‘Too many tiny towns’? ‘Buy out residents’? Whoa!
When you pick up a book titled “Landscapes of Minnesota,” you think there’s a reasonable chance it’ll be filled with pretty photos of lake shores and forests, snow-covered parks and sunsets over the prairie.
You don’t expect to find a whole region of the state essentially insulted, and told we’d be better off, literally, abandoning the small towns of southwest Minnesota because they’re no longer useful. But that’s what you get with this “Landscapes,” a book published by the venerable Minnesota Historical Society Press. It’s no coffee-table luxury, but instead a book of charts, dry academic essays and a few photos.
“Landscapes” is authored by two prize-winning geography professors at the University of Minnesota. No doubt that qualifies them to write about the science of demographics, economics and changing uses of the land that fill most of the 315 pages of the book. Those changes are obvious to most of us, especially out here in southwest Minnesota, where we have, indeed, seen population loss, school enrollment decline, changes in farming and economic strain.
A pretty big swipe
The suggestion that we give up most of life in southwest Minnesota comes on one page of that large book, and while I don’t want to be seen as overreacting to passages on just one page, what the authors wrote is pretty stinging — a damned big swipe at all of us.
I don’t question their argument on Page 296 that technological advances in farming have been dramatic. There are fewer farmers, bigger farms, and probably less need for some of the support businesses/employees that used to attend to the farm industry.
But it is with this passage on Page 296 that I threw down the book on my desk — partly in disbelief, partly, to be honest, in anger: “Southwestern Minnesota has too many tiny towns. Places that originated as agricultural service centers have lost their reason for being, and they are too small to grow. Wise public policy might buy out their residents and allow them to live elsewhere.”
Too many small towns, and they have lost their reason for being? Are the authors really serious?
If they are, they’re basically saying the region has become too inefficient to continue to operate as a place to call home. Pretty damned cold. And they’re also being condescending — allow us to live elsewhere? Gee, that’s kind of them to offer. But maybe we don’t want to, and that’s why so many of us are fighting to maintain sustainability and vitality.
Trying to keep a little objectivity, I called another small-town guy to get his take.
Reaffirmation and a guess
It was the same as I read passages from Page 296 to Tracy Mayor Stephen Ferrazzano, who also quickly figured out where the authors were from. “Both people who live in the metro area, huh?” Ferrazzano said.
I was born in a small town in Lincoln County, grew up in a small town in Lyon County and live in another small town in Lyon County today. My two sisters will soon be same-block neighbors in another small town in the county. The best hamburger I’ve ever eaten was grilled at a bar in a town not far from Marshall. One of my favorite “landscapes” is the view of Lake Benton from the hill at Hole-in-the-Mountain.
“I think there is a place for small towns,” Ferrazzano said. “I enjoy living in a small town. I know we can’t offer all the amenities of a metro area, but I enjoy where I live. It’s disappointing to say we should shut the doors and up and leave. It’s ridiculous.”
He repeated that word a couple more times. “Ridiculous.” And I know what he means. There’s more to living in small towns than demographic efficiencies. They are safe places. They have good schools, sometimes award-winners. Rush hour in Marshall is, what, five minutes long?
I was startled the first few times my son came home from college and I went out to help bring in his dirty laundry: He’d locked the car doors.
“I had to change my habits,” he said.
Analysis doesn’t capture emotions
I know I’m countering the authors with emotion, but that’s the thing their scientific analysis lacks: The memories, the friendships, the calm, the blue skies, all the stuff that keeps many of us here. You don’t call it home because of the way an arrow on a chart points. You call it home because it feels that way.
To suggest those homes no longer have reason for being should cause a storm of letters to be sent to the Historical Society Press at the most. At the least, we should react like Ferrazzano.
“I don’t think I’m going to be buying that book,” the mayor said.
Dana Yost is the editor of the Marshall Independent. This article is reprinted from the Minnesota 2020 website.