RED LAKE FALLS – A marching band and a gaggle of beaming local officials greeted Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham on Thursday when he arrived in Red Lake County, the very place he had dubbed the nation’s ugliest a week earlier in his newspaper.
His visit, arranged by local business owner Jason Brumwell, set off a wave of civic pride as the people of Red Lake County prepared to show off the dairy farms, winding riverways and prairie towns Ingraham had slighted.
“I’m really glad to be here,” Ingraham said as he met Brumwell at the Red Lake County Courthouse, the first of several stops hastily arranged by Brumwell after the reporter accepted his invitation.
The awkward meeting of a newspaper reporter and a wronged Minnesota farm county had as its back story Ingraham’s blog post earlier this month about some 15-year-old data prepared by federal scientists. Using measures of climate and topography, the scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture had graded every U.S. county for its appeal and livability. The data were meant to predict population shifts.
Ingraham listed the counties’ rank on his blog, with six of the bottom 10 spots taken by Minnesota counties. Red Lake County ranked the absolute worst.
The story generated indignant reactions on Twitter and Facebook and from both of Minnesota’s U.S. senators, with Sen. Al Franken saying his own poll found the least livable place in the U.S. to be the Post’s newsroom.
“There was lots of anger,” said Havie Lee, a reporter for the Red Lake Falls Gazette. But after the initial shock wore off, locals in Red Lake Falls began plotting their public-relations strategy. “They were proud because it’s like, ‘Let’s prove him wrong,’ ” said Lee.
Ingraham’s visit began on a conciliatory note as he met with people in the courthouse, a stately building erected in 1910 and set on a hill overlooking the Clearwater River. Ingraham said his upstate New York upbringing wasn’t all that different from some parts of Minnesota. He said he felt some guilt over provoking so much anger, and took pains to assign blame for the data on the scientists.
“It wasn’t me!” he said.
The initial introductions over, Ingraham jumped into a red school bus owned by Brumwell’s river tubing company and set off with a small delegation of locals for the Schindler brothers’ dairy farm, a stop meant to showcase the agricultural backbone of the local economy.
At the farm, Ingraham stroked the head of a calf as it noisily suckled his hand. Cows looked up from their feed as Ingraham, the Schindlers and a dozen others walked past.
Then it was off to the Red Lake River for a 4-mile kayak trip with Brumwell and a few others. At one point, the group stepped out onto a sandy island to take in the view of some towering sandstone bluffs. The trip ended at Brumwell’s business, the Voyageur’s View campground, where staff members this week had taken extra pains to clean up and prepare for Ingraham’s visit.
“It’s pretty neat to live in a place like that,” Brumwell said.
A dinner Thursday night at a Red Lake Falls restaurant with the delegation was scheduled to include the county’s oldest resident. On Friday, Brumwell planned to take Ingraham on a bus tour of the county, with stops in the hamlets of Plummer, Brooks and Terrebonne.
County historian and retired schoolteacher Velma Oakland accompanied the group for much of Thursday afternoon, peppering conversations with the knowledge she’s gleaned over the decades.
She said she still can’t understand what motivated the Agriculture Department to designate Red Lake County the way it did.
“If this is such a bad place,” she said, “why do people stay here?”