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Finding Minnesota: Ghost Town Comes Back To Life

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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EMMAVILLE, Minn. (WCCO) – Minnesota has its share of ghost towns that people abandoned for one reason or another. When the last person leaves, though, it’s not always the end of the story.

Take, for example, the place that likes to call itself “the biggest little town in the world.” Emmaville, Minn. northeast of Park Rapids, Minn., is back from the dead – at least for now.

In truth, Emmaville has never officially been incorporated as a town.  It’s a roadside stop that just has people feeling like they’re home.

An earlier owner, Cal Jensen, saw greatness in his little spot.

It had everything you’d need from gas, to groceries, to warm meals and lodging. There’s even a “university,” an early 1900s schoolhouse across the street.

For decades Emmaville was the gathering spot for locals and tourists, but then hard times hit.

Jensen died of cancer, then the subsequent owners struggled to keep the business going.  By 2009, Emmaville was a ghost town.

“When this place closed for two years, there was a big hole,” Del Holz, one of the regulars, said.

Melinda Spry had a lake home nearby with her husband, Mike.

“Everywhere we went, church, yard sales, we heard ‘Emmaville, Emmaville’s closed. It’s too bad Emmaville’s closed.’,” Melinda Spry said.

“And we kept driving by it and saying ‘boy it was a shame that nobody’s done anything with that,’” Mike Spry said.

It turned out the Sprys were about to buy a community.

“In our previous life we traveled a lot and didn’t really feel part of any place we lived. And that’s what we were looking for,” Mike said.

What they found was a lot of hard work, trying to get the old buildings back into shape.

While they focused on hammers and nails, the real community was bonding on its own.

Emmaville was back as soon as people like Ken Thorstad walked in.

“He’s our hugger. He knows when we’ve had a bad day. When we first bought the place it was very stressful, and he just said ‘come here,’ and gave me a hug and I just cried,” Melinda Spry said.

In the three years since, Mike and Melinda have been servers and cleaners, listeners and comforters to the people who’ve become their friends.

“Couple of weeks ago, I was taking stitches out of a guy!” Melinda said.

In their 50s, though, they can only do this for so long.  They’re now trying to find the next buyer, so Emmaville doesn’t go dark again.

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