April 27, 2016
The image that accompanies this post explains almost as much as I can, although it may be a little more innocent than the reality. Or, strangely, the “Forecast Discussion” section of the National Weather Service site for Grand Folks, North Dakota, the regional center covering this part of Western Minnesota, was more eloquent a couple of days ago. Normally these summaries are written in a kind of “weatherspeak” full of acronyms, shorthand expressions and meteorological details that I confess I only partially understand. But this time the discussion began with a crystal clear statement: “Turn back the calendar page a month to late March.”
Remember, that’s late March in Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota, places held by winter with a long, tight grip that it doesn’t yield easily. The location is not very far from the geographical center of North America, obviously a very large land mass, and could serve as a textbook example of a continental climate.
And so, yes, I finally have seen snow for the first time since leaving my home in Burlington, Ontario, on February 2nd. There was some advance warning. I rode into Morris, Minnesota, on Sunday May 23, with the weather warm enough (low to mid-60-degree temperatures) to wear cycling shorts. But the wind has been out of various permutations of the north for more than a week now. Unfortunately that’s also my general direction of travel. In fact, it’s been downright cruel at times. For a day I rode northwest into a northwest wind of about 12 mph. The next day the route turned northeast. Did that give me any respite? No, the wind only shifted to the northeast, and even stiffened a little. I may end up with headwinds for 10 days in a row, although two of them have been in towns where I have spent two nights each rather than being on the highway.
The 26-mile ride from Elbow Lake to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, which could have been as easy as they come if there had been warmer weather and a tailwind, was especially ominous. The forecast was clearly an attempt to hedge all bets, promising only a “wintry mix” of precipitation coupled with temperatures hovering around the freezing point and a brisk north wind. There was the openly mentioned possibility of freezing rain and glazed roadways, as well as heavy rain of the non-freezing variety. Or there could be a significant accumulation of ice pellets or snow.
Fortunately, the accumulations never really materialized. It was snowing, but lightly, when I climbed on the bicycle. That’s actually preferable to rain, in that light snow that doesn’t stick to the roadway is easier to dress for and endure. I figure I’m good down to at least 25 degrees with the clothing I packed—but only if it stays dry. On wet days that minimum temperature increases to about 40.
Today as I sit writing this, the temperature struggles to reach the freezing mark (I don’t think it will succeed), and the wind chill is stuck in the upper teens. It’s a relief only to be riding around town rather than spending hours on the road into the teeth of that north wind.
Yesterday, the very light snow, occasionally morphing into tiny ice pellets, was more or less a constant for the day. By pedaling, I generated just enough internal heat to make up the thermal deficit, especially when bolstered by a warm bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich at a truck stop at the 19-mile point.
I was reasonably proud of myself for riding when many people would have sought to remain indoors, but I was bettered by none other than a two-year-old. Young Louisa Krohn is a truly remarkable little girl, and if her current outdoor endurance is any indication, I predict she will accomplish much in this world. I had been in contact with her father Jake, a local self-described “year-round cyclist,” and he had agreed to come meet and accompany me as I rode into the town of Fergus Falls. When he appeared he was towing a trailer with Louisa inside, yes, protected by a snowsuit and heavy blanket, but happily cooing as if it were a warm early spring day rather than a chilly late winter one. I suppose her total time outdoors was something on the order of 90 minutes, but so much for the notion that little girls are fragile flowers that need to be protected at all costs.
I was also the dinner guest of Jake, Louisa, his wife Arielle and their nine-year-old son Gus, a perceptive, inquisitive child, but slightly more focused on indoor pursuits than his active younger sister. They were all excellent company, exactly the kind of people I’ve been able to connect with on my odyssey. I would consider myself very fortunate to have them as neighbors. Arielle is the children’s and young adult librarian at the local public library, while Jake has a variety of technical jobs he can mostly do from home along with keeping an eye on the kids. They’re very much a family of and for these times, yet they also hold what some might call old-school values. To my way of thinking, this is exactly what small and medium-size communities need to prosper.
Jake and Arielle grew up in two different North Dakota towns a little less than an hour from Fergus Falls. They met in high school at a lake resort popular with teenagers, and were interested in each other but didn’t get together until after attending separate colleges. They then married and moved to Pittsburgh, where she got her graduate degree in library science and he found a computer job. They lived there for six years, liked the city and considered becoming permanent residents. But they both still had relatives in Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota, and eventually they moved back to the area.
It illustrates a point I have begun to hear as a repeated refrain on this trip. Communities do not need to worry so much about young people leaving in their 20s; that’s when they want to spread their wings and try other places. The goal instead should be to provide them with reasons and opportunities to move back in 5-15 years when they begin to develop other priorities and want to put down lasting roots.
Fergus Falls offers at least some of those opportunities. With a population of some 13,200, it’s the largest town in Western Minnesota, located next to Interstate 94 and an hour from the larger city of Fargo, North Dakota, and two and a half hours from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis. It stands on the northern side of the north-south divide, where the waters flow into the Red River of the North and ultimately far north into Hudson Bay. It’s also at the edge of the prairie and the Minnesota north woods, so there are numerous recreational opportunities, especially if you’re into cool and cold weather activities. For cyclists, there is an active local bicycling club and advocacy group (they even gave me a t-shirt I promised to wear on one of my days riding across Iowa later this summer).
The town is well-kept, with a sense of history, a healthy downtown shopping district and a burgeoning arts scene. (Minnesota’s commitment to supporting the arts should not go unmentioned as a reason for its attraction to creative people). And it has a huge opportunity that also threatens to divide the community and become its undoing. I sense that in some ways it’s the proverbial 600-pound gorilla in the room, or a white elephant.
Locally it’s called “the Kirkbride,” after Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, the pre-eminent American psychiatrist and mental health advocate of the late 19th century, the father of dozens of residential treatment facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada. His theories were advanced for the time: mental patients did best when cared for in large, open facilities with opportunities for orderly lives and productive labor. Psychotherapy was considered too experimental, and the pharmacology of that era was too primitive to anticipate the widespread changes drugs would bring to mental health 75 to 100 years later. In sum, mental illness was largely considered a chronic, basically incurable condition that required lifetime care in a professionally supervised environment outside the family and local community.
Within that context, the Fergus Falls State Hospital opened in 1890, one of the last of the major state mental hospitals in the U.S. built under the Kirkbride Plan. It was considered successful and expanded several times on a large campus overlooking the city. By the 1920s the residential patient population was nearly 2000, and the main building with its many wings occupied more than 800,000 square feet. It was the area’s largest employer.
However, in the late 1950s and especially thereafter, the focus of mental health care changed. New developments in the understanding of brain chemistry, and medications that could ease the symptoms and suffering of mental illness, were accompanied by a movement to bring mental patients back to their families and local communities. There was no longer a need for the huge facilities built under the Kirkbride Plan. And so they began to wind down and diminish, hastened by claims that they were human warehouses rather than places of healing. There was some attempt to repurpose the old mental institutions as care centers for the severely developmentally disabled, and to provide treatment for substance abuse. But it was largely a matter of too little, too late.
The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, the name it finally acquired, closed its doors completely in 2006, a major blow to the community. Left empty was the campus and the huge main building, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. This has become both the huge opportunity and the white elephant that the city wrestles with to this day.
The State of Minnesota deeded the land to the city and also provided $8 million in funding, either for redevelopment or demolition. The money might have been sufficient for the latter, which would have been a tragedy, but it was woefully inadequate to restore a facility of that size and with so many needs. Some of the more visionary people in town proposed grandiose schemes well beyond the financial realities, while others said a city the size of Fergus Falls should never have gotten involved in something so large and expensive. A couple of private developers came forth with somewhat modest proposals and asked for a financial commitment that ultimately the city council and mayor were unwilling to make. A few local business leaders and prominent residents tried to step in and raise the needed money privately, but again it was a matter of too little, too late.
The only development on the sprawling campus so far has been the repurposing of some of the smaller residential units as apartments and condos. A few of the less significant buildings have been razed. Periodically, portions of the main building have been opened for various events and arts functions and exhibits. The city performs basic maintenance of the grounds and prevention of catastrophic structural failure. But that’s about the extent of it. On a chilly weekday in late April, I found nothing there but a couple of maintenance vehicles.
After 11 years without resolution, the issue remains a sore spot in the community. People on each side blame both the other side and themselves for not being able to prevail. At this point, there is a feeling by those who are not passionately involved in the dispute that it might be better if somehow it could all disappear—except that it can’t and won’t.
So if anyone reading this has the will and the means to think and act on a truly grand scale, and to deal with a community wracked by years of contention and frustration, the city of Fergus Falls awaits your ideas and your substantial investment and efforts.
On a cheerier note, Fergus Falls is home to a brewery-cum-pizza restaurant, the Union Pizza & Brewing Company, where I again found good beer and food. One of the owners is the city’s mayor, Ben Schierer, who came over to introduce himself. To the already winning combination of craft beer and pizza, I now add local politics.
Jake and Luisa Krohn, part of the family that helped introduce me to Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Luisa is my kind of girl:
Just a small portion of the huge (more than 800,000 square feet) main building of the now empty former Fergus Falls State Hospital, a historic site and issue that has divided and frustrated the city for more than 10 years:
The oldest portion and former main entrance of the facility, known locally in Fergus Falls as “the Kirkbride” (after one of America’s 19th century mental health pioneers):
Yet another view of the façade of the sprawling institution: