RED RIVER ROAD TRIPS: Middle River is in the middle of the action
MIDDLE RIVER, Minn.—For a newcomer, a stroll through Young's General Store in Middle River is likely to inspire childlike wonder.
From the outside, Young's looks like most other small businesses. Even what meets you after entering (through the side door, mind you) is classic convenience store, with its sales counter front and center, accompanied by rows of cigarettes and lottery tickets.
But veer left or right and you'll find yourself in a maze of the mundane. Young's is a grocery, clothing, hardware, kitchen, outdoor and convenience store rolled into one, offering "anything and everything" to Middle River's nearly 300 residents.
"It's kind of gotten a name for itself," co-manager Steve Holm said. "Now people will bring friends and relatives to come see this general store because there aren't many of them left, you know, the independent general stores."
Although each section is carefully organized, some areas combine a pretty random assortment of products. To the right of a large wooden shelf of DVDs is a pegboard wall of hardware supplies, and beneath the wall, a shelf of bagged onions and potatoes.
It's not hard to imagine that Young's main claim to fame is its incredible array of merchandise.
"Their motto (is), 'If we don't have it, you don't need it,' " employee Peggy Peterson said.
In addition to variety, Young's is notable for its longevity. Opened in 1907 by Henry Young, the store was originally a hub of buying, selling and bartering for farmers and fur traders.
Store management has stayed within the same family for more than a century—its entire existence. Holm helps manage the store along with his wife, Bobbi, and sister-in-law, Patsy Young.
The Holms moved to Middle River in 1979 after Bobbi's father asked if the couple would like to manage the store.
"We decided we would come here and try it, and we've been here ever since," Steve said.
'No boredom here'
The variety present at Young's seems to be a common thread that runs through other aspects of life in Middle River.
Steve Holm himself represents the amalgam of opportunities a Middle River resident can take advantage of. He's an EMT who worked for the town's ambulance service, is active in the church and the Middle River Community Club, and is a former member of the Sportsmen's Club.
"Middle River is an active community," Holm said. "There's not boredom here, there's always things that a person can do."
Middle River is also home to the annual Goose Festival, a three-day festival that marks the beginning of the waterfowl hunting season in Minnesota. The town is flanked by Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and Thief Lake State Wildlife Management Area, two locations popular for hunting.
This year, its 42nd, the festival will be held Sept. 30-Oct. 2. In recent years, the town's population has grown from a few hundred to thousands during the festival.
Each year's festival is packed full of events Friday through Sunday, with activities including a farmer's market, bean bag tournaments and food vendors. There are musical performances at The Wheel Bar, a parade Saturday afternoon and a community church service Sunday morning.
One festival food vendor is resident Chad Cater, who uses his own oven design to make wood-fired pizza. Cater noticed that brick pizza ovens were difficult and time-consuming to build and use, so he designed and constructed a one-piece oven complete with a dome poured with specialty concrete to withstand high heat.
Pizza in one of Cater's ovens takes less than two minutes to make.
"People tell me it's the best pizza they've ever had," Cater said.
While it's a huge source of revenue and tourism for the small town, not everyone is excited to flock to the festival.
"I usually try to get out of town because it gets too packed for me," resident Darryl Jarshaw said.
Jarshaw is the manager of Farmers Co-Op Grain & Seed. He has worked there for 26 years, selling chemicals, fertilizer and animal feed. Jarshaw estimates its elevator has been around since the 1920s.
'Something to honk about'
Geese are such a facet of life in Middle River that a billboard welcoming drivers to the town names it the "Goose Capital" of Minnesota. Multiple statues and sculptures of geese dot Hill Avenue, one of the town's main drags.
Even the name of the town's weekly newspaper is a waterfowl pun. The Middle River Honker was started after the town lost its original newspaper and sports the motto "Something to HONK about!" on the bottom of each issue. The newspaper has a staff of five, including publisher Barb Geer.
"Our jobs aren't really real, they're just titles we made up," Geer said, laughing. "Everybody does a little bit of everything."
In addition to working on the newspaper, Geer also directs the plays put on at Ye Olde Depot Theatre during the Goose Festival each year.
The Honker has a readership of about 1,000 people and operates as a community newspaper, taking story and photo submissions from area residents.
"We decided when we started this that we wanted to be the good news newspaper, so we don't publish crime," Geer said. "Our pride and joy is to cover our schools in the area."
Geer said that The Honker's warm, community-based philosophy captures the spirit of Middle River.
"There are not many towns who are more community-minded and caring about each other than the people of this small town," Geer said.