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Choosing to live in rural America


Fri, Feb 7th, 2003
Posted in Features

A December article in the New York Times was titled "Pastoral Poverty; The Seeds of Despair." The article compared the current "rural collapse" to the inner city collapse of a few decades ago, and focused on poor rural counties all over the United States. The writer coined the phrase "rural ghetto" and featured alarming anecdotes, like the Nebraska county where high school seniors believe their choices are to either leave the area after graduation, or stay and work in a homemade methanthetamine lab.

Fillmore County could not be considered "wealthy", ranking significantly below the state average in per household and per capita income. But one does not find the same "seeds of despair" as outlined in the New York Times article. Fillmore County seems unique in a number of ways, including in the fact that, at least anecdotally, many of the people born and raised here stay, or return later in life.

Edie (Anderson) Mueller always knew she wanted to be a teacher, so when she graduated from Rushford High School in 1985, she headed to Mankato State University for a degree in elementary education. This degree was followed by a masters degree from Winona State two years later.

"I was willing to go wherever my job took me, within Minnesota," she said. But the fact that her job in Rochester allows her to live and raise children in her hometown makes her feel like one of the lucky ones.

"I have friends in the Twin Cities who, if they could find a job close to Rushford, theyíd move back," she said.

Living in Rushford and working in Rochester is "the best of both worlds," according to Mueller. Ironically, the very thing some of her coworkers believe they would hate about a small town is the thing she likes best: the fact that "everybody knows everything about you."

"I like knowing the familiesí of my childrenís friends," she explained.

Mueller and her husband, Charlie, have three children. Now that the two oldest have entered school, Mueller often experiences a comforting sense of deja vu. Her children will probably have some of the same teachers that she did, and her high school niece has a locker right next to the one Mueller had way back when.

For Tony Heiden, Rushford-Peterson class of 1992, there was never any question that he wanted to eventually settle in his home town. He says it was only a matter of "when". Heiden earned a four-year degree at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, worked in Owatonna for a year, and then came "home" for a job at the Farmersí Elevator. Today he runs his own Pioneer Seed business.

Heidenís number one reason for wanting to move back to his home town was to be near family and friends. He also really enjoys the sense of community, though he admits that a person living in a small town has to be prepared to lose some anonymity. He also acknowledges that young people often make a financial sacrifice to come back to their hometowns; many could probably earn more money living elsewhere.

"But the benefits (of living in his hometown) far outweigh any disadvantages," he concluded. Trying to understand what would bring more young people back to their rural hometowns is on the mind of Joe OíConnor of Lanesboro. OíConnor has served on the city council and chamber of commerce, where others ponder similar questions.

OíConnor believes that an invitation to "move back" from a parent, grandparent, or someone else they respect would influence young people to consider the rural, small town life. He also thinks itís important for parents, grandparents, and others to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of small town lifeĖsomething we donít often think to discuss.

After graduating from Preston High School in 1963, OíConnor left the area to serve in the military. Twenty six years later, after homes in many states and several countries, he retired as a colonel and moved back to Fillmore County in 1992. He said heíd always had thoughts of coming back, and the ten years previous to his return reinforced that idea.

"As you get a little further along the path of life, youíre more in touch with your values and priorities," he said.

For him, those priorities are to sustain ties with his family, to "sink some roots" after a somewhat nomadic life, and to enjoy that elusive "quality of life" found in small towns. He can think of no disadvantages to small town living.

"With the library system, Internet, restaurants, local theater and art gallery, I donít feel like Iím lacking anything from a cultural standpoint," he said.

Unlike the others interviewed for this article, Brad Hoiness, Rushford class of 1990, is a little surprised to be living back in his home town.

"I didnít think this was where Iíd end up," he said. But heís happy to be here now with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

Hoiness earned a bachelorís degree in Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, and then worked in human resources at Lucas (now TRW) in Winona, hiring for the companyís six facilities. In 1997, he had a unique opportunity to buy into his fatherís business, the IGA store in Rushford.

While he concedes that he sometimes wishes he lived closer to things like professional sporting events, heís quick to say he dislikes heavy traffic and the parking difficulties that go along with life in a larger city.

How would he define small town "quality of life"?

"Itís not only doing business with people you know, but also living around people you care about," he said.

He also points out that small towns are "child friendly."

"When we were growing up and had school events, no matter what time of day... my parents were there," he said. Though his father was managing the IGA store, he was easily able to slip away for school events when necessary. These days, Hoiness makes it a priority to allow IGA employees the same flexible scheduling when it comes to attending school functions.

Joe Hoffman of Southeastern Minnesota Development Corporation (SEMDC) noted that, while other rural areas have experienced a definite decline in population, Fillmore County has remained stable. But rather than waxing poetic about "quality of life," he points out the more practical reasons for Fillmore countyís stable population.

"Certainly thereís a quality of life that is highly valued," said Hoffman, who lives in Lewiston. "But more to the point, it is our proximity to larger service areas (Winona, La Crosse, Rochester, Decorah) that make it possible for people to live here."

But Hoffman adds that the reverse is also true: the stable population makes Fillmore County attractive to businesses. "They know they can locate here and have a steady labor supply," he said. He knows of people who live in a larger city and commute to Fillmore County for work.

Fillmore County has another unique advantage. Hoffman says that most rural areas experience a large "out migration" of students immediately after high school graduation. But our proximity to a number of colleges makes it possible for students to "still live at home and get a college education, if they choose," according to Hoffman.

Rapid technology advances have contributed to our shrinking globe, yet being more connected to the world at large has led to a general sense of rootlessness. Small town life may be one way to combat that sense of isolation. Fillmore County residents live a life that connects them to the past, while allowing some control over shaping the life they live in the future.

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