FERTILE, Minn -- A smiling Jaime Fuchs greets customers with a warm "hello" when they walk into the Mill Street Cafe in Fertile.
Down the street at Fertile’s Sandhill River Golf Course, employee Marlee Steffes radiates friendliness as she asks a visitor how she can be of help.
Just outside of Fertile, Bergeson Nursery employee Aaron Rongen takes time out from moving mulch to write down directions for two lost strangers.
It’s clear that Fertile, Minn., is a nice place -- unofficially and officially.
Officially, Fertile has been selected the Nicest Place in Minnesota and therefore is a finalist for Reader's Digest magazine's Nicest Places in America. The winner of the national contest will be on the cover of the November Reader’s Digest. The contest is held to “prove America is full of nice people trying to do right by each other,” said Reader’s Digest.
Unofficially, two recent out-of-town visitors -- Herald employees who intentionally didn't announce their visit to most resident in town -- were treated pleasantly by everyone they met and the people they talked to. Residents in this town of approximately 800 use adjectives like “caring” and “friendly” to describe Fertile.
Margie Haas, a 41-year-resident of the community, wrote an essay nominating Fertile for the Reader's Digest honor, noting that residents honored a dying veteran with a parade and donated their time and talent to build a golf course and recreation area. She said residents here watch out for one another.
It’s not surprising Haas immediately thought of nominating Fertile when she learned that Reader’s Digest was seeking nominations for its Nicest Place contest.
“You betcha,” she said. “Everybody’s so kind.”
“Everybody’s got everybody’s back,” said Vickie Solie, owner of Attractions hair styling salon in Fertile. A stylist for 40 years, Solie has been a listening ear for many clients. She has been a giver and a recipient of Fertile residents’ niceness.
“They’re very caring and very concerned about everybody," she said. "My husband passed away three years ago come September. I’ve never had so much food in my life; 15 trays of food and 30 chickens. There were a lot of people who came in and gave me hugs every day."
In turn, Solie cares about her customers and checks up on her elderly clients if they are late for their appointments.
“Even if they’re 10 minutes late, you worry. The first thing you do is call.”
If there’s no answer, Solie has been known to drive to a client’s home to make sure everything is OK.
It’s that kind of concern for others that brought Gayle Haugen back to Fertile after many years, more than a decade after she left. It's also why she opened a cafe with her two daughters.
“We chose to live here. We lived all over the country for 11 years,” Haugen said.
Haugen and daughters Amanda Evenson and Jaime Fuchs opened Mill Street Cafe in March.
“The people are wonderful,” Haugen said.
Fuchs, who moved to Fertile after attending college and serving in the U.S. Army, said it’s a good place to raise her sons, ages 12 and 8, and her 6-year-old daughter.
“The school is wonderful. The classes are small enough where they can get one-on-one attention from teachers,” Fuchs said.
Mill Street Cafe customer Sam Knutson still calls Fertile home after more than a half century of living in Portland, Ore.
“I lived in Fertile until I was 7 years old. I come here and spend the summers,” Knutson said. “Great people here. The community seems to get along with very little rancor. When something needs to get done, it gets done.”
One of the things community members worked together to accomplish was building the Sandhill River Golf Course, where Marlee Steffes and her sister, Aubree, work.
“The golf course was built by people in the town,” Marlee said.
Not only the golfers who come to play the course, but customers at other places she’s worked in town, including the gas station and the grocery store, are pleasant, she said.
“Everybody’s super friendly.”
As a former high school athlete, Marlee appreciates the way Fertile residents turn out for sporting events, she said.
“I played volleyball, basketball and softball. The entire town comes and supports the sports," she said. "The gyms are always full.”
“We’re such a connected community,” Aubree Steffes said. “I like that everybody knows each other.”
At Bergeson Nursery, Rongen also appreciates the friendliness of the community and the concern its members have for one another, noting that when a cousin became ill, area farmers brought equipment and food and helped him plant his crops. The same kindness is extended to strangers who visit the community, he said.
Visitors from the Grand Forks Herald experienced that first hand. Rongen not only gave the visitors detailed written directions to the farm they were trying to find, but also drew them a map.
The residents’ and shop owners’ caring attitude is one of the reasons people like Maria Soeby, of West Fargo, visit Fertile while staying at nearby lakes.
“I like the small-town atmosphere. They’re very friendly,” Soeby said.
That’s not all.
“They’re always nice,” said Faye Templeton, who lives near Salt Lake City, Utah, and was visiting the Bergeson Nursery gardens earlier this week.
The Nicest Places in America contest is open until July 21. Voters can place one vote each day until then. Information: https:/www.rd.com/nicest-places/the-nicest-place-in-minnesota-fertile