenities include the nearby Giants Ridge ski resort, the trailhead of the Mesabi Trail, and the “Honk the Moose” statue. I have never been able to put a finger on what the primary ethnic group is in Biwabik, but read somewhere that the community is Bavarian, which would make it something of an outlier in the Iron Range. Another source of contention is the pronouncement of Biwabik’s name, originally derived from an Ojibwe word. I would love clarification from somebody in the know if Biwabik has a long i sound (as in BY) or a short i sound. Biwabik has long been the most reliable Democratic stronghold on the Iron Range (or at least the St. Louis County portion of the Range), averaging DFL margins well over 80% almost every election cycle. This feat is particularly impressive if my assumption is correct that Biwabik is a Bavarian settlement, given that southern Germany typically produced the most conservative German immigrants in the United States.

#5. Rushford (Fillmore County, est. pop. 1,700). On State Highway 16, running along the scenic Root River Valley in southeastern Minnesota bluff country, the town of Lanesboro seems to monopolize all the acclaim. I certainly enjoy Lanesboro, but it's popularity has not come without a price. Tourist traffic is almost elbow to elbow on Main Street, particularly on autumn weekends. For me, the true treasure of the Root River Valley is about 20 miles northeast in the town of Rushford. The layout of the town is as picture perfect as any I've ever seen, in the valley of a large bluff that the town is essentially wrapped around, with a significant number of very large historic homes and a number of old-fashioned stores downtown, including a pizza and ice cream shop that I make sure to stop at every time I'm in town. On the face of the bluff, "Rushford" is spelled out in large white rocks, Hollywood-style, on full display for the town and motorists passing through. Atop the bluff are two scenic overlooks that provide an expansive view of the Root River, dozens of nearby bluffs, and the town below. I confess that I've never been to New England, and I have only seen its lauded fall foliage in magazine photos, but every time I look at the picturesque setting of Rushford from the bluff hundreds of feet above, I feel as though I'm looking at a picture of small-town New Hampshire in the White Mountains. I've never been to Rushford during the holiday season, but a Christmas tree-shaped light display is said to be lit up atop the bluff every December. Sadly, Rushford was on the receiving end of brutal, ruinous flooding last August (and some further flooding problems as I write this, but nothing approaching what's going a few miles south in Iowa), soaking about half of the town in flood water to the point that the town may never recover. And with the minimal threshold for reaching flood stage at this particular setting, it really isn't that wise to rebuild where some of the current building sites are located. When I visited last October, nearly two months after the flood, only one downtown business was reopened. I'm nervous about heading back this fall given that many of the storefronts may still be vacant. Even if it doesn't fully recover, Rushford is my favorite town in the area, and that's saying something considering how much I love southeastern Minnesota bluff country. Fillmore County is largely divided ethnically, with Republican Germans in the western half of the county and Democratic Norwegians on the east side. Rushford is a primarily Norwegian town and its politics reflect that with a consistently Democratic lean, producing margins that are sizeable but seldom overwhelming.

#4. Beardsley (Big Stone County, est. pop. 250). As is the case with all of my remaining favorites, the appeal of Beardsley is not necessarily gonna be shared by every Minnesota road warrior. Turning west at Graceville on State Highway 28, I always feel an inexplicable level of excitement voyaging into the heart of Minnesota's western hump. Part of it has to do with the long-standing populist history of the area's agrarian population, vastly reduced as the population plummets in the early 21st century. But what excites me most is the knowledge that the bizarre geology of the Traverse Gap provides the most expansive vantage point I've seen in Minnesota. Starting about a mile east of Beardsley, one can begin to see a horizon line many miles into South Dakota that brings to mind the "Big Sky Country" stereotype. Driving west through town, the full view comes into focus, made possible by the very sudden drop in elevation at the border in the manmade valley between Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake, and the fast-rising elevation of the continental divide in Roberts County, South Dakota. On a sunny day, I would bet money that the vantage point just west of Beardsley allows one to see 30 miles worth of territory. On a cloudy day, the effect is lost completely. As for the town itself, Beardsley holds up quite well, as do nearly all of the towns in the region, considering the population decline and permanent state of economic recession. The ethnic breakdown in Beardsley is indeterminant and my guess is that it's a potpourri of Scandinavians along with the Irish "Connemera Catholics" that settled next door in Graceville. Beardsley's claim to fame is having recorded the all-time high temperature in the history of Minnesota, reaching a stifling 114 degrees in 1917. And just for the sake of trivia, Graceville next door is the birthplace of former Minnesota Twins Manager Tom Kelly. The politics of Beardsley is overwhelmingly Democratic, generating victories at least 2-1 in DFL favor in virtually every contest.

#3. Ruthton (Pipestone County, est. pop. 250). Here's another town that the Ely-loving wing of the state may not necessarily share my passion for, but Ruthton offers just the sort of subtle attractions that I always find most memorable and appealing. Ruthton sits just off of Highway 23, where three miles south of town is the most dramatic Buffalo Ridge crossing I've come across. The town itself, very clearly fighting for survival like most of its neighbors, sells the Buffalo Ridge's presence with virtually every business in town, past and present. The gas station of the edge of town calls itself "The Buffalo Ridge Express" and every current and past business on Main Street also invokes the Ridge, be it the Buffalo Ridge Bank, Buffalo Ridge Insurance, or the newspaper (which I believe is still in operation), The Buffalo Ridge Gazette. A manmade sign proudly boasts the community's population AND it's Ridge-induced elevation of 1,888 feet, enough to rank the town either first or second in the state elevation-wise. Heading south, Highway 23 cuts right through the actual Ridge at its steepest point, and the bald hills intermittently dotted with wind turbines whose massive size can be more easily appreciated in this particular setting. Those two or three miles atop the Buffalo Ridge provide a setting that can only be described as otherworldly, looking like footage straight out of a cheesy 1960's science fiction movie. While many simply would not get the appeal of this setting, this is one of the towns that I previously cited as helping me win over some converts to southwest Minnesota road tripping over the years. Politically, Ruthton almost always votes for Democrats, but is by no means a stronghold and margins are seldom supersized.

#2. Lake Benton (Lincoln County, est. pop. 700). ANOTHER town in southwest Minnesota, you ask? In the case of the one-of-a-kind Lake Benton, I can say with pride, "Indeed!" Only about eight miles east of the South Dakota border and the only town resting right on top of the Buffalo Ridge, it's fair to say Lake Benton was the birthplace of the modern-day "wind power" movement, being on the forefront of the installation of hundreds of wind turbines west of town in the mid-1990s. The turbines are popping up all over the country now and have lost some of their cache, but for years bus tours from the Twin Cities would make the nearly four-hour drive southwest to see the abundance of turbines on the mostly unfarmable plains just west of Lake Benton. The town itself ebbs and flows with the hilly terrain of the Buffalo Ridge which it sits atop and the housing stock has a much more colonial look to it than other towns in southwest Minnesota. Adding to the cultural appeal of Lake Benton is a historic opera house downtown with a regular lineup of plays scheduled, which is certainly a unique amenity in a town this small in an area this isolated. Just to the north of town is the lake the community is named for, which stretches several miles to the north and is easily one of the largest lakes in the southwestern part of the state. To the immediate west and south of town is a region known as "Hole in the Mountain" (I've also heard it referred to as the Prairie Highlands) with huge bald bluffs that are about as close to mountains as anyone could hope to see in southwest Minnesota, and look much like the rugged plains of West River South Dakota. I'm not sure if it's still open, but there used to be a downhill ski area at the Hole in the Mountain site. I'm not certain of Lake Benton's ethnic background, but expect there's some spillover from heavily Danish Tyler a few miles to its east, and perhaps some from Polish-heavy Ivanhoe to its north. The politics of Lake Benton is divided, but unfortunately it seems as though they have been leaning more Republican in recent years.

#1. Blue Earth (Faribault County, est. pop. 3,500). Here's a town that has had a couple of supporters in my past segments, but I'm sure the vast majority are exasperated at the concept of this farm town in south-central Minnesota, frequently wallowing in the foul odor of a nearby rendering plant if the wind is right (or wrong), being the best Minnesota has to offer. Any objective analysis would assuredly agree with that assessment, but it's a sentimental favorite for me based on an intangible love-at-first-sight introduction back in 1990 when my dad just started his vinyl repair work and Blue Earth was the first town we stopped at, pulling off that freeway and into town that Monday morning in July and for whatever reason igniting the spark that got me interested in Minnesota travel in the first place. And aside from my nostalgic bond to the town, Blue Earth is a really attractive community to boot, stench of decaying animals notwithstanding. It's nestled in the Blue Earth River Valley and is surrounded by some of the most fertile farmland in the country. The sign entering town says "Earth so rich the city grows", playing off of the region's well-known perfect soil quality. Just a brief distance further is the 55-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant (the company operates a sweet corn cannery in town) overlooking the freeway and the businesses near it and undoubtedly the source of multiple requests from little kids to stop and see the Giant. Almost every street of the town is clean and well-kept with a comparatively vibrant downtown area. Blue Earth was settled by Germans, so unfortunately the politics are not favorable, leaning quite heavily Republican much like next door neighbor Fairmont but not completely out of reach for Democrats on really good years (Amy Klobuchar won by five points, for instance). It's unlikely anybody else who doesn't live in Blue Earth would qualify the town as his or her favorite in Minnesota, but I have my reasons and stand by them, and 18 years after the fact continue to feel a sense of excitement pulling off of I-90 to drive through Blue Earth, the town that's only 40 miles away from where I grew up by nonetheless got the ball rolling on my insatiable exploration conquest of the state of Minnesota.


Blogger Mr. Phips said...

Being such a Minnesota expert, do you think Barack Obama will get the double digit victory here that most polls seem to be showing? If he does, I think it could pull Al Franken in even as weak of a candidate as he is and would likely help Democrats pick up the third Congressional district.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

A double-digit Obama victory is likely out of the question even under ideal circumstances. Minneapolis Star Tribune polls routinely inflate Democratic margins by five points or more. There's no question Obama is comfortably ahead in Minnesota right now and stands poised to win it, but Obama's candidacy is rife with so many potential land mines that I'm hardly committing to even predicting a victory for him there let alone Obama coattails for others.

As for Franken, I suspect he'll lose by 20 points. The only person we could have run for this seat that would have been more controversial would be Keith Ellison from Minneapolis. Even the reincartion of Hubert Humphrey would not likely have the coattails to carry Franken across the finish line. Even without his controversies, his campaign will go over like a fart in church outside of Minneapolis. The Dems' best hope is that Franken's poll numbers continue to be abysmal, provoking Mike Ciresi to reenter the race before the September primary and upset Franken.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Mr. Phips said...

Franken wont lose by 20 points. This is Minnesota. A can of tomato soup can get 43% as a Democrat here.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

John Marty got only 33% against Arne Carlson in the 1994 gubernatorial election in Minnesota. Marty managed to lose the cities of Duluth, St. Paul, AND Minneapolis. Franken won't do that badly, but it's highly possible that he'll have the worst performance since Marty.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Mr. Phips said...

1994 was the worst year for Democrats since 1946 though.

12:44 PM  
Blogger DrDan said...

Karlstad is a really nice town. I had a Canada/US holiday this summer and being Swedish myself I had to stop when I saw the town name. I bought all the Karlstad trinkets in the gas station.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Tucker James Nelson said...

Biwabik is pronounced "Bye-WAW-Bik." (I live in Eveleth, just down the road from Gilbert.) Of course, locals tend to slur the names of towns, so it often sounds like "B'wabik." And now you know! :-)

3:02 PM  

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