8am. I just finished walking an hour and a half from the Grand Forks Amtrak station. It’s a Saturday morning at the end of September in 2017, and the night before, I spent 6 hours on the Empire Builder traveling from the Twin Cities.
After crossing the bridge to briefly visit East Grand Forks, and after stopping by the farmers market two blocks away, I waited at the transit center. I am waiting for a Jefferson Lines bus so I can continue what will be almost a 12-hour-long journey through Greater Minnesota to one particular Minnesota town. I was one of three people at the terminal, not including the ticket agent.
The bus arrives, slightly behind schedule. I proceeded to board, but before I could, I noticed border agents – one with a bomb-sniffing dog – swarm the luggage hold. The agent handling the dog had it smell the luggage. Another intercepts a passenger as they disembark, asking them to verify their immigration status. The process took about five minutes. After he was cleared, I boarded.
Surprisingly, the Customs agent boards the bus. He walks up to me, and asks:
“Are you a US Citizen?”
“Yes.” I replied.
“Where were you born?” he responded.
Afterward, the border agent asked the other two people on my bus the same question, then disembarked. We were on our way.
The driver then announces that the bus was bound for Florida. It was an attempt to stir some dark humor in what would be an 8-hour drive to the Hawthorne Transportation Center in Minneapolis, with major stops in Fosston, Bemidji, Brainerd, and St. Cloud. But I wasn’t planning on going that far.
I was on my way to a small town about 20 miles from Grand Forks called Crookston.
Why Crookston? To the unassuming person, Crookston is just another small town in northwestern Minnesota. It was established in 1872 as “Queen City”, and was initially the nexus of Minnesota’s rail network, and before that, the fur trade. But, I’ve been meaning to visit for awhile for different reasons.
One day, shortly before I left San Francisco, I stumbled upon a new Muni trolleybus sitting on a flatbed truck near its newest bus garage. Being the transit geek that I am, I proceeded towards the truck, taking photos in the process, when I noticed the truck driver. He was surprised that I was taking photos, and thought I worked for the local transit agency.
I then learned that he had just arrived after driving three days cross-country with the bus in tow. He told me that San Francisco’s trolleybuses (and their hybrid buses as well, as I later found out) were being built in Crookston. The driver works for a Grand Forks-based company named Senske & Sons that delivered trolleybuses to Seattle for their recent order, and continues to deliver to San Francisco for their ongoing order.
Eager to investigate, last September, I took the train – and then a bus – to visit Crookston, the small town where San Francisco’s fleet of the future were being built.
I arrived shortly before 9:30am. I was dropped off in front of a warehouse that housed a beet museum. It is only natural for Crookston to have a beet museum; after all, the Red River Valley area tops the United States in sugar beet production.
Crookston, along with other communities along the Red River Valley, including Fargo and Grand Forks, were once a part of Lake Agassiz, a very large glacial lake that occupied most of Manitoba, eastern North Dakota, and Minnesota to the north and west of Bemidji. The lake drained as a result of the most recent ice melt, yielding some of the most fertile soil in the world. Some of the soil is used to grow sugar beets.
Near the museum, there is a refinery that processes hundreds of thousands of beets for white sugar. The refinery is one of 6 plants where the beets can go; the other two in Minnesota are located in East Grand Forks and Moorhead. Trucks heading to these plants constantly drop beets on the side of the road; you’re welcome to take it if you happen upon one.
After determining that the Sugar Beet Museum appeared to be closed for the day, I began to make my way back Downtown. Jefferson Lines doesn’t stop at the heart of the city; in fact, the two places that it stops in Crookston are at the University, located on the northern edge of town, and the Beet Museum, on the southeastern edge of town.
I can understand why the stops are located where they are. There’s space for cars to stop, perhaps park. Universities also have high populations of students who aren’t likely to have a car, and some probably need that connection to get elsewhere in the state. For the Twin Cities, not everyone wants to get to the depot in Downtown Minneapolis to get on a bus, which is probably why there are stops in Maple Grove and Burnsville.
Along the way, I stopped at the Polk County Historical Society. It was also closed; in fact, the week before was the last operating day of the season. The Polk County Historical Society has an array of artifacts exposed to the elements for all to see. They include a caboose, as well as ox carts.
The ox cart on display is dubbed as the “World’s Largest Ox Cart”. While they were commonplace, they often went through Crookston on their way between Canada and St. Paul. Crookston honors the ox carts annually during Ox Cart Days in August.
With stops, it took me half an hour to get from the bus stop to Downtown. Downtown is just on the other side of the Red Lake River (it flows from Red Lake east of here and feeds into the Red River). Upon crossing, I happened upon the local library, the first building on the other side of the river. Well, a local branch of the State’s first regional library system.
The system in question, the Lake Agassiz Regional Library, was first founded as the Moorhead Public Library. It gradually evolved into a regional library, as people from farther and farther away gradually began to use its services. The library expanded in response. Crookston joined the system in 1975, and the city still has a committee that advises the City Council about issues related to the library. The current library, built in 1984, appears like a bunker and contains a diverse array of books, as well as a sunroom and meeting room. These were all recently upgraded through a grant. I spent a lot of time in here resting, getting water, and transferring the photos I captured into my hard drive, as my heels ached through the day.
Next to the library is the Carnegie Library. Crookston is one of 58 communities in Minnesota to have such a library. It was built and opened in 1908. As part of receiving money to build the library, Carnegie required imposing a tax of 10% the grant amount to ensure the library remained sustainable. The library remained in use until 1984, when the new library was built. The library is still used today as the archives for the Polk County Historical Society.
Across from the library is a movie theater. The Grand Theater is the oldest in North America. It was first built as an opera house after modernized fire codes condemned the first one. Shortly after the theater was constructed, equipment to project silent films was added, and the theater was gradually converted into one that shows films. It continues to do so today.
Crookston’s Downtown is my ideal downtown. It’s intimate. It’s wonderfully car-free (although built to support smooth car flow) with a healthy mix of immaculate architecture. It’s a great place for a city kid like me to be when I want to be away from people but be around multi-story buildings.
In an attempt to activate Downtown Crookston, I saw a lot of tactical urbanism interventions. There were birdhouses perched on fences, back alley walls graced with murals, historic sugar beet harvesting equipment found on a pocket of open space on the edge of Downtown, a navigational sign that seems to point in all the wrong directions, and drawings spraypainted on alleyways, on picket fences, and drawn on chalkboards.
The place where I probably saw the most people was the El Gordito Market. A combined market and restaurant, it opened in 2010. They are the first to open such a market in the area, and I can attest that it serves quite authentic Mexican food and groceries.
The owners are just one of many immigrants from Central America who live and work in the area. The Census 2017 American Community Survey estimates that 14.07% of Crookston’s population are Hispanic or Latinx of origin. People of Hispanic or Latinx origin have resided in the area for over one hundred years; many of them work in area sugar beet fields or meat-packing plants. About 35% of the local school population is of Hispanic or Latinx origin. Seeing this need, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota provides legal services at the restaurant for people who need it every other week.
Crookston is very conducive to bicycling. I saw a decent amount of people on their bikes. However, those on their bikes appear to be the demographic who can’t drive a car. I saw two children riding while I was around the community. it’s unfortunate that, aside from a trail that runs along the northern and southern ends of the city, there is no bike infrastructure to speak of. Recently though, the local paper did report that the city was in the process of installing sharrows to call attention that people do bike in Crookston.
I also figured that there would be some form of transit. But I wasn’t able to get much details as to how it operated. Turns out it operates as a dial-a-ride just like many other transit systems in Greater Minnesota. It’s operated by a nonprofit, which also provides service in nearby communities, like Thief River Falls. I saw it out and about 3 times that day. But I didn’t get the chance to ride it.
After a brief jaunt through Downtown, I began to make my way to New Flyer’s Crookston plant. New Flyer is a company that manufacturers buses; in addition to Metro Transit, they’ve built buses for Milwaukee, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, DC, Seattle, and my hometown of San Francisco.
New Flyer has two plants in the State (the other is in St. Cloud). The Crookston plant performs final assembly of buses that are fabricated in and shipped by truck from Winnipeg, in compliance with Buy America requirements. Before Crookston, their first final assembly plant was in Union City, California; at that time, just under 40% of their buses being built were destined for agencies in the Bay Area. In order to introduce the first low-floor transit bus to the United States, as well as to handle increasing demand, they relocated to Grand Forks in 1990, and subsequently to Crookston in March 1996.
