In the tiny central Minnesota town of Bowlus, the old city playground equipment was veering toward dangerous.
Mayor Joe Larson — who is also a fire department captain and oversees the town’s water supply — grabbed a City Council member and pulled out raggedy nails and screws, trying to maintain it. Even so, the old wooden structure didn’t get much use. Some parents didn’t want their kids playing on it at all, deeming it too hazardous.
“It was an accident waiting to happen,” Larson said.
So the kids in the town of fewer than 300 residents found other things to do, often traveling in a pack.
They played tag, chased one another on bicycles and tried to make their own fun. Sometimes they got a little rowdy, but even the adults could see it was an unusual group.
“I’ve never seen kids play the way that they do. It was something kind of special to me,” said Molly Sobania, the town treasurer. “We have so many different kinds of kids and ranges of kids, and they all get along so well.”
The people of Bowlus set out to give the kids a destination again: a new playground.
After an initial idea lost steam, they asked Sobania to take the lead. The fundraising began in earnest in February.
The first responders, the fire department, the local Lions Club and local businesses — even businesses from neighboring towns — pitched in with donations or efforts to raise money. The city kicked in $20,000, too.
Sobania applied for some grants but didn’t hear back. In May, she organized a townwide garage sale and bake sale at the community center, and donations of goods poured in, raising about $4,000.
“We got so much stuff,” she said. “People were very, very generous.”
By the time the $69,000 worth of equipment was delivered, a squadron of volunteers stepped up to build it all, supervised by a company representative. A local contractor and local lumberyard donated extra supplies.
“Our town is really small, so everybody communicates,” Sobania said.
The finished 80- by 60-foot product, which officially opened in June, is now crawling with children. There’s a zipline, a slide, various types of swings, climbing structures and many other features for kids of all ages.
“It was a lot of money and everybody just kept pounding away on it,” said Michael Reis, who owns Reis’ Lumber & Construction with his brother. “You’re building for the future, you know. You got to look beyond today.”
Larson said his town may not fit the narrative of dying rural communities.
“We have a lot of younger couples now with children,” he said. And the playground has “just taken off. You can’t believe how many children play in that now.”
The adults have had some fun on it, too, Sobania said, with grown volunteers gleefully “testing” the zipline as they were building it.
“Everybody felt comfortable and worked very, very well together,” Sobania said. “We had such a blast.”
The story of the Bowlus playground could have taken place in many small Minnesota towns, officials said.
“It tells a really important story about people who are elected” in small towns, said Luke Fischer, deputy director at the League of Minnesota Cities. “They care about their communities a lot and they’re not going to let something like a lack of funding slow them down.”
Larson said he sees that spirit all the time, something he noticed soon after he first moved to Bowlus from Montana 19 years ago.
“That’s how a small town is, you know, people step up,” Larson said. “It’s a great little town.”