Our route to Little Falls, Minnesota started back at Lum Park in Brainerd, Minnesota

Tom headed out, winding through some neighborhoods until finally reaching the parking lot near the high school—the one slated for a much brighter future by the Brainerd Riverfront Committee. As I waited in the parking lot for Tom to arrive, I was accompanied by Ashley Kaisershot, zoning and planning specialist who manages the committee. She reviewed with the plans for a trailhead to be located here, an amphitheater on the hill, a canoe landing, and the convergence of multiple trail systems. We also talked about Ashley’s own role as a city planning consultant for numerous smaller towns across Minnesota and the deep engagement she feels in this work.

And there was Tom! Running in, heated to 98 degrees he explained, as a runner’s body increases in temperature by 20 degrees from the ambient air temperature. I was still in my sweatshirt hoodie, cool from the 78 degrees I was experiencing non-running at this point! However, this was not the exchange point, just a stop off and pause to say goodbye to Ashley, and Tom was off again for another 5K. Down the road I met him right at highway 371—not looking forward to biking this divided four-lane highway. However, despite the cars and trucks whizzing by me at close to 80 mph, the shoulder was wide and the grade was low, so I sped along for my first portion of the day’s journey. Tom met me about 11 miles down the Mississippi River Trail and took over on bike for another several miles. Closing in on Little Falls, we made the final exchange back to run, and I made my way on foot along the river then through town, finally landing at Linden Hill.

After drying off a bit, we wandered into the Linden Hill office to look for Julia Mueller. Smiling and welcoming she emerged from a back room holding a pile of sheets and blankets, explaining that “the house was ready” for us. The house? She said to grab our belongings and meet her at the front door, so we did, and as we walked into this turn of the century mansion, Julia informed us that “it’s all yours! Eleven bedrooms to choose from.” She gave us the quick tour—music room, dining room, dining porch, sitting porch, sleeping porch, basically every kind of porch you could imagine. I thought my tent was a nice sleeping porch, and then I arrived in the Musser Mansion at Linden Hill.

We settled in, unpacking a few things, struggling a bit to find a work space, as not many rooms had three-prong outlets. Eventually we decided on the dining porch on the riverside, utilizing our extension cord from the butler’s pantry. We had to get on our way to the Pavilion on the grounds though, as a lunch had been planned and some guests were expected. Turns out Sister Elise Saggau and Community Relations Director Liz Rydeen from the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls had come out to spend an hour or so with us, sharing their story and learning our own. We would also be touring the convent on Wednesday, meeting a few more of the sisters and seeing much of the grounds.

Our lunch also turned into a fortuitous moment to learn more about our partners, Deb Boelz, director of the Little Falls Area Chamber of CommerceKristina VonBerge, director of the Visit Little Falls MN, as well as Julia Mueller, manager of Linden Hill. Each of these women have a unique perspective of the community—from Deb’s historical knowledge, having grown up nearby in Buchman, as her knowledge of the new developments in the region through her support of emerging businesses such as a new robotics company. Deb has a warm heart that infiltrates her professional life. She tells the story of starting at the Chamber and being told to resolve the rift between the east and west sides of town—to make friends with the West Side Improvement Association that the former Chamber director had alienated. Well, she went ahead and married the guy in charge over there! …Deb was my first contact for the whole Relay of Voices project, the first response I received after sending out hundreds of letters introducing myself, and she welcomed me and my ideas then and now like I can imagine she welcomes so many others, helping to make the community of Little Falls grow.

Kris VonBerge was my second point of contact for the project, and she spearheaded organizing our entire itinerary for the two days in Little Falls. Someone we ran into in town referred to Kris as the energizer bunny of Little Falls, and the description did not fall short—not for our visit, nor for what it sounds like she has in store for the town in the future. Kris is working to make the community vibrant, stepping outside of her job description at times to stimulate cultural activity and quality of life in a place where people may have to work multiple jobs or have their kids take the free lunch at school. Kris has taken the current massive road construction project and turned it into an opportunity to have a season-long series of block parties in front of all manner of locations—from the arts center Great River Arts to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Little Falls to the Convent even! She’s a veteran and single mother raising three young girls, and she can’t help herself to invest in her adopted community. She sees vacant buildings that need some life and starts a community shop project, or she spots junked up windows that could easily be turned into a history lesson and gets a grant to install inexpensive window clings. She does it her way, but does it, and she gives all she’s got.

