By Jordan Gerard
The Caledonia Argus
“Welcome back riders. How was your ride? Please wait until the train comes to a full stop at the station, then unbuckle your seatbelts and exit to your left. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
If that lead sentence sounds like something you’d hear at a theme park after riding a wild roller coaster (and I mean wilder than “Wild Thing” at Valley Fair), that’s because it’s the week of New Year’s Eve, and I think we’re close enough to the end of 2020 where we can exit off this roller coaster.
Though we’ve just experienced living history, it wasn’t all bad news. Here is our 2020 Year in Review.
At the risk of sounding political, lock it up and throw away the key! Bury the hatchet! Whichever phrase you need to put 2020 behind us. As the pandemic was the largest living history event this generation has lived through, it’s our top story collection of 2020.
The first case in Houston County was reported on April 4. From that date on, cases would slowly tick upward until about August, where cases began increasing and eventually into October when cases spiked.
Schools were closed by Gov. Tim Walz on March 18, sending administration into a scramble to plan for distance learning and getting materials to students.
Caledonia Area Elementary School teachers were quick to organize a materials pick-up, while lunch staff planned how to provide meals to kids and have the help of Schmitz Bus Company get meals to kids in Freeburg, Eitzen and Brownsville.
The boys basketball team’s expected state run was cancelled, and a spring sports season was reluctantly cancelled later in the year.
Toilet paper and cleaning products flew off the shelves at local grocery stores, while many other businesses closed their doors to the public, leading to a quick learning curve in “how to order online or through a smart phone.” Restaurants like Elsie’s Bar and Grill set up a delivery window, allowing for easy take-out meals.
Everyone masked up and stayed six feet away from each other as much as possible, though at first it was difficult to understand the concept of constantly wearing a mask in public.
A national shortage in mask supplies led to crafters and quilters turn to their local fabric store and sewing machines in order to quickly create dozens of masks to be donated to nursing homes, emergency personnel, schools, businesses or anyone who needed a mask.
COVID relief funds were doled out to businesses and local governments, families received money from the federal government, unemployed workers were eligible to receive an extra $600 to unemployment benefits until July.
Despite the bad news surrounding the pandemic, people still managed to find ways to be creative, such as Houston Fire Department’s birthday shoutouts and a community chalking contest started by the Wired Rooster.
It also didn’t hinder the ability to donate, either. In August, the Caledonia Rotary Club made a sizable donation of 185 gallons of milk for the school’s lunch program. Other local groups made notable donations to the food shelf and/or to the school as well.
The school district worked hard to provide as much support as possible to students while distance learning. Students also had the option of free internet through AcenTek during distance learning in the spring.
Small towns support small businesses and small businesses support small towns.
Houston County saw a collection of new businesses in 2020, and residents were happy to welcome them into their communities.
Perhaps the largest change in our local business world was the selling of Ellingson Motors to Sleepy Hollow in March. Longtime owner Chuck Ellingson sold his dealership to LaVon “Spanky” Felton and his wife Michelle.
“It felt like home,” LaVon Felton said in March. “We were comfortable with this because it was very similar to what we did in Viroqua. The people have been overwhelmingly supportive and super nice.”
Hokah saw the addition of a new local cafe with Free Range Exchange, a niche spot offering a “truly local mashup” of local flavor and variety from area producers.
Owners Cambria Kolstad-DeVaney and Daniel DeVaney and Ben and Ava Horn manage the small shop and feature just about everything from coffee to scones, flatbreads, salads, pretzels and much more.
Brownsville welcomed Mobile Marine Repair, a fitting business for a town on the Mississippi River. Owner Travis Tenkley took over the former Copper Penny restaurant in Brownsville and offers services from boat repair to winter storage.
Caledonia saw several new businesses, including Rustic Tap’s pizza, burgers and appetizers, raw milk from Gerdes Fresh Farm, entertainment from Meier Gaming and pet memorials with Sweet Dreams Pet Crematorium and Rivers Edge Pet Crematorium.
Houston also has a fresh taste for meat with the addition of Stinson’s Country Style Meats. Spring Grove welcomed boutique and salon combination West Main. La Crescent-based River View Winery also joined the list of newer businesses.
Public Works Projects
Several cities saw new projects come to fruition in 2020, including Spring Grove’s new water tower and the removal of the old tower.
Caledonia decided on a new wastewater treatment plant, a large project that received $7 million in aid. That aid was awarded with the help of Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) and State Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona).
After years of study and deliberation, Houston County will finally have a new highway department building. The new space will be located next to the Houston County Fairgrounds.
4-H and County Fair
If there was one event that was missed the most among county residents, it was the annual Houston County Fair. However, 4-H did manage to hold livestock shows in-person and virtually, despite having to limit the number of attendants.
The organization was also able to adapt its programming to virtual for club activities.
2020 was also a momentous year for Houston County 4-H, as the organization celebrated its 100th year. Throughout the year, the Argus featured historical photos and 4-H created special memoribilia for the year, including green Spring Grove Soda Pop. 4-H also found its oldest living member, Phyllis Meinzer-Kelly is a proud member of the Hokah Chiefs 4-H Club, at 101 years of age.
On the fair side of things, the Houston County Fair Board achieved its goal of constructing a new livestock building for pigs, sheep and goats.
Herald closes in Spring Grove
The 129-year-old Spring Grove Herald was abruptly closed at the end of March, with the entire Bluff Country News Group sold to the Fillmore County Journal in Preston.
Since then, we’ve covered several Spring Grove topics including city council, a few school board meetings, the first Spring Grove International Film Festival featuring special guest Ed Asner, a new elevator at Giants of the Earth Heritage Center and the first-ever Habitat for Humanity House in Spring Grove.
As if 2020 in general was not enough, a silo toppled on the Gerard farm southeast of Spring Grove on the morning of Sept. 6. No one was injured and the road was safely blocked off by family members, then law enforcement and the Spring Grove Fire Department.
In memory of Casey Knutson
In February, Houston County mourned the death of local B-mod racer Casey Knutson. He was 26 years old and a 2012 graduate of Caledonia High School.
In memory of his friend, Caledonia resident Mark Hosch donated two books and a movie about dirt track racing to the Caledonia Public Library.
Photos of 2020
As a newspaper, we publish nearly more than 100 photos a year. This year, our most notable photos were the Neowise comet, taken by staff writer Craig Moorhead and a wall cloud over Brownsville on July 21, submitted by Brownsville resident Allie Bottcher.
See you in 2021!
We’ve just experienced major living history. We made it! We want to wish everyone a happy and successful 2021!