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Small town roadtrip

Willmar man criss-crosses the state to experience Minnesota’s smallest cities

By Bill Bentson of Willmar

Bill Bentson of Willmar with Jill Johnson, the author of Little Minnesota. The book features 100 of the smallest cities in Minnesota. After Bill’s wife, Carol, passed away, he decided to visit all 100 of these communities and get an autograph from someone who lives there. He met lots of people and it made for a fun adventure. Contributed photo

The book Little Minnesota, written by Jill A. Johnson with photographs by her husband, Deane, show a nostalgic look at Minnesota’s smallest towns. She featured 100 towns with a population around 100. This book became a guide book for me in an adventure that I wasn’t expecting to take.

My interest in Little Minnesota started during my wife Carol’s time in hospice, Sept. 1-9, 2020, at our daughter’s home in Kandiyohi.

One day, I got away for a few hours and drove to St. Cloud, with stops at an office supply store and a book store. One of my favorite sections at the book store deals with topics surrounding Minnesota -- and that’s where I found Little Minnesota.

When my wife died on Sept. 9, my interest in the book intensified. I was living in Halstad, Minnesota, and mourning. I needed something to take my mind off our loss, and intense sorrow. That’s when I started thinking, “I know, why don’t I visit the Little Minnesota towns?” And I could call this “Carol’s ride” after my wife.

On my way to a cross country meet in East Grand Forks, on Oct. 1, I went through Nielsville, Minnesota, one of the cities featured in the book. My journey had begun.

I pulled off the highway and headed to the Post Office in Nielsville. I told the clerk about my new-found mission, had her autograph the page about Nielsville, and I was on my way.

The next day, Oct. 2, on my way home from Ada, I drove south (not my normal way home from Ada) and stopped in Borup (#2 on my list) and then west to Perley (#3).

Now I was hooked.

While I was living in Halstad, I started writing sports in the Norman County Index, covering Ada-Borup-West High School. I have since moved to Willmar, but I still cover ABW sports, as well as Chatfield sports, down in the southeast part of the state. The two schools are only 400+ miles apart, but the internet is most beneficial. By working these two areas, it was advantageous in getting to more little cities.

All total, my project took 28 trips, and somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 miles. Some of cities visited were on my way to a ballgames/matches/meets, some were on the way to visit my children (Fountain, Pillager, St. Michael, Kandiyohi), and some of the trips were specially planned. The specially planned trips were those involving cities on the fringes.

From Humboldt, St. Vincent and Donaldson in the northwest to Whalen and Minneiska in the southeast, and from McKinley, Leonidas, and Iron Junction in the northeast, to Kenneth, Ihlen, and Hatfield in the southwest, and the 89 between them; dating from Oct. 1, 2020 to Aug. 12, 2021, I saw them all!

On Oct. 28, 2020, I was even able to hook up with Gov. Tim Walz, up in Crookston, thanks to my daughter Jacquie’s research. After I got the governor’s autograph in my book, I was thinking, as long as I’m this far north, why don’t I find a few more cities to visit. So, I did. I just didn’t anticipate getting all the way to the Canadian border. This trip included Goodridge, Strathcona, Strandquist, Halma, Humboldt, St. Vincent, and Donaldson. Did you know that the Port of Entry crossing to Canada on Highways 59 and 75 are both closed now? I found out. There is not much going on in Noyes these days!

Other interesting stops -- St. Vincent is the home of a stainless-steel fabricating shop that ships its products all over the world and Vining is the home of Ken Nyberg’s world-famous sculptures (also the home of American astronaut Karen Nyberg). McKinley sits on one of the richest ore fields, ever, according to one resident, and Goodridge (population, 132) is the only little city with a K-12 school (enrollment, 230). I got a cup in Effie, great French fries in Denham, and visited a mother in Nimrod and her daughter in Aldrich. And a real highlight, I visited with Vietnam vets in Dovray and Florence. There was so much more, but space won’t allow all the details.

It is interesting to note, that Strandquist is where/why “it” all happened. What is “it?” Let me explain using the words of author Jill Johnson herself. “When my father returned from a 50th class reunion in 2008 for the first graduating class that he taught in Strandquist, he remarked, “You know, the little towns aren’t going to be around much longer. Everything that I remember is gone. Could this be true? Would the little towns that so many of us lived out our childhood in be wiped off the map? His comment sent me on a quest to discover exactly what was happening in Minnesota’s smallest cities.”

Little Minnesota was published in 2011. I’ve met with Jill a couple of times and received a t-shirt from her, officially joined the Little Minnesota club.

I have an autograph of someone associated with each of the little cities, and I’ve highlighted a Minnesota map of my journey.

Do I have some favorite little cities? Yep, I do; but I’ll save that for a bigger edition of this story, which I’m hoping to get into a book some day. If you have any comments, or would like to talk about any of the little cities, I’d be happy to visit by email

I’ve had my map framed, and have it in a very prominent place in my Willmar apartment. The map reminds me of the trip, and all the fun I had on “Carol’s ride.” It really was a ride of passion.

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