The annual Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show is fast approaching. This year’s festivities on Labor Day weekend will include a new attraction previewed last year, the “Rice County Northern Railroad.”
The miniature train is large enough to sit on, like a riding lawnmower or amusement park ride, but not large enough to get into. It has a gas-powered engine similar to a lawnmower, which drives an oil pump that fuels the motors in the back. The main locomotive, which houses the engine, weighs some 900 pounds, and is attached to several trailer cars that weigh 100-150 pounds each. An engineer sits on a car directly behind the locomotive and puts his feet on the foot pegs to drive it.
Members of Rice County Steam & Gas Engines first heard about a train being up for sale at the biannual meeting of the Minnesota Association of Antique Power Shows in September 2017. The train set’s owner had recently died and his daughter was looking for someone to buy the full train set, including the approximately 1,000 feet of track that would need to be disassembled and moved to the new location.
Believing the train could make a nice addition to the organization’s robust stall of antique equipment, Perry Kruse, who sits on the Rice County Steam and Gas Engines’ board of directors, took a trip to Hackensack, Minnesota to see the six trailer cars and track. Subsequently, he made a presentation to the board urging the purchase of the train and track, and the membership then voted to go ahead with the purchase. At last year’s Steam & Gas Engines Show, the six newly purchased trailer cars were put on display.
Shortly after the show ended, Kruse and three other members of the board traveled to Hackensack, Minnesota, on a warm September day to dig up all 1,000 feet of track and bring it back to Steam and Gas Engines’ showgrounds just outside of Dundas. During the winter, they devised a plan to lay the 1,000 feet of track in two connected loops close the Steam and Gas Engines shed, which often hosts live music and other festivities during Steam and Gas Engines’ show.
After transporting the track, the Steam and Gas Engines crew soon discovered that many of the wooden ties holding the track into the ground were rotten. The crew originally planned just to replace the ties that were rotten, but Kruse found a company in Ohio that makes plastic ties. Although the plastic ties were more expensive, they pay for themselves over the long term because they last so much longer than wooden ties.
This summer, the Steam and Gas Engines crew began the complicated work of laying the track. They carefully measured and marked off the rail path, dug up the sod, carefully laid a gravel bed in its place, and graded the bed. Once that work was done, each section of the rail was carefully laid into the ground. Additional gravel was placed on top of and around the rail and tamped to hold each rail in place.
The Steam and Gas Engines crew completed the first of two track loops on Sept. 5. To celebrate, they hauled the locomotive and other cars out of the shed, put them on the track and pushed them around. They installed a removable bridge across the track so that they can safely transport a lawnmower across the track to mow the grass inside the loop. A small corner of the track was left isolated boxed in by the rail design, so rather than build another bridge, the Steam and Gas Engines crew simply filled the area with rocks.
Kruse says the Steam and Gas Engines crew is hoping to complete the entire track in time for Labor Day Weekend show. Even if they aren’t able to achieve that ambitious goal, they plan on running trains on the already completed loop during the show.
A railroad is something members of Rice County Steam and Gas Engines have long dreamed of adding to their stockpile of antique machinery. Thanks to the organization’s 501 © (3) status, the seller was able to claim a significant amount of the cost as a tax write-off, making the purchase price significantly more affordable for Steam and Gas Engines.
“We’d been talking about a railroad for a long time, so we decided to at least take a look at it,” said Kruse.
In 1855, German settlers built a cabin on land that is now Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Six generations later, one of their descendants is fighting to save it.
Today, the cabin sits on a few acres in rural Nerstrand, a few miles from its original location, moved by the original owners a year after it was built. It’s the land that Darlene Calvert, of Faribault, grew up on, right next to the 164-year-old cabin.
After being passed down through generations, Calvert took ownership of the cabin this July. Property owners Deborah Ristvedt, Calvert’s second cousin, and Eric Ristvedt agreed to sell the cabin for $1. But there was a condition: she has 90 days to remove it from the property, one way or another.
Calvert, who now lives in rural Faribault, grew up in a Nerstrand home with no running water or electricity. She and her family lived on land originally settled by Paul George Wolf and Anna Elizabeth Vogel Wolf, immigrants who came from Bavaria with Paul Wolf’s family in the 1850s.
The Wolfs built the original cabin on land now a campground in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, establishing themselves as the area’s first settlers. A year later, they moved their family and the cabin a few miles away to rural Nerstrand, where the cabin now stands.
When they moved the cabin, it had to be disassembled and reassembled log-by-log. In its new location, they built an addition twice as big as the original cabin, which now stands a story and a half with wood siding.
Paul Wolf died within the year, when a tree snapped and killed him, leaving Anna to raise seven children on her own.
For Darlene, the site is imbued with the lives and history of these ancestors. She recalls stories of how the family lived alongside local Native Americans in a period before the influx of European settlers led to conflict. The Native Americans loved potatoes, she said, which aren’t native to North America. A family legend tells of a lone Native American man who heard of the family’s willingness to offer bread to hungry strangers — but when he entered the house and saw seven children inside, he handed the bread back and left.
“To me, it shows how they tried to get along,” said Darlene.
As Wolf’s descendants built a new barn, house and other buildings on the property, the cabin fell into disuse. By the time Darlene was growing up, it was mainly a playhouse. Then, over the years, buildings were torn down to clear out the property, with Darlene’s childhood house becoming a practice burn for the Nerstrand Fire Department in 1989.
The current property owners just want the cabin gone. Since there’s no one living nearby to watch the isolated cabin, it poses a risk, said Darlene.
“They wanted to give it to Darlene because they knew she was the person with the desire to make this thing into something immortal,” said Dean Calvert, Darlene’s husband.
The Calverts are in the early stages of talks with the Department of Natural Resources and the state park to get the cabin moved.
Katie Foshay, state park manager, said it’s too early to know how soon the cabin could move, or if the park has the place or funds to move it at all.
“Nothing’s set in stone yet. We’ve just been talking with them, but there’s no answer to whether or not it’s feasible. We’ll know more in the coming weeks,” said Foshay.
Scott Haugen, acquisition and development specialist for the Department of Natural Resources, confirmed that the potential move is currently under consideration, and that it’s too soon to estimate how much the project might cost.
“Division field and park staff toured the cabin site this week to do a condition assessment and answer questions. Currently, our approach is to evaluate the proposal to determine what role, if any, the cabin could play in the amenities and attractions at the state park,” Haugen said via email.
If no one can take the cabin, it will likely be taken apart, with the wood reused for furniture and other vintage-style pieces. The purchase agreement requires Calvert to pay all removal costs.
The Calverts are hoping to speed things along by collecting letters of support from community members expressing desire to see the cabin moved to Nerstrand, which they plan to pass to the DNR.
Darlene envisions the cabin as either an educational interpretive center with information about 1850s life, or a rustic overnight camping experience to bring in revenue for the park.
“Sometimes, when I come to this cabin, it’s like time stood still. You can go back to what it might have been like in 1855, and I’d like to share that kind of experience with people who are prospective guests for the park,” said Darlene. “How many parks can say they’re getting a cabin back after 164 years?”
Polite conversation was the norm for the most part, but it didn’t take long for “the elephant in the room” to appear: the Trump administration’s tariffs and trade war with China.
Two dozen regional farm leaders joined an hour-long discussion with U.S. Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue at Profinium Bank in Mankato Wednesday, hosted by First District Rep. Jim Hagedorn. The primary message? Farmers in southern Minnesota are hurting.
“Everything is pretty much tied together,” he noted.
Perdue said he understands “it’s tough times out there now.”
“There’s a lot of emotional stress and economical stress,” said Perdue, a Trump administration appointee and Georgia farmer and veterinarian. He was also Georgia governor 2003 to 2011.
Nicollet County farmer Jim Compart was among those also advocating for Congress to formally approve the renegotiated trade pact with Mexico and Canada, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Compart said 40 percent of U.S. farm exports are with our northern and southern neighbors.
But the Nicollet area hog producer also stressed that in light of the trade war with China, USDA officials need to strengthen other trade agreements. The Trump administration bowed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with a dozen other trade nations.
“We have to get some bilateral agreements (with other countries),” Compart stressed.
Perdue said those efforts continue.
“We’re hopeful we can get a deal this fall with Japan,” he said. “We probably got too reliant on China. And the President said ‘no more.’”
But concerns over the Trump administration’s ongoing tariff wars with China remained predominant in the Mankato talks. Eric Fisher, of AGCO Manufacturing in Jackson, said early steel tariffs and the subsequent retaliation by China continue to hurt.
“Anything we can do to expedite that will be helpful,” he said.
Several farm leaders also stressed concerns over the growing labor shortage in southern Minnesota, particularly in the agricultural sector. And it comes on the heels of one of the nation’s largest labor raids ever early in the day, with a reported 680 undocumented farm workers at a Koch plant in Morton, Mississippi ,arrested and likely to be deported.
Perdue, during a brief press conference with regional media, had heard of the raid but didn’t want to comment much until he heard all details. But he expressed surprise and hinted he disagreed with the action by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE).
“I’m disappointed,” Perdue said. “I’ve talked to the President about this.”
Regional concerns and praise
Prior to the late afternoon roundtable discussion, Nicollet County dairy and crop farmers Paul and Howard Swenson expressed their concerns over current farm prices and issues.
“We just want an end to it. Now,” said Paul Swenson. He emphasized how the tariffs and trade wars have hit all aspects of agriculture — dairy, crop, livestock.
Howard Swenson, a former Nicollet area state representative, said action is needed on the federal level on both tariffs and trade. He said new trade agreements have been slow to be approved and “Congress needs to bring it up for a vote” and formally pass a renegotiated agreement with Canada and Mexico.
Later, during formal discussion with Perdue, Paul Swenson was firm in relating concerns over the loss of dairy farmers in Minnesota.
“We’re losing farmers every week,” he said. “We’ve lost a tremendous part of our industry.”
While Perdue expressed empathy for the end of small farm operations, he added that there’s not been much of a drop in the number of dairy cows, as producers grow larger.
“It’s just got much more expensive to farm,” Perdue noted. “There’s an economy of scale.”
But some, like Mike Drummer of Mankato, praised Perdue and the efforts behind the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, which in part opened up the hemp industry, calling it “a watershed moment.”
“Southern Minnesota has been a hot spot in the industry,” said Drummer, who is an investor in a Waseca-based hemp facility. “It’s an ever-increasing industry.”
Perdue raised some skepticism over whether there will be sufficient markets for the rapidly growing hemp industry. Drummer expressed confidence that new products will also emerge.
“It’s the wild, wild west in the industry right now,” Drummer said.
Hagedorn: Quiet, behind the scenes
Hagedorn, while serving as host to the Mankato discussion, talked little, allowing Perdue to answer and visit with farm leaders. But he said his goal is to help “preserve our rural way of life.”
“It’s been tough for five, six years,” Hagedorn said. He, along with Perdue, said the Trump administration is right to put pressure on China and that federal officials are “moving forward on the trade agreements.”
“We’re doing everything possible to move these things through,” he said.
But that “elephant in the room” also appeared early in the day at the annual Farmfest show in rural Morgan. Gary Wertish, a Renville area farmer and president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, was the first to coin the phrase in regard to the Trump administration tariffs and trade war with China.
“This is causing long-term, devastating damage to not only farmers, but rural communities,” Wertish told Perdue, who also attended Farmfest.
Others painted a similar picture of the Minnesota farm landscape.
“Things are going downhill and downhill very quickly,” said Brian Thalmann, a McLeod County farmer.
And Joel Schreurs of Tyler, a board member on both state and U.S. soybean grower’s associations, questioned whether the China market would ever return.
“How are you going to keep the farmers farming?” he asked Perdue. “The exports aren’t going to be there. We’ve worked a long time to develop these markets, and we’re going to lose this market share.”
Perdue said at Farmfest and again in Mankato that he remains optimistic.
“I think it will get done and President Trump wants it to get done,” Perdue said. “I wish I could tell you when.”