CLINTON, MINN. – All day Sunday, Dave Alberts watched as the grain elevator that has towered over this western Minnesota prairie town for decades burned.
He saw firefighters from a dozen small-town departments race in amid sweltering summer heat with hopes of dousing the blaze and area farmers drop daily chores and field work to haul in extra water. Gawkers crowded in, too, drawn by the flames and billowing smoke that could be seen for miles.
"There were more people in town yesterday than ever before," said Alberts, a Clinton native and retired president of the local bank.
By Monday, with the fire still smoldering, the talk of the town of about 400 people near the South Dakota border had shifted from containing the massive blaze and evacuating surrounding neighborhoods in case of explosion to a painful long-term question:
Would Wheaton Dumont Co-Op Elevator, which runs the grain elevator that stood here for 70-some years, rebuild it? And if not, what would it mean for the future of Clinton, where so much depends on farmers hauling their grain to town?
"There's a lot of nervous people, everyone worried about everyone else," said Mayor Greg Basta. "They're a big elevator company. They're going to take care of what they gotta do. But what happens long term here? Do they rebuild or not rebuild? We're kind of at their mercy."
"We can't afford to lose them," said Bill Thyne, now the bank president. "We have such limited business out here in rural Minnesota. Each and every one is really important."
America's small towns exist on a razor's edge. Whereas a business closing can cause a stir in a big city, it can become an existential crisis in a place like Clinton.
The Big Stone County town has a grocery store and an elementary school, a cafe and a bar, a bank and a convenience store. On Monday, as firefighters continued to work the fire scene, the local assisted-living facility was moving residents into a new building with 18 units. And Clinton is in the midst of a $7 million project to rebuild roads, sewers and the water treatment facility.
Even though the grain elevator employs only a few workers, it has an outsized meaning here. Small farming communities are often founded on grain elevators being a transfer hub where area farmers can haul and store wheat, corn and soybeans. They dominate the rural skyline and are a source of community pride.
In the early 1970s, Alberts remembers Clinton as the place to be. Cars filled streets, especially on Saturday nights, when the high school band played on the town square.
"Now we're fortunate we got a grocery store and a restaurant," Alberts said. "A lot of towns this size don't even have that. If you aren't from here, you can't fully appreciate why we love it here. We appreciate the people. They're all your family."
That sense of family has been on display since the fire broke out.
Denese Gustafson, who runs the Northern Star newspaper here, saw smoke around 10:30 a.m. Sunday, about the time people were filing out of church, and grabbed her camera. The mayor could see smoke as he was driving back to town from Ortonville, 10 miles away. The town ball team was taking batting practice before heading to a tournament. Spotting smoke, a couple of volunteer firefighters rushed from the ballfield straight to the elevator.
The town quickly put out the call for mutual aid from nearby fire departments. Three farmers from Norcross, nearly an hour away, hauled water to town, as did other farmers.
"There's been people from everywhere — fire departments, farmers, ag service," Basta said.
Crews from a dozen area fire departments responded Sunday. By Monday, firefighters from three more communities had arrived, with some 100 firefighters battling the blaze over the two days. They pumped water from nearby Eli Lake, which each winter draws hundreds who compete in Clinton's annual ice golf tournament.
Bonnie's Home Town Grocery made sandwiches for firefighters and emptied its shelves of water and Gatorade. Pallets of water were delivered to NorthStar Saloon, a few blocks from the grain elevator. The convenience store made breakfast pizzas and brought them to firefighters.
"You take ownership in where you live," Gustafson said. "Yesterday was just the perfect example of why we live here. Everybody just pitched in. It'll be a tough thing if it doesn't rebuild, a tough thing for this town. If we don't have an elevator, our farmers will have to go somewhere else."
By Monday afternoon, some of the ruins from the blaze were still burning, though much fewer than the day before. Wheel loaders piled grain and charred wood in a 20-foot heap that smelled like burnt toast.
"We may never learn exactly what happened," said Philip Deal, the general manager of Wheaton Dumont Co-Op Elevator, which has more than 15 elevators scattered across western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota and North Dakota.
Deal said the next steps are uncertain. The co-op will meet with its insurance company.
"All the steel bins are still there," he said. "The great majority of the grain capacity is unscathed. The incentive is there to rebuild, but the handling facility was lost. But the number one thing is that nobody got hurt. That's the main thing. It's just stuff, just equipment."
It could have been worse. Residents are grateful that the wind was blowing away from town and that the damage was contained to the elevator, which collapsed into itself. By Sunday evening, the evacuation order was lifted.
"It's a very sad day," said Terry Gillespie, who farms 1,700 acres of corn and beans 7 miles out of town. "But we're resilient out here. The ag community is very important to this area. You think about what our forefathers went through as far as punches in the gut — this is a drop in the bucket.
"I see what my dad's generation did. Didn't expect nothing, just worked like dogs on the farm. This sucks, no doubt about it. But there have been a lot tougher times than we're in now."