I don’t just drive somewhere to speak at a meeting, and then leave. I’m a small town enthusiast so I like to visit. I like to drive around and see what I can see. I stop in shops and talk to people. I visit the Chamber/tourism people. I get a feel for a town. I do this for several reasons.
1. I love to hear the stories. Small town people are welcoming, and tell the best stories!
2. I like to see what’s working. We can learn from each other, but we need to notice what’s working first. Ask questions.
3. I’m a writer. I believe in sharing my gift and telling you what I’ve seen and heard. Because maybe, one day, you’ll be able to use some nugget from something I wrote. The ripple effect has hit me before, I can only pray someone will feel it from something I wrote.
I spent Thursday and Friday in Milbank, South Dakota. I drove up on Thursday to keynote at their Chamber annual dinner. Connie Larson, chamber director, invited me up to speak. I met her at 1 million cups in Brookings in July. She drove me around and showed me the empty buildings in her town (my topic for that evening was the Tour of Empty Buildings). That evening I met a few people and noticed a few others. It was a simple Annual Dinner and very nice. I spoke, answered a lot of questions and then went back to the hotel to make a plan on what Saturday would look like.
I headed out to the local coffee shop and had an americano and a roll and worked on my computer. It was a coffee shop that sold ice cream and sandwiches and a nice little addition to the community located right on Main Street. Shame on me for not writing down the name! It’s on the South end of main street next to the hair dresser Jody Ninneman who uses chemical free products. Main street is three blocks of retail locations and just a few empty store fronts. There’s an old office area that would be great for a coworking location on the South end by Highway 12.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about artists and how they can help re-energize a small town and how we could incorporate them into the downtown environment. Craig and Sarah Weinberg own and operate VDP Studio photography and design. They moved here five years ago, bought a building, and began renovating the building, taking pictures and doing what design people do. Indeed they are artists in every right and were at first considered ‘different’. Small town people sometimes do that — they alienate you if you are different. However, if you persist and get to know people and are kind, things can change. The Weinbergs are now becoming embraced by the community for being different. Their studio and work is stunning. Their theme is “Don’t Settle. Be Unforgettable.”
There’s a cheese factory in town. Valley Queen Cheese Factory. It’s not a little run of the mill factory either. They employ 220 people, process 140 million pounds of cheese each year (that’s 65,000 cows producing milk all year). That’s also 12 semi loads of cheese each day. Two Swiss Alfreds from Wisconsin, Alfred Gonzenbach and Alfred Nef decided in 1928 they wanted to start their own cheese factory … in Montana! Gonzenbach headed west and happened to stop in Milbank for gas. Some pretty smart city people heard he wanted to start a cheese factory and convinced him to stay in Mllbank. In March of 1929 they started their cheese factory. Jason showed me around some of the plant and gave me a book called Valley Queen Cheese, The Birth and Growth of an American Dream by Ron Robinson. It’s a true story that’s a good read!
But there’s more to the Valley Queen Cheese people than just cheese makers. They’ve bought several buildings on Main Street and are in the process of renovating them. I’m told one will be a law office, one is already being used as a training space and meeting room for employees and visitors. The photo of the tin ceiling is from that location. We talked wine and cheese gatherings, artistic parties and room rental. I don’t know if that will happen, but who knows? Valley Queen Cheese has also bought land and is in the process of building townhomes there. They will be for anyone to rent, but they know the young people they hire need a place to live and they want to keep those employees happy!
We had a good conversation about hiring employees too. They asked about our Hispanic population and told me they have hired an agency that goes to Mexico and hires workers with at least 2 years of post education that qualify for the TN 7 workers permit. Always vigilant and following the law, they’re happy with the quality of workers they have hired. Currently they have 20 individuals from Mexico and 7 of them have started families. It’s quite a process legally coming to America and they are learning along the way. It used to be a kid graduated high school and went to work for the Cheese factory. But as in life, things change. Kids go off to college. Many don’t come back. The work force in South Dakota is much like in Iowa – short.
If you’ve eaten Kraft Cheese products, you’ve had Valley Queen Cheese. Do take a look at their website too. Just click here.
On my way back to the Super 8 where I’m staying (typical Super 8 – nice employees, clean room and comfortable) I saw a sign for Dakota Granite, 5 miles. Feeling much like the explorer Sheila Scarborough I turned right and headed out into the country. It’s definitely fall in the midwest – I was surrounded by gold and the beans and corn are soon ready to pick. The sun was shining and bouncing off the fields turning the sky gold. Lovely. Five minutes later I turned onto another road and saw a hill of granite. Along the long drive there is a little memorial park and I pulled in. What a nice place! A small quarry, a bench to sit on and ponder life or just take a moment to enjoy. And yes, there were giant stones of granite everywhere! I turned around and headed back into town. You can read more about Dakota Granite by clicking here.
Back in town I passed the Manor Motel and this was their advertising. Funny! And … I was getting sleepy. Lol. For a small town of about 3,600 people Milbank has it going on. Their businesses are involved and their citizens are happy to live there. They have a real gem in their Chamber director, Connie Larson! I’ll keep my eyes on this small town, they are building possibility.