Listen: A Visit to Atwater (stereo master)

MPR Journal presents the documentary “A Visit to Atwater.” The farm crisis of the early 1980s has taken a toll on small towns. MPR reporters Dan Olson and Stephen Smith spent some time in the West Central Minnesota farm town of Atwater to see how one small community is faring, and what the future may hold.


1988 Angel Award, Award of Excellence

1988 International Radio Festival of New York Gold Medal Award, Best News Documentary category

1988 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Excellence in Journalism - Radio In-Depth category

1987 Northwest Broadcast News Association Award, first place in Documentary category

1989 Ohio State Award, Acievement of Merit in Social Sciences & Public Affairs category

1987 Major Armstrong Award Certificate of Merit, honorable mention in News Documentary category


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SPEAKER: You guys are [INAUDIBLE].


SPEAKER: Go, go, go, go.

SPEAKER: (ON PA) Eric [? Grahn ?] is now batting. And there's a break for Atwater.


SPEAKER: Go, guys, go.


SPEAKER: Go, guys, go, go, go.

STEPHEN SMITH: A midsummer baseball tournament at the city park in Atwater, Minnesota. Kids from neighboring towns are here to compete in the sultry morning air, and a few dozen parents are perched in the bleachers behind home plate.

lynda Behm, a mother and beauty shop owner, is watching the Atwater team from a concession stand. Behm and another mom are selling hot dogs and soft drinks to raise money for youth athletics.

LYNDA BEHM: My husband works construction, bridge construction. And we used to farm, but we had to fold from that. And keeps us busy here.

STEPHEN SMITH: Standing by the ball field on a hot, gentle summer morning, it's not immediately apparent that a way of life is changing in rural America, both in town and on the farm. Chuck Stranberg is a farmer who also holds a second job to make ends meet. Stranberg is a teacher at the Willmar Area Vocational Technical Institute.

CHUCK STRANBERG: We're seeing more and more of our students at the Technical Institute in the ag area that are doing that. They're getting some off-farm work. Less of them have livestock. If they don't have livestock, they've got to have an off-farm job.

It basically works out that way. They're not all of the time fully employed during the winter months without doing that.

STEPHEN SMITH: Those who have stayed to take a stand in rural America cite the close friendships and the opportunities for their children in small towns like Atwater. Kay Bomstad is standing near the ball field, videotaping the game for the town team.

KAY BOMSTAD: It's a nice place to bring up our kids. I have often said that I might want to be somewhere else. But right now, with my kids in school, this is the place where I want to stay.

We have a lot of nice people in this town. And there's a number of them now that are really working hard to try to keep it together and keep new business growing and things like that. And time will just tell. Hopefully, we'll pull through it.

STEPHEN SMITH: Small towns in Minnesota are just emerging from the most difficult economic period since the Great Depression 50 years ago. The farm crisis of the 1980s gouged the fabric of rural America. And residents are now taking stock of what remains.


Atwater is in the middle of Minnesota, a little to the south. Willmar is a 13-mile trip west on Highway 12. Litchfield is about the same distance to the east.

The gently rolling farmland of surrounding Kandiyohi and Meeker Counties is dark and rich. If you're motoring along Highway 12, Atwater is scarcely more than a reduction in speed. You can't see Main Street or the city park from Highway 12. But you will see the Ford dealership, owned by Pat Walsh and his father. The Ford garage has been a fixture for decades in America's small towns.

PAT WALSH: Unfortunately, a lot of them have gone out. Matter of fact, our neighboring town, Lake Lillian, just lost theirs. And Belgrade has lost theirs.

And a lot of-- it was-- it's kind of neat. Every town had a hardware store and a lumber yard and a grocery store, and they had a Ford garage. And I grew up in Atwater. And my dad grew up in Atwater, and hope to stay here the rest of our lives and run the Ford garage.


STEPHEN SMITH: Run a finger west along Highway 12 on a road map and you'll touch a line of black dots about 5 or 10 miles apart-- Waverly, Howard Lake, Cokato, Dassel, Litchfield, Grove City, Atwater.


JOSIE HOVEY: A gentleman by the name of-- the last name of Atwater was a-- was instrumental in starting the railroad through Atwater.

STEPHEN SMITH: Josie Hovey is a lifelong Atwater resident, retired rural schoolteacher, mother of two grown children, and student of Atwater history. In the mid-20th century, Atwater was a booming, optimistic place to live.

JOSIE HOVEY: I remember on a Saturday night, we would have to come downtown and park our car perhaps at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, so we could find a parking place and sit in our cars and visit with the people. That was our time to visit with our neighbors.


