On The Mark: A reflection on small towns and urban neighborhoods
November 19, 2021
After 12 years of living full-time in Red Clover Township, I’m beginning to understand the power of local ties and community. Growing up in an inner-ring Minneapolis suburb, we lived in a house cheek-to-jowl with other post-World War II single-family homes. All were recently built on post-WWII prosperity, expanded educational opportunities and federally subsidized home mortgage loans. My parents both graduated from the University of Minnesota in the late 1930s, then tuition-free, and each lived with family members nearby.
Oddly, our neighborhood was not truly sociable. Mothers shared recipes and gardening tips and helped each other out in times of trouble. Men went off in carpools to work across town. My brothers and I went to a K-8 Catholic school a mile away. After school we’d play in the streets or skate on the local rink. Catholic high schools required a considerable commute. My father would drop me off in the morning, and I’d take the bus downtown and back out after school.
In the early 1970s, I lived in Cromwell with my grandfather, Marinus “Renus” Markusen. I was desperate to finish my dissertation and only slightly regretful to leave my full-time job as staff economist at the Michigan Legislature. Grampa introduced me to our neighbors: Siiri and Einar Letty, Elmer and Gladys Homstad, Betty and Eddie Rostveit, George Balsness and Ruth Hanson. A midmorning coffee break at one or the other of our homes was a delightful work break.
In the fall of 1973, I packed up and moved, including an inherited baby grand piano, to the University of Colorado. I was the only woman ever and youngest faculty member in the Department of Economics. For the next 36 years, I taught graduate students at five universities.
I’d spend the summer months with my grandfather, a master carpenter who built homes and churches for neighbors. I’d work on my research and writing projects. We’d cook and garden together. After dinner, we’d play music: Renus on his fiddle, me on grandmother’s piano. He told me about his life as an immigrant from Denmark. I would prowl his bookshelves and read everything my college-educated grandmother — a Cromwell high school English teacher — wrote.
Over the years, I made friends with June Collman and Barb Walli. We walked together and began a series of annual women’s canoe trips. We invited others to join us, including June’s grown daughters, neighbor Dawn Lippo, and Siiri Peterson, Barb’s mom, then well into her 70s. One year we brought Julie Collman’s daughter, 3-year-old Jessica, with us.
I’ve been living year-round in Cromwell for most of two decades. In 2003, after Barb died of cancer, Rod Walli and I married on a cold Thanksgiving weekend. We live in the house he and Barb designed and built. My cousin Martha Markusen and her husband Greg now occupy the Markusen house during summers, fleeing the heat in Tucson. We work the marvelous veggie garden our grandfather created. Fall and winter, the ancestral house becomes my work and yoga studio and a place to house visitors.
How different it is to live nearby a small town which hosts schools, commerce, medical care, the Villa Vista care complex, churches, city services and workplaces. Our lives are more visible to each other than they would be in a large city. We often catch up with neighbors at events like the hunters’ supper in Cromwell and the monthly Old Timers dance at the Cromwell Pavilion. Husband Rod — Cromwell-Wright high school’s math and psychology teacher for years — grew up here and knows almost everyone. He sometimes spots someone in her car and recounts the genealogy of her family until my head spins.
Small cities such as Wright and Cromwell continue to attract new residents with their quality of life, affordable housing, recreational opportunities, quality schools and good health care. My mother never understood why I loved this town and bought my grandfather’s home after both he and my uncle died. For her, the quiet suburban neighborhood with its minimal socializing was a fine place to be a mother and wife, homemaker and schoolteacher. In her later years, she lived in a cozy apartment and assisted living complex in Boulder, Colorado, close to my brother and his family. She was happy with her choices. I am, too.
Columnist Ann Markusen is an economist and professor emerita at University of Minnesota. A Pine Knot board member, she lives in Red Clover Township north of Cromwell with her husband, Rod Walli.