Going home again

My hometown is Emmons, Minnesota, located almost smack dab on the center of the Minnesota-Iowa border, roughly an hour and a half drive south of the Twin Cities. It is primarily in Freeborn County, Minnesota with portions of the town extending into Winnebago County, Iowa and Worth County, Iowa. That geographical quirk worked to some people’s advantages while trying to ditch the local sheriff’s deputy assigned to police duty, or for legally consuming alcohol when Iowa and Minnesota had different “legal ages”. Some of that frivolity is fodder for a future post, though names and dates may change to protect the guilty or irritate the innocent despite the statute of limitations expiring long ago.

For some people, going home again is not always easy. Sinclair Lewis wrote two thinly veiled blistering accounts of his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, “Main Street” and “Babbitt”. Babbitt has nothing to do with the similarly named Iron Range town. Charles Bronson allegedly snarled, “I’d spit on it” when asked about he would do on his next visit to his coal mining hometown in Pennsylvania.

My experience is not negative. Hometowns are the source of many firsts when one is growing up: first friends, first crush, first broken heart, first beer, and first unselfish act. Obviously, there is also the ubiquitous first stupid act, but I can safely say there were enough of them to confuse which one was really first, though in my defense, I am using a trinary numbering system consisting of “one”, “two”, and “many”.

I left Emmons in July 1975 a few weeks after graduation and have been back sparingly during the past forty years. My 40-year high school reunion was held this weekend in the local VFW hall. I have been back for a few of my high school reunions, but either the reunions were held out-of-town, or I was on a very tight deadline because of work commitments and could not spend any time exploring. I missed the reunion in 2010, so this was the first opportunity to see downtown Emmons during daylight hours in at least a decade. It was also my first chance to visit the farms I lived at and a few other nostalgic landmarks before reconnecting with a special group of people.

Interstate 35 (I-35) traverses north and south about seven miles east of Emmons and is a busy expressway connecting Duluth, Minnesota to Laredo, Texas. While it provides a quick route from the Twin Cities, it siphoned off much of the traffic that used to travel U.S. Highway 69 through Emmons, Lake Mills, and Albert Lea. I was driving to Lake Mills for their annual July Jubilee event, so my route extended a few miles farther south exiting I-35 at the Diamond Jo Casino east of Lake Mills. A ten-mile drive on a two-lane pavement brought me to Lake Mills. Country driving is quite scenic, but is also fraught with insects as evidenced by the splatters on my freshly washed car. A large hawk looked up from a raccoon carcass on the shoulder of the road as I drove past, but ignored me otherwise. Gophers scurried across the pavement unknowingly playing chicken. A kestrel sat atop a utility pole enjoying a freshly caught meal. An old saying states that corn plants “knee-high by the Fourth of July” ensure the crop survives until harvest. From what I saw, all the corn was easily thrice that height.

Since I was a couple of hours early, I headed north out of Lake Mills on a “minimal maintenance” township road. These roads have gravel or crushed limestone surfaces and can have some serious ruts running across them, which can make handling an open soft drink an adventure. The crushed limestone soon coated my car with a patina of pale yellow dust and the small rocks bouncing off the undercarriage made a sound I had not heard in years as I drove towards a farm my great uncles and great aunts lived on until the mid-1970s. One ironic change I noticed was the southern portion of the acreage south of the gravel road (now called 500th Street) is part of the Hogsback Marsh Waterfowl Production Area. I wonder if anyone had first checked the records to see all the drainage tile we had Les Flo install around 1971 to help drain the peat slough. There was also a large diameter county drain tile installed around 1918 in that area, if I remember the plat map correctly. The gravel pit, which we used as a target range, is now leveled and gone as is the small grove of trees southeast of the farm’s driveway. Many of the rickety outbuildings are gone and the house is actually visible from the road.

My car has a HEPA cabin filter in it, which helps remove odors along with filter out particulates and the air conditioner made me forget that July is usually very warm. Opening the car door in the country was different from opening it in Lake Mills. The smells of humid peat, cow manure and pig manure wafted in along with a surprise of damp sauna-like air. The cornfields in the area contributed considerably more humidity to a muggy July afternoon through evapotranspiration. The smells were not oppressive, but they were a humorous reminder of life growing up in an agricultural region.

Ah, yes, my first crush. A few miles of driving on some shockingly minimal maintenance roads brought me to the farm on which she grew up. “Washboard road” is a term for a road with multiple ridges in it resembling an old-fashioned washboard. This road was rough enough I drove past a catalytic converter heat shield and later a glass pack muffler, but eventually there was an actual paved road. A deer walked out of the ditch, stared at my oncoming car as if to convey, “What are you doing on MY path?”, and then quickly cleared the ditch and fence with a single easy bound. The farm she grew up on is unrecognizable, but then again, I had not driven past that place since 1975. In case you were wondering, I never did ask her out on a date even though her dad suggested I should. Anyone living farther away than five miles before one has a driver’s license makes for a long distance relationship, and those rarely work. Several years later, we attended each other’s high school graduations and we each worked in IT, but we lost touch shortly after her dad died. The last time I heard from her, she was happily married with kids, and that is the important thing. To this day, she is probably unaware of how I felt about her as I am unaware if the feeling was mutual. Perhaps as a result of not asking her out, I eventually met and married Lucy and had my time of joy. Everything happens for a reason, even if we never discover purpose of the reason.

