Four Corners I: Struggle for survival in Kittson County

2:08 PM, Aug 24, 2010   |    comments
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We strive for the corner office. Pay extra for a corner lot. Life at the corners often comes at a premium. But in the far northwestern corner of Minnesota, life has become a lonelier place for Harriet Docken.

"They just dry up, these little towns," she says. "With nothing to keep them going I guess."

The trains don't stop anymore at the depot in Northcote, the once vibrant little community to which Harriet moved nearly 60 years ago.

No one planted a headstone for Northcote's long-departed grocery store, post office and gas station. The bank left only its concrete vault as a marker, not far from the bell spared by the parishioners who chose fire over decay as they walked away from the Presbyterian church.

"It's dwindling all the time," says Harriet, inside her tidy home at the edge of town. She's not yet alone in Northcote, but makes her point by holding up four fingers, that she's close.

As Northcote dies, all of Kittson County is hurting. Where a few hundred acres of the county once supported a family, single farms now cover thousands of acres, tended by fewer people with larger equipment.

Hallock, the county seat, struggles to hold on to the businesses it has left. Such a difference the decades have made in a county that once bustled with more than 10,000 people.

Census data shows the decline. A couple thousand gone in one decade, a thousand more in another. Then, in 2006, the sad benchmark no one could have imagined a generation ago, when Kittson county slipped below 5,000 people.

At Kittson Central High School, the senior class is down to 31 students. Thirty-one, after three Kittson County school districts consolidated into one. The kindergarten class has 20 students. The first grade: 13.

When asked how the pre-school numbers look, Dean of Students Terry Ogerek answers in one word: "Dismal."

The problem is jobs - Kittson County lacks them.

An hour's drive and a county away, the Polaris plant breathes life into Roseau. But Hallock was never so blessed.

We asked a group of Kittson Central seniors in physics class how many saw themselves living in Kittson County in ten years. Out of eleven students, two raised their hands.

When students here tell you they won't be coming back, they often do so emphatically. "Oh, no," insists Paul Dziengel, "I'm not going to come back here." His classmate Becky Johnson adds, "I don't think I could remain successful if I came back here."

Their teacher Kim Jones takes it in then tells a visitor it makes her sad. "They're going to be gone, and those are the kids that would be coming back and raising families, having more children to keep our community strong."

In Kennedy, 15 miles south of Hallock, Tilmen Spilde doesn't blame a young person for leaving Kittson County. "They got to live you know."

Kennedy lost its high school in a consolidation with Hallock 14 years ago. This spring it will lose its Elementary school too. Tilmen says it will be hard on everyone in Kennedy. "Oh, any time you lose a school," he pauses, "Yep, it's real bad up here in rural America."

In 1972 Kennedy expanded its sewage treatment plant to serve up to 2500 people. Things didn't quite go as planned. Kennedy's population now stands at 255 people.

City Clerk Shannon Mortenson keeps tabs on Kennedy's home sales, many now slipping below the Kittson County median price of $30,000, the lowest in the state.

"The yellow one sold for about $2,000 a couple years ago," she says while pointing to a small wood frame, perhaps a thousand square feet. "Now it's up for sale for $5,000."

A block away stands a larger white two-story home that was considered a fixer upper. "That one just sold for $500," says Shannon.

"We need good news," says Betty Younggren, a Kittson County Commissioner. "I want the legislators in our state and the Governor to know that yes we need all the help we can get. I don't think they want all the population around the Twin Cities."

Pulling in players as far away as North Dakota and Canada, Kittson Central manages to fill a hockey roster - just barely. The night Thief River Falls came to town, Kittson Central was outscored 9 to 1.

"It's where I grew up, I'm a farm kid, I enjoy it out here," says Kittson Central head hockey coach, Scott Younggren, Betty's son. "We're all kind of fighting the same fight; maybe the hard part is sometimes we don't win."

But Kittson County still has some fight left. In Hallock, all eyes are on a soon-to-be-built canola oil plant. Its promised 40 jobs would make it the second largest for-profit company in Kittson County.

To Todd Johnson and his investors it's a business. But for his hometown, he knows his project represents hope. "There will at least be an opportunity here," he says. "At least it's a starting point."

In Hallock and Kennedy, optimists can still hope for that long-awaited turn around. But up the road in Northcote, the time for dreamers has passed.

"I don't understand it, I like it," says Harriet Docken, as she ponders the decline of her town. She is asked if Northcote will someday go away completely. "Sure," she answers, "It's almost there now."

The little town that came to life in the corner is nearing its end backed into one.

Related: Four Corners II - Southwest
Related: Four Corners III - Southeast
Related: Four Corners IV - Northeast
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