Small towns need to dust off websites

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2009 - 11:09 PM

This is probably a bad time to suggest a new project for the Minnesota Historical Society, what with all the budget cuts. Earlier this month it seemed likely they'd close down the Charles Lindbergh House. (A 50 percent cutback might mean rewriting all the pamphlets to say he made it only halfway across the Atlantic.)

But I have a suggestion for the sort of public-works project that seems in vogue these days, and it doesn't require billions: A website for every town in the state. Trust me -- they need them.

Let's say you're living in another state, looking to relocate a family or a business, or disappear because your elaborate financial scheme is on the verge of collapse. You've heard nice things about Prairie Falls, but the Google satellite view looks like a bug splattered on a window.

You find the town's website. There's a picture of the City Hall. The text: "Welcome to our 'Cyber' Home Page on the Information Superhighway!" The links consist of Yahoo, AOL and Y2K Preparation, and there's a jaggy piece of rotating art at the bottom that says "E-MAIL." You conclude the town hasn't updated the site since "The X-Files" was on TV.

In its own way it's fascinating, a time capsule, and you're so engrossed that you don't hear your secretary tell the FBI you're not in, please stop, why are you taking my computer? And then it's too late.

If you're the webmaster for Prairie Falls, you think: Fine. We don't want your type anyway. Point taken.

But sometimes people want to visit a town's website to plan a trip, look up a relative, research some history, or just kill a lunch hour looking for old pictures of Minnesota's history. Having spent a few months studying Minnesota town websites, you can trust me: It's grim pickings.

Oh, they have a slogan -- "Bocker Junction -- Where County Road 34 Bends Slightly to the South" or "Easy to Visit, Hard to Leave," which suggests a speed trap with steep fines and onerous bail. But most lack pictures of the city, aside from a blurry shot the size of a matchbook cover, and most of the time it's the shoreline of Lake Indistinguishable. Most lack an account of the town's history, and if they do put up something it reads like the roll call of the Swedish army. Of the hundreds of sites around, maybe 20 do their home town proud.

That's where the Minnesota Hamlet Website Project would come in. Sending unemployed Web designers around the state would be the modern equivalent of those WPA Guides the government used to sop up all the loose writing talent sitting around in the '30s. If they were put to good use, the idea went, they wouldn't sit around hungry and angry, writing rabble-rousing plays about woebegone Bolshevists. Send them around the country, the government decided, and have them do something nice and useful.

I'm not suggesting we send guys in black turtlenecks around to Beet Lake or Suckerskold to stride around the City Hall and say, "You may think your town is parks and lakes, but I have peered into its soul, and I see the grim despair of Nordic self-repression! A gallery of grizzled farmer-faces, accompanied by the soft mush of old men eating lefse in a church basement!"

"Well, could we have something on the front that says we're not picking up branches this year?"

"Only if it is a metaphor!"

No. It's possible to create simple forthright sites that tell the locals what they want to know, but give the tourist a feel for the town. If a hamlet has 10 houses, one church, a gas station and a bar, it has one nice old lady who remembers when, and probably has a box of Kodak Brownie photos that show the town in its heyday. Talk to her, scan the pix, slap 'em up.

Every picture, every postcard, every possible recollection; every available scrap of small-town history up on the Web, videos of the 4th of July parade, the entire history of this young state on the Web for all to enjoy.

It's a nice dream. Won't happen, alas.

But there's an alternative to the state funding the project. People in the towns could do it themselves. Radical, yes - but it just might work.

For our weekly rambles through the variety of small-town websites, hit buzz.mn every Tuesday.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/buzz.

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