“Living In Harmony”
Positively No Outlet Podcast, Episode 2
An Unplanned Stop on the 2020 Pandemic Road Trip
Week two of my pandemic road trip found me in southeastern Minnesota headed to Preston. Located on the Root River, Preston claims to be either Minnesota or America’s Trout Capital, depending on who asks. A twenty-foot fiberglass brown trout is displayed at the edge of town to prove the point. I was twelve miles from town and about one hundred and thirty miles south of where George Floyd had been killed by police officers six weeks earlier when, at the intersection of state highways fifty-two and forty-four, I spotted the Welcome to Harmony, MN sign. I was tempted to stop. But just because a town is named Harmony didn’t mean it was getting through the summer of 2020 any better than the rest of us. Besides, it was getting late and I hate setting up “Charley”, my travel trailer, in the dark. I headed north on fifty-two and left Harmony behind. At this point in my travels I still thought I was on a fishing trip.
I drove into town the next morning to stock up on groceries. I also needed some local knowledge about where to fish. A week earlier I had shut off the national news on my car radio and had done my best to avoid any newspapers. But the events of the summer caught up with me in Preston. It started when the young guide at the fly shop gave me a long lecture about personal freedom and why he was not going to wear a mask. “Nobody ever tells me what to do, nobody should tell anybody what to do,” he told me. I did not point out the irony in his insisting I buy a fishing license.
At the grocery store “Minnesota Nice” kicked in when a clerk took my shopping list and escorted me around the store to find my items. As I approached the check out my way was blocked by a patron whose tank top and shorts did little to cover his protruding belly. “It’s crazy to wear a mask,” he was telling the clerks. “The stuff really comes in through your eyes. The Chinese created it as a sneak attack. They tell us to wear masks, but then you get it through your eyeballs.” The woman checking me out, who was wearing a mask, rolled her eyes and shrugged.
Parked beside my car when I left the market was a pickup truck with two large American flags flying from mounts welded to its bumper. Between them was a hand lettered sign: “How do you like these flags LIBERALS?” The truck’s owner looked angrily at me as I approached as if laying down some sort of challenge. “Nice flags,” I said as I lifted the hatchback to put away my supplies. He grunted and spit on the pavement in my general direction. I was not sure if it was my out-of-town plates or my “Together We Rise” bumper sticker that had brought on his ire.
My last stop before hitting the river was the liquor store. My favorite bourbon was not on the shelves. Choosing another brand, I started to the counter when I noticed a display of bottles under a “Distilled in Harmony” sign. The clerk told me that some guys had started a distillery over in Harmony and that the bourbon was pretty good. I swapped out the bottle I had taken from the shelf for a Harmony bourbon and took it to the counter. “So, how’s you gonna drink with that mask on?” A customer who had been talking to the clerk asked me in what was less than a Minnesota nice tone.
I returned to Charley, unloaded, rigged up my fly rod, and headed for Forestville Creek, a short walk from where I was camped. The fishing that day was excellent. I was on the water until it was too dark to see. I went to bed with plans to cover at least three more rivers the next day. Overnight a line of thunderstorms dumped enough water to blow out every river and stream within fifty miles. There would be no second day of fishing. It seemed like a good time to go to Harmony.
My first stop in Harmony was the school. I wanted to find out what the school used for it’s mascot. Most mascots, “Lancers”, “Bulldogs”, “Red Raiders”, even “Golden Gophers” carry with them some sense of aggression. What do you do if your town is named Harmony? Harmonicas? Huggers? Four Parts? Imagine the cheers at the Friday night football games. Give me an H, an A, an R, an M, an O, an N, an Y. What’s that spell? Harmony! Hug your neighbors! Harmony! Cheer for a tie! Harmony! Alas, Harmony is part of a consolidated county-wide school system. Over the school doors was the proud Falcon mascot of Filmore County High School. The stop was not wasted. A kind secretary suggested I try a place called Estelle’s for lunch. It was the first of many pleasant surprises in Harmony.
Estelle’s Eatery and Bar occupies a rehabilitated two-story brick building on Harmony’s Main Street. I took a table on the sidewalk in front of a window decorated for Fourth of July with the slogan “Let’s Have Harmony”. From my table I could watch the grain trucks unload across the street at Harmony Agricultural Services. The food was great, the story was better. Matt and Heidi Brown were married in 2014. She had grown up in Harmony, he was done with life in the city. They moved to town, bought the building that had been unoccupied for fourteen years, and set about turning the upstairs into their living space and the downstairs back into what it had been years ago, a restaurant. Matt had worked with his brother in food service in the Minneapolis area. This is his first venture on his own.
