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Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

We're not from around here, are we?

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • March 18, 2012 - 10:26 AM

The land of ya sure, you betcha, isn't quite as filled with native Minnesotans as it used to be.

Just 58 percent of Hennepin County residents were born in Minnesota, while in Ramsey County 62 percent are state natives, according to recent U.S. census data. In Houston County, in the state's southeast corner, less than one-third of residents were born here.

The shrinking proportion of Minnesota natives has grabbed the attention of Tom Gillaspy, the newly retired state demographer, who hopes the trend doesn't dilute the unique qualities he noticed when he moved here 33 years ago.

"There was a sense that people had roots here, a sense that there was a history and common bonds," he said. "Part of it was the weather, and going up north, and having a connection to the land. And with more and more new people here, that begins to slip away."

Compared to the nation, Minnesota's population is still mostly home-grown. About 69 percent of residents were born here, compared to 75 percent in 1980. Minnesota now ranks 11th in native-born residents, compared to eighth in 1980. Data from the 2006-2010 American Community Survey show Louisiana tops the nation for native residents, at nearly 79 percent. In Nevada, just 23 percent of residents were born there.

Morrison: Highest rate

In Minnesota, Morrison County (home of Little Falls) tops the list of counties dominated by native-born residents, at more than 87 percent. But the counties where homegrown Minnesotans are in the minority are also outstate, along the state border.

Some, like Clay County (43 percent Minnesota natives), contain college towns like Moorhead, Gillaspy said. In Houston County, Assessor Char Meiners was stunned that the county where she was born has just 33 percent native Minnesotans.

With just 19,200 residents, Houston County's profile may be shifting because of an influx of Wisconsinites to La Crescent, Minn., which has become a booming suburb of La Crosse, Wis., across the Mississippi River. "Real estate taxes are cheaper than in Wisconsin," Meiners said.

Cajun to buttered torsk

Gillaspy grew up in Texas with palm trees ("I hate them," he said) and Cajun and Mexican food and came to Minnesota after living in Pennsylvania, California and Oklahoma. He fondly recalls Scandinavian dinners with plates of all-white food -- delicious buttered torsk, boiled potatoes and aquavit, followed by coffee -- and a sense that the place had an identity and culture all its own.

Increasing diversity has made Minnesota more cosmopolitan, and that's good for more than the restaurant scene, he said. Most of the roughly 80,000 people who come to Minnesota each year are young and educated and come for jobs.

"These are people who can teach us a lot," said Gillaspy, who wrote about the demographic shift on his blog this month. "I'm just saying, you don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water."

New Ulm is where?

What he worries about -- and can say now that he's retired -- is that Minnesotans seem to be losing some of the values and knowledge that united the state's residents. He has given speeches to people who didn't know where New Ulm is. Schoolchildren know little state history, he said, and at the Legislature the view is increasingly combative, parochial and lacking the big picture.

"There's less of a sense that we're all in this together," Gillaspy said. "We need to be a bit more conscious of building communities and having relationships with each other."

Political culture would improve if people left their comfort zones to learn more about unfamiliar parts of the state, he said. "We just don't know as much as we used to about each other," he said.

Shared experience

In retirement, Gillaspy is staying in Minnesota and will consult, speak and blog. He hopes that as the state continues to change, it can "rebuild and maintain the best parts of that shared experience of being a Minnesotan."

"Minnesota is like that person who looks a little plain when you meet them and the more you get to know this person the more you realize that they're beautiful, with characteristics that are very attractive," he said.

"Many of us don't have this sense of place. We don't have the history. And if we don't have the history, we don't know where we're going."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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