September 7, 2015


I called this place 'America's worst place to live.' Then I went there. (Christopher Ingraham September 3, 2015, Washington Post)

As a reporter, I'm used to folks disagreeing with me, especially when covering contentious topics like guns, gay marriage and drug policy. But until I wrote about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's natural amenities index -- which rates and ranks counties on measures of scenery and climate -- I had never been disagreed with so much.

And so politely.

Minnesota, you see, ended up looking less-than-great in the USDA's ranking. And the state's Red Lake County, five hours northwest of Minneapolis in the flat fertile basin of the Red River valley, came in dead-last in the nation. The summers are hot, the winters are cold, and there aren't any actual lakes in the county -- all of which contribute to a low score by the USDA's criteria.

Could it really be that bad? I had to find out. At the invite of local businessman Jason Brumwell (The Post paid), I took a trip up there last week to see the truth behind the numbers. I wanted to find out what life in America's worst county was really like. [...]

Education is big in the county. Despite a population of only 4,000, the county supports two elementary schools and two high schools. Each of the high schools graduates roughly two dozen students each year, and even the county's poor have a remarkably good shot of becoming middle class later in life, according to a 2013 study by Harvard's Equality of Opportunity Project.

In fact, by most economic metrics, the county looks pretty good. The unadjusted employment rate in July was 4.6 percent, well below the national average. The median household income is $48,000, while the median home value is about $89,000, according to the U.S. Census. The poverty rate is 11.9 percent, below the U.S. average of 15.4 percent. One reason I suspect the outcry against my article was so strong is that Minnesotans aren't used to being ranked low on anything. [...]

Peterson's a Democratic representative in a largely Republican district. But most folks I talked to didn't give much thought to politics, or think too highly of politicians, at least at the national level. Residents aren't particularly ideological. The county voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Barack Obama in 2008, and Mitt Romney, narrowly, in 2012.

Gun culture is strong in the region. With some consternation, given my recent article, I learned that Chuck Simpson, the county commissioner interviewed by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, would be giving me a tour of the Plummer Area Sportsman Club's shooting range. But Chuck was gracious about it, and we made amends as he told me about how residents banded together to raise funds and build the shooting range when there was a need for it. (I didn't actually do any shooting.)

It's a point of pride in the county that when residents need to get something done, they often simply do it themselves. Residents raised the funds to build Red Lake Falls' municipal swimming pool on their own, dollar-by-dollar. When the nearby town of Brooks needed a community center, businesses donated funds and residents volunteered time to build it by hand.

Over and over, the folks I spoke with told me it was that sense of community that kept them here, and that contributed to that enormous outpouring of civic pride in response to my original article. "There's lots of freedom here," Jason Brumwell said. "But everybody's still watching out for each other."

The people were amazing. "Minnesota Nice," as it's called, is a verifiable phenomenon. But even going beyond the civic pride that was so thick you could season a fried walleye with it, there was the landscape.

The high point of the tour for me was a kayak trip down Red Lake River, which meanders through the county before meeting with  Clearwater River in Red Lake Falls and eventually emptying into the Red River along the Minnesota-North Dakota border.

The river was a ribbon of tranquility slicing through the green-gold late August landscape. Broad and flat, but with just enough elevation drop to keep things interesting for this novice kayaker, the river carried a group of us smoothly through the pylons of a defunct railroad trestle and downstream toward sandy bluffs that rose 50 or so feet above the banks.

Locals fish the river for bass and walleye in the summer. When it freezes in the winter (average low temperature in January: -4 degrees), they make the best of it by skiing and skating across its surface. I began to understand what schoolteacher Bobbi Aakhus had said to me at the meet-and-greet at T&J's. "There's so much to do here," she said. "You just have to really dig into it."

Before visiting, I wouldn't have believed her. I was worried that 36 hours would be too long a visit, that we'd run out of things to say or do and end up sitting in silence, staring at corn. But I left feeling like I'd barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and know about the county and the people who call it home.

I kept looking for signs of discord or trouble, cracks in the facade of Minnesota Nice. But I couldn't find any. The places I visited, from the bars to the barns to the warehouses, even smelled wholesome -- like wood and grain and prairie air.

There's perhaps something amiss in a ranking that places Red Lake County at the absolute bottom of the nation when it comes to scenery and climate. As I noted in my original story, the USDA's index places a lot of emphasis on mild weather and a little less on true scenic beauty, which of course is harder to quantify. But there's no doubt that the Red Lake County region is flat-out gorgeous. In a phone interview, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar called it a "stark beauty," and I think she's right. And you can see that beauty everywhere, from the open farm country to the craggy bluffs and hills of the river valley.

Posted by at September 7, 2015 9:05 AM

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