May 3, 2017
To a kid who loved to look at maps and had a dog-eared road atlas next to his bed, Thief River Falls, Minnesota, always seemed at the edge of known territory. Of course there is much of Canada north of it, but that country (now my home) was a sort of addendum to U.S. maps.
In truth, as the largest town (population 8700) in relatively unpopulated Northwest Minnesota, Thief River Falls does stand somewhat alone. However, it’s hardly an empty place, and it has the well-ordered but informal homey appeal of Minnesota’s north country. The winters may be long and harsh, but the warmth and hospitality are genuine. I moved among the community with surprising ease. It’s also surprisingly bustling for a place near the edge of the map, with links to the global economy and businesses that are prospering. And it offers a large array of sports and recreational opportunities.
My first stop was the Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, located in a restored former 1910 Carnegie library building. There I was given the facts about the town and its offerings for a visitor such as myself. I learned that it has the largest percentage of residents of Norwegian heritage of any place in Minnesota, a source of local pride in a state settled by many Scandinavians. In keeping with the tradition, there are a series of 14 carved wooden trolls, a common figure in Norse mythology, scattered in public places throughout the town. No, I didn’t seek or find them all, but it did bring a smile to my face when I discovered more than half of them as I traveled around.
The most popular local sport is hockey, which would make Canadians feel right at home. The local high school teams—yes, both boys and girls—have won championships, and the town now is home to the Norskis, a Junior A minor league team, the level at which the best 16-21-year-old players complete prior to major college hockey or becoming full professionals.
The local teams play in a magnificent 2600-seat arena that would be the envy of any town in Canada, the gift of Ralph Engelstad, a local boy who later became one of the few independent casino owners in Las Vegas and Biloxi, Mississippi, doing deals with the likes of Howard Hughes from the 1960s to the 1990s. He also donated the money for the arena/events center at the University of North Dakota, his alma mater. But he reserved his greatest pride for his home town, creating a smaller arena that leaves no comfort and luxury ignored. It’s a true ice palace.
I was a guest on the morning program of Pioneer 90.1 radio, the local public radio outlet operated by Northland Community and Technical College. I was reminded, in a somewhat more professional way, of the informal kind of radio featured on the old TV comedy Northern Exposure, and also, especially in the low-key but intelligent demeanor of station manager Mark Johnson, of another far more notable alumnus of public radio in Minnesota, Garrison Keillor.
The two major employers in Thief River Falls are Arctic Cat, which manufactures snowmobiles and recreational vehicles, and Digi-Key Electronics, the world’s fourth- or fifth-largest distributor of electronic components. Curiously, in my days working in electronics, primarily in the 1970s, I was a Digi-Key customer at a time when they were a small supplier with a catalog of hard to find parts. When today I toured their 800,000+ square foot facility, I was told they would have had fewer than 30 employees in the mid-1970s; now they employ more than 3400 and have plans to add an additional 1000. Both UPS and FedEx maintain extensive operations to ship orders on as little as 25 minutes’ notice, and even from seemingly remote Thief River Falls, Minnesota, they claim 24-hour delivery times to nearly half the locations in the world. Logistics are now truly just-in-time and the economy is global.
Closer to hometown Thief River Falls, I stopped at the Eagles Club, which had been recommended by Glen and Darby Kijewski, the Warm Showers hosts who were unable to host me, but whom I encountered on the road some 80 miles to the south. I no sooner had walked in the door when I was greeted by Laurie Harger, who said, “Oh, you must be Bill on the bicycle.” It seems Glen and Darby had alerted her of my intended visit. We chatted for more than 20 minutes, and then posed for photos Laurie promised she would share with Glen and Darby on her Facebook page. It was all very chummy and the kind of thing I might do with friends I had known for a much longer time.
The two large flat-screen TVs over the bar featured the Stanley Cup hockey playoff game between Pittsburgh and Washington, and the Minnesota Twins-Oakland A’s baseball game. The accents of the conversations featured that odd vowel shift of the “a” and “ou” sounds that Canadians are often known for. And I realized that the accents, conversations and sports programming at the local watering hole within walking distance of my own house in Burlington, Ontario, some 1200 miles away, would be much the same.
And that’s when I came to the realization that Thief River Falls, Minnesota, is really almost a Canadian place, and soon enough I will be back home.
One of the 14 hand-carved wooden trolls scattered around Thief River Falls, “the most Norwegian place in Minnesota”:
Another one of the homely but cute little fellows:
The exterior of the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, a source of great community pride:
A true ice palace: