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Local couple's book uncovers 'Little Minnesota'

Is the title of a new book by a Park Rapids couple.

Fresh out of college on the GI Bill in 1956, Jim Musburger packed up his family of four to begin his first year of teaching and coaching in Strandquist, 150 miles north of his home in Bemidji.

At the time, this Swedish settlement boasted a complete Main Street with two grocery stores, a barbershop, two cafés, a creamery, a train depot, two gas stations, a school, a city hall, a grain elevator, post office tavern and two churches...

Fifty years later, Musburger returned to the small hamlet for a 50th class reunion of the first class he taught.

He left disheartened by the reality that towns of this size could disappear in the next decade, sharing his concern with daughter Jill Johnson.

"Could this be true?" Jill questioned of the town where she'd spent childhood, now home to a population of 73.

"I set out to find out," the Beagle Books founder and physical therapist said, engaging husband and retired physician Deane, armed with a camera.

Four years in the making, with hundreds of miles traveled and inestimable hours of conversations and research, "Little Minnesota" will debut at bookstores Friday.

The book is written on the premise Native Americans were the first settlers. The chapters capture the spirit of white settlers' microcosms - from heritage to humor.

"Everyone loves a small town," Jill said of the quaint qualities of each village. "There is a strong sense of family."

Traditions evolve unique to each community. A town takes on a unique character, a reflection of its inhabitants.

"Little Minnesota" spotlights towns of approximately 100 in population that are incorporated, boasting a mayor and council.

Five of Deane's photographs accompany the manuscript for each.

Jill began the book in 2007, with idea of highlighting towns of less than 100 residents. But the 2010 census revealed some of the villages to be featured had "burgeoned" to 100-plus (39) while 51 had decreased and one dissolved - Tenney, with a population of five. (This was on a two- to-one vote, with a council member abstaining because her brother was the clerk).

So the subtitle was subsequently amended to "100 towns around 100."

None of Hubbard County's hamlets qualified. Laporte boasts 100-plus; Emmaville and Hubbard are not incorporated.

"Small towns are amazing repositories of state history," Jill said. And each holds a colorful phenomena of its own.

Funkley, for example, once tied with Tenney, now holds claim to smallest population in the state at 5. The mayor is owner of the sole liquor store. He presides over a $2,000 municipal budget, likely most of the revenue from the liquor license.

In 1953, all but two of the 33 Funkley residents were flown to New York City. The citizens of the village 30 miles north of Bemidji had earned distinction for sewing abundant bandages for the Red Cross.

The villagers appeared on TV and were interviewed on the radio. They were flown to Washington, D.C. with then Gov. Elmer Anderson to meet President Eisenhower.

Unfortunately, the mayor fell in the shower the night before, breaking two ribs and was unable to greet "Ike."

Meanwhile, back at home, State Troopers and the two nonconformists (one with "bum feet", the second misanthropic) were guarding the abandoned city.

Histories unfold

The Johnsons set off across Minnesota, sometimes arranging to meet with the mayor, sometimes simply stepping into an establishment with camera and clipboard in hand. They explored museums, contacted historical societies.

Their record: 35 towns visited in a single week.

Usually, within a short period of time, they'd meet someone with stories to tell. "They were eager to talk, delighted," Jill said. Most were surprised at the interest.

Some towns, however, required a bit more digging. Jill would pore through documents, Deane said, until at last she found a niche.

Bena, in Cass County, for example, she'd learn was home to a prisoner of war camp in World War II...

Escape attempts in Prisoner of War Camps in the United States were rare, but POW Camp 4, Bena, experienced an attempt by two prisoners who had been at the camp only two months. The escape from Bena began Oct. 28, 1944, when German prisoners Walter Mai, 21, and Heinz Schymalla, 22, slipped out of the barracks in the middle of the night and climbed aboard a flimsy boat, Lili Marlene 10, made from scrap lumber.

Using small maps in an English dictionary for navigation, the two believed they could follow the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and jump a ship for home. Packing blankets, pillows, food donations from fellow prisoners, and essentials like shoe polish, a chess set, and a cigarette rolling machine, the Afrika Corps soldiers dipped their paddles into Lake Winnibigoshish...

Book signing Saturday

About half the hamlets featured in the book have post offices, all of which will be closed. The common denominators are bars, churches, baseball fields and fire halls.

"They are extremely proud of them," Jill said of fire departments. "They are the heart of the community."

In Johnson, population 29 in Big Stone County, they discovered a resident who collects antique fire engines, chauffeuring those celebrating a birthday or anniversary about town.

In Whalan, on the Root River Bike Trail and home to a "wonderful pie shop," they would find a standstill parade. Members of the American Legion sit in chairs. The grand marshal and Lanesboro Beef Queen wave from motionless cars.

"How do you know when it's over?" the Johnsons asked.

"When the band marches and the horses move," they were told.

In Beltrami, in Polk County, the whole town is part of the parade, with a single spectator.

Kenneth, in Rock County, hosts a lawn mower race. A small engine repair shop at the heart of the village is the impetus behind the madcap motor sport.

Leonard, population 41 north of Bemidji, is home to a notable saddle and western shop, housed in an old creamery. The day the Johnsons came to call, they were shipping a saddle to Sweden. An Amish farmer arrived via horse and buggy to purchase seed.

The town's 1915 Strand's Grocery Store remains unaltered from the original wood floors and shelving.

And Viking's nomenclature as "Bachelor Capital of Minnesota" - earned in 1948 when single men outnumbered women 100 to 1 - captured the author's imagination.

The Johnsons would learn a disproportionate number of men from small towns have been killed in warfare. Their roles as loggers and farmers and hunters created soldiers suitable for an elite force, often serving behind enemy lines.

The soldiers who lost their lives in wars from World War I to the present - 330 - are honored in the book's appendix.

Jill sent manuscripts to three publishers, Adventure Publications in Cambridge giving it the nod.

After a few postponements, the book is expected to arrive at Beagle Books and Bindery and Amish Oak Friday.

Jill and Deane Johnson will be signing books at Beagle Books from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3.