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As its people prosper, the Minnesota town of Hector hollows out

Photo by Steve Neuman

I forgot my notebook.

That’s the first thing I thought after I drove from my home in St. Cloud to Hector on a Monday evening to work on this story. The second thing was, “What do I do now?”

The convenience store out on the highway might have a tablet or a legal pad, but if they didn’t, the next option was Olivia, a 15-minute jaunt down US 212, which has a few more stores that might be open at 8:30 p.m. Failing that, I’d have to turn around and drive the half-hour to Walgreen’s in Hutchinson.

Fortunately, my mother and stepfather, who live on the town’s west side, had one to spare.

* * *

Hector, Minnesota 1989: You could shop for groceries at Super Valu or the Red Owl. If you needed bolts or a hammer, you could go to Our Own Hardware or Coast to Coast. You could get your oil changed at the service station and run over to Jacoby Drug to fill your prescription and snag a birthday card for grandma while you waited.

Hector, Minnesota 2014: The Super Valu is a vacant lot, and the Red Owl, which became Nelson’s Marketplace, has been closed for years. The Our Own Hardware is long gone, and the Coast to Coast was a Hardware Hank that went out of business in March.

Photo by Steve Neuman

As you may have guessed, you won’t be able to get that prescription filled at Jacoby Drug, either. That building is a NAPA auto parts store now, so you can get some spark plugs for the car you’ll need to get all the stuff you can’t get in town anymore. Make sure you can install them yourself, since the service station is closed, too.

* * *

But this isn’t the story of another backwater small town that’s dying on the vine. The farmers that ring the city of 1,131 are doing just fine.

“We’ve definitely had a good run here. Last year was down, but that was mostly in comparison to how good 2011 and 2012 were,” said Jeff Kramer, who has farmed north of Hector since the early-1980s.

At the American Bar & Grill and The Other Place, the two taverns in town, it’s not uncommon to hear speculation about just how much some area farmers bid on auction for available farmland.

Photo by Steve Neuman

Loftness Specialized Equipment, on Hector’s south end, employs 85 people manufacturing items for farms like Kramer’s. Suttle Apparatus, the factory out on 212 founded by Canterbury Park owner Curt Sampson, has people working full-time on the floor and part-time from home.

There are employers and jobs and money to spend; that money just has to be spent elsewhere. That “elsewhere,” more often than not, is 30-odd miles to the northeast.

* * *

The big box stores of Hutchinson (Wal-Mart, Target, Cashwise, Shopko, Menard’s and a mall) were a common theme when I asked the town’s residents about Main Street’s decline.

Wikimedia Commons

“People here will carpool into a van, drive to Hutchinson, fill the van up with groceries and head home,” said John Hubin, publisher of the News-Mirror, the newspaper that serves Hector and other area communities. “Then they’ll complain that they can’t get anything in town anymore.”

Said Kramer, the farmer: “I’ve been to Hutchinson and Olivia already today, and it’s not even 1 o’clock. I’m fortunate that the John Deere dealership is relatively close in Bird Island,” 10 minutes west on 212.

“I want to spend my money in Hector and keep my money in town, but I can’t,” said Dane Vander Voort, a truck driver who lives just off of Main. “It’s a pain in the ass.

“You have to plan ahead. When my daughter Ella was born, we’d go to Hutchinson and buy three-four boxes of diapers. When we got down to one box left, then we knew it was time to go back.”

It’s worth noting at this point just how treacherous the roads between Hector and Hutchinson can be in this board-flat part of the state during the winter. If you want a more direct, profanity-laced description of same, I can give you the home number of Howard Neuman, a lifelong Hector resident and also my dad.

* * *

At 7 on Tuesday morning, the parking lots are full at Loftness and Suttle. With the exception of ten or so cars and trucks (mostly trucks) in front of Pete’s Grill, Main Street is empty. Lori Carlson is also a lifelong resident, and she is there for breakfast.

She, too, is worried about the town’s future, but notes that her workplace (ITCI, a telecommunications company) is successful, and so is the local lumberyard and greenhouse. They’re just not on the main drag, which doesn’t help the perception of the town for those passing through. She’s also aware that “you can’t buy groceries at any of those places.”

Photo by Steve Neuman

The city has an Economic Development Authority working to attract a new hardware store and other types of businesses to Hector, but there’s no immediate change on the horizon.

Hubin, the newspaper publisher, who used to sit on the EDA board, says, “What they should do is send the Southwest Light Rail all the way southwest, to Marshall or Worthington. You’ve got people in the Cities living on top of each other, but there’s plenty of land out here, and we just need some forward-thinking types to take the ball and run with it. There’s so damn much potential it’s scary.”

Unless and until this potential is filled, as my stepfather told me before I left, “You never have to worry about getting a good parking spot at the post office.”

The morning coffee fellas at Pete's Grill.
Photo by Denise Peterson
The morning coffee fellas at Pete’s Grill.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/25/2014 - 03:22 pm.

    This is a story that could be repeated over and over

    in rural Minnesota. We have redefined convenience not by distance but by number of stops. Our time is more valuable than gas.

