Hanley Falls: The Rituals of Community

One rule of thumb in southwestern Minnesota these days is that on a highway which parallels the railroad, where a grain elevator every six or seven miles marks a town invented by the railroads as a grain collection point, every other town is virtually extinct.  Sometimes you skip three or four towns before you find a Dairy Queen or a McDonald’s.  Or you can check your road atlas: a town at the junction of two red-line state highways—Granite Falls, Marshall, Pipestone, Worthington, Redwood Falls, Montevideo, Canby, Lake Benton, Windom—still stands a chance.  Where a red line intersects a grey county-road line, or where two grey lines meet—Arco, Amiret, Iona, Edgerton, St. Leo—you’re probably not going to get your DQ.

A town stranded alone on a single grey line—forget it.  Wilno, Hagen, Hazel Run, Wanda, Bechyn?  Nobody home these days.

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Hanley Falls sits just off of Minnesota 23, nine miles south of Granite Falls, seven miles north of Cottonwood, twenty miles north of Marshall.  Route 23 is an important Minnesota thoroughfare, perhaps the longest highway in the state, running diagonally from Duluth in the northeast to Beaver Creek in the southwest.  Each day I travel thirty miles of Minnesota 23 to and from work, from Granite Falls to Marshall, past Hanley Falls, Cottonwood and Green Valley.  This is out-state driving, a safe sane sixty miles per hour, thirty miles in thirty minutes.  Each day I meet on average 100 on-coming vehicles, about the number of grain cars on the BNSF freight train on the tracks beside me.  Very early in the morning, say six o’clock, I meet as few as 60; around five p.m., I may meet 150.  I think the all-time record is 225, when I was driving north just before a SSU basketball game, and most of Clara City was traveling south to Marshall to watch the three Koenen boys play college ball for the SSU Mustangs. 

That traffic concentrates at either end of the commute, with a slight thickening around Cottonwood, especially during the school year.  Not much at Green Valley, and not much around Hanley Falls, where 23 junctions County 18 at the Yellow Medicine River.  Maybe a commuter headed for work in Granite.  Maybe a truck pulling into the grain elevator.  Maybe somebody driving to Willmar to shop.  Usually nobody at all.  Not much traffic on highway 23 around Hanley Falls . . . and since it was rerouted in 1977, highway 23 does indeed pass “around Hanley Falls,” just as it passes around Cottonwood, Green Valley, and many other towns to which it once brought potential business.

Tim Kolhei titled his 1991 essay on Hanley Falls “From Dusty Trails to Rusty Rails,” and driving by at 7:15 on a mid-November morning, you’d have to agree.  To borrow a line from Dances with Wolves, “it ain’t much of a goin’ concern” . . . at least in the view from the by-pass.  But I know Hanley Falls, and I know it’s not just another ghost town; it’s a community which works hard at the hard work of being a community.  And succeeds.  Hanley seems to survive and even prevail where other southwest Minnesota villages of 300 people sink toward those hollow circles on a county map that identify ghost towns of population under 25: Yellow Medicine Village, Delft, Providence, Haydenville, Mehurin. 
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The population of Hanley Falls today—about 300—is not much below the population of Hanley Falls in better times.  But the village today is stripped pretty much to its core, a shadow of its former self.  The wreckage of lost grocery stores, hotels, newspapers, banks, restaurants, and a dozen other commercial enterprises—not to mention a closed school—litters Hanley’s history.  You can start the litany of loss with nearby settlements—Vineland, Yellow Medicine City, Silliards, Stavanger—which disappeared after the tracks of the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad were laid in 1884 and a town named Cable, renamed Cleveland, re-renamed Hanley was platted on the railroad line.  (The “Falls” was added in 1886 to avoid post office confusion with Hawley, Minnesota, fifteen miles east of Moorhead.)  The site was prime, located at a bend in the Yellow Medicine River, and the town design—a central square with broad, radiating avenues, like Washington, D. C.—was attractive.  O. V. Veldey moved the building which housed his general store and post office from Silliards into Hanley, thereby incorporating at least one of the tiny settlements into the railroad town.  The others simply evaporated.

