"Where Fillmore County News Comes First"
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In praise of small places.


Fri, Mar 16th, 2001
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First time author Tony Andersen is a true patriot of Minnesota. Born and raised in St. Paul, one gets the impression after reading his recently released book Small Town Minnesota A to Z, (Afton Historical Society Press; 120 pages, $24.95) that he would rather go exploring the back roads of his home state than spend a month, say, in Europe or sailing the Caribbean. And indeed, Andersen has traveled a great deal -- in Minnesota.

Starting in Argyle, (pop. 636) in the sugar beet and sunflower country of northwestern Minnesota, Andersen randomly selected towns of under 1,000 population to visit and photograph across the state, one for each letter of the alphabet. He ended up down here in the driftless zone, at Yucatan (pop. whatever?) in Houston County and then finally finished his journey just north of Rochester in Zumbro Falls (pop. 237).

The germ for the idea of this book started over twenty years ago, Andersen writes, when as a boy he was crowded into the cramped backseat of his family's car. He fancied himself a photographer and dreamed of taking pictures of the places that flashed by just outside the car window.

Andersen initially set out in 1998 with the intention of photographing the inanimate-- the buildings and scenery of small town Minnesota. He felt con-spicuous and awkward at first, looking every bit the part of the obvious stranger. And what was he doing with all that camera equipment and that stepladder? The local folk wanted to know and they weren't at all shy about asking. Andersen was heartened by the friendly curiosity of the people who approached him and began to rethink the focus of his entire project.

What Andersen discovers is that the worn-out clich of "Minnesota Nice" is alive and well and flourishing throughout the state. "Without exception I was made to feel welcome in every town I visited," Andersen writes, "People I had just met took me into their homes . . . they opened old worn photo albums and spoke candidly of family stories and loaned me collections of written history I never would have found elsewhere."

Wherever he goes, Andersen finds simple and quiet adventures in the ordinary occurrences of everyday small-town life. He shakes dice for coffee in Miltona (pop. 181); he attends a homecoming football game in Gonvick (pop. 302); he spends an afternoon with an elderly man in Odessa (pop. 194) who is a wheelwright - a builder and restorer of wooden wagon wheels; and in Yucatan he hears the story from Toby and Suzanne Crossman of the day Cody the famous buffalo, walked into the Yucatan Supper Club.

There's a quiet power in Andersen's photographs, a sadness even. The towns, for the most part are all past their prime; they are losing their young people and their businesses; some are becoming bedroom communities for larger cities. It's the same story all over the state.

In one small unnamed town, Andersen meets a retired farmer who tells him about the days when the train used to make daily stops but the farmer said he never had a reason to board one and go anywhere. "Everything you needed was right here," the farmer says.

Andersen says he wishes he could have experienced small-town life as it was back then. "In a certain way, perhaps I did," he writes.

And with this heartfelt and eloquent book, Andersen has ensured that we, too, can share in the experience.

- Al Mathison

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