Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones. Take the “Get to Know Your Neighbor” idea, sponsored by the Community Connections Council and Community Health Intersections. They offered each township a couple hundred dollars and told them to throw a party. My husband and brother-in-law agreed to plan one for Bogus Brook Township, which meant that I lay awake worrying (unnecessarily) about paper plates and port-a-potties. What if no one showed up, or everyone brought deviled eggs to the potluck?
The township board agreed to open up the town hall but weren’t too optimistic about the turnout. A few longtime residents got excited about getting the neighbors and offered to pass out fliers.
It was clear and sunny the afternoon of the party. The musicians found the town hall and swatted at mosquitoes as they warmed up. Then the neighbors started arriving, their arms full of lawn chairs and dishes of food. By the time the music was in full swing, there were about 50 people and a heaping table full of food: chicken casserole, stuffing with turkey, little ham sandwiches on buns, jello salad, seven-layer salad, deviled eggs, cookies, bars and cakes.
At first, people sat quietly, listening to the music, smacking mosquitoes. But once they ate some food and sprayed for bugs, people became neighbors, piecing together where they lived, who they knew in common.
There were old couples who lived in the area for years and young people who moved up in the past year. Some neighbors who grew up in the area attended the one-room schoolhouse and remembered when there was a cheese factory on County Road 4.
At one point in the evening I held my baby and looked out at this small gathering of people sitting in a half circle, listening to the musicians. The sweet sounds of the fiddles and guitars rose up in the afternoon light, mingling with the rustling of the trees and the babbling of the nearby river. Children were chasing each other in the tall grass, and it was a sweet moment in time.
I wish I could have stayed in that moment, but as I looked out at my neighbors, a shadow fell over the gathering and time slid forward as I imagined what life could be like in about 10 years. A few of the older neighbors will sell off the farm and move closer to their kids. Some of the family farmers in our township will be among the casualties statewide and will sell and move. The rich fertile soil will be buried under lawns and subdivisions and grand homes and trailers. Canoeing the Rum could be like paddling down the back lane of a suburb. And our stretch of 169 could turn into a northern version of Elk River (strip malls/stoplights/fast food/parking lots/gas stations/mega-grocery stores).
Does this have to be? Can we welcome new neighbor and businesses without turning into an Elk River? One thing we all have in common whether we were born here or moved in recently is that we love the beauty of this land, the peace and open spaces, the farmland and the beautiful Rum River. And none of us want to lose it.
I know one way we can work to save what we love: by getting involved in the comprehensive plan for Mille Lacs County. Dick Knoll and other members of the planning commission – a dedicated group of volunteers – are meeting with the townships and asking what we’d like our county to look like in the near future. The planning commission needs to hear what we value, because you know they will here from the developers. It is only a matter of time. Call the county commissioner’s office and ask for a copy of the plan. Call a member of your township board and ask them when the planning meeting will be in your area. Throw a party and invite your neighbors. They will come.