I have a long and curious history with Wabasha, Minnesota. I don’t have roots there but I saw what it did for my wife, Sharon, in terms of solid, grounded values and a wholesome attitude toward life. Hers was and is an intellectual curiosity that went far beyond the classroom and school yard negotiations. It steeled her for life’s ups and down and a burning desire for more. Not bad for a one-horse town, few folks had ever heard about, down the old Mississippi from Saint Paul.
Almost 55 years ago, I met this girl in Saint Paul who was from Wabasha. For the following many decades, we ventured down old Highway 61, one hundred plus miles, to visit her parents and eventually introduce our kids to life on the farm. It was great while it lasted.
Eventually Sharon’s parents retired, leaving their one-hundred-year-old farmhouse and began a new life as ‘townies.’ Wabasha was growing old as they were and seemed destined for the gradual decline that has accompanied the many river town along the Mississippi. Then some strange things started to happen.
For years, small manufacturing plants had come and gone around Wabasha. Their life expectancy seemed to depend on attracting enough workers at competitive wages, the sometimes-foreign markets and capitalization. Then computer technology and the internet began to make inroads into what had been for centuries just centralized job sites.
Back in the early 80’s, I heard rumors about a group of hippies living in the hills around the town of Red Wing who were working for a new venture called Apple Computer. They were writing code for the company and enjoying their rural existence. Sounded fascinating to me.
Unfortunately, when I voiced my interest in such a venture to my father-in-law, he informed me that perhaps Red Wing would do such a thing but it wouldn’t be for Wabasha. His home town had been a grain-milling town for as long as he could remember and would always carry that moniker in his head. Old Delbert didn’t share my vision of entrepreneurship in small towns and I let it go as a chasm between generations too wide to cross. It was never talked about again.
Then a newly formed Wabasha arts group called the Wabasha Arts Council began a series of concerts called ‘Music Under the Bridge.’ One of their first groups was a folkie duo called the Floorbirds. I was smitten with the idea of a concert series in downtown Wabasha. I saw it as a sign of good things to come. Sharon’s mom dismissed it as ‘hillbilly music’ and wasn’t interested. A generational thing again, I’m sure. But the new ideas kept coming. The next one arrived on a six foot wing span.
It sounded like a crazy idea at first. A group of interested individuals met with the city fathers. “Let’s build a center”, they began, “where we can display some Eagles, explain the ecological and biological importance of these magnificent birds and perhaps draw a couple of tourists to town as a side benefit.” The City Council loved the idea and The National Eagle Center was born.
The city came together to plan a permanent waterfront museum in the early 2000s. A 14,200 square foot was designed that now attracts approximately 80,000 tourists and researchers to Wabasha every year.
Shortly, afterwards, new restaurants began to spout up, drawn by the tourist traffic that was extending beyond weekend and spilling over into the weekdays. The County began promoting the many outdoor recreational attractions for the whole of the Hiawatha Valley, extending from Red Wing, through Wabasha, all the way down to Winona. Entrepreneurial businesses soon followed and Wabasha became a ‘happening’ place.
More recently, a new venture called GrandPad is making its mark in the community and on-line. GrandPad describes its mission as making it easier for seniors to connect with family, friends, and caregivers. The company has developed its own tablet and launched a subscription service to support it. All of their live, around-the-clock customer service reps come from folks who live in small towns like Wabasha.
GrandPad says it has connected more than 1.7 million people in 120 countries. The company employs 165 and, to date, has raised $31million to scale its technology, both hardware and software. All of that centered in Sharon’s old home town
I’ve watched Wabasha’s evolution over the decades just as my life evolved and changed along the way. Sharon and I have talked about returning there next summer for a visit to some of the ‘old places.’ Until then, we wish the old proving grounds well in the years to come. Something new, something old, I guess, just like us.