HOW DO YOU DEFINE a small town?
For some, it’s a community to pass by or through en route to wherever.
For others, it’s an occasional destination to visit extended family.
But for some of us, it’s the place of our roots.
Randy and I both grew up on dairy and crop farms near small towns—him near Buckman in central Minnesota and me just outside Vesta in southwestern Minnesota. Those communities, once thriving with elementary schools and many businesses, are no longer hubs of local commerce or education. Much has changed since we each left our respective rural towns in 1974.
Yet, the core of our hometowns, with populations under 300 and 145 miles apart, remains unchanged. Community spirit and neighborliness and a certain connection to place remain particularly strong. Often, generations of families live within miles of each other. Churches center these towns, too, as do bars, both community gathering spots.
It’s not often now that either of us returns to our hometowns. The farms we grew up on are no longer in the family, a loss I feel deeply. I return only for funerals and the annual family reunion. Only occasionally do we divert to Buckman so we can visit the gravesites of Randy’s mom and brother, Brian.
We did just that this past fall after spending time at a family member’s guest lake cabin in the Brainerd Lakes area. Buckman lies some 40 miles to the south of Brainerd. We drove through Pierz, where Randy attended junior and senior high schools, on our way to his hometown.
Some seven miles later, we pulled off Minnesota State Highway 25, which slices through Buckman, and turned into St. Michael’s Cemetery. I always feel such a sense of sadness upon visiting my mother-in-law’s gravesite. She died way too young at age 59, just months before her grandson, our son, was born.
Tragedies, like those of the Dehler family, are written upon tombstones in this cemetery landmarked by a towering stone cross.
Across the street, Family Memorial Park—with a mini playground, picnic tables and gazebo—honors 36-year-old Suzette Dehler and her children, Gerald, 15, Christopher, 14, and Tammi, 8. They died in a car-train accident in July 1986.
On this autumn afternoon, we picnicked there, behind Sev’s Food & Liquor and across the street from the bus garage. A dog barked at the neighboring house, breaking the small town silence.
To the north, massive grain bins define this as an agricultural community.
And to the west, the steeple of St. Michael’s Catholic Church rises above Buckman. It’s a beautiful church, recently refurbished, and an integral part of this town. Randy worshiped here with classmates from St. Michael’s Parochial School and with his parents and siblings. He served as an altar boy, too. We mourned his mom here and a few years later he stood as best man when his dad remarried. I photographed the wedding.
On this day, I carried my camera inside again, this time to document the sanctuary. I feel like a foreigner inside Catholic churches, which are typically massive and ornate, so different from the simple Lutheran churches of my upbringing.
Check back as I take you inside St. Michael’s in a series of posts focusing solely on this church. The art inside will, I expect, impress you. And remind you that, even in the smallest of towns, treasures await our discovery.
Upcoming posts will also feature more photos from Buckman and several from neighboring Pierz.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling