About 20 years ago, I reached a fork in the road. It was time to either commit to the small town, join the family business and try to make a go of it, or use my education to find a career in the suburbs. Most of my peers were long gone. To visit friends from college or high school, I had to travel to Grand Forks, Fargo, the Twin Cities or the West Coast.
As I looked around the small town, things were moribund. Half the storefronts on Main Street stood empty.
The town was dying and dying fast. It looked like tumbleweed time.
So, I half-committed. I bought an aging trailer house. My payment was $125 per month. I slept on the floor. Buying a bed would have been too much commitment.
That very year, the men at the cafe who spent hours playing cards — farmers, former farmers, businessmen, former businessmen and others of vague employment status had an idea.
We need a golf course, they said.
Almost none of them golfed.
Coordinated by a couple of respected and smart leaders, the golf course movement took off. Within two years, using volunteer labor and donated goods, Fertile had itself a 9-hole gem.
Although I did nothing but pick a few grubs myself, I remember the exhilarating sense of community action as the course took shape.
Looking back, the golf course was a turning point in the town's history.
About the same time the golf course started business, I sent my first email. Soon, I discovered that I could read the New York Times before breakfast on my computer in my trailer.
The small-town isolation broke up like ice on a lake in spring.
Two of my best friends sickened of life in the suburbs and moved back to take over the family farm. Their first house wasn't much fancier than my trailer.
With farming a break-even proposition at best, some former farmers started other businesses.
One started an elevator company — the type of elevator that hauls you to the third floor of a hotel, not the type that holds grain.
Fertile had no elevators.
But that elevator business took off. What's more important, it spawned a handful of young entrepreneurs who saw the possibility of making a good living while living in the small town.
Turns out, you didn't have to farm to stay.
Today, there are probably a dozen young families in town who make their living off elevators, and others who started in elevators and have moved on to other ventures.
What a difference one entrepreneur can make!
Did you know that eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota lead the nation in honey production?
Honey is another big employer in Fertile. Several started their own honey operations. Although it had become a difficult business, honey helps keep the local economy afloat.
Other local men joined companies which build cell towers or pipelines. Because they were willing to travel and had a farmer’s instinct for hard work, their bosses soon said, “Are there more like you back home?”
With many of the men on the road, the women revamped Main Street.
Today on Main, we have an ice cream shop, a flower shop, a health food store, two gift shops, a used clothing store, a donut shop and a furniture store, all owned and run by women.
There are no empty storefronts on the main drag.
In another community project, a bunch of locals banded together to build a beautiful Veteran's Memorial Plaza right downtown.
In the countryside, the phone company plowed in high-speed internet cable up to every house.
I laughed when they laid cable up to bachelor Joe Jacobson's house next door. Joe was 92 at the time and not one to use the phone, much less a computer.
Well, when Joe passed away his house sold to a young couple (under 50!), one of whom uses the cable to manage software projects for IBM.
A few miles down the road lives a young woman who fell in love with a Fertile man (it happens all the time) and moved up from Florida to start a new life amongst the cows.
When she tried to quit her job in Florida, her boss said, wait a minute, do you have internet up there?
She now manages twenty pizza joints in central Florida from her kitchen table in rural Fertile.
These examples just scratch the surface.
Eventually, I sold my beloved trailer and built a house.
And I bought a bed.
It feels a lot better to set roots in a town on the upswing.