To the evaporated villages you can add the lost Yellow Medicine Lutheran Church, once situated a mile east of the present Hanley Falls (a graveyard marks the site), constructed in 1879, struck by lightning and burned to the ground two decades later (the church bell, relocated to the tower of the new building in Hanley Falls, announced the American Lutheran Church radio vespers back in the 1970s).  You might also add some of the names in that pioneer cemetery no longer found in a Hanley Falls telephone directory: Kjellberg, Nesse, Mickelson, Evendson, Knudson, Sestland, Gilbertson, Johanson, Larson, Jacobson, Swensson, Tostenson, Holum, Haugen, Jorgenson, and Berg, one of the most prominent names in early Hanley Falls history.  You might add the Squire Hotel, the Scandia Hotel, and Central Hotel, with its restaurant, livery stable, and bus service to and from the depot—long gone, torn down, completely forgotten.  Add the general store on north Railroad Avenue bearing the name AABERG, later a restaurant operated by Marge Richards and by Keith and Mary Jane Harris before her, currently the Hispanic church.   Add the Hanley Falls Leader, established in 1893 by Granite Falls publisher James Putnam, and later the Hanley Falls Press, which folded in 1946.  And the Hanley Falls Bottling Works, established in the 1890s by L. C. Rosetter, which until 1965 sent cases of Hanley Falls birch beer, orcherade, cherry cider, cider nog, pear champagne and seltzer to towns along the railroad lines.  A cooperative creamery, opened in 1885, is gone.  (The Granite Falls Advocate-Tribune reported on June 6, 1916 that “the five creameries in Yellow Medicine County made a total of 908,263 pounds of butter during the past year.  This sold for the sum of $217,176.30, about 24¢ per pound.”)  Gone also are all three of the barber shops that were operating in 1938.  So is the Hanley basketball team that on December 12, 1941, played the Harlem Globe Trotters.  The Farmers State Bank opened in 1916, folded in 1931, reopened briefly in 1932, was bought out that same year and moved to Cottonwood, where it became Empire State Bank.  In town today you find branches of the United Southwest Bank and First Independent Bank. 

The Hanley Falls Mill opened in 1901, closed in 1936.  Add to your lost list Stölen Food Store, the grocery which closed in 2001.  Add four saloons, five grain elevators, a Methodist Church, a blacksmith, three doctors, a rug factory, a jeweler, a drug store.  Add the Hanley Falls Council Chambers, now closed (Council Chamber is a room added to the Legion).  A pencil sketch from 1884 preserved in the Machinery Museum shows six general stores, a post office, a meat market, a drug store, flour and saw mills, and a billiards parlor-saloon.  Carl and Amy Narvestad in their History of Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota speak of thirty businesses in Hanley in 1904.     

Hanley lost bids to become the county seat and to build a Schmidt Brewery, and the Great Depression took its toll on the town, but those are not the real stories.  Nor is the story railroads: Hanley Falls was actually the junction of two rail lines, and important enough that in 1901 it successfully lobbied for the first Y-junction in the country to shuffle cars one line to the other.  Tales of daily passenger rail service are told today by living—and not particularly old—residents.  “We’d take the train to the cities for a weekend.  It left town at 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning.  Coming back, we got to Hanley around 4:00 in the morning.  I’d be asleep, but the conductor knew where everyone was going, and he’d wake me up.  That was 1951.”
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Nor is the story the all-too-familiar tale of state and federal governments setting increasingly stringent standards which small towns have trouble meeting financially (in this case water standards for a town known for its fine water, which will require half a million dollars to finance a new well and treatment facilities . . . including a reported $80,000 in architect fees and $60,000 for engineering consultants).

Nor is the story population inside the town of Hanley Falls, which remains fairly constant over the years: 1900: 278 people; 1910: 275; 1920: 376; 1930: 288; 1940: 336; 1950: 320; 1960: 334; 1970: 254; 1980: 265; 1990: 246; 2000: 323. 

The story of Hanley Falls, suggested in the bank’s move to Cottonwood and the relocation of first the newspaper and then the school in Granite Falls, is first the story of highways—the good luck of being situated where two red lines cross, and the bad luck of being an every other town along the highway; and second, the story of that incessant, irresistible combining of farms into operations of 640, 1280, 2000 acres, which steadily erodes the rural population around a town, population which is so vital to its survival.  It was farm kids, after all, who comprised the majority of those seventy-nine boys the town of Hanley Falls, population 300, sent to fight in World War I.  So the rural population base diminishes; the highway offers easy access to other towns up and down the line, towns with Dairy Queens and Superwalmarts.  One by one by one, the economic loci of community—the locally owned and operated businesses, schools, cafes, the places with a neighbor’s name on the sign, the shops where, for better or worse, you know the owner and the clerk from schooldays and church functions—are stripped away.  In Hanley Falls today only a handful remain: the Farmers Elevator (founded in 1912), whose tracks and capacity have actually expanded; Wayne Oftedahl’s Standard station on Second Street and County 43; the relocated Yellow Medicine Lutheran Church; American Legion Post 127; and the city-owned Liquor Store.  Even the grocery store and restaurant are gone. 

(“When that restaurant closed,” sighs Brad Stensrud. . . .  “But then again, I’m a big eater.”) 

But this story is not what has been lost in the collapse of Hanley Falls from a village with thirty businesses to one with half a dozen, but a story of the community which remains, of the people who work so hard, and the little and not-so-little things they do to sustain that community. 

It is the story of a town with a history of communal action.  The Narvestads describe the World War I years as a time of “cooperative fever” in Hanley Falls.  In the June 1932 primary, the Farmer-Labor party out-polled the Republican and Democratic parties 52 votes to 46 and 11 respectively.  At one point in the Depression, the town’s Legion and Businessman’s Club ran a “wood lot” on which those desiring work were paid $1.50 a cord.  The Farm Holiday Association had many supporters in Hanley Falls.  These days it’s Easter breakfasts at the church, and the Hanley Falls softball field, built in 1987 on what used to be a trailer park, with picnic tables purchased by the Firemen’s Relief Fund and a fence brought over from the Minneota golf course.  It’s monthly meetings of small-potatoes boards of directors and community action committees.  It’s burger feeds and smelt frys and wild game feeds, Pioneer Power and its annual mid-August Threshing Show on the Machinery Museum grounds, breakfasts at the Legion, confirmation and graduation celebrations, Sunday afternoon Vikings games at the home of the former mayor of Hanley Falls, food and beer shared by friends and neighbors.  It’s people seeing both the positive and negative sides of neighbors, and helping people they may not especially agree with or even like through some good times and some bad times. The story of Hanley Falls is the kind of tale you can’t invent, and the kind of community you can’t buy.

Breakfast at the Legion, for example—who could imagine such a story?  The locals, set psychologically adrift when the town’s only cafe closes, figure they’ll stock the Legion with their own coffee machine, microwave, and toaster, buy their own bread and butter and jam, and serve themselves the proper breakfast necessary to developing the proper mindset for a proper day’s work.  Coffee goes on at 6:00 a.m., when the men show up.  At 8:00 the women take over.  Things settle down by 10:00.  Coffee Club members charge themselves a buck for their own set up and clean up; proceeds repaint Legion Hall or pile up toward things like a $500 contribution to the electronic scoreboard at the softball complex.  Potential problems get talked out over a cup of coffee: whatever is promising, suspicious, threatening, dangerous.  “We get everything taken care of before it has a chance to happen,” says farmer Gary Anderson.  News is passed, history preserved.  Keep your ears open and listen.

“We’re goin’ out to fix the Snapper.  I was mowing ditch yesterday, and she rolled right over on top of me.  I’m a little stiff, but the mower don’t run so good.”

“So does he hunt them dogs?”

“He quit milking?”  “Oh, long time ago.” 

