In a remote patch of northwest Minnesota two hours from Fargo, two rivers slice through the prairie, leaving craggy cliffs and unexpected hills in the middle of infinite flatness. Red Lake Falls is perched on those hills, and the green metal sign that welcomes drivers across its border claims the town has 1,427 residents. That sign is wrong.
In a story that, by now, most Minnesotans have heard — and gleefully boasted about — four more souls moved here in the last year, and another one is on the way. It all began when Christopher Ingraham, a boyish Washington Post reporter, wrote a snarky news story in 2015 that insulted this area and ignited uproar across our state. In return, the residents invited him to visit. When he arrived, they wooed him with Mayberry-like neighborliness as they evangelized for their town. His trip to Red Lake Falls prompted Ingraham to imagine a more personal, more simple life for his own family — the opposite of the frustratingly busy, anonymous, city grind they were leading. To put it simply, he fell in love with the place.
The next thing he knew, he was searching real estate listings and pitching his editors a book idea that would allow him to live and work in this far-flung burg. Last May, Ingraham, his wife, and his twin toddlers left behind the monuments and multilane highways of Washington, D.C., to embark on a Minnesota adventure in Red Lake Falls. To hear Ingraham tell it, he is living the dream.
How does someone who was so wrong about small-town Minnesota stumble upon a move that is so right?
Summer is a slow news season in the nation’s capital. It was August 2015, and Ingraham, in his Washington office, was kicking around story ideas with his editors. The data reporter had already covered the divide between waffle and pancake allegiance in the United States when he came across a set of numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It was “the data set that changed my life,” Ingraham says, a ranking of every county in the United States by such factors as topography and climate. Mild temperatures and miles of shoreline got counties a high score, while cold winters and flat terrain landed much of the Midwest on the bottom of the list. In dead last place: Red Lake County, Minnesota.
Ingraham knew a story pitting regions of the country against each other would do well. He summed up the county in just 43 cheeky words. For a community in a state that prides itself on livability, eight of them stung the most: “The absolute worst place to live in America.”
Within minutes of posting the story, the backlash came. In true Minnesotan form, the feedback was mostly polite, Ingraham says, and yet, relentless. “He can kiss my butt,” a county commissioner told the Star Tribune at the time.
But some Red Lake County residents saw an opportunity.
As the owners of a campground and tubing company that draws adventurers and tourists from the surrounding region and Canada to this scenic stretch of the Red Lake River, the Brumwell family is the closest thing to Red Lake Falls’ ambassadors. They also tend to make the best out of a bad situation, such as when Dick Brumwell led a fundraising effort to build a town pool to lift residents’ spirits during the farm crisis of the 1980s.
So when Dick’s son, Jason Brumwell, came across Ingraham’s article on Facebook, he wasn’t hurt by the ranking. He was motivated.
“Our name is out there in this big national publication,” Jason says. “What can we do with it?”
He fired off an e-mail to Ingraham, with an offer to visit. Ingraham’s wife, Briana, was nervous when her husband decided to accept the invitation. The pair had been sweethearts growing up in upstate New York, and she feared a trap.
“Where we’re from, they would have been up in arms, people throwing eggs,” she says.
But Ingraham made the journey. And as he pulled up to the 1910 Beaux Arts courthouse on a hill at the center of town, he was greeted not with eggs but a marching band. The Brumwells arranged a bus tour of the area. Someone baked a cake in the shape of the county.
He spent two days touring farms and businesses, and caught glimpses of his own small-town childhood, things such as unstructured playtime and abundant generosity. On a tour of the local elementary school, he learned how Red Lake Falls’ residents chipped in to buy snowshoes for the town’s children so they could go on nature walks in winter.
Though hard to quantify — and all but impossible to represent in a data set like the one that got him into trouble — he was struck by the “strong sense of community,” he says. He saw adults spending time with their kids. The streets were clean. Most of all, people were proud enough of what they had to invite a national reporter into their homes and show him how wrong he had been. He thought, “This would be a great place for a kid to grow up.”
Chris had always been witty, with a little dimple that would form on the side of his cheek whenever he came up with something sly to say. He was a charmer. But he wasn’t the most outgoing person. Briana was the social butterfly.
After his visit to Red Lake Falls, however, Briana saw a new side of him. He was enamored of the people he had met. A fire, she says, was lit.
“Bri, they’re nice,” he told his wife. “Like you.”
A numbers guy, Ingraham learned something in Red Lake Falls about “the limits of what data can and can’t capture. The real world,” he says, “is greater than the sum of whatever is on your spreadsheet.”
In a follow-up article for the Post, he sounded downright smitten with the “big skies, broad rivers, flat roads running to the horizon and towns that smelled of wood and grain and dry prairie air.”
Meanwhile, he was questioning whether his 900-square-foot row house in a Baltimore suburb was such a great place to raise his own children, Jack and Charles.