“We source as much as we can locally,” he told me. The beef comes from his father-in-law’s farm. Every February he sits down with a local Amish farmer and they comb through seed catalogues, selecting what will be planted when to insure a varied and fresh-from-the-farm menu. But why Harmony, why here, I asked him. “I just liked the vibe of the place. Everybody seems to go out of their way to help each other. And then, when Gabby died, that’s when I knew we were in the right spot.”
Gabby, Matt and Heidi’s daughter, was two years old when she died from childhood leukemia. I was embarrassed for stumbling into the story. Matt dismissed my apology. “When Gabby died this town really held us up. We were struggling, just looking for a breath anywhere. This town showed us such an abundance of love and caring it was overwhelming. They put us back on our feet.”
I was back in touch with Matt in February of 2021. The pandemic has closed Estelle’s for dining in. It’s all carry out with family-style specials on weekends. He was preparing a Mexican meal for Valentines, with a twist. Part of all proceeds from the weekend will go to another area family struggling with childhood cancer. “This weekend our Valentine’s gift to our community is Hailey. She’s an eighth grader whose family has just found out that her brain cancer is too far advanced for any more treatment. I know what it’s like to be there. It’s our duty to help out.” Matt paused to clear his throat. It isn’t the first time Estelle’s has done this. “My experience here has taught me that you can make a difference. You can be a force for good in the world. The place has put me on the path to want to help people. And maybe leave a little less suffering behind.”
Matt Brown is not the first Harmonian who wanted to be a force for good in this town of one thousand residents. In 1962 four men gathered in the basement of Harmony’s newspaper offices and began brainstorming how to diversify the local economy. The major industry was farming. A good way to make a living, it was not going to provide the employment needed by a growing population. They formed Harmony Enterprises and one hundred town residents chipped in to provide operating capital. The town’s Opera House was rented and portable shelters for ice fishing and the Bikini Cane, a walking cane that converted into folding seat, were put into production. Harmony Enterprises rapidly became the community’s largest employer, a position it still holds nearly sixty years later.
While the ice shelters and canes were successes, the market was limited. In January of 1965 HARMONY ENTERPRISES developed a “hard top fold down camper.” Teamed with a trailer making firm, they took their light-weight trailer to that year’s RV trade show in Detroit. Within a month orders flooded in. For the next decade and a half, while phasing out the ice fishing houses and Bikini walker, HARMONY ENTERPRISES became the leading manufacturer of the key components of pop-up trailers. While profitable, the RV industry suffered from seasonal swings and the payroll would fluctuate from 300 during the busy summer months to only 50 in the winter. The oil crises of the early 1970s further depressed the RV industry. It was time to try something new.
In 1971 the Red Owl supermarket chain was looking for an alternative to incinerating all of their cardboard packaging. They developed a hydraulic operated baler to package cardboard for recycling and needed a manufacturer. Harmony Enterprises retooled and took on the job, both to provide employment for their skilled staff and to help protect the environment. As current CEO Steve Cremer puts it, “we make the earth a more sustainable place for generations to come.” Today HARMONY ENTERPRISES is the third largest manufacturer of compactors, aluminum reprocessing, and beverage container recycling equipment in the world. A leading innovator in the field, the company recently released a solar powered version of their compactors. In 2011 Harmony Enterprises acquired Cypress Environmental in Toulouse, France and operates a Harmony Europe division selling directly to the European market.
Not only do the jobs at Harmony Enterprises pay well, but employees are also provided health care insurance, paid vacations and holidays, profit sharing, and a recently opened on-site childcare facility. The Harmony Kids Learning Center was opened in response to concerns voiced by HARMONY ENTERPRISES employees about a lack of affordable area day care options. Umbelina Cremer, Steve’s wife, had a background in home childcare and was hearing the same concerns voiced at the Harmony Chamber of Commerce meetings where she represented HARMONY ENTERPRISES. “There was an empty building next to Harmony Enterprises and Steve and I were thinking about what to do with it,” she told me. “It just made sense to turn it into a day care.”
The Center’s curriculum embraces the mission of HARMONY ENTERPRISES. “We teach the children to be good stewards of the earth,” Umbelina told me. “We work with the staff of Harmony Enterprises to provide experiences for the children where they not only learn STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts but also learn that they can make a difference.” The center also attends to the rural roots of many of the children as family members are frequent visitors bringing along horses, calves, goats, owl, eagles, and more to share with the children.
Harmony Enterprises subsidizes the salaries of the center’s director and two teachers. “That way the employees get discounted tuition. And being right next to the plant means that parents can come and have lunch with their children,” Umbelina was talking about the family atmosphere of the Center. “We also change our schedule to fit what is going on at the plant to make it easy for families. If there is overtime needed or they have to start early for an order, we just stay open when parents are at work.”
