Ninety miles due south of Minneapolis, Theresa Grubstad welcomes the same group of 11 retired gentlemen every morning at her Red Leaf Cafe. They talk weather and crops, and maybe a spot of gossip. Theresa is a familiar face around New Richland, Minnesota these days, but it wasn’t always that way. She and her husband, Dean, moved to the 1,200-resident town in 2003. Now, it’s where they’re living their best life.
“We’d never been to New Richland before, but our real estate agent brought us here to see a home, and we just fell in love with the town,” she says. At first, Dean, a chef, found work at local restaurants. “In 2014, we were able to realize our dream of opening our own place,” Theresa says. “We now employ nine people—and it’s been wonderful.”
Could it be? Opportunity abounds in small town America? Not only is it true, but the opportunities in New Richland go beyond the entrepreneurial: The town is giving away free land to people who commit to building a home on it within a year—free parking and fresh air included.
With housing affordability becoming out of reach for many people in the nation’s largest metros, homeownership can seem like an impossible dream. Not in New Richland. And if thought small-town living wasn’t for you, this little city might surprise you.
Red Leaf Cafe is in the middle of a wee downtown that looks straight from a historic movie set. It sits next to the locally owned hardware store, across the street from the library, and kitty-corner to the State Bank of New Richland.
A thriving downtown full of independent businesses is a small-town rarity these days. Across the U.S., rural living increasingly means getting by without a local grocery store, pharmacy, or bank. In fact, the Brookings Institution notes that the divergence in the economic health of big cities and small towns since the economic crisis “is becoming even starker than it has been.”
But in New Richland, there are about 100 small businesses in town—from Nancy Jane’s Bakery to the Lady Bug Thrift Shop to Bakken’s Boat Shop—roughly one for every 12 citizens.
And it’s not just shopping opportunities that make living easy in this Minnesota town. The spirit of a simpler time lives on here: In the summer, there are parades and fireworks, and kids spend the warm months diving off the dock at the St. Olaf Lake Park. Residents rave about the New Richland Public Library, which offers a huge range of educational-but-fun programs—from weaving classes to video game design. The local newspaper, The Star-Eagle, has folksy columns like “Compostings,” by resident Al Batt, who recently explored the fascinating reasons why barns are painted red.
In a time when most American small towns are defined by what they don’t have, longtime New Richland community member Pam Goehring says that’s just not the case here. “We have everything you’d need here in New Richland: we have a drug store, hardware store, supermarket, police, and ambulance—some small towns in America aren’t so lucky.”
Even the origin story of the city’s free land program is a nod to New Richland’s warm character. According to Wayne Billing, New Richland’s city clerk and treasurer, the land for what would become the known as the Homestake subdivision was donated to the city by a local farmer named Rick Schultz. It would turn out to be a gift to New Richland’s future.
Here’s how the program works: If you commit to building a home in the city’s Homestake subdivision and meet certain requirements, you can get a free, 86′ x 133′ plot of land (about a quarter of an acre) to build it on. So far, seven of the original 27 lots now have homes on them. The program began in 2004, and though it slowed during the housing crisis, things are picking up again.
“As a lifelong New Richland resident,” says Billing, “it is always nice to see new homes being built and families moving here to keep the community growing and moving.”
The free land offer is certainly getting the small town some attention. Sara Vulcan, city clerk for the city of New Richland says she gets calls about the program at least once a week, “from people all over the country, and even some international interest!”
One of the happy residents of the Homestake neighborhood is Christine Schlaak. Due to the changing needs of her family—she has a special-needs child and her elderly parents were moving in with her—a new-construction home designed with accessibility in mind made most sense for her, but that’s no small ask, financially.
Just 90 miles north of New Richland in Minneapolis, the median price for a two-bedroom house is now $225,000. In New Richland, two- to three-bedroom homes can be had for under $100,000. And then imagine the land is free.
Christine found the process of applying for and getting her free lot to be easy, and through the Homestake program, she was able to keep her family together. “The Homestake program is a nice opportunity to get a wonderful house that you can live in for the rest of your life,” she says.
You may have known life was cheaper in rural America, but the live-without-it state of many small towns just isn’t worth it for many people. But in New Richland, the lifestyle may be different than big-city living, but residents of this well-rounded, self-sustaining community wouldn’t call it a sacrifice. It’s got great schools, a truly vibrant and close-knit community spirit, work opportunities, and it’s a place where you could finally be a homeowner.
Theresa never ceases to be impressed with how kind neighbors are in her little slice of Minnesota.”We have community members that go above and beyond, like people driving you to store or the doctor when you need help.”
Fifteen years into their life in New Richland, Theresa and Dean are integral parts of the community, helping out with fundraisers for the fire department, offering half-off breakfasts for moms on Mother’s Day, and—one of their favorite endeavors—running the Red Leaf at the Lake concession stand at St. Olaf Lake Park during the summers.
“It’s such a beautiful place to be, especially after a long winter,” says Theresa. “There is a sweet little beach for families, a fishing pier, picnic areas, and we just love spending time and serving our neighbors there.”
And just imagine: You could be one of those neighbors, too—helping out with fundraisers, cheering at the parade, and tending to your very own property overlooking the green, Midwestern plains.
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