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MARIETTA, MINN. - As soon as his big-city banking employer allowed him to work remotely, Andrew Lewis fled his traffic-jammed, necktie world to seek serenity. Now, when he turns away from the three computer screens on his desk, he can wander out the door of his old farmhouse and gaze at the rippling green carpet of crops that stretches beyond his 10-mile view. Corn, soybeans and sky.
Lewis is part of a small but steady contingent of educated transplants, often in their 30s and 40s, who are choosing to settle in the countryside. Seeking simpler lives, they are tipping the scales back a bit from the often-cited "brain drain" of rural high school graduates who leave for work or college in bigger cities.
"Even in the light of decline, there is growth," said Ben Winchester, who documented the continuing trend through his University of Minnesota Extension research. Despite perpetual images of the dying small town, he said, "there's more depth to population than just the total number. ... They have definitely contributed to keeping our small towns alive."
In Minnesota, the phenomenon is most pronounced in the central lakes region, with its lure of water and woods. There, in the last census decade, counties such as Hubbard, Mille Lacs and Carlton gained residents ages 30 to 44 at rates above 25 percent.
But even in southwestern Minnesota, which continues to shed population overall, many counties have gained residents in that age group.
Lac qui Parle County, where Lewis lives with his wife and 7-year-old twin boys, epitomizes small-town America. It has a little more than 7,000 people, and the county's single stoplight glows at a rural intersection.
Between 2000 and 2010, the 30 to 44 age group grew 15.1 percent, among the highest in the southwest part of the state.
Lewis, who grew up in Montreal and Toronto and later worked in the Twin Cities, moved to his hobby farm near the South Dakota border 6 1/2 years ago at age 44. He's about 40 miles from a Wal-Mart.
Lewis always loved the country, but moving there was an adjustment at first "because there's nothing," he said, sweeping his head to the vast open space around him.
Now he rides his three horses, raises three pigs and collects eggs from his chickens. His sons run freely on the 10-acre property, bought for half the price of the family's home in Coon Rapids. Some nights, they watch stunning sunsets across the plains.
"The thing that we miss most is no pizza delivery," he said with a chuckle. Still, he added later, "beats a cubicle any day."
Lewis, whose wife, Andrea, grew up in the region, quickly learned the advantages and disadvantages of no anonymity: "We're told about people whether we want to hear about them or not ... the feuds and whatnot," he said. "I just let it roll off my back."
On the flip side, when Andrea got breast cancer, the locals raised money to help with the costs, including more than 10,000 miles she logged to get chemotherapy and radiation.
Local government and civic leaders have worked hard to try to attract and keep newcomers like the Lewises.
Trench diggers cleave the countryside, laying 647 miles of fiber-optic cable as part of a $9.7 million project to bring free high-speed Internet infrastructure to all houses and businesses in the county.
The town of Dawson offers commercial real estate to job-creating business owners for as little as $1.
In Madison, Minn., last week, hundreds gathered under the marquee of the Grand Theatre to raise some of the nearly $100,000 needed to buy digital movie equipment so the venue can stay open when film becomes obsolete.
Business leaders recruit hard, too. When Madison clinic administrators interviewed 27-year-old Maribeth Olson for a physician assistant job last year, they took her and her husband on a tour of local real estate, businesses and the elementary school. They hosted a social gathering at the local VFW club. The couple, originally from Nebraska and South Dakota, packed their belongings and moved from suburban Pittsburgh in December.
Standing on their front lawn as their 3-year-old daughter maneuvered her training-wheeled bike across the street, the couple said they longed for simpler schedules, less crime, smaller schools and more space -- some of the same traits that draw others, surveys show.
They miss the convenience of all-night grocery stores and a variety of restaurants, but her husband, Kent Olson, said "overall, it was a better move."
Selling a lifestyle
Like the Olsons, many newcomers grew up in rural areas, but a majority are not returning home, moving instead to different small communities, Winchester said.
Real estate firms try to appeal to their sensibilities. United Country-Milaca, in Mille Lacs County, advertises "find your freedom."
"We sell a lifestyle," broker Brad Maitland said. "It's a feeling that you have when you wake up in the morning and you look out in the pasture and you see your horses grazing. ... People that have that desire, when they can attain it, which is usually probably in that age demographic ... they go for it."
Denise Green came "kicking and screaming" to her hometown of Milaca 10 years ago, she said, when her husband wanted to move from the metro area.
"I swore I'd never come back ... the teenage years aren't easy, and you look at the small-town mentality a lot different," she said. "You think everybody's cliquey and they hate you."
Now, at 52, she sees it differently. She has developed deep friendships, she said. "Because of the lack of entertainment and things to do, there's more of a community feel."
Living there is worth the hassle of commuting to the Twin Cities for her human resources job, she said. "My priorities are different," she said. "I needed to slow down."
New ideas, volunteers
The migration enriches rural communities, Winchester and others say, because newcomers bring ideas and skills to civic, school and church clubs.
A survey in west-central Minnesota showed that 60 percent of newcomers took leadership roles in the community, and 81 percent donated to local causes. Most had some higher education, too, with 68 percent holding bachelor's degrees or above, and 19 percent holding associate degrees.
In Lac qui Parle County, Dr. Brant Hacker, 43, moved to Madison seven years ago after working in the Twin Cities and earning a medical degree at the University of Minnesota.
Living in Madison required adjustment, he and his wife, Julie, said. The first time they shuttled their children to the local swimming pool, a grade-school boy asked for a ride home. Stunned, they gently declined. They didn't want anyone to think they were stealing a child, Julie recalled, smiling.
In winter, someone Julie didn't know noticed the family's minivan had a nearly flat tire and called one of Brant's friends to relay their concern.
"I thought, 'Wow! I know they watched out for the kids; I didn't know they watched out for you, too,'" she said.
The couple has connected with the community. Julie started a book club. Brant coaches high school tennis. Both serve on the board of a preschool they helped revive.
"At first, I thought it would be really lonely," Julie said. "Physically, you're sort of out there, but then you come to someplace like this and you know everybody. You feel like you could make a difference."
Besides, she said, she loves the way the stars shine brighter without city lights, how she can hear the whir of a car on the highway miles away.
"This is as basic in life as you can get," she said.
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102