“The major crop was scrap iron, and the major industry was jury duty, for cryin’ out loud.” 

“She always wore a wig when she was younger.  One time we were dancing, and she tripped, and that wig went flying across the floor, and the first thing she did was to dive on the floor, grab for that wig.”

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Then there is the Smelt Fry each May, an unlikely event begun in 1958, when somebody was looking for a fire department fund-raiser and somebody else thought out loud, “How about smelt?”  That first year, the feed raised $95.  Today the Smelt Fry is a combination fund-raiser and thank you to engineers on the freight trains which still run through Hanley.  At $7.50 a head, it raises $2500.  The morning of the feed, Hanley Falls is quiet as a church on Tuesday, but around noon volunteers pull the trucks out of the fire hall and park them beside the plaque marking Hanley’s famous Y railroad junction. In the empty hall volunteers set up long tables and thaw the fish: several days’ catch since the salmon reintroduced to Lake Superior around Duluth have decimated the smelt population on which they feed. 

Around noon a Reinhardt Foods truck delivers dark bread, coleslaw, chips, pickles, and beans.  At 3:00 volunteer firemen are battering fish and dropping them one at a time into the five big electric and two gas-fired deep-fat fryers.  The feed begins at three in the afternoon, and continues until nine.  The engineer of any train who stops (or even slows down) gets a free meal, although the free meals must cost the railroads plenty in diesel fuel as the locomotives gun their engines to get back on schedule. 

Of course it’s a big afternoon and evening for the Liquor Store too, and for residents and friends alike.  There is no dance band, but you’ve got drinks and smelt and—with the fishing opener not too far in the distance, the Twins playing good ball, a dry spring, and maybe a third of the crop in the ground—plenty to talk about.

“I was his age since we had decent pheasant hunting down there.”

“Carrie went to the U, but I don’t think she finished up there.”

“Any fish down there?”  “Cat and carp.”

“Met a fellow got both a brother and a sister over in Iraq.  Brother don’t say much, but the sister ain’t too happy.” 
“We’re getting our butts kicked over there.”

The Pioneer Power Threshing Show—second full weekend of every August—is bigger, but much the same deal.  The Show is organized by Pioneer Power on the grounds of the Yellow Medicine County Agricultural-Machinery Museum, located on the town’s central square.  These groups are a story in itself.  Pioneer Power dates to the U. S. Bicentennial in 1976, when Lowell Gustafson and Galen Redetzke thought that an old-fashioned steam-powered machine threshing old-fashioned bundles of grain would be a good way to bring the past into the present.  Then, when the consolidated Hanley Falls-Granite Falls school system began sending all students to Granite Falls in 1978, a small group engineered the sale of the Hanley Falls School—a WPA project built in 1939—to the county for $1.  A year later, county commissioners organized a museum board, and with the help of $16,000 from the State Historical Society matched by $16,000 from the county, the old high school became a farm machinery museum.  A Smithsonian exhibit on “The Tall Grass Prairie” marked the museum opening in 1980; another Smithsonian exhibit—“Barn Again!”—helped the museum celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2005.  On the auditorium floor where the Hanley Falls Cyclones once played basketball now sit a Red River Special Threshing Machine, a McCormick Deering Reaper, a 2-row sulky cultivator, Rural Electric’s first delivery truck, and a cart from the old train depot.  The old school library and principal’s office houses the museum gift shop, conference tables and a rather spiffy working model of a steam-powered threshing machine; classrooms upstairs and down exhibit quilts, farm kitchens, turn-of-the-century parlors, bedrooms, and shops. Visitors can operate a telephone switch-board, a shoe-stretcher, a hat-stretcher, and a bone-grinder that grinds real bones.   It’s a great museum, and as a museum it retains its teaching function (and with high school band concerts and school visits its ties to youth and 4-H and Luther League).  But the building itself is a school tradition preserved: the metal lockers of my own Herbert Hoover School, the twelve-foot ceilings and suspended globe lights of my mother’s Central School in Springfield, Pennsylvania, the four-inch gold letters, outlined in black, of every school in America built before World War II: JANITOR.    BOYS.    LADIES.    LIBRARY.   HEALTH SERVIC.  Just walking into the Museum is a trip back in time.

