TENNEY, MINN. -- You drive across the flat plains, black with tilled earth, for what seems like forever. Giant tractors kick up clouds of dust into the horizon. First you see the grain elevators glinting metallic in the sun. A line of rail cars from the Canadian Pacific squeals to a halt, just behind the sign identifying Minnesota's smallest incorporated town: Tenney, population 6.

The sign turns out to be hyperbole, a vestige of the last census.

There are now four residents living in this tiny town 20 miles south of Breckenridge in west-central Minnesota. In a time of hostility toward government, Tenney is an outlier; all four residents are public officials. They are, in a sense, a government in search of a citizenry.

On this day, three of them are busy hauling away junk from vacant lots and spiffing up the small church, which they've turned into their City Hall, in preparation for the 125th anniversary of the town on Saturday.

The celebration will include a coffee social, historical tours of the remaining ramshackle buildings, a few antique cars and a "pork loin meal (11 a.m. until gone)." If anyone signs up, there will be lawnmower races.

Kristen Schwab, a former aspiring musician who today wears a Beatles T-shirt, is the mayor. She landed in Tenney last year after what she calls "a rough 10 years" moving from various jobs. Her music dreams died along with rocker Kurt Cobain, she said.

Schwab, who said she was "shocked" to be elected mayor, has already learned some nuances of holding public office, including complaining occasionally of "problems of the previous administration."

Schwab, 40, moved to Tenney to be with her boyfriend, Mitch Fink, who is a City Council member when he's not working as a scrap metal dealer.

Across an empty lot, Oscar Guenther and his sister, Sue, occupy a small house. She is a City Council member; he is the clerk and treasurer, overseeing a budget of roughly 10 grand. Most of the budget comes from taxes paid by the grain elevator, plus about $1,100 from local government aid. It was cut by $30 this year so, if needed, "we'll pass the hat," said Guenther.

Guenther moved to Tenney in 2002 and he's high on Schwab's mayoral energy. "She's a like a tornado," he said. "The previous administration was, to use a political term, more laissez faire."

At its zenith, around 1910, Tenney had about 200 residents. There was a hardware store, a butcher shop, a bank, a pool hall and a hotel. Now, a dilapidated empty general store holds down one corner, and next to it a couple of abandoned mobile homes. A pickup truck scavenged for parts sits across the road, recently rutted by torrential rains. Schwab was working to get the abandoned stuff removed by festival time.

Meanwhile, they mowed down the weeds in a lot owned by people who are not residents. Schwab, sounding like the beleaguered mayor of a much bigger city, said she wanted to recoup the cost of gas and weed killer from the owners, but ran into a bureaucratic snag.

"The county attorney says we need a citizen to file a complaint," she said. "But we don't have any citizens."

Schwab hopes that any proceeds from the celebration would go toward a new roof for the church. Refurbishing the social hall, which still holds glassware and coffeepots from parties that died decades ago, is a distant dream. But occasionally someone drives through and inquires about moving to Tenney. And with the newly remodeled council meeting room behind the church, "we are looking into getting an Alcoholics Anonymous group to meet here," Schwab said, sounding hopeful.

Town officials want the anniversary to be the biggest thing since Heidi Haagenson signed copies of her book, "The Tenney Quilt: Celebrating the Women of Minnesota's Tiniest Town," a few years ago, an event that drew nearly 100.

Just perhaps, the celebration might lure someone new to town, officials said.

"You don't hear much live music around here," said Schwab, whose friends will play in a band called Roxbury on Saturday. "So this is pretty big."

It's a removed, but not necessarily quiet place, with dozens of trains and trucks per day, moving grain from the fields to as far away as China through this junction.

When I asked Guenther if there's anything more to say about Tenney, he paused.

"One note: I lost one girlfriend due to this town," he said. "I loved her and she loved me, but she just didn't like it here. I told her it was a package deal."

So what does Guenther see in this desolate town that his girlfriend didn't?

"You know those Currier and Ives snow globes with the towns inside?" Guenther asked. "You shake them, and watch it snow. Well, I feel like I'm living inside one of those globes, and people are on the outside looking in.

"It may seem funny," Guenther said. "But it's kind of like my paradise."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702


Tenney is about 170 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Events run from 9 a.m. until midnight Saturday.