Creative Revitalization in Granite Falls

This content is underwritten by Valvoline Instant Oil Change across Northern Minnesota, a woman-owned business supporting women and families across the region.

Some of the many women making change meet at the Bluenose Gopher Public House in Granite Falls. Standing (l-r): Luwaina Al-Otaibi, Dani Prados, Nicole Zempel, Tamara Isfeld. Sitting: Betsy Pardick, Autumn Cavender-Wilson (with Leo), Mary Gillespie. Photo Sarah Whiting

Granite Falls suffered during the farm crisis that started in the 1970s, when conglomerates started to buy up farms to profit on corn and soybeans. Today, many community members are part-time farmers who rent land.

Nicole Zempel, an artist and mushroom forager, left the town a few years after high school and returned 20 years ago. “When I first came back, Main Street had a lot of empty spaces.”

After Mary Gillespie returned to the town from Saudi Arabia ten years ago, she and Zempel joined with others to begin to revitalize the heart of the community through art projects. A group of people fought to prevent the local K.K. Berge Building from being torn down. Funds were raised to save the building and convert it into an art center.

“Now, if I wanted to open a business, there is only one space open to rent,” Zempel says. Women in particular have created “a lot of fun and unique shops” and generated creative events that bring people to the west-central Minnesota town of 3,000.

This past year, the community hosted the Imbibe Sessions to showcase the development of American music since the 1920s, a gravel road bike race, a weekly makers market in the summer, trivia nights, and a “Light Up the River” celebration for the Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl.

LuWaina Al-Otaibi grew up in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, went to school in Florida, and lived in Australia for six months. She visited grandparents in Granite Falls, where she moved in 2014 “with no intention of living here for long.”

After Gillespie, her mother, returned to the area, she began buying inexpensive buildings in town, including a dilapidated house that needed refurbishing. Al-Otaibi bought the house inexpensively as a home base.

A few years ago, she started to connect with people while helping to transform a former spa on Main Street into what is now the Bluenose Gopher Public House. “It has given cool people a place to find each other,” says Al-Otaibi, who became the Bluenose operations officer. Now, “this is my home.”

Money for the tap room was raised by loans and co-op membership fees of $150.21. The tap room opened in 2019 with Minnesota-made wine, beer, food, and events.

The 21 cents for the membership fee was a nod to Andrew Volstead, a ten-term U.S. congressman and Granite Falls mayor, whose name was used in 1920 on the Volstead prohibition bill that restricted alcohol sales, production, and distribution. The 21st amendment to the Constitution repealed Prohibition in 1933.

As creators of a co-op, they also wanted to acknowledge Volstead’s pioneering role in legalizing farmer cooperatives nationwide. Although local farm ownership has been dramatically reduced, many residents work at the employee- owned Fagen ethanol plant headquartered in town.

Artistic Hub

Tamara Isfeld was part of a group that wanted to create a community mural project along the river. There was some resistance by city leadership to the project — “it will attract graffitti” — but eventually people outside the town were visiting to watch its progress.

A city councilperson later remarked that it was not the hospital, nursing home, or financial businesses revitalizing the area, but the arts.

Betsy “PirateBetsy” Pardick is a hair stylist and musician who hosts open mic performances at Bluenose. The events draw people into the community from places like Marshall, 20 miles away. Her nickname refers to her tendency to kayak and to camp on a nearby island in the Minnesota River. For a recent birthday, she and Al-Otaibi picked up 116 pounds of trash along the Minnesota River.

“When I visit Fargo or Minneapolis, I might be in a space with 15 musicians next to me,” Pardick says. “Here it is not as saturated with musicians or egos, yet there is so much talent. We are from different backgrounds and music genres — from jazz to 70s rock to 90s punk. We respect that we all have different tastes, but collectively we create new music together and now play shows together.”

Dani Prados is an artist-in-residence who has lived in many large cities. She enjoys the electricity and possibility in big performance spaces, but believes in small communities. “We engage as human beings first. We are aware of our relationship with and for each other and the landscape in a very different way” than you might get in the anonymity of large cities.

That means neighbors work harder with each other, because “you know you will see them again,” Isfeld jokes.

Flipping the Narrative

Autumn Cavender-Wilson grew up in the adjacent Upper Sioux Community and has lived in New York, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, and El Paso. She married a Twin Cities man and moved with him to her home community, where she is a midwife and passionate about land sovereignty.

“Our urban friends thought we was nuts to move here,” she says. “We felt guilty during the Covid shutdown, eating peanut chickpea curry on the porch overlooking farm [land], while those same friends were largely trapped inside small apartments. Here you can see the sky, a hundred kinds of plants, moving animals. And city life has what? Concrete and traffic. You live next to people you do not know. My next-door neighbor and I might have nothing in common politically, but we both believe in being good neighbors.”

Cavender-Wilson would like to flip the narrative that there is little to do in small communities. As a parent of two, she says, it is helpful that everyone looks out for your children, is able to let the dog out if you cannot get home, or can offer a ride to Walmart if needed.

She adds, “It can be a little claustrophobic — seeing your therapist at the grocery store, for example. But that also means we are not defined by our jobs. Betsy is not just a hair stylist — she also is a pirate who taught my son how to play the ukulele. We are about so much more as a person than what we do.”

Personal Transformations

In a group conversation with Minnesota Women’s Press, the women agreed that it is a mistake to think small towns are full of close-minded people. Cavender-Wilson sees an advantage to having neighbors with different perspectives.

Local food shelves are stocked with produce from nearby farms — although many joked that they miss having access to sushi.

The benefits of affordable housing in a small community, says Pardick, means “I can afford to take fun vacations.”

Zempel says, “The past seven years of diving deep into the natural world has truly transformed the way I approach and view life.”

Says Al-Otaibi: “There is so much about this community that makes me happy. I always know that if I have an idea that I am excited about, I can find a group of amazing individuals to support it and make it happen. Planning events with these women — we all seem to build off of each other’s energy.”

Action = Change

Visit small towns. Talk to people from different areas of the state. Connect with neighbors.