The museum grounds, at the corner of First Street and First Avenue, contain four outbuildings full of vintage automobiles, restored gas engines, and tractors dating to 1912.  Avery.  Case.  John Deere.  Farmall.  Hart-Parr.  Huber.  Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co.  Allis-Chalmers.  Minneapolis-Moline.  McCormick.   Wallis.  ’30 Ford Model A, ’48 Reo Fire Truck, ’55 GMP Pick-up, ’54 Plymouth, ’48 Chevy, ’32 Chevy, ’56 Ford Coupe, ’59 Edsel, 1925 International Pick-up.  At Threshing Show in August, Pioneer Power and the Machinery Museum take visitors back to Ma and Pa Kettle on the Farm with steam-powered tractors, belt-driven timber saws, a vintage car show, and men dressed anachronistically in thirties and forties work clothes.  Every couple of hours a train runs through town, whistles blowing long and loud.  “That’s for Chuck,” one of the old-timers tells me.  “Old Chuck, one morning, was a little under the weather, and when a train woke him up, he got on the phone to Willmar, chewed every ass he could talk to.  Now when they come through town, they blow extra hard and long, and he wishes to god he never said nothin’.  And that’s a true story.”

Keep your ears open, and Threshing Show (to locals, “Thrashing Show”) is like reading Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan.

“So much for that, now.” 

“I used the outhouse at noon, when flies were in the kitchen.” 

“How many of them do you think a guy would need, then?”

“It’s just a Case cutter.  It’s always been in shed, but the tires are fifty years old; they’d probably go flat right away.  It’s just crow bait.  There’s a lot of crow bait out there.” 

“Town boys don’t know nothin’.”

“You know, if you walk home, you’ll be so much stronger.  You can hit that softball so much farther.” 

“Whatever.  I’ll wait ten minutes.”

Threshing Show is one of the important rituals of community in Hanley Falls life—the things that brings outsiders (and their money) into the community.  They’re the equivalent of county fair, which as Linda Hasselstrom points out is both an opportunity and an obligation: “You walk slowly through the aisles, looking at every plate of green beans, every mayonnaise jar filled with marigolds, every calf, every child’s drawing, every potholder, no matter how crudely made.  You pick up the articles, if you can, and examine the stitching or the finish or the size.  You discuss who is showing the item and how their children are.  You pause along the way to visit with others who are doing the same thing.  Everyone feels an obligation to look at everything.  It’s a ritual, a way of appreciating other people in the community.” 

That’s Threshing Show: you buy the burgers and ice cream because this is a fund-raiser.  You praise the old tractors you’ve seen a dozen times before, and study again the operations of the hand-cranked corn sheller and the tractor-powered buzz saw.  You sit in the stands and applaud each machine in the Parade of Power.  And you talk about the weather, who’s with whom, who isn’t here this year that was here last year, and what are your plans for October after the harvesting is done, because this is one way community is celebrated and sustained.   

The Museum and Pioneer Power are on-going operations, like the Grain Elevator and the Legion and the City Council, with big annual meetings (also a fund-raiser, with dinner and a guest speaker) and small monthly board meetings, and work days to clean and repair and prepare for exhibits and events.  In terms of sustaining community, it is those regular meetings, more than the Threshing Show itself, that hold the town together.  Little happenings, one learns late in life, mean more than big events.

So it is that the little events in Hanley life that most preserve community.  Like Wild Game Feed at the Bressons.

Del Bresson, once the town policeman, once its mayor, many years a city council member, teaches “collision technology” at Minnesota West—Granite Falls Campus.  He fishes and hunts (alone, with his son Brian, with friends), and has made himself a portable ice fishing house which sleeps four.  Del was once a cabinet-maker, and he himself (with friends) built the porch on the home he himself had once previously extended, and erected both the garage and the pole building which houses his street rods and the Model T Ford he restored for his father-in-law, Charlie Michell.  At the moment, Del is busy converting two inside door panels from a salvaged Toyota truck into door panels for a new street rod he’s working on.

