Town for sale at the right price
Emmaville, which once billed itself as the "Biggest Little Town in the World" is now a ghost town.
The century-old store, café, motel and gas station closed abruptly April 22.
"It's a landmark, no doubt about it," said former owner Joe Knuth, who took it back on a contract for deed when owner Kathy Courtney couldn't make a go of it, despite her hard work. She'd run it for a year, seven days a week.
"I've had a lot of tire kickers," but Knuth said he won't sell again on a contract for deed, even recognizing that banks likely will be reluctant to lend on it unless a buyer puts a substantial sum down.
He's asking $300,000, well below the estimated market value of $377,700. That has declined from the top valuation of $500,000, Joe said. It's currently tax delinquent for 2008, to the tune of $7,600.
"I've had a lot of inquiries about leasing, but there again, I'm reluctant," Knuth said.
"I made a lot of friends there but my health drove me out."
Knuth said he recently ran into "the surgeon that split my chest" and the doctor remarked on how well he looked. "You must have sold the store," the surgeon remarked.
Yes and no.
Knuth, who lives in the vicinity, has heard from former customers in the last six weeks dismayed at the store's closing.
"A guy from Sleepy Eye told me he had to drive an extra 12 miles for a gallon of gas to mow his lawn and a gallon of water to prime his pump," Knuth said.
Since seasonal residents and tourists began streaming back into the area over Memorial Day, the parking lot has seen a steady flow of people posing for pictures by this lake country institution where they bought their gas, bait, groceries, newspapers and beer.
Taco night Tuesdays turned the place into a mad house. The weekend burgers rivaled the best in the county.
Emmaville is situated midway between Lake George and Park Rapids on County Road 4. Nestled between dozens of lakes, the store has catered to anglers, tourists, travelers and seasonal residents since it evolved from a loggers camp and boarding house in the late 1800s.
Knuth purchased it from longtime owner Cal Jensen, a colorful curmudgeon who owned the place for 29 years. Cal pioneered the handmade signs that dot Highway 4 advertising the place. But Cal's sense of humor wasn't universally shared. He quickly had to paint over the bathroom humor on one sign years ago when he learned a national TV crew was interested in a story, locals recall.
"If I had a dime for every time someone has taken a picture by those signs..." said Clayton Severtson, who has lived behind the store off and on since Jensen bought it and later expanded it. Cal died in 1999.
Joe purchased it from Cal's kids after an initial sale fell through and Cal's former employees stepped in to run it for a couple years. Severtson's now the de facto caretaker. In the café's heyday, Severtson was the one who brought the morning papers in and started the coffee pot. Some of the old-timers still stop by to see if the pot's on.
"It's tough out here because you have to have your prices a little higher just to make it," said Larry Weiss, who stopped by Monday morning. "The longer it goes unsold the harder it will be to get it going again."
Weiss pointed out that while customers would fill a 6-gallon gas tank for the boat, they'd drive to Park Rapids to fill their vehicle tank.
"It's a boomin' place if the right people get a hold of it," Severtson maintains.
Indeed, the tiny store was ground zero one year ago this week when an EF-3 tornado hit neighboring Pickerel Lake. The proprietors capitalized on their 15 minutes of fame, granting interviews, trading local gossip and tornado survival stories, introducing out of town media to the authorities they needed to know and playing gracious hosts, offering coffee and cookies to emergency responders.
Former Sheriff Gary Mills set up a temporary command post there; satellite trucks lined the street.
"There's never not been a store at Emmaville since I started coming up here," said Frank Moody, who now owns a cabin on Thomas Lake. "When I started coming here 60 years ago there was still a grammar school in the old schoolhouse."
Dubbed "Emmaville University" by Cal, the old schoolhouse was sold separately a few years ago to one of Cal's former employees, who uses it as a hunting cabin.
The population has hovered between four and six people for census purposes, mainly folks who live across the street.
"I miss the people, but I don't miss the work," Joe said.
"I hate to see it closed," Knuth said. "I hope there's a future for it, but I know I can't do it."