Culture Rules in New York Mills

American Artisans, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on November 19, 2000

New York Mills, Minn., is a world apart and 1,400 miles away from New York Cityand its cultural center was built in 1885 for fur tradersbut this town of 900 has become a virtual renaissance center when it comes to the arts.

Since 1992, the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center has improved the area’s access to the arts with a staggering array of events, an art gallery, and a two-acre sculpture park. Plays, poetry readings, and music by the likes of blues artist Kent DuChaine and the folksy Granary Girls occur throughout the year.

New York Mills even gets national attention every June during the Great American Think-Off, an annual philosophy competition covered by the media and simulcast on C-SPAN each year. The Think-Off encourages ordinary citizens to debate such questions as “Is Democracy Fair?” and “Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?”

None of this was considered possible 10 years ago.

The two-story building, which houses the cultural center, was a trading post until the turn of the century. Then loggers and settlers arrived, and it became a general mercantile and hardware store. It was a furniture store in the 1950s and then sat vacant for more than a decade.

By the late 1980s, the structure seemed to have outlived its usefulness. That’s when John Davis came to town.

Davis, a recent art school graduate, had left Minneapolis in search of a quiet place to paint. New York Mills, a prairie community of cornfields and cow pastures, fit the bill.

In the beginning, Davis painted barns to make money. Over meals with his clients, he discovered a local thirst for the arts.

“I had my preconceived notions about rural living,” Davis admits. “I found highly educated people, farmers with degrees. They wanted the arts, but there was a void. The elementary school had no art teacher. People drove to the city for events.”

In 1990, Davis attracted artists from around the world by providing them with a farmhouse in which to live and work for up to a month. The program was the beginning of a cultural renaissance for New York Mills.

“People were so impressed,” says Viola Cresswell, a retired farm wife. “We’re just a little town. You wouldn’t think people would want to come here.”

They did, however, and when a local businessman donated the former trading post as a cultural center in 1991, Cresswell and her husband, Charles, joined the center’s first board of directors.

Restoration of the building consumed more than 3,000 volunteer hours. The gas station’s manager sent paid employees to help as completion drew near. The city council kicked in $35,000, an enormous sum for the tiny town.

“The cultural center is a big drawing card,” says Mo Smith, owner of What a Rush Antiques. “If tourists are in the area, they stop in and shop around town.”

Creativity in New York Mills extends beyond the center. Even the local grain elevator, owned by Bluff Creek Ag, sports an agriculture mural. Artists and residents Lynn Kasma and Pam Robinson painted the mural depicting a Finnish maid holding a sheaf of wheat.

The mural is a vivid example of how the arts have become part of life in New York Mills.

“The key is so fundamentally simple,” Davis says. “You must make arts accessible to the 80-year-old woman and the high school student. It’s a meat-and-potatoes approach and can be stated in three words: cultivate the arts.”