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Minnesota Ghost Towns Haunt 500 Endangered Small Cities

September 24, 2007 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

A cornfield now covers most of what was Hereford, in Grant County, Minn. The village of Pomme de Terre is gone from the banks of the river it was named for. And West Elbow Lake didn't have the staying power of, say, West Concord or West St. Paul.

The Grant County Historical Society is sponsoring a bus tour on Saturday, Oct. 6, of ghost towns about 150 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Included will be stops at Aastad, where all that remains is a country church, and Thorsborg.

Such tours may become more popular. Rural Minnesota has about 500 small cities and unincorporated villages facing extinction unless they can reinvent themselves and find new reasons for keeping their lights on. 

Community planners and economic developers from around Minnesota might want to consider such a tour because even more little villages face possible extinction in the next few decades. In Grant County alone are Erdahl, an unincorporated village with a handful of people; Norcross, population 59; Wendell, population 177; Barrett, population 355; Herman, population 452, and Ashby, population 472.

Follow Hwy. 55, the Floyd B. Olson Memorial Highway, farther west into Wilkin County and you will find Tenney, the nation's smallest incorporated city with a population of 6; Doran, population 59; Nashua, population 69; Kent, population 121; Wolverton, population 122, and Foxhome, population 143.

There are at least 300 ghost towns in Minnesota and, by some claims, as many as 700. Those numbers are certain to swell unless small communities with dwindling populations find new economic reasons for existing.

"We have hundreds of small cities where the reason for being is offering

The House is nearly gone, but someone still mows the grass in the city of Tenney. Photo by Lee Egerstrom.
The House is nearly gone, but someone still mows the grass in the city of Tenney. Photo by Lee Egerstrom.

affordable housing for an aging population," said Dave Engstrom, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Small Cities. "We can't say that isn't important. Where would these people go? You don't find a surplus of affordable housing for seniors in the Twin Cities or our other cities around the state."

There are other reasons to bolster the economies of small rural Minnesota cities. That's the focus of this five-part series that begins today and will appear on subsequent Mondays here at It looks at the 342 Minnesota cities that had fewer than 1,000 people in the 2000 Census and the estimated 150 unincorporated communities that are commercial and residential hubs of rural townships.

A list of such places can be located here, but it is incomplete. For instance, Tenney's six residents aren't listed. But the total population of the small cities that are included is significant: more than 170,800.

That's enough to comprise the third largest city in Minnesota, nearly the populations of Rochester and Duluth combined. And it's enough to warrant concern among all Minnesotans for the future of our small cities.

Reinvention of small towns isn't an impossible task. An economic development model exists to point entrepreneurs and government policymakers toward the tools for innovation and change.

Vernon Ruttan, professor emeritus of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, teamed with a Japanese colleague, Yujiro Hayami, in the early 1980s to develop a model of induced innovation. "The model explains pretty well why change has occurred," Ruttan said. "It doesn't as yet explain why change didn't occur."

A simplified version of the Ruttan-Hayami model, shown below, explains interactions among the four components that support or induce change in a local or regional economy or an economic sector such as mining or agriculture.

Of the four factors that induce change over


time, Ruttan said, "two are inherited, or what you are given to work with, and two are your own creations."

The inherited components are natural resources that have been the backbone of rural Minnesota's economy until recent times and the longtime cultural endowments that affect resource development and community viability.

Farmland, forests, minerals such as iron and taconite, lakes and streams and even the climate that supports plant and animal life are the historical resources of rural Minnesota. The cultural endowments are less obvious, but they anchor societies - even those rapidly assimilating new residents and broader cultural influences.

What we create, or adapt, are new technology and institutions that spur economic growth, Ruttan said. Over time, new organizations that address a problem or opportunity become institutions. Public education is a prime example.

Ruttan likes to tell a story from his youth on a Michigan farm to illustrate how the model works. His father never thought it necessary to introduce new technology as long as the young scholar was available to work the horse-drawn implements. Cheap farm labor substituted for new technology.

That changed when Ruttan was drafted out of the University of Chicago for World War II. Other Michigan farmhands went to Detroit to make military equipment. Farm labor became scarce; the Ruttan farm got its first tractor.

Patty Benson, the director of the Grant County Historical Society at Elbow Lake, sees evidence of the Ruttan-Hayami model in the ghost towns on the prairie.

Some early communities sprang up as rest stops and service areas along the oxcart trails that linked St. Paul to the Red River Valley and Winnipeg from 1820 to 1870. Pomme de Terre was built around a station on the St. Cloud-to-Fort Abercrombie stagecoach line that reached into what is now North Dakota.

Then oxcarts and stagecoaches were replaced by a new technology: railroads that followed different paths. Some towns were started merely on rumors of where the tracks would go, Benson said. Hereford and West Elbow Lake were built along a short-lived railroad. The Soo Line, now the Canadian Pacific, ran through nearby Elbow Lake and became the dominant railroad serving the area.

The demise of Aastad came through a combination of technological

Patty Benson is shown near a replica of Fort Pomme de Terre. Photo by Lee Egerstrom.
Patty Benson is shown near a replica of Fort Pomme de Terre. Photo by Lee Egerstrom.

and institutional changes, Benson said. The state and counties started building roads, including one that bypassed Aastad on the way south to Wendell or north to Fergus Falls. That left no reason to go to Aastad to shop or trade.

A key element of rural economic planning in recent decades has been leadership training from nonprofit organizations and state colleges. But local leadership wasn't a problem with the ghost towns of Grant County. Benson said the pioneer developers built communities with amenities such as churches and schools. Two ghost towns even had libraries and cheese factories.

But technological change, still ongoing, requires fewer people to produce ever-larger crops on the fertile lands of western Minnesota. The flow of retiring farmers to small towns slowed to a trickle as the number of operating farms across Minnesota fell from more than 100,000 in 1980 to about 70,000 today. A third of the remaining farms are primarily rural residences where only a little farming is done on the side.
The resource base in Grant County didn't change except for the addition of a bit of farmland recovered from former town sites. But cultural endowments and institutions could not negate the forces of technological change that made these towns expendable.

A new era is dawning that will prove as challenging for Minnesota's small towns as the coming of the railroads and new farm technology. Small cities must reinvent themselves to stay alive. Community leaders must turn to technology, institutions and cultural strengths to find driving forces for change.

Part two of this five-part series will appear Monday, Oct. 1.


Read Part 2 - Technology: The Driving Force Behind Rural Minnesota Change

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