Day of reckoning coming to 'Skunk Hollow'

WEGDAHL -- Situated on the Minnesota River between Montevideo and Granite Falls, Wegdahl was once a bustling community with its own farmer's elevator, grocery store, railroad depot, and post office.

WEGDAHL -- Situated on the Minnesota River between Montevideo and Granite Falls, Wegdahl was once a bustling community with its own farmer's elevator, grocery store, railroad depot, and post office.

It's storied past as "Skunk Hollow'' is still the stuff of local lore, but it's the future of this tiny, unincorporated community that will be the focus of debate in the year ahead.

The coming year is likely to bring decisions on what to do about the safety issues posed by a collection of broken down and neglected structures in the community. It will also bring renewed discussions on the possibility of establishing a park along the river here, part of a growing interest in tourism and recreation in the Minnesota River Valley.

The safety concerns posed by the remains of buildings destroyed in a December 1998 fire are on the mind of Dawn Sletten, who drives through the community on her way to work in Montevideo nearly every day. Sletten has written letters to the editor of the Montevideo-American News and enlisted the support of newly-elected Chippewa County commissioner Mark Dahl to press for action.

While the fire debris have been cleaned up, the foundations of the buildings that once held pea pods, sunflower hulls and the like to be ground into animal feed still remain. Sletten has assembled a collection of photographs documenting the issues: There are images of stagnant, pools of water capable of breeding mosquitoes in the foundation. Another photo shows a plastic snow fence used by local children to climb through a hole and into a 15-foot deep pit that was once a scale house. Other photos show a large, vacant building with a truck-size door and a gap any youth could slip through.


And, there are three, 150,000 -bushel capacity grain bins with metal ladders reaching to their tops. Sletten fears that daredevil youth could climb the ladders and put their lives in peril.

"It's just like a playground,'' said Sletten of the dangerous temptations. She has seen lots of evidence that youngsters access the property, including pictures of the jump ramps they've made for bicycles and skateboards. A slatted, shoulder-high fence is all that surrounds the site. The signs posted by Countryside Public Health warning of the danger are weathered and hardly intimidating to would-be trespassers, she noted.

"It's an eyesore and dangerous,'' said Paul Nyheim, a Wegdahl resident contacted by the Tribune about the situation. Nyheim is among the 30 or so people who live in Wegdahl, an unincorporated part of Sparta Township in Chippewa County. Nyheim and neighbors contacted by the Tribune uniformly agreed that the site poses safety concerns. They said residents would like to see it cleaned up.

The site has been identified as a public nuisance and Chippewa County wants to see it cleaned up, according to Scott Williams, land and resource director for Chippewa County. But Williams, County Attorney Dwayne Knutsen, and Auditor-Treasurer Jon Clausen all caution that a long list of property and legal issues await the county.

The properties in question will be coming up for tax forfeiture this coming year if delinquent taxes and penalties on them are not paid, which seems likely. Letters and statements sent to the listed owners of the properties -- Granite Falls Ventures, Inc. of Golden Valley, and Eco-Fuels Inc. of Eagan -- have been returned unopened to the county.

The county treasurer's office holds statements showing more than $30,000 in taxes and penalties owed. The books in the county recorder's office show a judgment by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Dakota County against Eco-Fuels for $200,760 on the properties.

In addition, foreclosure action for a $326,621 mortgage on the properties was filed in June, 2001 by a St. Paul law office, according to the records.

Efforts by the Tribune to locate and contact a known principal of the companies who is now believed to be living out-of-state were unsuccessful.


The problems evident in Wegdahl are a frustration to Mark Dahl, who vows to pursue solutions when he begins serving on the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners in January. Dahl acknowledges that the legal issues will be difficult to untangle.

By the same token, solutions to the public nuisance problems should not be as difficult, he said. He'd like to see the county road that cuts through the property widened. The concrete comprising the no-longer used foundation could be made part of the fill for a wider and safer road.

Dahl also noted that the three large storage bins could be returned to use, or at the very least, taken down for their scrap value.

Dahl is a proponent of developing a recreational trail to link Montevideo and Granite Falls alongside the river. He feels the county board passed up an opportunity in 2005 when it rejected $162,000 in state grant funds to develop a park in Wegdahl. It was proposed on county-owned land along the river acquired for flood mitigation.

Bill Pauling, a Montevideo business owner and organizer of the Two Rivers Paddle Club in Montevideo, would like to see a canoe camping park at the site. Pauling said a park would foster an already growing use of the river for canoeing, fishing and tourism uses.

"Why not Wegdahl?" he said by way of emphasizing that the community might see a better future by promoting its recreational assets.

The failure to do so has created its own problems, according to Sletten. She pointed out that after the county rejected plans to develop a park in early 2005, a trailer house was installed on land adjacent to the county owned land. Its owner is among five suspects charged this last year in a methamphetamine bust led by the CEE-VI Drug Task Force and Chippewa County Sheriff's Department. Methamphetamine and $2,490 in cash were found in the house and seized, according to a criminal complaint filed against the defendant. The cash included marked money that drug task force agents had used in purchasing methamphetamine as part of the operation.

Many Wegdahl residents had concerns about the proposal for a park, according to Kevin Nordstrom, a resident for more than two decades. Many, such as long-time resident Terry Sletten, said there were fears that a park could attract underage drinkers.


But Terry Sletten said a modest park development could be a welcome improvement. Resident Kevin Nordstrom is among those who told the Tribune that he would be receptive to a park, if there were assurances that it would be regularly patrolled.

Nyheim said he believed that a park in Wegdahl could be managed -- and used -- much like the Lion's Park just outside of Watson on the Chippewa River.

Dahl said he will be raising the issue at county board meetings in the year ahead.

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