    As my old economic development mentor said. We all like small towns but we all shop at Walmart. That of course was the Walmart Strategy – go to smaller towns bring more goods and then drive the competition out.

    So price trumps quality and service every time and you break up community, entrepreneurial expertise, and local investment options. Sounds like a pretty long term price to pay for short term bargains.

    Perhaps they should rethink the co op option. A town that size could make it work.

  2. Submitted by Jon Butler on 04/25/2014 - 04:07 pm.

    When did the collapse come?

    Steve Neuman’s Hector reference point is 1989. Mine would be Hector High school class of 1958. Not much difference in those years. If so, this places the drop squarely in the ’90s or early ’00s.

    A whole culture gone in less than two decades. But then, the Sat night summer band concerts with all of us stuffed into the circular portable band gazebo on Main Street next to Johnson Hardware were gone by the ’60s, a quiet preface to the future.

  3. Submitted by Jim Camery on 04/25/2014 - 04:21 pm.

    The Real Costs

    Decades of cheap oil have their consequences.

  4. Submitted by Bjorn Awel on 04/25/2014 - 07:24 pm.

    agreed, would be a lot easier to have a healthy downtown hector with higher gas prices preventing people from driving to hutch. walmart is not the only reason these things happen.

  5. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 04/26/2014 - 08:51 am.

    Relics of a Long Past Economy

    Many small towns in MN (and elsewhere) were established at regular intervals along the route of the railroad in the 19th century for the specific purpose of having facilities to support the trains. Obviously, this need has long since past. While many of these communities have continued, the rise of regional centers – Marshall, Alexandria, Hutchinson, etc., with their greater offerings for retail and employment – and the improvement of roads have in some ways obviated the very existence of these communities, at least as retail centers. This is, sadly, simply another example of the “creative destruction” or maybe just the destruction brought by the forces of market capitalism. There’s just nothing for it.

  6. Submitted by Jim Gabler on 04/26/2014 - 08:31 am.

    Still open?

    The one place my friends and I always enjoyed visiting in Hector was Hill’s Unique Gifts. (See: We’d drive out every year or two simply to visit that. It was a marvelous place with pieces of yard art that you’d never find anywhere else now. One friend still has his flying pink pig in his backyard.

  7. Submitted by philip zempel on 04/28/2014 - 09:36 am.

    no reason to stay unless your a farmer

    A lot of the down fall to hector is the fact there is nothing to keep you there unless your family owns a farm. It’s hard to keep small business around when there really is no appeal to stay. The local business that were on Main Street struggled to survive. There were good season when those local business made good profit however they had to use that profit to stay alive during the bad times. For a new business to come in and survive with the town in its current state would be very hard. I saw multiple owns move through the grocery store, and other local businesses.
    One of the main things I think about in this situation is what is going to keep your kids here to take over your business? This isn’t the 50’s going off to college is something most every graduate does and once you get out of hector you don’t really want to go back.
    Also with new regulations on insurance and other things and the state of most the buildings on Main Street it would cost a lot to get everything up to code.
    Hector needs to find a way to make more jobs and then entice the people that work those jobs to live in that town. Or do something to get people from hutch or other towns to live there and that all comes down to money. If you can put more money in your pocket living in hector and commuting to your job you will do that.

  8. Submitted by Donna Bahls on 04/28/2014 - 10:45 am.

    Population decline

    At least one cause of decline of rural communities is the loss of population. As the size of farms has risen from 200-300 acres in the 70’s to over 1000 acres, the population of Renville County has declined by 25%. Without an adequate population base, main street stores are not viable.

  9. Submitted by David Frenkel on 04/29/2014 - 03:54 pm.

    thriving small towns

    There are small towns that are thriving in MN but they have industry or tourism to keep them alive. I was in Thief River Falls last month and I was surprised how well the town appeared to be doing economically. It has 2 major employers who are hiring, Artic Cat and Digi-key, and being on the fringe of the Red River Valley they benefit from agriculture. It is also an hours drive from Grand Forks where the local Tech School, Northland Aviation, is working with UND, Cirrus and the GF AFB to help employ all of its graduates. It is an interesting town that would be worth somebody writing a business article about.

  10. Submitted by Christine DeVries on 05/05/2014 - 08:57 am.

    Hardware Store

    Like Hector, Preston MN (pop 1,312) could not sustain a hardware store. The NAPA dealer added hardware lines that meet our needs. Just a thought for Hector.

  11. Submitted by Kelsey Becker on 05/11/2014 - 07:49 pm.

    Growing Up In Hector

    As a child that spent her entire life in Hector, went to school at BLH, and spent summers roaming around town with her friends, I remember when the town used to actually be that. A town. It is hard to see it as it is now, and I am only 19. I remember running up to Jacoby Drug with my mom to refill my insulin prescription(we live right behind the building) and when we moved the NAPA building into it(my dad worked their for years, I helped to paint the inside of the building.) You look back on the memories and it makes you want to cry seeing such a subtle small town fall to pieces.

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