During our conversation Umbelina told me that she was born in Mexico and her family immigrated to the US when she was five. She met Steve in Houston. Thirty some years ago they decided it was time to move to Harmony so Steve could play a larger role in the family business. I asked her if she felt welcome in a town that is predominately white. “I have always felt welcome here,” she told me. “In the beginning…it was different, but not uncomfortable. Back then I did my own fresh flour and corn tortillas because we couldn’t find them in the grocery store. Today, well I’m not from here, but I belong here.”
It was five o’clock somewhere and time for a drink. Harmony Spirits was my next stop where I would hear a story much like the one about Harmony Enterprises. Three area men who had become friends while working in the ethanol industry hatched the idea of a regional distillery in 2005. Returning from a road trip to visit Templeton Rye in Iowa, they were bemoaning the fact that they had to travel over 250 miles to visit a craft spirits maker. The conversation, fueled by the day’s imbibing, landed on the last words often uttered by those who have had a few drinks; “We could do that.”
For the next eight years they continued to talk about it. “I would say it was in 2013 we really got serious about this,” Jim Simpson, one of the three founders told me. “We looked around the area for a place to put it. All the signs kept pointing to Harmony.” The first sign was when the partners could not find a suitable building to rehabilitate for a distillery. Harmony offered them a lot near the center of town where they could build a new facility—price tag, one dollar. They had a place, but not enough capital between them, even after cashing in retirement funds, to get started. Banks turned down loan applications. In a reprise of the founding of Harmony Enterprises, forty-seven Harmonians (and a few family members) bought into the project. Local contractors cut the best deals they could for grading the lot, laying the foundation, installing plumbing and electrical service. In March of 2019 the first bottles of whiskey, bourbon, gin, and vodka rolled off the line.
Like Estelle’s, Harmony Spirits trades locally. The grains they used are ground on the farm of Andy Craig, one of the owners. Andy also takes care of disposing the spent grains by feeding them to his father’s cattle. Supplies are purchased two blocks away at Kingsley Mercantile. When I last spoke to Jim, he let me know that he was also storing a new stove for Estelle’s until Matt could get set up to install it. It had just snowed and the electric company down the street had been by with their skid-steer to plow out their parking lot.
“Harmony had been good to us,” Jim was talking about the future. “We’ve got a lot of plans to expand. We want to put in a rack house on the north side of the property and expand the bottling facility to the east. If this all works, I’d like to move to town as well. It’s just a good place to live.”
Kerry Kingsley and his wife Jane own and operate Kingsley Mercantile. I had stopped in before leaving Harmony to replace a container for my firewood. They didn’t stock what I wanted. Kerry suggested a cardboard box would do just as well and went to the back to empty one out for me. Minnesota nice.
We got to talking about Harmony. I mentioned the investors in the distillery. “Guilty as charged,” he smiled. Jim had told me that while he didn’t think Kerry or Jane drink they had been early supporters. I went on about Harmony Enterprises, Estelle’s, the Learning Center. “Why does the town do so well, what am I missing?” I asked.
“I think we survive because we are far enough away from the big cities that people support local businesses. It’s too far to the larger cities so people just shop here,” he offered. But I wanted to know more than that. Not once had I been masked-shamed, I had found only two campaign signs after driving all the city streets, how were people seeming to navigate the summer of 2020 without the rancor and heat that had poured from my radio before I shut off the news? Kerry paused to think, then answered. “I think people here work on relationships regardless of politics. People have opinions, but we would rather just get along.”
Earlier in the day, after lunch, I had wandered over to Harmony’s tourist area. There’s a restored train station and a one-room schoolhouse, both leased to merchants. There is also a mural depicting the town’s history. I met Betty in the train station gift shop. The pandemic had limited tourist traffic, so she was tending to both the gift shop and the quit shop in the schoolhouse. “Let me show you the quilts, they are made by the Amish that live around the area.” She shut the train station and walked me over to the schoolhouse. “Did you notice that this building was once a schoolhouse? It was built by the first immigrants to this area. We’re all immigrants you know. Something to be proud of.”
Betty spent an hour showing me quilts and telling the stories of some of the
ers. Then we got talking about Harmony. She told me stories I would hear for the rest of the day, the investors in Harmony Enterprises, the day care center, the support of distillery. We were saying our goodbyes in the parking lot when she motioned to the town water tower with the red script Living in Harmony painted on it. “You have your bad eggs. Every place has that, you know. But I think for the most part we just try and live up to our name.”
About that name. Prior to 1880 the town was called Greenfield. It was located about one mile south of where the Minnesota Valley Rail Line would be coming through and residents decided to move the town to take advantage of the rail connection. A new name was needed, a meeting was called to choose one. The debate went on for hours and attendees were becoming a bit boisterous when an Irishman with flaming red hair, beard, and mustache stood up and slammed his hands on a table. “Gentlemen,” he shouted in order to quiet the crowd, “what we need here is a little harmony.” Don’t we all.