Minnesota’s smallest towns wrapped up in a book

Published 7:27 am Sunday, February 19, 2012

BEMIDJI — “Like Living in a Norman Rockwell Painting” is how author Jill Johnson describes the Swedish village of Lengby, “just west of Bagley on Highway 2” and “set on the shores of pristine Spring Lake.”

The Lengby Improvement Club, which was organized in 1915, is the oldest active community organization in Minnesota and the 20 members maintain the flower gardens, oversee the Spring Lake Recreation Park and cook for as many as 400 people who come for the annual Memorial Day picnic.

When visiting Lengby, be sure to look for the handprints of the Sunday school children on the garbage cans. They dipped their hands in paint and decorated the cans to show their efforts in last year’s May clean-up.

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Lengby is one of the 100 towns with a population of around 100 that are featured in a new book, “Little Minnesota — A nostalgic look at Minnesota’s Smallest Towns” by author Jill Johnson and photographer Deane Johnson.

These human interest stories are a peek at the real spirit that continues to live on in small towns across this state and nation. Towns that lovingly preserve their cultural heritage: Nordic, German, Czech, Polish, Russian, Finnish and Italian. Each chapter has a two-page spread on the town with essays and pictures to illustrate its unique character.

Iit began with a comment from Jill Johnson’s father, who went to a 50-year class reunion of the first class he taught in Strandquist. Upon his return, Jim Musberger mentioned to his daughter that in a few years many of these small towns will be gone and everything that he remembered will have vanished.

“I thought about that,” said Johnson, “about how all these little towns that we grew up in will be gone. So we (Jill and Deane) went off on a quest to find the 100 smallest towns that were incorporated, that had a mayor and a town council and a population of under 100 people.”

Jill thought that she would just go to these towns and interview the mayors and town historians, Deane would take some pictures and then be on their merry way. But the quest became much more involved than that because each town is a microcosm of Minnesota history. Jill wrote the book with the understanding that Native Americans were the original land owners and these are the stories of early settlements in Minnesota; how they started, what kept them going and what remains today.

When the 2010 census came out, it turned out that of the 100 towns the Johnson team visited, some grew to more than 100 in population, some increased in population while others decreased. Nine of them remained the same and one town dissolved, which left Funkley as the town with the lowest population of 5. The mayor owns the bar in Funkley and they have a council so they are officially a city in Minnesota and the home of the legendary Hiney Wine, “the only wine in the country sold in a flip-top aluminum can.” Yes, Hagar, the wooden bartender, still presides over the bar counter.

The book is a treasure trove of information for history buffs and those who just like to sit and read about how towns were started and by whom. Heidelberg, which is located in the southeastern part of the State, was founded in the late 1850’s by German immigrants Frederick Ihrig and Frank Heil, who smuggled his two younger brothers into the states by hiding them in wine barrels. The Catholic Church of St. Scholastica was built by hardworking Czech, German and Polish families who gave everything they had to build their house of worship.

For a town nearer to Bemidji, look up Leonard, a town of 41 people, the home of Reichert’s Saddlery and Feed Store and the famous Leonard Cafi, which serves good home-cooked meals for reasonable prices. The town is intersected by five main roads and Strand’s Store, started in 1915, is still the place where people pick up their mail, buy raffle tickets for the Ladies Aid quilt and order lefse and lutefisk for the holidays. Did you know that in 1948, the town of Viking, with a population of 104, was named “Bachelor Capital of Minnesota” because men outnumbered women 100 to 1?

The majority of the photos are by Deane, who said doing the shoots and visiting the cities was like a treasure hunt. Deane is not an author by trade; he’s a retired physician turned musician, writer, arts advocate and now a published photographer.

Jill is a physical therapist who works at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Park Rapids and the former owner of Beagle Books. This is her (their) first book and it is published by Adventure Publications out of Cambridge, which prints many Minnesota regional books, including “Trees of Minnesota” and “Birds of Minnesota.”

“We still really like each other,” said Jill. “Deane was a good road companion and had a good eye for photos so it worked out well.