COLUMNIST: Welcome to Ottertail: population 451
I'll set the scene. Two ladies, sitting with their coffee, on a wooden bench set just inside a Main Street Ottertail establishment.
Both crane their heads as they see a car door slam shut and two young guys step out. "I think that's Henry. Yes, it's him. But who's he with?" questions the woman closest to the window.
The other leans forward for a better view. "Yep, that's Henry, and the other must be his brother. I heard he was in town."
A typical small town encounter. The clincher? The one closest to the window is in her 20's and the other one, that's me.
We have to laugh at ourselves as we realize how strange our conversation must strike our out-of-town coffee companion across the table. I allow myself a moment of self-loathe before reminding myself it's not so much bitty granny gossip as it is a growing interest I find myself harboring for my newfound hometown and its people.
Ottertail, after all, is a vibrant and growing lakeside town--even if growth is measured by the 10's rather than the 1,000's of newcomers. After living here for the past three years, I've had the pleasure of meeting many of the citizens who comprise the close-knit community.
Working as a writer for the Perham Enterprise Bulletin, it's not uncommon for the people I interview to sneak in a question or two of their own. Invariably, they ask where I live and I say Ottertail.
A response that is almost always received with a, "Did you grow up there?"
"No, I grew up in Mankato."
"Well, how did you end up here?"
It's a good question. I won't argue that. From Mankato, to Minneapolis, to Moorhead--with a half-year spent studying in the Caribbean--I spent my life growing up in cities of at least 50,000 people; 50,000 to 451 is quite a jump.
As for my answer, it is two-fold. First, I moved here to be a part of the Ottertail-based Firestarters ministry. Second, my now-husband and my best friends lived here.
"451" is what that green city population sign reads just off the highway. For at least the first two years I lived here, every time a visitor mentioned seeing the "451" I felt obligated to note the obvious inaccuracy of the sign. The city just had to have a much larger population by now. "Maybe 600," I'd throw out--my personal update of the census.
Still etched in my mind was the notion that a town was somehow measured by its size; that a multitude of people meant more opportunity, more respectability. But as I learned to live and love life in my small town, my perspective began to change.
Last week, after I got done with an hour-and-a-half long Ottertail City Council meeting, a well-meaning, but nonetheless smart alec friend of mine asked, with no attempt to veil his skepticism, "What do you talk about at your city council meetings?"
Being from a decent-sized city himself, I was prepared to brush off his question with some comment about how there really isn't that much to talk about. But, before I could get anything out, he quipped in his own answer, "Who died this month?"
And that was it. That was the moment I realized just how precious our little ol' city of 451 is to me--how I enjoy entertaining the thought of being "number 452." So I replied, with all honesty, "The council discussed where to move the otter statue."
"Where did they decide?" he asked.
"Well, they haven't exactly come to a conclusion yet," I admitted, simultaneously realizing how glad I was the issue wasn't cut and dry. Wasn't just some insignificant bottom-of-the-agenda item another larger, busier city might settle without a second thought. It matters where they put our city's favorite critter.
Back on the bench with the Main Street view, I look out at the familiar street scene and take another sip of coffee.
I wave at Henry and give his brother a wave too. I've never met the brother, but I'm sure I'll meet him soon.