– On a chilly December evening, the main street of this tiny northwest Minnesota town looks more like a movie set.

Lights twinkle on wreaths and evergreen trees. Shoppers throng the brightly lit stores, hugging and calling greetings to neighbors. Kids tumble, red-cheeked, from a hayride and toast s’mores at bonfires in the street.

But this is no movie. It’s a real-life holiday tale of investment and inspiration: a struggling town brought back to life, seemingly overnight.

“This town hasn’t seen this much action in 50 years,” said Grant Oppegaard, who grew up here and went on to a long career as a Twin Cities business executive. “It is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen.”

A year ago, the stores along the main drag stood empty. Some had been vacant for decades in the northwestern Minnesota town of 625 residents. Then came Andrea Stordahl, a young mother of two who discovered the meaning of community and set out to help it flourish.

Stordahl and her husband, Bryce, moved to McIntosh from the Fargo area four years ago, planning to join his dad in running an organic dairy farm. But before their plan had a chance to take shape, Jim Stordahl died of cancer. That followed the cancer death of Bryce’s only sibling, Bryan, in 2013.

The deaths left the young couple reeling, and prompted them to re-examine what they valued in life.

“After Dad died, we were like, ‘What the hell?’ ” Andrea Stordahl said. “Everything we thought we cared about before, it didn’t matter at the end of the day.”

As they sorted through their feelings, one thing stood out.

“People were so good to us and so loving,” Stordahl said. “Here, you actually do know everybody, and everybody knows you and your kids. I’d never experienced anything like that before.

“After going through a tragedy here, this is my home.”

Changing the tone

But the new home needed some housekeeping.

“I hate to say it, but this town was dying,” said the 37-year-old Stordahl, mother of Adler, 4, and Jens, 5.

What McIntosh needed, she thought, was a shot in the arm downtown, where an entire block of storefronts stood empty and decaying.

“Without business, people aren’t out and about, talking to each other,” she said. “They’re not finding out things. They start to become more isolated.”

For several years, Stordahl ran a thriving vintage business from her home, setting up shop at flea markets and junk shows and selling goods online. Now, she decided, it was time to take the plunge into a brick-and-mortar store.

Last year, with her own money, she bought the old McIntosh Bakery building here and renovated it with help from her husband — who’s a contractor — and a group of the Amish carpenters who live in the area.

By the end of 2018, she opened her business, Minnesota Rust, and the town took notice.

“People really embraced it and supported us,” Stordahl said. “And I think it kind of changed the whole tone downtown.”

This past spring, Stordahl heard the city was planning to sell several other vacant Main Street buildings, which it had taken over for unpaid taxes. She and her husband decided to go all in.

When Stordahl approached the city about buying the properties, Mayor Toby Strom was all ears.

“When she said she wanted [them], I couldn’t give her the keys fast enough,” he said with a laugh. The city sold her the buildings for $1.

Stordahl put her Amish carpenters to work again, and by the fall they’d renovated three of the empty buildings. The fourth should be finished this winter.

It’s too soon to know whether Stordahl’s work will have a lasting effect on the fortunes of McIntosh, which has been steadily losing population since the 1940s. But it’s an impressive start.

“She did it in about half the time and with half the money I would have guessed,” said Oppegaard, who works as an adviser to the Small Business Development Center in 12 northwest Minnesota counties. Stordahl has completed her projects for about $100,000, he said, borrowing slightly more than half that amount from the city’s economic development fund and covering the rest with earnings from her business and loans from family members.

“She has basically, all by herself, revitalized that downtown area,” Oppegaard said.

‘It’s a different speed’

Stordahl not only renovated the buildings, but she also recruited businesses to fill them: the Red Poppy gift shop; the Beauty Room salon; and the Howard Soap Co., which sells handmade soaps and candles. Still to come is a cafe, because every town needs “a place to shake dice and have coffee,” Stordahl said.

“When Andrea moved in, I kind of thought she was crazy,” said soap company owner Kathrine Howard. But when Stordahl approached her about taking a storefront, Howard — who had been making her products in her mother’s garage — decided to take a chance on the crazy woman. Now, she said, “I feel pretty good about it.”

Ashley Thomas had been styling hair in a rented room. She needed little persuasion.

“Andrea messaged me: ‘If we ever bought a building and turned it into a salon, would you lease it?’ ” Thomas said. “And I jumped at it.”

Kim Spaeth, editor of the weekly newspaper, the McIntosh Times, called Stordahl’s work “amazing. … She has given people a reason to come visit our town.

“Andrea has brightened our lives,” Spaeth said. “Not what she has done — just herself.”

Back at the festival earlier this month, townspeople marveled at the happy crowd in the newly renovated downtown.

“It’s been a godsend,” said Jane Aakhus. “To actually have trouble parking in downtown!”

Chad and Jeni Kurtyka drove 60 miles from Grand Forks, N.D., to be here with their two young daughters.

“I love small towns,” Jeni Kurtyka said, “and I want to live in a small town, where people know each other and they do family things.”

That’s what motivated Andrea Stordahl.

“When we moved here, we realized how important family is,” she said. “It’s a different speed here.

“It’s so much more community-oriented. I think people have undervalued having those personal relationships.”