Culture: Sustaining quality of life and weaving welcome mats


The small town of Milan, in west-central Minnesota, has turned to cultural strengths for a new lease on life, adding art to agriculture as a driving force for the community’s economy.

Part 4 in a 5 Part Series.

An emphasis on the arts celebrates the town’s northern European cultural heritage. At the same time, it helps make Milan a welcoming destination for South Seas islanders from Chuuk, sometimes referred to as Truk, in the Federated States of Micronesia.

What’s more, the art education facilities in and around Milan that are bringing people to town have boosted local tourism and retail support for resident artists.

Cultural endowments are among the components of induced innovation as defined by University of Minnesota professor emeritus Vernon Ruttan and a colleague, Japanese economist Jujiro Hayami. These endowments are not easily recognized in diverse urban centers or in small towns that trace their frontier heritage to agricultural service–an economic purpose being lost to consolidated farming and the concentration of agribusiness in larger regional centers.

Despite economic trends depopulating communities all across rural Minnesota, the responses of residents, community activists and newcomers to communities like Milan point to ways to save and enrich small towns.

Milan calls itself “Little Norway USA.” Yung Su Schroeder wouldn’t disagree with that claim, so she serves klubb, Norwegian potato dumplings, every Tuesday at the More Cafe’. But the number of klubb eaters keeps shrinking. Milan’s population dropped from more than 700 a half-century ago to 326 in the 2000 Census. An estimated 55 Pacific Islanders moving into town, however, have nearly halted the population erosion. Milan’s 2006
population was estimated at 320, a modest loss projected at 1.8 percent.

The More Cafe doesn’t offer delicacies from either Micronesia or Schroeder’s native Korea. Her Asian buffets on the second and fourth Sundays of the month feature other dishes, she said, chosen from cuisine better known to longtime Milan residents. And the Micronesians, she said, “like good American food — cheeseburgers and fries.”

Ruttan, the professor who co-developed the Theory of Induced Innovation, said culture influences what technologies are adapted and the ways resources are employed. But even more profoundly, culture shapes the institutions we create to support the common good and navigate periods of change.

Of the four major components inducing change for industries, communities and regions, cultural endowments are the least understood and most difficult to define. They can be a strength to help people through change or a weakness holding them back when change is necessary. The challenge for small mining, forestry and farming towns across rural Minnesota is to find that strength or face extinction in the next two or three decades.

Minnesota 2020 Senior Fellow Joseph Amato and Southwest Minnesota State University colleague David Pichaske will explore the unique history of New Ulm, Minn., in a two-part series on this web site in November. While some scholars refer to New Ulm as “the most German city in America,” others include it among the nation’s least diverse. From either perspective, New Ulmites have found strength in their inherited culture to sustain a city environment and economy.

In deeper rural Grant County, small towns are cooperating on arts and culture initiatives to lure retirees and younger folks alike, said Christy Johnson of Herman. The Prairie Wind Players theater group owns Roosevelt Hall, a community theater and former gymnasium, in Barrett, smack dab in the middle of the western Minnesota county. Both the board of the 28-year-old nonprofit and its performing casts include people from the nearby areas.

Betsy Ostenson of Elbow Lake is the director of the forthcoming “A Sven and Ole Christmas Carol,” which was written by Miltona playwright Kevin Lee. “We look at what we’re doing as a Grant County thing, not as a Barrett project,” Ostenson said. “And we’re getting a lot more intelligent about how to get support for the arts.”

When Prairie Wind Players staged the classic legal drama “Inherit the Wind,” it turned to Grant County law offices for support. When they scheduled Chuck Suchy and the Granary Girls for a fall “Songs from the Earth” folk music concert, they got backing from an agribusiness service and a farm implement dealer. And when the summer student musical was “Schoolhouse Rock,” the sponsors included the county’s physicians, pharmacies and funeral home.

Barrett also stages live entertainment at its pavilion on Lake Barrett. Closing this season’s schedule were Reverend Raven and the Chain-Smoking Altar Boys, a blues and jazz band popular on the campus circuit.

All of these entertainments are ground-up, volunteer efforts to sustain and improve Grant County’s quality of life and create a cultural base for economic development, Johnson said.

Milan, south of Barrett in western Chippewa County, also is tapping the cultural endowments and artistic talents of its area people. More than 600 tourists visited the town during the 2006 annual Meander, the Minnesota River Valley art crawl that highlights artists from the Upper Sioux Agency near Granite Falls to Ortonville, on the South Dakota border.

The number of visitors was down a bit this year, said Ardie Eckardt, director of the Milan Village Arts School, but more than 400 people still stopped by the school and visited the culture-themed galleries and gift shops in town.

Ann Thompson, who returned home to Milan after a teaching career in Japan, operates the “billy maple tree’s” gift shop and gallery. She usually displays work from a half dozen area artists. Attached to the gallery is the Arv Hus Museum, operated by her father, Billy Thompson, who started collecting memorabilia and making artwork from area trees as retirement projects after selling a floor covering business.

Other popular sites include Tokheim Stoneware, which has been making pottery and sculpture since 1973, and Karen Jenson’s Trestuen Gallery and Studio. Outside of town, the Stabbur, or freestanding Norwegian pantry, is open to the public at the Don and Alta Pederson farm.

Jenson is one of the regular teachers at the Milan Village Arts School and is a leader in the Milan arts community, said Eckardt. The school offers dozens of courses ranging from Norwegian rosemaling painting and “tollekniv” Norwegian knife making to Keum-Boo, Korean attached gold jewelry making, and less ethnic arts such as photography, woodworking and watercolor painting.

The school, on the Web at, is projected to have enrolled 275 students by the end of this year for courses that usually run two or three weekends, Eckardt said.

Performing arts are also celebrated at Milan. The Chord-Ayres All-Male Chorus, founded in 1969, operates from Milan. And the Milan Community Band, founded in 1976, still performs about 12 times a year. More arts activities may be on the way. The Greater Milan Initiative nonprofit bought the former Milan school for $1 and is converting it into a community center, art studios, a day care center and entertainment hall and gymnasium.

A popular annual event is Syttende Mai, the May 17 celebration of Norway’s constitution and independence. There was brisk business this year in the tacos and burritos offered by the area’s Hispanic community.

This eclectic mix on Minnesota’s western prairie should entice people “to come home, to move here,” said Christine Kleven, the city clerk. The Pacific Islanders helping sustain the community “are finding that to be the case,” she added.

What made the Micronesia-Milan connection possible was a welcome mat supplied by a local banker, a former Peace Corps volunteer who developed friendships with people around the Truk lagoon. “That was the connection,” Kleven said. “First, friends came. And then families, cousins followed.”

The history of settlement on the prairies is repeating itself with a new twist. This time around, the people of the Milan area are providing a cultural richness that didn’t greet the original settlers.