Day-Tripper

Call these places the heart of the heartland. Or call them the middle of the middle of nowhere. One thing is certain: When you picnic on truck stop food in the cemetery beneath the oil refinery, you won't have to worry about other tourists

I stopped in at the library, which shares space with the local government center and police department, and found Rita Hawes and Sharon Dahms preparing to close up for the day. Dahms, who along with her library duties also works on a family farm and teaches swimming, has lived in West Concord her whole life, and remembers the days when the town was an entirely different place.

"That was before people started coming in and buying up all the farms back in the '80s," she said. "We still had our own high school, and at one time we had two banks, three grocery stores, a couple auto dealers, several restaurants, and a movie theater. Now we don't even have a grocery store."

Asked to toot their little town's horn, Dahns and Hawes both laughed uneasily and then racked their brains.

"Well," Dahms eventually offered, "Steve Swiggum taught school here at one time."

"And the town once held a birthday party for a horse," Hawes said. "That made WCCO up in the Cities. The historical society also has one of the best collections of seashells you'll ever see."

Down the street at West Concord Liquor a group of locals was gathered for the evening happy hour. The bar is a dark, comfortably noisy place with a handful of tables, a small game room, and beer posters and sports schedules on the walls. A guy named Dave, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, was nursing a beer at the bar and making small talk with some of the other regulars.

"I've lived here my whole life," he said. "I was born and raised on a dairy farm east of town, and started working at the local co-op a year out of high school. I'm old enough now where it's like, What the hell else am I going to do? This isn't the town I grew up in, though, that's for sure, but it's still home. I've got three sisters and a brother who all still live within 30 miles of here. In terms of social life this place is pretty much the hub, right here; it's practically the only place that's open at night. You probably saw it, but the main street's basically empty now. We don't even have a barber in town anymore. But it used to be on Friday and Saturday nights you couldn't even find a place to park downtown. People used to come in from all over to do their shopping, and they'd hang around to drink or get something to eat."

A young man at the end of the bar listened to this apparently familiar litany and rolled his eyes. Dave shrugged and said, "What can you say? A little town can't compete with a big town, that's all there is to it."

 

SEE ALSO

If you continue to follow 56 South all the way to the Iowa border, you'll pass through a series of small towns that are more or less mirror versions of West Concord: Hayfield, Waltham, Brownsdale, Rose Creek, Adams, Taopi. Among this lot, Hayfield (pop. 1,325), with its own barber shop, grocery store, newspaper, spinal care clinic, and Get Fit center, could fancy itself a prospering metropolis. Rose Creek (pop. 354), founded in 1867 (and according to the sign at the edge of town, now the "Home of Fun Days"), and Adams (pop. 800) both seem to be holding up reasonably fine as well. Adams is actually an attractive little community, made even more striking by the phalanx of huge wind turbines that loom above it from a hill just outside town.

Waltham (pop. 196) has a handsome 19th-century cemetery, a grain co-op, a bar called Cheers, and more dead ends than through streets; Brownsdale (pop. 718) boasts a small grocery store, a café, an unnamed barber shop, and a now (tragically) defunct roller rink that once upon a time drew kids from towns all over the area. Taopi (pop. 93), according to the 1938 WPA Guide to Minnesota, "was named for a well-known chief of a band of Santee Sioux. Taopi (Ind., wounded man) was converted to Christianity and aided the whites during the Sioux uprising." Perhaps befitting such a legacy, Taopi now consists of little beyond a post office, liquor store, and the remains of a once prosperous supper club, the Rusty Rail.

Just outside of town, however, there is a lovely DNR trail of native prairie and wild flowers that runs along an old railroad bed, a remnant of the days when Taopi's Union Depot provided passenger service to anywhere in the country, and the Great Western Line blew through town up to four times a day.

 

Third Leg: Lyle.
Highway 218 South
approximately 110 miles from the Twin Cities

My experience in the town of Lyle (pop. 566), located just above the Iowa border 20 miles from Austin, is a perfect example of the sort of serendipitous magic that can occur when you actually get out of your car and nose around in some of Minnesota's out-state towns. Before my visit the only thing I really knew about Lyle was that it had been at the center of one of southern Minnesota's largest methamphetamine distribution busts. Initial appearances weren't particularly promising: The highway through town is essentially the main street of the community, a desolate strip flanked on one side by the grain co-op and an auto body shop, and on the other by a few blocks of largely empty commercial spaces (including two buildings--now for lease--that had been occupied by some sort of Christian ministries outfit). There is also, though, the Copper Kettle Café, which I discovered to be the almost perfect example of an endangered species, the small-town diner.

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