Hector, Minn., 1989: You could buy groceries at Supervalu or the Red Owl. For bolts or a hammer, you could go to Our Own Hardware or Coast to Coast. You could get your oil changed at the service station and hit Jacoby Drug to fill your prescription and snag a birthday card while you waited.
Hector, Minn., 2014: The Supervalu is a vacant lot, and the Red Owl, which became Nelson’s Marketplace, has been closed for years. The Our Own Hardware is long gone. In March, the Coast to Coast that was a Hardware Hank went out of business.
You won’t be able to get that prescription filled at Jacoby Drug, either. That building is a NAPA auto parts store now, so you can get some spark plugs for the car you’ll need to get all the stuff you can’t get in town anymore. Make sure you can install them yourself, since the service station is closed, too.
But this isn’t the story of another backwater small town dying on the vine. The farmers who ring the city of 1,151 are doing just fine.
“We’ve definitely had a good run here. Last year was down, but that was mostly in comparison to how good 2011 and 2012 were,” said Jeff Kramer, who has farmed north of Hector since the early-1980s.
Hector was not the only small town to share in the statewide ag boom, which saw median Minnesota farm income push $200,000 in 2012. When that income plummets 78 percent, as it did in 2013, Hector’s two other large employers, one of which isn’t farm-dependent, helped the town stay afloat.
Loftness Specialized Equipment, on Hector’s south end, employs 85 people manufacturing items for farms like Kramer’s. Suttle Apparatus, the factory out on Hwy. 212 founded by Canterbury Park owner Curt Sampson, has people working full time on the floor and part time from home.
There are employers and jobs and money to spend; that money just has to be spent elsewhere.
Asked about Main Street’s decline, residents cite the big box stores of Hutchinson — 30-odd miles northeast — that include Wal-Mart, Target, Cash Wise, Shopko, Menards and a mall.
“People here will carpool into a van, drive to Hutchinson, fill the van up with groceries and head home,” said John Hubin, publisher of the News-Mirror, the local newspaper. “Then they’ll complain that they can’t get anything in town anymore.”
Said Kramer, the farmer: “I’ve been to Hutchinson and Olivia already today, and it’s not even 1 o’clock. I’m fortunate that the John Deere dealership is relatively close.”
“I want to spend my money in Hector and keep my money in town, but I can’t,” said Dane Vander Voort, a truck driver who lives just off Main. At 7 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, the parking lots are full at Loftness and Suttle. With the exception of 10 or so cars and trucks (mostly trucks) in front of Pete’s Grill, Main Street is empty. Lori Carlson is there for breakfast.
The Hector lifer worries about the town’s future, but notes that her workplace (telecommunications company ITCI) is successful, and so is the local lumberyard and greenhouse.
The city has an Economic Development Authority working to attract a new hardware store and other businesses.
Hubin, who used to sit on the EDA board, says, “What they should do is send the Southwest Light Rail all the way southwest, to Marshall or Worthington. You’ve got people in the Cities living on top of each other, but there’s plenty of land out here, and we just need some forward-thinking types to take the ball and run with it. There’s so much potential it’s scary.”
Steve Neuman, a contributor to the Star Tribune’s RandBall blog, grew up in Hector.