Del is also a very good cook, and in the winter, when things look their worst and the ice fishing is just about done, he throws a wild game feed for friends, neighbors, and members of the Car Club.  He himself prepares several species of fish in several different recipes, and maybe duck, goose, deer, even wild turkey.  In the shop, Del and Barb set up six or eight folding tables and chairs borrowed from the Fire Department—it looks like the church basement at Strawberry Festival time.  Along the front door they set another two tables, which, as friends arrive with their contributions, fill with six, eight, a dozen crock pots and dishes full of crushed duck, pheasant stroganoff, beer batter northern, deep fried walleye, venison stew, marinated goose kebops, pheasant fingers, Del’s mushroom goose, stir-fry pheasant, sauerkraut duck, goose gizzards in a crock pot, sea bass deep-fried in shore lunch batter, smoked pheasant, walleye chowder, walnut walleye, Amundsen’s barbeque duck, breast of goose Cajun style, butterfly cut venison sandwiches, potato chip deep-fried walleye, fish pinwheels, and pickled northern.  Around the perimeter of the room sit a welder, the Model T, Del’s traffic signal, a lathe, circular saw, drill press, air compressor, tool chest, l. p. furnace, Dr. Pepper cooler, bench, shelves, TV set, refrigerator.  On the walls, son Brian’s #71 football jersey, Del’s “Bresson’s Body Shop Hanley Falls” jacket, and a wealth of Dale Jarrett #88 NASCAR racing memorabilia.
Beer, wine, and for the kids soft drinks.  Del, Barb, Brian, John and Jenny.  Maleceks from Montevideo, Torkes from across the street. Tom and Terry Locher.  Andersons, and Chuck and Karen Fischer from Wood Lake.  Rita and Earl Christianson from Granite Falls.  Barb’s mom.  Wayne Oftedahl and his daughter, a stock car driver who still races the car she once drove to prom, climbing out of the driver’s window to be escorted down the reception line. Car Club members and City Councilmen and Liquor Store patrons drop by.  They eat some food, drink a few beers, laugh a little, observe, suspect, hint, tell the world.  

“Well, I’d do it, but I’m not gonna go out and run for it, for gosh’s sake.” 

“The dogs I all knew by their first name, and the cows too.”

“I didn’t think much of his dad when he was president.”

“Seen you had a deer out your place.” 

“Couple of ’em.  They got nicked by the cars and I hauled ’em off.  They get caught in the hay bine.”

“She’s married to a Blue.  They’re probably getting along pretty good.”

“Sharkey had a seventeen-foot well out there, but when the county put in that new ditch, he had to go down another fifteen feet.  The ditch was twenty-five foot deep.”

“Married a Harkey girl out of Wood Lake, back in ’92.  Or was it ’91?”

“He’d signed himself up for delivering 6,800 bushels of corn.  Only signature on any of the receipts was his.  6,800 bushels turned out to be just about the elevator’s shortage.”
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“Once you feel important, you never get over it.  I was raised that way.”

It may not be much, and it’s the kind of small-town trivia Sinclair Lewis satirized in Main Street, but when you think things over, it’s everything you need.  The more you hang out and the more you listen, the more you realize how far from home most of America has drifted these days.  The more you realize that what America—especially America’s youth—really needs is about 300,000 towns just like Hanley Falls.  You want homeland security?  Forget the bombs abroad and the bugs at home—Hanley’s safe.  I was not three minutes with my camera in Hanley before a guy in a town truck drove up to check me out.  Subsidize a café, reclaim some of that production capacity you exported to Mexico and Asia, and you’d find all kinds of people to live and work in a town with safe streets and a 2000 median housing value of $29,600. 

Next thing you know, you might even have a store.  Or a school.  Or a Dairy Queen.