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In Nerstrand, Norwegian traditions continue
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A group of intrepid fat tire bikers peddled out to the donut hole roasting on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Margit Carson Johnson)

Before hearty outdoorsy and history enthusiasts could attend Saturday’s event outside Nerstrand at the historic Norwegian churches, Valley Grove Preservation Society Chair Gary Wagenbach had to chose a day when the January temperatures might rise somewhere above the brutally cold single digits.

Donut hole roasters included Eric Johnson, Bobbie Maakestad and her grandson along with Travis Roethler came dressed for the cold. (Pamela Thompson/

“I have a weather app on my phone that helped me make a decision that Saturday was our best bet,” said Wagenbach.

The littlest donut hole roaster was 4-year old Ivar who accompanied his grandfather Rene Koester to the festive but freezing outdoor event. (Photo courtesy of Peter Heckman)

The temperature which hovered somewhere around the freezing point on Saturday didn’t deter the 50 or so people who stopped by the Bonfire & Donut Hole Roast. A group of fat tire bikers braved the brutally cold temperatures and icy roads peddled to attend the unique afternoon vent.

Linda and Gary Wagenbach stand on the snow-packed lawn of Valley Grove Church where the first annual doughnut roast attracted a crowd of 50 preservation society enthusiasts. (Pamela Thompson/

Margit Carson Johnson, a relatively new board member of the preservation society, said the COVID-19 pandemic had prevented the annual Christmas Eve candlelight service for two years.

The board, tasked with maintaining interest in and raising money for continuing preservation efforts said that roasting fried doughnut holes seemed like “a less messy option” than toasting marshmallows, melting chocolate bars and making smores outside in frigid weather.

Valley Grove looks serene with a blanket of snow, that is until mourners at two burials and 50 attendees arrived for a donut roast on Saturday afternoon. (Pamela Thompson/

Johnson said she was impressed by the number of people who attended the outdoor event, especially when she saw four generations of the Moakestad family, led by 94-year old matriarch Bobbie.

Dressed in their warmest winter gear, thick boots, wool socks, heated gloves and colorful scarves, attendees of all ages roasted the doughnut holes over fires blazing out of three modern-looking aluminum smokeless fire pits.

Quite a high-tech approach to celebrating the history surrounding them built by hardworking Norwegian immigrant farm families 160 years ago.

The two churches that sit atop the hill are both on the National Register of Historic Places. The 1862 stone church and the 1894 wood church adjoin the church cemetery surrounded by 50 acres of prairie and an oak savanna restoration project.

The cemetery adjoining the churches features a few hundred gravestones inscribed in both English and Norwegian, honoring early Norwegian settlers and their descendants. dating to the late 1850s.

Roasting fried doughnut holes was thought to be “less messy” than s'mores for a January bonfire. (Photo courtesy of Margit Carson Johnson)

Wagenbach, a retired science professor at Carleton College who has been president of the society for about 15 years, said that the true beauty of the site lies in the intentional landscaping of grasslands mixed with oak trees.

“The mixed oak savannah represents the history of vegetation embedded in the soil,” Wagenbach said. “The native prairie restoration with the oak trees is the conceptual frame of what the European settlers would have seen in the 1850s.”

With a blanket of snow covering the grasslands and the historic oak trees sheeted in ice, most bonfire attendees were more focused the social aspect of the outdoor gathering, rather than its backstory.

Johnson said the next event to be held at the thoughtfully preserved site would be May 15. Plans are underway to showcase the handmade works of a local tapestry weaver.

“Wouldn’t you know there were two burials out here today too,” said Johnson.

Southern Minnesota assessors report increases to home valuations
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(Neal E. Johnson/Unsplash)

While the numbers won’t be finalized for some time, local county assessors say that the incredibly strong housing market could lead to historic increases in single family home valuations in 2022.

While housing prices have been on the rise locally for close to a decade, Le Sueur County Assessor Shayne Bender said that 2021’s jump is likely to be on a different scale, with average valuations for single-family homes likely to be up as much as 25% to 30% this year.

“It’s the biggest jump I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been here,” Bender said. “It seems to be countywide and statewide.”

Bender attributed the sharp jump to a variety of factors, including a strong economy, low interest rates and limited supply. Rice County Assessor Josh Schoen said he was somewhat surprised to see the scale of the increase even with all of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

“With interest rates so low, it’s been a good time to buy,” Schoen said. “We’ve seen a record number of sales in Rice County.”

Bender expects that rising and shifting property values could have significant impacts on local budgets. In addition to providing more money for counties and cities to spend without raising taxes, it could shift the tax burden towards homeowners and renters.

While the housing market is tight nationwide, Minnesota appears to be particularly affected. According to a September report from the Minnesota Population Center, the Twin Cities has the second lowest housing vacancy rate of the nation’s 75 largest metro areas.

According to an analysis produced earlier this year by the Minnesota Housing Partnership, meeting the demand produced by projected job growth and population growth will mean adding an additional 10,000 housing units per year each year for the next decade.

The MHP’s report highlighted lean housing production following the “Great Recession” of 2008-09 as the main culprit in leaving the state with inadequate housing supply, which has in turn led housing costs to be increasingly burdensome for many Minnesotans.

Over the last decade, the MHP’s report shows that home values have already increased at four times the rate of homeowner income. The latest increases could add to that gap, even as significant wage growth has been reported amid a tight labor market.

While the single family housing market may be seeing an especially sharp rise in values, local assessors said that property values are up across the board. That includes an increase in apartment values, though Steele County Assessor Bill Effertz said that robust construction has helped to limit the increase to a relatively modest 7%.

Effertz noted that business at local industrial parks has been brisk, which has been a major driver in boosting the need for housing and thus boosting local valuations. Similarly, agricultural land has enjoyed an increase of around 8% in valuation.

Effertz did note that local office and commercial spaces have been an unfortunate outlier, at least in Steele County. He attributed slower sales and flat valuations in that area to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, including increased interest in working from home.

Another factor likely damaging commercial sales has been COVID’s devastating impact on the local hospitality industry. Driven by the region’s leading tourist attraction, Cabela’s in Owatonna, Steele County has traditionally had a robust hospitality industry.

Still, Effertz noted that the commercial and office market has been stronger in select areas, such as Owatonna’s Central Business District, which has seen a significant amount of new housing development as well.

“Any time you’re speaking in generalities, there’s going to be exceptions,” he said.

The Roy Orbison Tribute show will be at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault, Saturday, Jan. 15. A matinee and evening show. (Photo Courtesy of David K)

Faribault Police searching for new chief
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Faribault’s law enforcement leader will have to wait a bit longer to hang up his boots.

Andy Bohlen has been the chief of police in Faribault for more than nine years, but Feb. 25 marks his last day before retirement. His retirement was originally slated for Dec. 31 but has been pushed back nearly two months. At this time, it is uncertain if an interim chief will be needed to fill his role before a new chief is officially selected.

Bohlen takes great pride in the fact that his community supports the Faribault Police Department. This adds to the pride he feels for being part of the department. A community supporting the police is hard to come by today, as “sentiment toward law enforcement ebbs and flows,” said Bohlen. Law enforcement in America has been changing constantly in the last few decades. Southern Minnesota police, especially in Faribault, were quick to adapt to guidelines and standards as they emerged.

According to Bohlen, the next chief’s biggest issue right out of the gate may be the same as one of his biggest challenges.

“The major challenge is motivating talented and diverse candidates to pursue law enforcement,” that said, that same problem is one of several that are keeping police departments from expanding and progressing all across the country.

Another thing that Bohlen sees as very important is the ability to deal with mental health issues. This is done by having avenues for officers and community members to receive counseling and other assistance during and after traumatic events.

By supporting officers’ mental health while on the job, officers are able to perform their duties to the fullest extent possible.

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, support for police in many communities has plummeted. In Faribault, the community still supports the police, but enrollment rates into the police academy are still very low. If young people are not interested in joining, police forces everywhere will struggle to keep up with the needs of their communities. Bohlen hoped that whoever succeeds him is willing and able to tackle this issue.

The most important thing that Bohlen learned in his 32 years in law enforcement is “To surround yourself with good, confident people and be honest.” He has stuck to this through his 32 years of public service.

As part of his career, Bohlen also spent 20 years as an officer in Lakeville. In this time, he served a pivotal role in a burgeoning drug task force, something that has found success in Faribault and Rice County. He reports that this work was very rewarding, but he still feels that his time as Faribault’s Police Chief is the biggest highlight of his career.

According to Faribault City Administrator, the city is in the final steps of selecting a new chief of police. In this last portion of the process, the candidates have been narrowed down through a series of interviews and meetings.

At the moment, the city is nearing a decision on finalists. The names of those being considered have not yet been shared by the city. Once the candidates are narrowed down to a certain number of finalists, their names will be made public, and the city will host an open house.

The open house is expected to take place early in February, but the date has not yet been set.