FOR THOSE OF YOU who’ve followed my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog for awhile, you understand that I value small towns. They are a favorite destination, an escape of sorts back to my rural prairie roots. To a less-populated place, typically rooted in agriculture.
That said, I recognize that my definition of a “small town” may differ from yours. I view small towns as communities with populations of several thousand or less. I would not, for example, consider my city of Faribault to be small. Others would given its population of around 24,000.
What draws me to small towns, to photograph and write about them, beyond my desire to reconnect with rural places and share my finds?
It’s discovering nuances of character. It’s connecting with people. It’s the architecture and oddities and so much more. Exploring small towns is like taking a basic sentence and enhancing the main subject with adjectives.
Yet, I realize not everyone appreciates language like I do. All too often, small towns are bypassed or driven through—seemingly not a place that would attract visitors. But I am here to tell you they are worth the detour off the interstate, the destination for a day trip, the stopping on Main Street.
Montgomery, Minnesota, for example, is one of my favorite nearby small towns. Why? I love going to Franke’s Bakery, a staple in this community for 100-plus years. The bakery specializes in Czech treats, in this self-proclaimed Kolacky Capital of the World. Across the street from the bakery, a mural tells the history of this town. Aged buildings line the main business district, with home-grown shops and eateries and bars. The adjectives enhancing the main subject.
The Montgomery Arts and Cultural Heritage Center and Montgomery Brewing also draw me to this Le Sueur County community. And the signs and architecture.
The good folks of Montgomery have branded their community, tapping into their heritage and then building on that to create a place that attracts visitors. I think potential exists in every small town to do the same. And it starts with recognizing the strengths, the uniqueness, of a community. I know that requires time, money and effort. But, oh, the possibilities.
I, for one, love small town bakeries, antique shops, thrift stores, art centers and home-grown cafes with meal offerings that are crafted by hand, not pulled from a freezer and heated. I recently saw a sign for Beef Commercials in New Ulm. I haven’t eaten one—roast beef layered between slices of white bread, topped with a dollop of mashed potatoes and smothered in gravy—for years. Had it been meal time and not a pandemic, I may have stopped to indulge in nostalgia.
New Ulm, population 13,500, is not exactly small town by my definition, but it’s definitely a city that excels in attracting visitors via branding built on its German heritage.
Now I know every community can’t tap into heritage like New Ulm and Montgomery. But, each place truly possesses potential to attract visitors. In Ellendale, for example, the award-winning Steve’s Meat Market draws meat lovers. I am partial to Lerberg’s Foods and its worn wooden floor, narrow aisles and aged moose head looming over cans of stacked corn.
I delight in such discoveries. Kitsch. Identity. A strong sense of place and pride. I hope that, by sharing my thoughts and photos, you, too, will view small towns through a lens of appreciation.
TELL ME: Have you discovered a small town that you just love. I’d like to hear.
PLEASE CHECK BACK as I expand on this post with more photos from some of the communities featured here.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling