Building a roadmap for development
OLIVIA — The first transcontinental highway through the northern tier of states owes its start to a group of businessmen in Ipswich, South Dakota, who got together in 1912 because they wanted a better road to Aberdeen, all of 26 miles away.
By getting other communities to join their effort, in a matter of years they made possible the 3,600-mile Yellowstone Trail, which connected Plymouth Rock on the Atlantic Ocean to Puget Sound on the Pacific.
A handful of area communities along U.S. Highway 212 — which was part of the original Yellowstone Trail — are now talking about using that model to promote their economic development today.
By coming together, the communities have the opportunity "to create an exponential value, somewhat akin to a cooperative," Scott Tedrick, editor of the Renville Register newspaper, told those who gathered last week in Olivia to discuss the possibilities. Tedrick has brought together interested people from the Highway 212 communities of Bird Island, Olivia, Danube, Renville, Sacred Heart and Granite Falls at two different meetings now to look at ways they can work together.
Part of the focus at their last meeting included promoting the communities as places to visit along the Yellowstone Trail. Collections of small communities along the trail in Wisconsin and South Dakota are already taking advantage of the heritage tourism their roles in this history make possible, according to John and Alice Ridge, two retired college professors from Wisconsin. They lead the Yellowstone Trail Association which promotes the route and its history.
"(It's) surprising the unification that it has proven among communities that we have worked with," said Alice Ridge.
She emphasized the importance of marketing a collection of communities. No one is going to come from a long ways just to see one small community, she explained.
"They are going to come and see your communities along the way," she said, adding: "It's a unifying thing, you have to hold hands with the people in the next community."
A canary yellow Yellowstone Trail sign with the once ubiquitous arrow that pointed the way for early automobile travelers is posted today along U.S. Highway 212 in Olivia.
Dick Hagen, who moved to Olivia in the 1970s to join Trojan Seeds, said the community's role in the seed industry and agriculture once attracted many visitors.
In 1976, the Minnesota State Patrol estimated that as many as 32,000 people had visited the Cornland USA exhibit that was part of the Trojan Seed complex outside of the community, Hagen said. Cornland USA evolved to become what most recognize today as Farmfest, which attracts thousands of people to the Gilfillan Estate near Redwood Falls each summer.
There is a long list of assets, historical and otherwise, that can attract visitors to the Yellowstone Trail communities today, according to participants at the meeting March 9. One of the early champions of the trail's development was Michael Dowling, whose story remains compelling today and is best told in these trail communities.
Dowling lost his legs, left arm and fingers on his right hand to frostbite when stranded in a blizzard as a boy. He persevered to become a school principal in Granite Falls and Olivia, became a newspaper publisher and successful business owner in Oliva and went on to serve as Speaker of the House in the Minnesota Legislature.
Doug Olinger, representing Tatanka Bluffs, which promotes recreational, historical and educational opportunities in the Minnesota River Valley, said his organization could also benefit by a successful effort to promote the Yellowstone Trail.
Participants at the meeting said their challenge at this point is to determine the best organizational structure for the group, as well as how many communities to include. Informal discussion included all of the Renville County communities along U.S. Highway 212, as well as Granite Falls and possibly communities farther west outside the county.
Nancy Standfuss, of Danube, noted that all of the communities along the trail have a vested interest in working together to promote themselves. "(We have) shared experiences, shared passions for our hometowns,'' Standfuss said. People in all of the communities should support an organization fighting for and highlighting our communities, she said.