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Tiny towns, big hearts: Families, community keep smallest towns going

Dozens of tiny towns popped up on the prairies of North Dakota and Minnesota in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Just specks on the map and a dust cloud away from a gravel road or highway, remnants of the once bustling towns still stand. Some say ...

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Grain trucks line up outside of the One-N-Only Bar and Restaurant for the lunch rush in Euclid, MN, recently. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Dozens of tiny towns popped up on the prairies of North Dakota and Minnesota in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Just specks on the map and a dust cloud away from a gravel road or highway, remnants of the once bustling towns still stand. Some say if you blink you might miss them, but there is so much more than the eye can see. Faith, family, community spirit and creative commerce built them. More of the same keeps the heart of these tiny towns beating today.

 

VOSS, N.D.-A jet-black cat named Panther stretches half in and half out the open side door to the Voss Grain Co. Sunning himself in the warm breeze, he doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry to get out of the way.

He's found a good spot and would just as soon stay there if not bothered. And his owner, Luke Lutovsky, pretty much feels the same way.

"He never goes anywhere, so he thinks the whole world is flat," son Scott Lutovsky says with a laugh.

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That's not all true, but both men are proud to say they chose to raise their families in this tiny town 5 miles straight west of the metropolis of Minto.

Since 1923 and for three generations, the Lutovsky family has managed the elevator now known far and wide for shipping fine flaxseed to California and Pennsylvania-and all parts unknown in between.

"Half the time when the trucks come in here, we don't know where they're going," Luke says. "We just give it to the big boys, and they ship it out to whoever."

Most of it ends up in animal and pet food, he says. It's big business, and it's pretty much the only business in town.

At one time, Voss sprouted a grocery store, bar, school and bank, plus had a "crackerjack" mechanic, Woodsmen Hall, four more elevators and four potato warehouses.

All that is gone now, and fewer than 25 can call Voss home-and that's only if you count the two dogs, two cats and lone rabbit.

"In a big town, you probably know your neighbor two, three houses down, and that's it. Here, you know everyone," Luke says.

Of course, it helps a bit when your neighbors also are family.

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"We've been here as long as anybody. I live in the suburbs just west of the elevator," Luke says.

The suburb is a plot of three houses just footsteps away. Luke lives in the first house, Scott in the second, and Scott's son, Taylor, in the third.

Other family members have worked at the elevator through the years. And many now help run the family's most recent venture-a 7-acre pumpkin patch and haunted barn they open to visitors each September.

The close-knit Lutovsky family is emblematic of many tiny towns. It seems if there's one family, there's almost always more mailboxes bearing the same name-brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins.

These are the people who found a way to make a home and a living in a town short on conveniences others take for granted.

Good neighbors

The Jelinek family of Pisek, N.D., has been helping neighbors since 1946. That's the year they opened the J Mart corner grocery, where the coffee's always on by 8.

Fronted by an old-fashioned screen door, the store may have pared down from the days it sold clothing and hardware, but it still serves a good cold sandwich and a full array of groceries.

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The store probably is known best though for its candy of Christmas past. People travel hundreds of miles for the feast of sweets. Last season, the store sold 12,400 pounds of bulk candy.

Recently, Teresa (Jelinek) Brandt was slicing deli ham when Lindsay Jelinek and daughters Jaylie, Cadance and Keira came to get ingredients for Rice Krispie bars. It was Wednesday-church night-and they were in charge of treats.

"We all should be retired, but there's no one else to take over our jobs," Brandt said with a chuckle.

And they can't quit because people such as Sylvia Madson depend on them. Madson lives in Fordville, but she works at the post office across the street and stopped by to pick up sugar for the lemon bars she was making for church.

"Everybody takes care of everybody here. They really and truly do," Madson said.

Sharing spotlight

Chris Misialek, longtime owner of the Harvey Avenue Saloon in Minto, agrees. Every small town has its niche, and they support each other.

Once self-sufficient with their own cafes, schools and stores, the towns began to specialize as they got smaller.

For instance, he says everybody knows about Warsaw's St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. The beautiful "cathedral on the prairie" holds services on Sunday. Forest River has Mexican food on Wednesday, and Fordville has wings on Wednesday.

"In their own way, they picked up Minto as a hub," Misialek said. "They come here, and we go there for their special things."

It's probably no surprise that food brings people together. Across the river in Euclid, Minn., Chris Weiland draws hundreds to his One-N-Only bar and restaurant, where his mouth-watering ribs made the pages of Food & Wine magazine.

"It's this place and the churches that have kept things together," Weiland says. He's open seven days a week, and some nights it's standing room-only.

His mother, Marilyn Weiland adds: "It's tough to get out of a small town. Everybody knows each other. They're friendly and very kind. It's nice to raise our family where we were raised.

"Chris reinvested in this community to keep this going. If you don't have a small place to gather, you lose your community spirit."

Euclid is the hub of international commerce, too. Bob Schear and his son, Ryan, operate RS Grain, which processes and sells peas to the U.S. government. Fifteen million pounds are shipped worldwide every year.

"They go all the way to South Africa and Third World countries that need high protein in their diet," Bob said.

Sticking close

In nearby Tabor, farmer and volunteer Jim Novak says it's the Holy Trinity Catholic Church Hall, aka Bohemian Hall, where people play volleyball and horseshoes in the summer and gather all year long for graduation parties, anniversaries and wedding dances.

The town has a Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, too.

"The churches are what keep Tabor alive," he said.

The pavilion-style gathering place was so important to the community that it was built in 2006 with pledges and volunteer labor.

Tabor is proud of its Czech heritage. Czech Days was popular for years, and Novak said his family continues to hold an annual Haunted Hayride for the community.

Just a few miles away at the Sherack crossroads stand two tall elevators with faded facades.

"The elevator here is old, old. I can't tell you how old it is. Dad owned it for 15 years before I owned it for 50 years," says four-generation farmer Gary Pulkrabek.

Almost nothing is left of the town, but the family used one of the elevators until its equipment got too old to keep up. They since added grain bins that can store up to 625,000 bushels.

"We can produce a lot of food out here," Pulkrabek says.

The rural life has been a good one, he adds.

"Out here, we help each other. We don't hesitate," he says. "If a farmer gets hurt or killed, we can take their whole fields off in two hours."

Pulkrabek lives in East Grand Forks now, his sons since taking over the farm.

But asked if he's retired, he smiles and pulls two grease-stained hands from his pockets.

"The story is if you love what you're doing, it's not working," he says. "I miss the privacy out here. You have so much freedom. It's just a really wholesome life."

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