Rural Diversity

by Erin Hanafin Berg, Field Representative
September 4, 2009

“Rural diversity” sounds, at first, like an oxymoron. Randy Parry, president of the Rural Learning Center in Howard, South Dakota, pointed out that urban and suburban areas across the U.S. are looking more and more alike, both in their physical and demographic make-up. It is the rural areas—farm fields, vast plains, forests, and mountains—that provide a wealth of geographic, economic, and increasingly ethnic diversity in our country.

I heard Parry speak at the Midwest Rural Assembly, a conference sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which was held in Sioux Falls in early August. (Experience some of the conference for yourself by clicking on the link above and watching the many videos on the site.) On my return trip, with Parry’s phrase lingering in my head and with an eye towards searching out examples for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s new Latino Heritage landing page (which will be available here when it goes live on Sept. 15), I ventured off the I-90 corridor. I had read about Saint James’ recent accomplishments as a Horizons community, which engaged the University of Minnesota Extension Service in developing community leadership skills among recent Latino immigrants. But my visit to Mountain Lake, to meet a man interested in nominating his house to the National Register of Historic Places, was particularly insightful. I learned that Mountain Lake (population 2,082) was founded in the late 1880s by Russian Mennonites whose descendents have actively sought out and welcomed Laotian, Hispanic, and Hmong immigrants since the 1980s. I saw Laotian restaurants, Latino stores, and large, Victorian-era houses occupied by multi-generation immigrant families, all in close proximity to the grain elevators, farm houses, and cornfields that I had previously assumed typified southwestern Minnesota.

I contrasted my experience in Mountain Lake with my recent visit to the area of Mountain Iron, on the Mesabi Range in northeastern Minnesota. The Iron Range epitomizes ethnic diversity in Minnesota. The towns and cities on the Range—I visited Hibbing, Chisholm, Virginia, and Eveleth—each hold a rich heritage in their buildings and their population. The Range was settled by immigrants from over forty countries, and the towns and small cities of the Mesabi Range have been the proverbial “melting pot” of cultures. The fact that the Range economy was based on the labor-intensive industries of mineral extraction and timber, in contrast to the more solitary (but still laborious) practice of agriculture in western and southern Minnesota, has had an impact on all aspects of community life and development.

While the downtowns of most Minnesota towns appear similar, with small-scale commercial buildings that were built to provide various support services for the surrounding rural population, the physical characteristics of the towns vary dramatically, especially from one region to another. Factors including the local economic drivers and industries, the topography, the ethnic cultures, and available building materials have shaped our rural communities in unique and wonderful ways.

Randy Parry is right—greater Minnesota is far more diverse than I had thought. And while that diversity presents some challenges, it also affords us a wide range of perspectives and skills to use in reclaiming and revitalizing Minnesota’s rural communities.

What is your experience with diversity and historic preservation? Send your comments to

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