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Checking on Madelia: a hometown trip on a whim

Madelia has been in the news quite a bit since a fire 14 months ago pretty much destroyed its main street.

In the last decade or so, I have been increasingly curious about a place where I last lived a half century ago. It has been in the news quite a bit since a fire 14 months ago pretty much destroyed the main street of my hometown.

Chuck Slocum

Waking up to a sunny, cloudless April day promising 63 degrees recently convinced me to make a trip to Madelia, population 2, 219.

My computer calculated that it would take me 1 hour and 43 minutes to travel the 96.7 miles from my home in Minnetonka. Madelia is located about 20 miles south of Mankato. I planned to wander a bit; I figured that the day adventure with various people and places would take me about 10 hours or more, which was OK by me.

Madelia is perhaps best known for the capture of the Younger brothers just outside of town; the Youngers were part of the Jesse James outlaw gang that had tried to rob the bank in Northfield some 141 years ago.

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Visiting my hometown

After a pleasant drive, my first Madelia stop was Riverside Cemetery, the one where Protestants are laid to rest. After a solemn time at my parents’ gravesite and visiting other relatives, I took some time to read the headstones and remember the many families and good people I knew while growing up. One I noted with interest, Millie Schwengler, lived to age 90, quietly passing away when I was in college. I had not thought of this very nice woman who, I recalled, usually offered Kool-Aid and cookies when I mowed her lawn.

Arriving in downtown Madelia and parking in the alley behind my father’s one-time bank, I thought of my Dad, whom everyone called Sam. He was the ninth of 10 kids from a farm family. He came to his 30-year career as a banker after his World War II service at a time when such a position was popular in the town, though his winsome personality and good character doubtless helped on that front. A person I talked with in the bank, now under different ownership, fondly recalled Sam’s good humor and friendliness when I dropped in to check things out.

I connected with a couple of good friends from school days, Rich and Chris, for a bite to eat at “Sweet Indeed,” an honest to goodness bakery where the owner offered up a delicious Hawaiian sandwich.

Fire recovery

On the night of Feb. 3, 2016, a blazing, out-of-control fire — “cause undetermined” according to the deputy state fire marshal — engulfed Madelia’s north main street destroying eight contiguous buildings and leaving a gaping hole in the “main drag,” as we once called it.

Eight businesses and four hair stylists were forced out and the community immediately began a cleanup and rebuild with voluntary financial support from a “Madelia Strong” effort to which our high-school class was among the first donors. Additional generous donations promptly came from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and the Region Nine Development Commission.

State lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton enacted, a year delayed, some $1.4 million to Madelia to cover fire-related city infrastructure costs and offset property-tax increases for the rebuilt businesses for the next 15 years. Watonwan County will receive another $296,000 for similar purposes. The governor had come to town just after the fire and assured that the state would be supportive.

An estimated $100,000-$150,000 in cleanup costs remain, so the enterprising can-do volunteers of Madelia Strong are planning a Twin Cities hosted fundraising event in Bloomington on June 11.

Resilient people

Chamber Executive Director Karla Angus and her assistant, Bridget Hayes, have been in the middle of all of this post-fire community building for the duration and proudly reported to me of their confidence in Madelia’s future. “We are resilient,” said Karla.

Across the street, I dropped in to see Editor Michelle Van Hee of the Madelia Times Messenger, the local newspaper dating to shortly after the town’s founding in 1857. The post-fire recovery has been well chronicled, almost weekly, she said.

One example is a Mexican grocery store and restaurant destroyed by the fire — the La Plaza Fiesta. The two businesses owned by Krystal and Daniel Hernandez reopened shortly after the fire at the local golf club. Many patrons followed. “There aren’t even words to thank everyone,” said Krystal. I saw the spanking new main street building from the outside and the place looks great, though interior work is far from completed.

Long-time insurance man Tom McCabe has already finished reconstruction; this business is now overseen by his son, Brian. Incidentally, Tom is one of 106 McCabes living in Madelia. The core family of 16 offspring lived three houses away from our home on Second Street SW. 

We visited the optimistic new owners of Ulmen Custom Feed on Center Avenue near Madelia’s downtown. Marisa and Jim are promising to serve “all your small farm needs.” They also own a farm themselves and are into producing natural foods and other products.

Not all the stories are as positive. A sewing and upholstery shop I have patronized, owned and operated by Kay Gunderson for 40 years, lost its expensive quilting machine in the fire and buying a new one doesn’t make sense to her now.

Enjoying other stops along the highway:

  • In St. Peter, dating to 1873, there are a dozen structures on the National Register of Historic Places. Jesse James and his gang even spent the night in a St. Peter hotel before they tried to rob the bank in Northfield in September 1876.
  • Minneopa Falls just outside Mankato is a place with fond family memories for me where some 5,400 acres of preserved land along a 17-mile watershed stretch of the Minnesota River surrounds the rural state park.
  • Stopping by to once again to visit the “Hermann the German” monument in New Ulm reminded me what the 102-feet-tall statue supported by 10 iron columns and a Kasota stone base was all about — honoring the legacy of the German heritage. It was shipped to New Ulm in 1890.
  • Glencoe is a place where a fine couple — the Benekes — once hosted me at their home in the late 1960s to share the story of their protesting Vietnam War era son and the injustice of his imprisonment.
  • Norwood Young America was the town founded in 1856 on land owned by former postmaster and businessman James Slocum, Jr. — a distant relative.

Madelia native Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com


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