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Whalan: A small town with nationally recognized charm

Fri, Jan 22nd, 2010
Posted in Progress Edition

Just a hop, skip and a jump from Lanesboro down Highway 16 east is Whalan, a close-knit Norwegian community. Because of its close proximity to Lanesboro, Whalan also enjoys a thriving tourist trade. With a population that hovers around 65, the town's weekend homeowner population has increased some 30 percent in the past ten years. Come summer time, the tiny village packs in visitors from the Twin Cities, Iowa and even as far away as Chicago. Folks flock to Whalen not only because of its prime location smack dab on the Root River bike trail, but for its world famous pie shop and unique stand still parade, where the parade doesn't move, but the spectators do. "When you say you're from Whalan, people say...'Oh, that's the place with the pie shop,'" said 80-year old Char Johnson, one of the original developers of the stand still parade. Char has been active in bringing the parade and accompanying festival to Whalan for the past 15 years but has opted off the committee this year. "I'll still help with it, but I'm just not on the committee," she said.

With no accessible parade route in the quaint village, Whalan opted for the stationary parade, drawing nationwide attention from the likes of CBS's Dan Rather as well as several Twin Cities news affiliates. Dedicated fans from near and far gather in Whalen every year on the third weekend in May to enjoy this one-of-a-kind parade. 'We have so many good people that help with this event, we're really blessed," Char said. Weekenders, as Char calls them, come back year after year and roll up their sleeves to help during this unique town festival where authentic Norwegian fare is featured. "We usually have four or five rollers making lefse right on the spot so folks can see how it's made," Char said. Live music, International dancers, and the typical Midwestern parade entry round out the stand still parade.

Char's son, Larry, has been the town's mayor for the past 20 years. He, along with five council members, are focusing efforts on their biggest challenge: completing their own zoning ordinance. The council's goal, "We have to properly manage the changing uses of the lands surrounding our community," Larry said. Also on their list of to-dos for 2010 is to secure grants to fund the refurbishing of the town hall building, utilized by the Legion. "We're exploring grants to help fund the project," said Mayo Johnson. Without financial assistance, the city would have to come up with ways to pay for the remodeling."

Whalan, once considered a hot spot between Austin and LaCrosse because of a healthy economy created by a local bank, hotel, stock yards and several bars and taverns, now focuses on tourism, its biggest revenue source. "We used to have a much wider variety of businesses to pull taxes from in the old days," Larry said. While LGA cuts are foremost on the minds of many small communities, Larry said it's not as bad for Whalan. "It has affected us some, but because we deal with a much smaller budget than most communities, the impact has not been as dramatic," he said.

The town has changed tremendously in the 20 years Larry has resided as mayor, but the one thing that hasn't changed is the quality of life enjoyed by those living in this rural Minnesota community. "Small town living is great," said Larry. "It's like living in the country except with a few extra neighbors -- small town living the way is should be."

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