STEPHEN SMITH: The rail line runs like a wood-and-steel spine through the center of Atwater, the spine on which this and so many other rural Minnesota towns were built. The last of the five original grain elevators reaches skyward on the south side of the tracks. Sloping gently down to the north is a shady park, then Main Street three blocks long. For every Main Street business still open, one or two others are vacant.



Towns like Atwater, big enough for a grocery store but too small for a shopping mall, have been slowly evaporating from the map over the last 20 years. Townsfolk now drive to Willmar and Litchfield for groceries and overalls and hardware. Main Street is for quick convenience trips. Dennis Baker is publisher of the Atwater Herald newspaper.

DENNIS BAKER: The Holm brothers, with the IH dealership, that-- they lost that dealership. And that, of course, kept people from coming to Atwater to buy machinery parts. New machinery-- it made a lot of difference because they did come from miles around. We lost a bakery and a little cafe. And there were just some other little businesses that just folded or disbanded for whatever reasons and left some empty storefronts.


STEPHEN SMITH: An old Heidelberg printing press methodically pumps out envelopes at the back of Baker's shop. Though he and his family live in Atwater, Dennis Baker moved the newspaper office to Spicer, a few miles away. Advertising revenue in Atwater dried up as businesses closed. And the Spicer publishing business looked more lucrative, the lake homes and resort businesses there making for more stability.

Like this old printing press, small towns such as Atwater still exist and will be around for a long time. But it's clear that many small towns have had their day. Professor George Donohue is a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota.

GEORGE DONOHUE: They can never preserve Atwater. In a sense, like Thomas Wolfe says, you can never go home again because of the changes that have occurred, in you and in the community. And that's what's happening to the Atwaters.

They may exist as dormitory suburbs. They may exist sort of as-- I hate to make the-- I never made this analogy before. But a lot of small towns are like street people, bag people. They're just hanging on.



STEPHEN SMITH: It might appear that Atwater is little more than a quaint antiquity, that it can't stop the economic decline, that it has no vision of the future. But a year ago, Atwater residents paused to take stock and see what was left of their town. Newsman Dennis Baker.

DENNIS BAKER: Those people involved, number one, the bank, and number two, Main Street, and three, the residents and the community just saying, hey, we can do some small things to keep us going. We'll not probably be the big, booming success we were in the '70s or the '60s. But I don't know that any town will be that in rural Minnesota. So let's look at survival and making our towns as attractive as we can with what we have.

STEPHEN SMITH: The motivation for taking stock came from several sources. One was Suzanne Meyerson, president of the Atwater State Bank. She said the self-examination yielded a few surprises.

SUZANNE MEYERSON: We have been finding that some of our assets have been hidden. And these include human resources. And some of the people that we have found who have been really helpful in our effort were people we hardly knew before, hardly had a part in the community before. We just never really would have thought about them.

STEPHEN SMITH: Meyerson and others decided they needed an outside observer as well. So they called in Don Imsland. He's a circuit-riding consultant on economic development who helps communities like Atwater chart a course for the future. Imsland does his work in connection with the Minnesota Bankers Association. Imsland's task is part social service on behalf of the town and part consulting on behalf of the bank.

DON IMSLAND: If the community is not doing so well economically, there's a good chance that the bank and the banker are not doing well. On the other hand, if the community is growing and doing well economically, very likely, the bank and the banker are doing well. So there's a linkage, an important linkage.

STEPHEN SMITH: What Don Imsland found in Atwater is an attitude he's seen in other economically troubled small towns. That is, the people here may not know where they're going, but they like where they are. Leone Kragenbring grew up in Atwater. Among older folks, she's one of the town's most buoyant boosters.

LEONE KRAGENBRING: As our population is growing older, these people are going to have somewhere-- have to have somewhere to live. We want to live in our own little homes. I'm a senior citizen. I want to live here because, first, because it's a nice way of life, second, because I can afford it.

STEPHEN SMITH: Kragenbring is the director of community education for Atwater. She's seen plenty of other towns like hers. And she can recognize signs of economic decline across the Midwestern countryside.

LEONE KRAGENBRING: Rural America is in transition. And we try to be very optimistic and feel that we are going to survive this. We survived the crash of 1929. And we survived the bad years in 1934 and '35, when this area was totally dry. Farmers didn't even get their seed returned that year-- those years.

We're going to survive. However, it's not going to be as we remember the country. It's-- we're not going to be small-town America anymore. We're-- maybe our community will end up being a bedroom community.

STEPHEN SMITH: Atwater once boasted three hotels, three grocery stores, two banks, and a variety of other services, a big-city economy in microcosm. Becoming the rural equivalent of a suburb, a bedroom satellite for Willmar and Litchfield, doesn't sit well with some folks in Atwater. But more and more, the jobs are elsewhere. Atwater resident Kay Bomstad.

