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Portrait 2000: Harmony

Sun, Jul 16th, 2000
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A small town with big ideas
By Al MathisonMonday, July 17, 2000

Editors note: This is the third in a series of articles in which the Journal profiles area towns.

Merlin Hoiness has seen a lot of changes in the past eighty-plus years that he has spent in his hometown of Harmony, Minnesota. He remembers that during the 1920s and 30s, the town boasted five implement and four automobile dealerships; six grocery stores and three banks. There were pool halls, a bowling alley, a movie theater and even an inside miniature golf course. Not bad for a town with a population of around eleven hundred.

"The stores would be open every Wednesday and Saturday night and the streets would be full with people," Merlin said recently, "Many of them were farm families and their hired men who would come in after the days work to shop."

LOOKING SOUTH ON MAIN AVENUE IN HARMONY, in the early 1900's. Over the past fifteen years, Harmony has become known as a tourist destination and attracts tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world. Photo courtesy of Fillmore County Historical Center

Most farmers of that era milked cows and were able to make a living on eighty or so acres but the demographics of agriculture were soon to change. As farms increased in size and the number of farmers began to decline, main street businesses across rural America were among the first to feel the crunch.

"We had nine empty buildings on Main Street before the Amish arrived," Merlin said. "They filled a void on a lot of those small farms and the resulting tourism has really brought this town back to life."

The Amish started moving into the Harmony and Canton areas from Ohio, with their horses and buggies and 19th century ways, in the spring of 1974. It wasnt until 1986, though, that local businessman, Vernon Michel, started a venture that offered tours of the Amish farms. Michel moved into one of those vacant buildings on Main, the old shoe store and has been doing a brisk business there ever since.

"The Amish attitude towards tourism has taken a complete about face," Michel said. "We could now stop at twenty different Amish farms on each tour if we had the time."

Michel said that with the recent completion of the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, which connects Harmony with the Root River Valley Trail, tourist interest in Harmony has grown bigger than ever.

"Weve just scratched the surface on the potential of tourism in this area," Michel said. "Attractions draw other attractions and they in turn draw the people."

A few years ago Slim and Maurene Maroushek of Decorah, Iowa, were looking for a place to open a woodcarving shop and museum. "We visited several towns in the general area, and Harmony appealed to us because of its unique blend of old and new," Maurene said. "The old ways of our Amish neighbors and the energy of the English lifestyle make for an interesting contrast."

Harmony real estate agent Roxanne Johnson agreed. "I had one customer say that Harmony reminded him of Mayberry with its wonderful small town charm."

Johnson credited the Harmony Area Promotional Association, the Economic Development Authority and other local organizations for their encouragement of new businesses in town. "We also have a very progressive city council," she said, "Harmony has a strong blend of year-round and seasonal businesses."

Roxanne and her husband, Bill Johnson, purchased the JEM, the countys only movie theater, in 1999, and have been doing extensive renovations on the building. "We have people come from a 25-30 mile radius for the new movies, the cheap tickets and of course, the popcorn," Roxanne said.


Incubating new businesses

Mark Thein of Winona, represents the Southeast Minnesota Development Corporation, an organization devoted to the areas economic development. Thein spends part of each week in Harmony and he likes what he sees there and what the future holds for the town.

"Harmony has been unique in their progressive attitude in helping new businesses get started," he said.

A thirty acre industrial park has been developed on the north side of town and the city is actively courting potential businesses. Two small businesses are currently operating in an "incubator" building, a 9,600 square foot facility, that the city has made available for start-up businesses.

"The goal is to help these businesses expand to the point where they can relocate to the industrial park," Thein said.

Thein said that Harmony has long been an area leader in tourism and that this past year the city allocated $20,000 dol-lars for its promotion. "Har-mony knows that by diversify-ing their economy they will continue to prosper, " he said.

Steve Cremer, president of Harmony Enterprises, pointed out that an example of Harmonys foresight was evident forty years ago when a group of individuals started the Harmony Development Corporation.

"This group decided that Harmony could not depend on the agricultural economy alone for growth of the city," Cremer said. "By combining financial and intellectual resources Harmony Enterprises, Inc. was started, a business which has employed 1,200 people in the last forty years."

The company, which, manufactures balers and compactors for the recycling industry, as well as components for the camping trade, currently employs 50 workers, but could use ten more, according to Cremer.

Chris Skaalen grew up in Harmony and now is president of the towns First Southeast Bank. "Harmony is blessed with a population that for the most part is very supportive of what has occurred (with the tourism development)," he said. "I enjoy being part of a community that is always thinking to the future rather than complaining about its current status."

"Things are pretty harmonious here," Mayor Dave Runkel agreed and then laughed. "With a town named Harmony we had better get along."

Runkel pointed out that Main Street was no longer the boarded up vacant street it once was. "In fact, you cant find an empty place," he said. "Harmony has a year-round vitality, that a lot of tourist towns just dont have."

Far from the maddening crowd

While some residents like Steve Cremer and Chris Skaalen have chosen their hometown as a place to raise their families and pursue their careers; others, such as Paul and Robbie Brokken, have moved in from outside the area. Paul has roots in Harmony dating back to one of the towns earliest settlers, Tallock Brokken, and Robbie is from New York City. Both are artists, (Pauls a painter, and Robbie, a sculptor) and were living in Sag Harbor, an artist community on Long Islands eastern tip, when they met in 1988.

"Paul used to talk about visiting here in the summers when hed stay with his relatives," Robbie said. "He had so many warm memories of Harmony and I kept saying, it sounds like a place I could fall in love with."

Becoming disillusioned with New Yorks elitist attitude and manic lifestyle, the couple moved to Minneapolis. By 1990, they decided to see what it was like living in an even smaller town.

"Harmony seemed like the perfect place to regroup and raise our family," Robbie said.

The Brokkens now live with their two children and their three Arabian horses on the edge of Harmony, on a small acreage they call Polarbear Farm. Paul shows his paintings around the country and Robbie has her work placed in various Fillmore County galleries. They still get away occasionally for a dose of big city culture.

"This is a beautiful affordable envir

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