In rural Minnesota, old buildings take on new life as art spaces – InForum

Gloria Pfeifer of Starbuck (left to right), Deb Holmes of Lowry and Rose Meade of Glenwood, Minnesota pause to catch up before entering the former one-room schoolhouse in Farwell, now an art gallery , in June.

Emily Bright/MPR News

Farwell, Minn. has a population of about 50 inhabitants. There are no traffic lights or gas stations. But as of this summer, four buildings — most of its remaining downtown — are now open as renovated arts and community spaces.

Art workshops, concerts, gallery exhibitions and ephemeral art sales, all by local artists, are scheduled every Saturday through September at the new venues, bringing new energy to the community in southwest Alexandria.

“It may be true, if you build it, they come,” said Gloria Pfeifer, who organized the artist lineup and was heavily involved in the renovations of all four buildings.

Pfeifer, of Starbuck, Minn., is quick to point out the many volunteers who have helped with the project over the past five years.

It all started with one building: Farwell Norwegian Lutheran Church, built in 1907. Pfeifer said that when work began, the building was on the verge of becoming unsalvageable.

“Part of the roof was collapsing, the bell tower – it was a mess. So everything had to be redone,” she recalls.

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The newly renovated corner garage in Farwell, Minnesota, seen here in June, is now open as a space for art classes, occasional concerts and pop-up art sales by local artists.

Emily Bright/MPR News

For over 20 years the church had stood vacant except for the bats who had taken up residence in the outbuildings. Slowly but surely the old church was rebuilt and restored. Pfeifer replicated the original stencil around the ceiling. And on Christmas 2017, when the newly renovated space hosted its first open house, hundreds of people came to see it.

“It all came out of this project,” said Ted Irgens, a Minneapolis attorney who bought the failing building and hired Pfeifer to do the painting.

Irgens’ great-grandparents were founding members of Farwell Church, and he grew up in nearby Alexandria listening to family stories. Irgens said the community outpouring had a reunion feel to it, and it showed they had something special.

Next is the one-room schoolhouse of 1886. Rather than raze it, the city gives it to Irgens, who has it moved to the center of Farwell next to the post office. With Pfeifer in charge of the art, the building opened as an art gallery in 2018. These were major projects.

“There have certainly been times when [it felt like] “OK, what do we do?” Irgens said. “But those two buildings made sense. They put it all together.”

Then the old corner garage became available. Then the dairy. Renovations and painting have continued during the pandemic, and all four buildings are now open, drawing locals and lake dwellers to see the changes in this quiet town.

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Artist Gloria Pfeifer recreated the original stencil along the walls of Farwell Norwegian Lutheran Church, which is now used for concerts and events.

Emily Bright/MPR News

On a Saturday afternoon earlier this summer, Kori Williams from Alexandria performed an informal concert in the renovated corner garage. Its large rolling doors were open to let in the breeze, and a dozen people had spread around the tables for a stamping lesson.

The former garage office now houses a weekly pop-up art sale. Featured artist of the day, Farwell’s Vianne Olson, said she sold a few earrings and lutefisk lip balms, but the day was mostly social, as expected.

Visitors walked through the quiet street between the activities of the corner garage and the watercolor show in the school gallery. People called others they knew and shared memories of old spaces, restored to new life.

Paul Anderson, 88, grew up on a farm near Farwell and remembers the great task of coming to town as a child, when Farwell was a stop on the railroad, with two grocery stores, a bank and grocery store. He remembers getting milk at the creamery with his parents.

The restored creamery has dark wood floors, paintings of cows on the wall and a polished counter that elicited ‘oohs’ of appreciation from visitors. Pfeifer has worked hard to retain the buildings’ original design and feel, and she said hearing people’s stories has been one of the joys of this years-long project.

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The newly renovated creamery will soon be serving refreshments in Farwell, Minnesota, as seen in June. Plastic floats on the wall, waiting for new patio doors.

Emily Bright/MPR News

“Something wonderful has happened here,” acknowledged Deb Holmes, who drove from Lowry, about five miles down Highway 55. She volunteered as a gardener, planting the flowers that run between the buildings.

“That’s the life of rural America,” Holmes said. “We will all sink or swim together. I mean, we have to work together; we need to support each other in our small communities, otherwise — Farwell would be long gone. And I think everyone had written off Farwell until this started, and now the possibilities are endless.

There’s no place in town to buy food right now, and the performer crowds on a regular Saturday aren’t large enough to attract a food truck. Shipping delays have slowed the final touches to the creamery, but it will eventually have a commercial kitchen to make and sell refreshments. In the meantime, Pfeifer brought assorted snacks and water and made them available to people.

Pfeifer said she knew it was a commitment for an artist to put on a show in a new, small venue. She marveled that every artist she was invited to perform or exhibit said yes. She said she thought the small size might be appealing to some up-and-coming artists, thinking “maybe big is overrated”.

“Maybe here where it’s so rural there’s a need,” she said.

As for next steps, Irgens said they are in the process of creating a nonprofit, the Farwell Community Arts Association, to continue doing what they do now: building community, through art.

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