DARFUR, Minnesota — Every once in a while, someone in this tiny speck of a prairie town catches sight of a “Save Darfur!” poster in a magazine or a newspaper, or on the flickering TV at the Darfur Lounge on main street.
What follows is a shake of the head and a stoical smile.
Folks here are well aware of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, the blood-drenched patch of northern Africa that — by pure historical accident — is this Minnesota town’s namesake.
But the citizens of Darfur, Minnesota have had their own bitter survival struggle in recent years. The clash of modern life versus traditional agricultural life here hasn’t been as tragically bloody as the siege in Sudan, but it still has profoundly diminished this place that 137 Minnesotans call home.
And today, powerful new global economic forces — the rising price of gasoline, farm fertilizers, food commodities and globalization itself — are beginning to batter and further isolate Minnesota’s Darfur. It’s an ironic counterpoint to the supposedly increasingly interconnected, digitally “networked” world.
“We used to have two of everything here,” said Katherine Penner, a Darfur native who has worked at the local post office for 20 years. “Two grocery stores, two gas stations, two of everything. But now,’’ she says, her voice trailing off wistfully.
Like hundreds of Minnesota’s agricultural communities, Darfur began as a surging railway town that boasted a cathedral-like grain elevator as its commercial and spiritual heart. The town grew by mid-century to include its own stockyard, a lumber yard, a hatchery, a hardware store, downtown coffee shops, a barber shop, a beauty shop, a brass band and a public school.
Today, the town’s wide empty main street is flanked by shuttered old buildings. The elegant old public school, once the pride of Darfur, sits empty with blank windows at the center of town. The four viable businesses — the bar, the bank, the coop and the elevator — huddle against the vastness of the prairie.
Folks in town tell two stories about the origin of the town’s name, which is pronounced “DAR-fer” as opposed to Sudan’s “dar-FOOR.”
Bruce Englin, the co-manager of the Darfur elevator, says the story goes that a Norwegian immigrant railroad worker asked another worker, back in 1899 when the town was first surveyed, “Why did you put that stake dar fur?”
Katherine Heppner recalls a different version. She says her father told her as a child that trappers in the area used to seek dark-pelted local otters whose “dark fur,” once rendered in immigrant brogue, became dar fur.
The city’s official history, buried in dusty files at the Watonwan County Historical Society in nearby Madelia, describes the dynamic Darfur-of-long-ago days in this scene of the Darfur General Store in 1900: “Sausage came in very long, dry sticks; cheese came in large round cakes which was sold to customers in pie-shaped wedges; candy came in pails; dry goods consisted of yard goods, lace, buttons, hats, shoes, and long black stocking; there were lanterns, pails, washtubs and washboards all suspended from the ceiling.”
$4 Gas, $6.30 Corn
It’s all gone now, and it all left long ago. The rise of mega-farms, the globalization of agricultural markets and the flight of young people to the big cities – the classic Midwest American story — left Darfur struggling.
Now, newer global forces threaten to dissolve what little cohesion the town of Darfur has managed to retain.
At the Darfur bank, vice-president Michael Stoesz hands out a flyer showing that although food commodity prices have risen this year, most other “input costs” for farmers are rising much quicker – propane by 54%, farm diesel fuel by 68%, fertilizer by 99%, and potash a whopping 125%.
“Corn at $6.30 a bushel sounds great on the outside,” Stoesz says. “But with all these other prices going up, in reality it’s not so great.”
A framed satellite photograph on Stoesz’ wall shows Darfur in a single snapshot – 58 homes filling city blocks laid out in a perfect triangle, with the grain elevator at the middle of the base and the town’s cemetery at the triangle’s peak.
Over at the Cenex agriculture coop, the talk is about what happens if the price of corn and beans goes down but the price of fertilizer, chemicals and fuels stay where they are or spike higher. That could spell Darfur’s final doom.
Sofie Evers, who has run the one-room Darfur library for two afternoons a week for the past 29 years, says she has many friends in Darfur who already are suffering from close-to-$4-a-gallon gasoline.
“We have no grocery story here, so we have to drive to get food,” she says.
That trend is increasing Darfur’s sense of isolation from the rest of Minnesota and the world, Evers said.
Every once in a while, news of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan makes its way to Darfur, Minnesota in an odd and fleeting way.
Rick Nelson, a bartender at the Darfur Lounge, sometimes clips article headlines out of the newspaper – “U.N. to Send 26,000 Troops to Darfur,” “Bush Determined to End Bloodshed in Darfur” – and posts them on the bar’s bulletin board, next to the notices about farm auctions and bake sales.
Lisa Schumann, the Darfur city clerk, remembers how a bunch of college kids wearing “Save Darfur” t-shirts showed up once out of nowhere to have their pictures taken next to the green-and-white “Darfur, Pop. 137” road sign on County Road 30 just outside of town.
Lots of folks in Darfur remember how Pastor Bob Olson of the Lutheran church here, before he passed away, started making sermons about the Darfur genocide, and passing the plate from time to time.
Mostly, people here say that not much unites the two Darfurs except for the name. But sometimes on reflection they change their mind.
“We’re polar opposites,” Mike Stoesz started to say. “We are just a small little town in the middle of nowhere, with very few of all the modern things like computers, compared to …” And then he paused for a moment.
“Come to think of it,” Stoesz amended himself, “maybe we aren’t that different after all.”
Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report