Minnesota celebrated its 150th birthday in 2008. This occasion drove news reporter Boyd Huppert from KARE–TV in Minneapolis to travel to the corners of the state for a four-part feature series.
In the far northwest corner sits Kittson County, bordered by North Dakota and Manitoba. (Winnipeg is about an hour-and-a-half drive.) The landscape is flat prairie, and, like much of the prairie from Kansas up to Montana, it has been virtually abandoned; free trade shut down the factories, and the smaller farms were gobbled up by agribusiness thanks to government subsidies. Only the old folk have been left behind, and small towns such as Kennedy, Humboldt, Lancaster, Halma, and Karlstad are dying off along with them. The youngsters who live in the county seat of Hallock, where the school is located, dream of moving away when they turn 18—to the Twin Cities, Fargo, Grand Forks, or wherever life takes them. Perhaps the new biodiesel plant might keep a few of them around. But the subsidized biofuels market is a bubble that has already burst, so this sort of economic development is not a long-term solution.
Every state has its forgotten corners, the places that are deemed no longer “economically viable” and left to rot while capital, both monetary and human, chases the bright lights and big cities. Nobody much cares about these places except for local politicians who, thanks to good intentions run amok, make them wards of the state. Southwestern Wisconsin, where my parents’ farm and ancestral homestead is located, is another “economically unviable” region—although Pennsylvania and Ohio Amish families who are moving there to buy up abandoned farms might tell a different story. But modern technology is making these forgotten corners more economically, politically, and culturally viable than they were, say, 20 years ago.
It was such technology that helped Mike Totleben find a new home in Kittson County. A native of Chicago living in Escondido, California, Totleben was hoping to start a mom-and-pop business back in 2001 and looked online at a number of small hotels for sale. He bought the Gateway Hotel in Hallock and moved there in the dead of winter to test his mettle against the worst that the season had to offer. Not even the coldest temps or the white-out conditions that the blizzards often bring on the treeless prairies could dampen his enthusiasm for this forgotten corner. “I loved being out here ever since I’ve moved,” Totleben told me. “I love the small town atmosphere. I love how everyone is friendly, how there are so many churches around here and good schools and I like the fact we have four seasons here instead of just one.”
Totleben wasn’t alone in Hallock for very long. He helped move his parents and his brother’s family from California to his new home.
“My parents have never been happier, and they love it here for the same reasons I do. Although I must say it took some time for my father to get used to the fact that people here will just wave hello at you from the road or from their vehicles even if they don’t know you. He couldn’t understand why at first but he realizes now it’s just the way people are up here. Being friendly is a way of life. It’s why, if a car gets stuck in a snowbank, the next vehicle that comes along the person inside stops, gets out, and helps you out.”
According to a news report about Kittson County, land up there is dirt cheap, and old but decent houses can sell for under $5,000. My wife and I were watching the program together, and pretty soon we started dreaming. Buy some land up there, and start a small sheep farm. Make some money from a home-based business. Perhaps in a few years the Canadian border will be reopened to normal traffic like it was on September 10, 2001. “The housing up here is very reasonably priced and affordable,” Totleben said. “You don’t need a fortune to have a starter home, and that affordability combined with small-town living is what makes for some wonderful opportunities.”
Totleben’s brother moved to nearby Kennedy and opened an auto-repair business, the only one in that small town. The county has a new doctor with a wife and six children. Despite declining enrollment, the Kittson County Central High School just finished building an addition.
Totleben found out quickly that knowledge of the soil and the seasons is good for business.
“Right now, as we speak, we’re jammed full,” he told me. “It’s sugar-beet harvest time. This is the biggest sugar-beet-producing region in the country, and lots of people are here in the region to work, and they’re staying in our hotel. I didn’t know anything about sugar beets or sugar-beet harvesting, but I made it a point to learn, and now I’ve become part of the community which really gets involved with the harvest.”
When I wrote my book, Beating the Powers That Be, I included a chapter on Minnesota’s ultraleftist U.S. senator, the late Paul Wellstone. A lot of people who may have disagreed vehemently with Senator Wellstone liked him nonetheless because there wasn’t a phony bone in his body. He was no “limousine liberal.” He advised, “Try not to separate the life you live from the words you speak.”
In the forgotten corners of the states where we live, paleoconservatives—or anyone else, for that matter—have an opportunity to live up to Wellstone’s motto. Wouldn’t these be great places to build communities? Or to homestead on a small farm using microfarming techniques and technologies? Or to set up one-room schoolhouses to educate children while the government-school system dries up for lack of students? On my weblog, I jested that white nationalists (not the ones infatuated with socialism, paganism, and prison life) could move to the forgotten corners and virtually take over communities that are emptying out, if they really wanted to “come out from among them and be ye separate.” In a way, though, I was being serious. The internet and modern technology connect population centers to forgotten corners and make such places economically viable. Your marketplace is online, and it reaches millions. And if we’re talking politics and governance, a lot of village-board presidencies, township chairs, and county-commission seats are up for grabs. (Totleben ran for mayor of Hallock last November.)
It’s hard being a nonconformist in the age of Walmart and McDonald’s, just as it’s hard being an agrarian in an office park. Only a narcissist likes to stand out in the crowd. But what if you and a few like-minded folks found a place in the world that would actually allow you to be what you want to be?
The Free State Project and its religious-right equivalent, Christian Exodus, have moved people to already populated areas. But in the forgotten corners, you can pick up what others have left behind and preserve what others gave up on.