Our conversation with Julia Mueller was in two parts—one there in the pavilion and another later in the Weyerhaeuser home, the second of the two mansions on Linden Hill. We first learned about her philosophy that “if we can muster the energy, we can find the resources,” and how she has done just that, expanding the programming of Linden Hill beyond rentals to public engagements with the community, including an Easter egg hunt that hosted nearly 3000 people on the grounds hunting for 13,000 eggs lasting only 30 minutes! Julia keeps a part-time job as a librarian in addition to her work at Linden Hill, but in both roles she is a participant in putting forward the cultural resources of the Little Falls community as an active component of life today. She grew up on a farm just outside of the community and was never coming back, the story we hear so often. She first moved overseas and lived in Latvia for a while, then moved back to the states to Wisconsin before moving to Peru as well. It was there, living in the middle of a very busy city with emissions and a desert landscape with a high stress workplace that prompted her to come back home to recharge. She found her footing and her place, she found her home back at home in Little Falls.

Following lunch and these impromptu interviews, Ted Pfohl arrived for a scheduled interview with me and Tom. While we waited for one other interviewee to arrive, Ted and I discussed his daughter Anna, a 28 year-old runner and PhD student at Colorado State University, studying hydrology. It turns out she heard about our project and stay in Little Falls and sponsored a portion of the activities that were so generously given in-kind to us. Ted grew up in the west suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesotawhere there is plenty of water and he and his wife Mary intentionally moved from Seattle, Washington to Little Falls to be in a smaller community and had a dream that they made a reality to live on the river. Ted talks about his relationship with the river saying, “there is no beginning and an end. There is continuity not just in the water system but with history. One of the exciting things about being in Little Falls is not just [the timber history]… but the river was a major thoroughfare for the Lakota and the Ojibwe Nations too… The paths that they chose are still available for us to travel on also… There’s a melody to the river that if you listen you can hear in the quietness.” Spending time with Ted that afternoon, and later that evening with he and his wife Mary, turned out to be one of those connections that strengthens as it meanders, and Tom and I are sure to be seeing Ted and Mary again downriver—as the river makes its way back around the turn.

Our conversation with Ted was something of a simultaneous interview—Ted on the left and Maddie Berg on the right. These two Little Falls residents couldn’t be more different, with Ted on his third-career, a financial planner with two kids out of college, calm and serene, invested in his community but also ready for retirement. Maddie on the other hand just entering her third year of college studying to be a dietitian, operating a photography business on the side, full of whimsy and exuberance, eager for opportunity but unknowing of her own potential for agency. Maddie had some great stories of her childhood experiences of her family home along the river. Once, she said with great excitement, the water went so low that you could walk out on the riverbed and excavate things, even discovering an old car and pulling it out. Maddie also talked about the dangers of the river, especially due to the dams in the area. Her mother, brother, and sister were on a jet ski in the river out of LeBourget Park and at a certain point she couldn’t get the motor to start, and the current began pulling her toward the dam. Only at the very last minute was she able to start up the motor and get away toward shore. Maddie had a lot to contribute to all parts of the conversation, and we wondered whether she plans to return to Little Falls after her graduation from college. She hesitated, and explained that she’s already worked in the hospital here before leaving for college. She really wants to experience some newer ways of thinking about health and dietary science. She doesn’t really see those things here. Of course, here I fell into a moment of coaching and encouraged her to go out and experience those things, but to consider later bringing her new knowledge back and being the difference-maker in health for Little Falls. A laugh went around for my career counseling efforts.

There’s much more to say about Ted and Maddie, but you’ll have to wait for a “voices” post to emerge on each of the two and read more there. Stay tuned.

From here, Tom and I got changed and readied for the evening program—a community dinner and co-celebration of Relay of Voices and the Sister City Exchange with Le Bourget, France. Kris had organized the event at Sprout MN and was expecting close to 100 people! Once again she did not disappoint! French- and English-speaking people came out in droves for the amazing and overflowing Minnesota-themed appetizers, local brews, and tasty wine. There was a welcome by the Mayor, translated to French by a local of Little Falls who speaks French. Mike was also assigned to interpret my stories I planned to share with the crowd, but after a bit of a stumbling start, going back and forth between English and French, breaking the flow of the story of Jeff Bromenschenkel and Sandy Cotant Bromenschenkel, Alex, one of the French Delegation, stepped in and volunteered to do a full-sweep translation of my story into French after I had read it out in the English. It worked much better, although perhaps we both went on a little long for some in the audience. Everyone bore with me, and with Alex, and the French folks even laughed at the end! So either I was funny or he made me funny! The whole night was amazing with the food, harp music, local dignitaries, and most importantly several people from the community seeking out me and Tom to share their stories of the river or the community, adding to the archive of story data for the book. Such a wealth of experiences and interactions in Little Falls, and this was just Day 1! That’s right. We have a whole other day in this community, and we’ll share that next.