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Minnesota’s Hidden Treasures: Uncovering Unique Small Towns and Their Stories

People have different definitions of what it means to live in a small town. Some people say it’s under 25,000 people, others say 10,000, and others may say even lower. Your perspective of what makes a small town is probably defined by where you grew up.

Minnesota has a mix of every type of town you can imagine from the 3.69 million people who live in the St. Paul-Minneapolis metropolitan area to tiny rural pockets with less than 100 people. Some of its coolest, unique towns have populations between 500 and 10,000 residents.

Keep reading to learn about the most unique Minnesota small towns and the stories that shape them!

Minnesota Small Towns

Northern Minnesota Small Towns

1. Nisswa

Located 13 miles north of the Brainerd/Baxter metropolitan area in north-central Minnesota with a population of 1,967 in 2020, Nisswa offers a small-town feel close to big-city amenities. These are some unique facts about this Minnesota small town:

  • Nisswa was originally Smiley Township, named after Ernest Smiley, who established a railroad stop and post office in the area in 1898. Its name was changed in 1908 to Nisswa.
  • The name was inspired by the Ojibwe word Nessawae, which means in the middle. Nisswa is in the middle of three lakes.
  • The first resort was Quinn’s Cottages, located on the Smiley Subdivision to Nisswa Park. The resort was renamed three times. Its current name is Good Ol’ Days Resort, and you can book a stay on TripAdvisor.

2. Grand Marais

Cook County’s only municipality is the small town of Grand Marais, which is located on Lake Superior’s North Shore. The city boasts a population of 1,337, as of the 2020 Census. This town is also one of the oldest in Minnesota.

Grand Marais was an Ojibwe village until French explorers discovered a route that connected it to a network of waterways through Minnesota and Canada. The Ojibwe gave up the land to America in 1854.

Here are some unique facts about this Minnesota small town:

  • The area was a port for one of Britain’s four main fur trading posts. Fur trade defined the area until the early 1800s.
  • The first French post was located near the site of modern-day Fort William, which was established in 1679.
  • Naniboujou Lodge opened in 1929 as an exclusive club for members of the Naniboujou Holding Company and became a resort in 1939. Today it offers a unique place to relax on the North Shore, and you can stay from February through October.

3. Ely

An area also originally dominated by the Ojibwe, Ely is located in Saint Louis County with a population of around 3,200. Ely drew in travelers and settlers during a gold rush after it was discovered on Lake Vermillion. These are some noteworthy facts about this Minnesota small town:

  • While the gold discovery was minor, miners discovered an abundance of iron, which led to the start of the iron mining industry in northern Minnesota.
  • Almost everyone who’s visited Ely has heard of The Root Beer Lady, Dorothy Molter. She was best known for the best homemade root beer made from Knife Lake Water and sold to canoeists from 1930 to 1986.
  • Ely is a great home for outdoor enthusiasts to live or visit because it lies on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest.

4. Biwabik

Biwabik lies 50 miles to the southwest of Ely with a population of 956 in the 2020 census. Named from the Ojibwe word iron, the Minnesota small town is a beautiful place to call home or vacation. These are some cool facts about Biwabik:

  • Biwabik’s story is similar to Ely’s–gold hunters inundated the area during the Civil War and discovered iron instead, so the area became part of the Mesabi Iron Range and the Lake Vermillion district
  • It was officially incorporated into a village in the fall of 1892.
  • Today, this small town is best known for the Giants Ridge Ski Resort.

5. Thief River Falls

Located in northwest Minnesota, this Minnesota small town had a population of 8,755 during the 2020 Census. Check out these interesting facts about this historical small town:

  • Thief River Falls is a huge agricultural area because of the soil left by the ancient Glacial Lake Agassiz
  • The area is known for Read Lake River and its adjoining Thief River. The river’s Obijwe name translates to a secret earth river. The French misinterpreted it as stealing river, believing it referred to the way streams wash out banks
  • Home to Minnesota’s first birding trail, Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail, which is a natural refuge for 275 species of birds and other wildlife.
  • Also home to the snowmobile manufacturer Arctic Cat
Minnesota Small Towns

Central Minnesota Small Towns

6. Lindstrom

With a population hovering around 5,000, this small Minnesota town is 35 miles northeast of the Twin Cities and 10 miles from the Wisconsin state line, making it a perfect location. These are some fun facts about Lindstrom:

  • From above, Lindstrom looks like an island because of all the lakes that surround the town. These lakes attract many fishermen to the area.
  • Daniel Lindstrom and other Swedish immigrants were the first settlers in Lindstrom. Their goal was to find a nice piece of land in the United States to call home.
  • The book The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg was inspired by the personal journals of one settler, Erik Norelius
  • Today, the city attracts tourists from all over because of its Swedish heritage, specifically Karl Oskar Days, which takes place in early to mid-July. The town proudly uses the tagline America’s Little Sweden.

7. Princeton

Located an hour north of the Twin Cities, Princeton’s population hovered around 4,800 during the 2020 census. Explorers came to the area looking for pine in 1847 and found a forest of white pine. Here are some additional neat facts about Princeton:

  • The Minnesota small town was named after John S. Prince, who built a sawmill in St. Paul in the 1850s for the manufacturing of lumber from the white pine logs found in Princeton.
  • Agriculture took over the lumber industry in the 1890s as the main village purpose.
  • By the 1980s, the small Minnesota town was swarming with a diverse range of industries bringing workers to the area. Today, Princeton is a great place to live and work.

