Every town should have a motto. Something to put on a sign on the outskirts next to the board that says “Home of the Mudfrogs, State Champions Div. 4, 1987,” above the faded blue-and-gold circle that announces the presence of the Lions Club.
A motto is an expression of your town’s aspirations, its beliefs about itself. “A Great Place to Live!” is a matter of opinion (probably not shared by the bored teens who can’t wait to shake off this hick burg), but it tells you there’s some civic pride here. This town you’re trawling through at 30 maddening miles per hour is someone’s home. And they like it here.
Not all towns have a motto. Below a certain population, mottoes seem more like echoes of past glories than professions of current success. Somewhere around 200 souls seems to be the threshold. Let’s take a look at a few slogans, and see what they say about our state and its towns:
Ada (pop. 1,707) is named for a railroad official’s daughter who died at the age of 6. Perhaps because of that sad beginning, the motto looks forward: “Alive and Thriving!” It’s a city with two mottoes, which is not uncommon. It also claims to be the “Heart of the Valley,” which leaves nearby hamlets to claim liver, spleen and other organs.
Pity the town of Babbitt (pop. 1,475). Its name was taken from a Sinclair Lewis novel, which became synonymous with the blustering rah-rah boosterism of the 1920s. The motto might be overcompensating a bit: “Rich in History, Progressive in Thinking, A Great Place to Live & Work!” Listen, we don’t hold the novel against you.
Sauk Centre (pop. 4,317) got both barrels from Lewis in “Main Street,” a novel about the stifling climate of a small town on the plains. Its motto realizes there’s just no getting away from that, so: “A View of the Past — Vision of the Future.” Possibly a future in which articles about “Main Street” don’t say “The fictional town of Gopher Prairie was based on Sauk Centre.”
You’ll find a nod to history in Hackensack (pop. 313), which proclaims itself the “Home of Paul Bunyan’s Sweetheart.” That would be Lucette Diana Kensack, a statue of whom stands downtown to draw visitors. For years, there was a small statue of Paul Jr. next to her, which means Paul and Lucette had a rather intimate relationship.
What do you do if you don’t have history to tout? Take pride in your modest dimensions. Examples:
Grygla (pop. 221) “The Biggest Town of Its Size.” That’s a bit like saying “the heaviest person at his weight,” but it has a proud sound. Hilltop (pop. 744) is a “Little City With a Big Heart.” You hope it’s not downtown in a glass case, throbbing. Danube (pop. 505): “The City With Heart.” It’s like Hilltop, except no one ’round these parts uses adjectives. Harmony (pop. 1,020): “Biggest Little Town in Southern Minnesota.” That’s slippery. Another town could claim that it’s a bigger little town.
Lyle (pop. 551) weighs in with: “Biggest Little Town on the Border,” which sounds romantic until you realize it’s the Iowa border. There aren’t many towns right on the border, but Lyle’s twice the size of Bigelow, which missed the opportunity to call itself the “Biggest Bigelow on the Border.”
Sometimes the mottoes can seem a bit ominous. Proctor (pop. 3,057) claims “You Have a Place in Proctor.” You get the feeling you’re supposed to report there immediately to receive further instructions. Likewise Underwood (pop. 341), which must be ringed with barbed wire and guard towers: “Come for a Visit, Stay for a Lifetime.”
There are, of course, some underwhelming mottoes. The towns are likely swell, but the mottoes seem like off-the-shelf descriptions. Eagle Bend (pop. 535) is “Minnesota Hometown.” For 535, yes. Fairfax (pop. 1,235) is “A Good Place to Live.” Hope that wasn’t a contest winner. Moorhead (pop. 42,000) is “Your Hometown,” which is demonstrably false unless you’re from there, or live there.
If there’s a city with a truly Minnesota name, it’s Minnesota City (pop. 204). Motto: “A Past That We Honor, a Present That We Give Meaning, a Future That We Build Together.” That’s about 65 people for each clause. As mottoes go, it’s a bit long, but you hope it’s the spirit behind all the towns, big and small.
Or smallest big and biggest small towns.