KAY BOMSTAD: A lot of people have had to relocate jobs in other towns. For example, my husband has to work out of town because there just isn't anything around here in his line of work. He buries cable-- power, telephone, now it's fiber optic cable. So he has about an hour-and-a-half drive each day to work.

STEPHEN SMITH: Outsiders like consultant Don Imsland might be tempted to say that small-town residents would find a better life in the prosperous Twin Cities. The migration of young people to the metro area is supporting evidence for that contention. But Imsland says the move for older residents would be difficult.

DON IMSLAND: I don't know what-- how easy it is for them to move in to a large metropolitan area and establish a residence and find jobs and, in a sense, fulfill themselves in a large metropolitan area. I think they often feel that they're strangers in the big metropolitan areas.



STEPHEN SMITH: A vintage farm truck labors up the incline to the Atwater grain elevator. The truck would be a good candidate for a machinery museum. But its freshly painted white cab and bright-red box illustrate what one resident says is a prevailing attitude among farmers of the area. They're careful with their money.

Many of them did not take part in the ruinous farmland buying binge of the 1970s. So they've avoided the heavy debt burden, which brought down thousands of other Minnesota farmers.



But some farmers have gone out of business. And when older farmers retire, there are fewer young ones to take over the land. Don Slinden farms between Atwater and Grove City. As he looks out the big windows of his farmhouse, he sees signs that the agricultural crisis has bottomed out. Slinden says the consolidation of farmland holds an unmistakable meaning for the people in town.

DON SLINDEN: I see it as fewer and fewer farmers. And of course, so the communities are going to have to adjust to that. There aren't as many farmers to buy at a lumber yard or at a hardware store.

And of course, as these services drift to a bigger community, you find yourself going there for one of the services. Then you're going to do some of your other shopping there, too. And that's definitely happening.





STEPHEN SMITH: As they searched for Atwater's future, the townspeople came to conclusions that ranged from the cosmetic to the pragmatic. Main Street needed a coat of paint, for one thing. Someone got a paint company to donate supplies, and the chipping away of the old layers began.


Town residents also wanted to identify new business potential. They noticed that a few among them were already trying to establish a new economic toehold. Around the corner from Main Street, tucked away in the back of a steel building where farm machinery is repaired, Norman Bierwerth has set up shop. Norman Bierwerth owns Midwest Locomotive Services. He rebuilds engine parts for the railroads.

NORMAN BIERWERTH: In my business, it's not a matter of geography because I'm going to-- I deal with people in Philadelphia. I deal with people in Chicago. I deal with people in Kansas City. So it's not really a matter of geography, where you're at. It's more of what you do and how you do it.

STEPHEN SMITH: Bierwerth worked for a time at Burlington Northern in St. Paul. He knew the potential for a specialty business like his. So when Bierwerth and his wife, an Atwater native, moved their four kids to small-town Minnesota, he knew there was a living to be made. And Bierwerth wants the business to grow.

NORMAN BIERWERTH: Yeah, I'm working with the people who own this building to get into the other side. And I'll have approximately 50 by 40. And once I get moved in there, I hope to expand into some other reconditioning operations as well.

STEPHEN SMITH: When the folks in Atwater talk about their town's economic future, they point with optimism to the venture created by Norman Bierwerth. That business may lead to only a few new jobs, but it's still a major contribution to a community where steady job loss has been the rule. And newspaper publisher Dennis Baker says growth on that scale is Atwater's only hope.

DENNIS BAKER: Every town is probably looking to lure a big industry. That's not going to happen. Now, people argue with me about that, but I really don't think it'll happen. I think we'll get the small things.

And we'll get those things as we entice people, not necessarily by giving away the farm to them but showing them that they have a benefit coming to Atwater. They have a benefit because of the school system, because of the tax situation, because of housing, because of accessibility to buildings that might be available to-- that might accommodate their needs without having to go out and build brand-new ones. We are sitting well with a street system, with a sewer system. Our water system is being updated. So there are some pluses that are there, and they're not going to change.

STEPHEN SMITH: It is an irony of our time that for all the talk of the death of small towns, rural population in real numbers is at an historic high. But sociologist George Donohue says that many small towns are peopled by older residents, who have little or no occupational future.

GEORGE DONOHUE: If you look at the age structure of a small town, you have hardly anybody much below 45 and then a large ballooning at the top of people over 50. These people-- I know it's cruel to say-- are occupationally dead. That is, they are in the occupation they happen to be in. They have a trained incapacity, in some respects, to move. But who is demanding anybody over 45? For that matter, who is demanding anybody over 35 without specialized training?

STEPHEN SMITH: Donohue has traveled the state for more than 30 years, predicting the demise of small towns like Atwater.