8. Litchfield

An hour and a half northwest of the Twin Cities lies Litchfield, a small Minnesota town with a population hovering around 6,600 in the 2020 census. Litchfield was founded by the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in the summer of 1869. Check out these facts about Litchfield:

  • Farmers in this area were the first livestock shipping association in Minnesota in 1908 and the first rural electric association under the Federal Rural Electrification Act of 1935. They also created the Land ‘O Lakes Co-operative in 1920.
  • Today, the small Minnesota town continues to be shaped by its agriculture. The Meeker County Fair and the Forest City Threshers draw tourists to Litchfield every year.

9. New London

Located around 2 hours to the northwest of the Twin Cities, New London’s population was around 1,250 during the 2020 census. This small Minnesota town is the oldest in Kandiyohi County. These are some cool facts about the town:

  • Its origins date back to 1850 when a waterfall was discovered by Louis Larson. He named the area after his old hometown: New London, Wisconsin.
  • The town is called The City on the Pond, referring to The Mill Pond, which is three interconnected ponds in the middle of New London, mimicking many small New England towns.
  • You can kayak, canoe, or cruise upriver from the town center through the Crow River.

10. Olivia

Around two hours to the east of the Twin Cities lies Olivia, a Minnesota small town with a population of around 2,300 in the 2020 census. The town is considered a world leader in agriculture. Look at these interesting facts about the town:

  • The largest town in Renville County, Olivia was incorporated as a village in 1881. It received its name after a female station agent named Olive.
  • The Minnesota Senate designated Olivia as the Corn Capital of the World in 1973, when it placed its famous 50-foot corn monument. Olivia is home to nine seed research facilities.
  • Today, Olivia is a world leader in agriculture innovation.
Minnesota Small Towns

Southern Minnesota Small Towns

11. Pine Island

This Minnesota small town lies 20 minutes north of Rochester. The town is a booming source of recreation and business. Here’s more about Pine Island:

  • The first settlers arrived in 1854, and the town was named after the Native American term “Wa-zu-wee-ta” which translates to Isles of Pines.
  • A group of small dairies built a record-breaking 6,000-pound cheese on a railroad flatcar in Pine Island. By 1920, 43 cheese plants were in the area.
  • Today, the residents are proud of the city’s heritage and have the slogan Working Together for a Better Tomorrow.

12. Wabasha

An hour and a half south of the Twin Cities and an hour north of Rochester lies Washaba, a small Minnesota town with a population of around 2,500 as of the 2020 census. Here’s some interesting details about Wabasha:

  • The small Minnesota town was named in 1843 after the Indian Chief of the Sioux Nation, Chief Wapashaw
  • The Chief’s nephew, Augustin Rocque, was the first white settler in the area. His father was a Freshman and his mother was the sister of Chief Wapashaw.
  • The American bald eagle is often seen in the Wabasha area, and The National Eagle Center is located on the riverfront
  • Wabasha is one of the oldest cities on the upper Mississippi River and has remained steadily populated since 1826.

13. Dundas

Nestled in the middle of the Twin Cities and Rochester is Dundas, a small Minnesota town with a population of around 1,700 in the 2020 census. Learn more about Dundas:

  • James Iris settled in 1852, followed by John and George Archibald who were looking for a site for a new milling industry. The area now known as Dundas, located on the Cannon River, had everything they wanted: fertile soil, nearby markets, and a water source.
  • The town was named after the Archibalds’ hometown in Canada.
  • They formed the Archibald Flour Mill, which burned down in 1892 and was rebuilt, only to burn again in 1914. It was rebuilt again and then sold to a group from Minneapolis in 1930. The patents were sold to what we now know as General Mills.
  • The Archibald Mill was the first mill to manufacture and patent flour.

14. Waseca

With a population hovering around 9,200, Waseca is the largest small Minnesota town on this list. Located around an hour west of Rochester, Waseca is known for its friendly people, history, and convenient location. Here’s some more about Waseca:

  • Originally inhabited by the Santee branch of the Dakota Indians. Waseca is a Dakota word, which means “rich, especially in provisions.” It also can mean “fertile.” The area is known for its fertile farmland.
  • Today, Waseca Water Park is a popular attraction in the summer months.

15. Lanesboro

Located 40 miles southwest of Rochester, Lanesboro has the smallest population on this list: only around 720 in the 2020 census. The southeastern town is small but a thriving community. Take a look at these facts about Lanesboro:

  • This old Minnesota town was settled in 1856 but was redone in the 1970s and has drawn in tourists ever since the abandoned railroad line was converted to a bicycle trail.
  • The town was a milling community in the late 1800s.
  • Today, the town is a popular place to eat and enjoy culture or bike, canoe, or cross-country ski along the Root River State Trail.
Minnesota Small Towns

Wrapping Up Unique Small Towns in Minnesota

As you can see, Minnesota’s small towns have common themes: Industrial Revolution and Native American roots. These towns were revolutionary in Minnesota’s beginnings and continue to provide incredible places to live, work, and play.

Want to learn more about what Minnesota has to offer? Check out our Best of Minnesota page.