During my visit, this plant was actively producing replacement trolley and hybrid buses for San Francisco’s Muni, as well as replacement hybrid buses for King County Metro, and new buses with doors on both sides for Utah Transit Authority’s Provo-Orem BRT project. Once production is finished, they are driven direct from the factory to their respective agencies; for trolleycoaches, they are trucked to their final destinations on flatbed. Workers who build these buses are represented by the Communications Workers of America Local 7304.
Crookston has a modest amount of open space that is used in different ways. On one hand, there are microcosms of forests that are fit for a refreshing walk. On the other hand, Crookston has undeveloped tracts of land, available to anyone who is willing to build on it.
But why not turn it into parkland instead? Crookston has been steadily declining since the 1980s. In order to make money, the city sells the land for development, rather than turning the land into parks, or returning the land to surrounding indigenous communities. Most of the tracts of land are on the fringes of the city, and as a result, much of the land sold is developed into sprawl. It appears that the city has little choice; the city relies on a significant amount of Minnesota Local Government Aid to stay afloat – 66%, to be exact.
After wandering through the northern suburbs of Crookston, I find a high school located immediately south of a Wal-Mart. The high school is actually a regional destination; kids from the immediate area go to school here. The reason for the significance of the Wal-Mart is that it was the most recent economic investment in the city, opening a little over 10 years ago.
My Crookston walk ends at the University of Minnesota campus. I barely made my way around the quad before my heels completely gave out.
James J. Hill, the rail baron, once owned the land where the UMC campus sits. He donated the land for an agricultural research facility in 1895 because of its fertile soil. After becoming a residential high school in 1905, the facility eventually became the Crookston campus of the University of Minnesota. The campus opened in 1966, and the high school closed in 1968.
Granted, it was the weekend, so there wasn’t a lot of people on campus. But earlier in the day, riding through Jefferson Lines, I noticed there were fences set up, as well as flags adorning the fences. The driver later told us that a fun run was going to happen later in the day.
I never did see the fun run.
Just before 6:50pm, the Jefferson Lines to Grand Forks pulls up. I show my pass to the operator and board the empty bus as I begin my 12-hour journey back to the cities.
I like Crookston. It’s a very intimate city, and I especially like to see buses being built for my hometown over time. I’m also humbled to learn that this community processes some of the sugar that I probably consume on a daily basis.
If you don’t plan on visiting Crookston anytime soon, you will probably find a Crookston-produced product near you. Look for a bag of American Crystal Sugar at your local market, and if you live in or have visited San Francisco, Honolulu, Seattle, Salt Lake City, DC, Surrey, Winnipeg, Edmonton, or both Vancouvers, you may very well be driving or riding a Crookston-built bus on your next trip.
The buses, however, probably won’t have stray sugar beets onboard.
You Can Do This Journey Yourself!
It’s possible to do a car-free trip to Crookston, but it takes quite some time. I took Amtrak and Jefferson Lines, and did a significant amount of walking in between. My itinerary was as follows:
- Depart St. Paul via Amtrak Empire Builder at
- Arrive Grand Forks Amtrak at around
- Walk to Grand Forks Transit Center (about 2 hours) or UND (about 45 minutes)
- Depart UND or Grand Forks Transit Center via Jefferson Lines at around
- Arrive Crookston at around
9:15am(get off at either the U of M campus or at the Beet Museum)
- Depart Crookston at around
6:50pm(get on at either the U of M campus or at the Beet Museum)
- Arrive Grand Forks Transit Center at around
7:10pm, or UND about 15 minutes later
- Take your time to explore Grand Forks and gradually make your way back to the Amtrak Station, no later than
12amthe next day
- Depart Grand Forks Amtrak via Empire Builder at around
- Arrive St. Paul Union Depot at around
7amif early, later if not.
One of the stops along the route, Grand Forks, is within 100 miles of the international border. In this zone, immigration agents reserve the right to ask whether or not you are legally allowed to be in the United States, as well as much, much more. As a precaution, bring a passport with you.
If your believe that your legal status is questionable, please consult an immigration attorney before attempting this journey.
This notice does not constitute legal advice.