A change had been on his mind for some time. He was commuting 15 hours a week between his home in a historic quarter of Ellicott City, Maryland, and his office in D.C., and was often too tired to play with his boys. And then there was the matter of their neighbor. When Briana was pregnant, back in 2013, something strange happened in the Ingrahams’ string of row houses that still haunts them. Their next-door neighbor died at home, and it was two weeks before anyone found him. Chris and Briana live with the guilt that they should have done more to check on his well-being.
What had happened to his neighbor in Maryland, Chris suspected, would never happen in Red Lake Falls. Chris realized he wanted to know his neighbors, and he wanted them to know him.
At the same time, his editors at the Washington Post had been asking him to think big about possible projects. The first one that sprang to mind was a book about ditching D.C. for small-town life. The only place to do it, he knew, was Red Lake Falls.
“You don’t write a story about the worst place to live in America, and then move to the third-worst place to live in America,” he says.
Less than a year after that fateful article, the Ingrahams bought a sunny, two-level home on a curved street across from the Clearwater River.
The one thing Chris had appreciated about big-city life was anonymity. Now, in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, his business makes national news. The fantastic tale of his relocation rocketed around the world, appearing in newspapers from France to New Zealand. He was approached about starring in a reality TV show, an offer he turned down.
He heard from people across the country who were inspired by the move. Turns out, he’d done what many others wished they could.
“I guess it taps into some sort of desire for people to go to a simpler life,” he says, listing some of the pleasures of his new environs: growing vegetables in his garden, enjoying summer nights around his fire pit, building a bird feeder, and most of all, being with his kids each day during what used to be his rush hour.
About half of all Americans wish they could live in a different kind of community, according to the Pew Research Center. And at a ratio of 3 to 1, Americans prefer a slower pace of life, where neighbors know one another.
It’s a common misunderstanding that small towns and rural areas are shrinking, says Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota Extension researcher who focuses on rural demographics. In fact, even while high school graduates depart each year for bigger cities, there is an ongoing influx of young professionals — aided by technology and seeking affordable housing and a sense of community — who are making these places their new homes. Winchester calls it the “brain gain.”
“In 1920 you had to move to where the jobs were,” he says. “Today you bring your job with you. A job is not a motivating factor for migration; what your life is going to be is the motivator.”
The publicity around Ingraham’s move is helping spread the word that many people are choosing to realize their dream of another kind of life, Winchester says.
“I’m here,” Ingraham says at a recent talk to nonprofit leaders and statisticians in St. Paul, “as a living, breathing data point.”
At Memories Cafe, in the Cenex gas station on the livelier end of the town’s main business stretch, a handful of residents dine together Saturday mornings. Their salt-and-pepper hair matches the shakers on every table.
Ever since Ingraham’s first Washington Post article, the town’s identity, its branding and its future are frequent topics of conversation.
“We don’t market ourselves,” says Mayor Allen Bertilrud.
There’s a rural “perception problem that we are way, way behind,” says farmer Gary Purath.
But when Ingraham and his family moved here, it showed, “Hey, you can live here and work here,” says teacher Cheryl Matzke. “It awakened a sense of pride.”
Now, as more urbanites take the small-town leap, and as consumers clamor for local authenticity, “the world is flipping,” Bertilrud says. “It’s a sea change of how people live. Chris brought an awareness that’s really important. Chris is a symbol.”
Back in his new living room, his son Charlie climbs across Ingraham’s chest and begs to be swung upside-down. A wooden sign reading “Home” with a state of Minnesota in place of the “o” hangs on one wall.
The couple isn’t making any plans yet about how long they will stay. But they just put their Maryland row house on the market, the first step in planting permanent roots. And when their new son arrives in June, they’ll have a born-and-bred Minnesotan in the family.
Ingraham has taken quickly to Minnesota life. He and his wife have both gotten involved in municipal activities, including a jazz band at the nearby University of Minnesota, Crookston, campus, playing instruments they hadn’t touched since they became parents: Chris trombone and Briana oboe. Two rabbits the family bought at the county fair live in a crate in his basement office. This winter, they went snowmobiling for the first time, lurching in fits and starts on the snow-covered campground belonging to the Brumwells, whose entire extended family has wrapped the Ingrahams into their own.
There have also been compromises. Eggplant is considered an exotic vegetable at the market, and it’s easier to get veterinary care in town than human care. Briana, who used to work for the Social Security Administration, is adjusting to full-time parenting. And in contrast to their cold relationships with neighbors at their old complex, it takes some getting used to people stopping by unannounced, they admitted.
While a D.C.-area Friday night might have included coordinating with other parents for child care, and then the “mental labor” of deciding between countless activities, Red Lake Falls offers just two restaurants, and the only entertainment is a junior varsity basketball game at the local school. It’s no matter. For these self-described homebodies, family is enough.
Chris is working on a book proposal in between his remote full-time work for the Post. In a way, looking at his new world through a journalist’s lens helps him distance himself from the inconveniences of rural life, like midwinter darkness or a lack of diverse eateries.
“If I was told by my company that I had to relocate to a place that wasn’t necessarily my idea, I’d probably be more annoyed by the negatives,” he says.
Still, he is discovering more positives in his new home, where, in the most ironic way possible, he has been warmly welcomed into a community that had once been nothing more to him than a set of numbers.