GEORGE DONOHUE: And you might ask, Why do small towns persist? It's almost like a bureaucracy. Once established-- we have not learned procedures for disestablishment, whether it's a school district or a town. We have a lot of difficulty of giving up that which is.

So there's a persistence built in, a resistance to change to every social structure we have. And a small town is no exception to that. Plus the fact that you have a great deal of identity and emotion of participants who used to live there as well as those who are currently living there in that particular town. If that disappears, a part of their identity disappears.

STEPHEN SMITH: As consultant Don Imsland tours Minnesota, he observes thriving main streets or shopping malls in the so-called market communities. Those are towns with 5,000 or more residents. They're often the county seat, where government business boosts the local economy.

Smaller towns, Imsland believes, will survive if they can cultivate local enterprises, which have markets far beyond the area.

DON IMSLAND: A key factor is to concentrate very much on small-business growth. If small-business growth does not occur, then the-- there will be total reliance on the agricultural economy. And I think it's going to further depress the rural regions.

STEPHEN SMITH: George Donohue says communities searching for the key to their future identity should look to neighboring towns and see what role each can play for their region.

GEORGE DONOHUE: Some will provide this type of activity, some the other type of activity. What will be the school center? What will be the medical center? What will be this?

That type of regional planning is what small towns need, I think. And they're not doing it now because they think that anything that another town gets does away with their identity.

STEPHEN SMITH: Atwater State Bank president Suzanne Meyerson.

SUZANNE MEYERSON: Rural people themselves are quite independent people. And they don't reach out beyond their communities to ask for help or to ask for ideas. But now, we're having to do this. We're finding that we're all we've got.


STEPHEN SMITH: Suzanne Meyerson and the other 1,100 citizens of Atwater haven't saved their town from extinction. They can't. One might argue that the survival of Atwater will be determined by a variety of powers outside their control-- the continued direction of the farm economy, decisions made by the state and federal governments, even weather and time.

But small-town life will continue to be held in high esteem by the people of Atwater. What would be lost if small towns like Atwater simply vanish? Again, rural sociologist and small-town native George Donohue.

GEORGE DONOHUE: It's hard to say what we will lose. I know many people say, you will lose the basic values of thrift, industry, and individualism. The fact of the matter is the small town is based upon face-to-face, intimate knowledge of one another. And what that does is lock you into a particular position and really reduces your freedom.

I was always known as the son of Freddy Donohue, never as George Donohue, individual. Or I was a brother of so-and-so. And that was very good for me because my father was, let's say, one of the power elite. And so I got away with murder.

But Tommy [? Marr's ?] father was the town alcoholic. His identity was locked in with his father's behavior. So to say that you're going to lose individualism, that you're going to lose individual freedoms, I don't think is quite correct when you begin to look at the changes.


SPEAKER: He has to come with a good one. Has to be the best pitch.

SPEAKER: It's got to be strikes.

SPEAKER: No, they put them back.


STEPHEN SMITH: Down by the Atwater ball field, townsfolk are likely to disagree with Professor Donohue's clinical view. Lynda Behm, Mary Benson, and Kay Bomstad may be accepting a lower economic standard of living by staying in Atwater, but they stay.

KAY BOMSTAD: It's more opportunity for our kids. I don't know. I wouldn't like to raise my kids in a real large city. Here, they get to know everybody and have a lot more chances in school and stuff. And just think it's great. Wouldn't want to move.

MARY BENSON: My husband and I are from Duluth. And we moved down here. And we-- I guess 20 years ago, I didn't think I'd be staying here. But you really can see a nice town atmosphere, a comfortable place for children to grow up, lots of opportunities in a school setting or in community opportunities that are around as far as things to be in and be involved in.

LYNDA BEHM: If you want something bad enough, you make the best of it. And you stick around. And you drive an hour and a half to work and things like that.

And this is the place that you want to come home to. You have your friends. There's no friends like old friends.

I'm not saying relocating and moving some-- to another state is the worst thing in the world. But when you've grown up and known people all your life, you just can't beat them.

SPEAKER: (ON PA) OK, Adam Behm, two on, two out, top of the third. 5-to-4 ball game.

SPEAKER: Go, Adam, buddy. Rip it.

SPEAKER: Come on, Adam.

SPEAKER: Let's go, Adam.


STEPHEN SMITH: This visit to Atwater, Minnesota, was written and produced by Dan Olson and Stephen Smith, executive producer Rich Dietman, technical direction by Jeff Walker. This is Stephen Smith.

SPEAKER: Nice play by the first baseman on that throw.

SPEAKER: Let's go


SPEAKER 4: (ON PA) In the other first-round game this morning, we've got a 10-to-0 score going on up there at the softball field. Watkins is ahead of Grove City. But at the conclusion of this game, that doesn't mean the loser is out of the tournament at--


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