My final stop was a drive past the farm where I spent the majority of my formative years. I had been past there once before in 1990 when Lucy accompanied me to my fifteen year high school reunion. We were running late at the time because I had a late start courtesy of client problem at work. I slowed down and pointed out what features I could at 10 mph on a gravel road, and I recall there were some changes. The pump house and barn were gone and the house was repainted. This time, it appears the house was rebuilt and no original outbuildings remained. The small wooded area was about one-fourth the size. That is not an estimate from a childhood memory but a reasonably accurate guess based upon utility pole distances, which usually do not change. Buildings change but memories do not.

The extra hour spent cruising through much of Freeborn, Worth and Winnebago counties on a nostalgia trip started drawing to a close when my vehicle tires met the pavement on State Line Road west of Emmons. I remembered reading about Lime Creek church moving to the “Farming of Yesteryear” site near Kiester, Minnesota, but this was the first time I drove past and saw only the cemetery remaining. There is something disconcerting about a missing familiar landmark, but the church is in use and preserved for future generations.

There are striking changes in Emmons. Ovid’s observation in “Metamorphoses” written over 2,000 years ago is still timely:

Time itself also flows away in a continuous movement,
not differently from a river;
for neither a river nor a fleeting hour can stand still:
but water is pushed forward by water,
the preceding is both pressed by the coming one and presses the preceding one,
thus times flee and follow in the same movement again and again,
and they are always new;
for what was before is left behind,
and comes into being what hadn’t been,
and all moments are renewed.

Several buildings exemplifying 19th century architecture are now 21st century vacant lots. The school building sits empty. The “Eagle’s Nest” elevated press box (and a great place to hang out and drink a few brewskis) in State Line Park is long gone. No more barber shop, liquor store, and no grocery stores. The Ford garage is vacant. Even the water tower looks shorter, though I know it is the same water tower that has graced the cityscape since before I was born; maybe the growth spurt I had in college changed my perception. The population slowly declined since it peaked with the 1980 United States Census. Some of the decline resulted from the closing of the meat-packing plant in Albert Lea during the 1980’s and Cummins Filtration in Lake Mills starting outsourcing jobs to Mexico in 2009 and finally shutting down the plant at the end of 2014.

Not all the changes are for the worse. A row of houses occupies the old sale barn’s lot. The grain elevator replacement is some grain storage bins, which are easily 100 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter. There are new or remodeled houses scattered throughout the town. Considering the economic downturn severity in the heartland, Emmons is faring well compared to other localities. The liquor store became a library on the upper level with a well-organized, finely curated museum containing a surprising amount of wonderful memorabilia and exhibits occupying the lower level. Another major positive project is the State Line Lake restoration. I was pleasantly surprised to see a lake with clear water, no pond scum, and no algae smell. Many people put forth a lot of effort, the results are remarkable, and everyone involved deserve praise for a job well done. A recently added concrete boat launch in State Line Park and some landscaping work where the old trap club used to be in the 1950s and 1960s are wonderful enhancements. The vibe around town is not one of decline and despair, but a feeling of hope and progress. There is room and opportunity for growth and the vacant lots may once again have buildings on them. I am confident Emmons will be around to celebrate its quasquicentennial in 2024 and its sesquicentennial in 2049. A town is merely a geopolitical collection of building with some level of self-governance. A hometown is part of a person’s heart and soul. As long as people consider Emmons a hometown rather than just a town, it will survive.

One change seems to have the most impact on Emmons even though it is not the most visible. The public school district merged with the Glenville, Minnesota school district in 1991, with the Emmons K-12 school becoming a middle school, which was then shuttered in 2003 because of declining enrollment and increasing costs. Nearly a quarter century later, voices dripping in sarcasm and disgust mention the consolidation. Discussing the school closing raises blood pressure and vocal volume. The school mascot and fight song changed. A small town’s identity is usually tied closely to its school, and to a lesser degree, its post office. Closing a school triggers a deep sense of loss. The school is what draws a community together, from the time parents enroll their children, through the sporting events, dances, concerts, plays, and culminating with commencement. Some of the new graduates move away to college or a job elsewhere. Many others stay in the town, get married, start a family, and begin the cycle anew. All involved are part of a very select group, a special community: a graduating class of that town.

In my case, that community is the Emmons High School Class of 1975. My classmates and I have belonged, and will belong, to many communities during our lifetimes, but our high school graduating class is the most special because it is our first community, where we learned to cooperate and trust, where we grew up together, and where we became a part of something bigger than ourselves. We even managed to have some fun along the way at Mr. Salisbury’s expense…not that any of us know anything about that!

After forty years, our community is still intact. We are all still alive. We have suffered losses, celebrated triumphs, gained wrinkles and scars, and maybe lost some spring in our step or a few extra golf balls in the water hazard, but we have changed the world for the better. We changed the world by producing food, rescuing people in dangerous situations, improving our community through involvement and advocacy, being parents, mentoring future business leaders, helping those battling illnesses, providing comfort, leading a business by example, continuing education, or inspiring others by demonstrating grace, courage and a positive attitude when others would quit. No matter how significant or insignificant one thinks her or his contribution is, that contribution is part of our community. Those contributions when combined form the basis for meaningful change. Be proud of your part in the community and of your contributions. We may have miles and obligations separating us, but we are always together because of our unique bond. I know I’m very proud to be a lifetime member of this elite group.

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