The Other Balaton

I’m writing this from Balaton. Not the Balaton. But the one and only Balaton in the United States of America, a small town in southwest Minnesota. I’m not quite sure how I found the place, but once I discovered it existed, I couldn’t not go visit. The additional 640 km (400 miles) it would add to my trip were of little consequence. Curiosity had gotten the better of me.

We turfed up about 4 pm on a Friday evening, got settled into the little house we’d rented for the night, and took a quick tour of our part of the town. With the current population stats reading 643 people, it didn’t take very long to get around. We spotted the Balaton Liquor Store; KirPatrick’s Pub and Grill; Balaton Publishing, an old schoolhouse dating back to 1881; a couple of churches, one fabulously weathered and sadly deserted, another more modern and obviously in use; a bank; and the Balaton Area History Center. All within walking distance of each other. We were particularly excited to see the Horvath Funeral Home, convinced as we were that there had to be a connection between the town and our Balaton in Hungary.

Front of Balaton Publishing building in Balaton Minnesota

Old church in Balaton Minnesota

Water tower in Balaton Minnesota

Burchard school house c 1881 Balaton Minnesota

Horvath Funeral Services Balaton Minnesota

Given that Balaton MN is about the same size as many villages in Hungary that might just have a presszó (coffee during the day, beer/wine in the evening), a church, a shop, and a post office to their name, there was plenty on offer, relatively speaking. And like any small town or village in Hungary or in Ireland, the heart of it was in the pub. Especially at Happy Hour.

It didn’t take long to strike up a conversation. That we’d come from Hungary and lived near the other Balaton, the one that none had been to and some had never heard of, covered the cost of entry. Jayme ‘Fester’ Chandler did what good bartenders do and made the connections. With each drink he served up during Happy Hour came a ticket stub that when opened revealed what the drink would cost – full price, half price, or just $1. That’s an idea that would take off in Budapest I’m sure. Sadly, my luck wasn’t in, but Fester did thank me for doing my bit to stimulate the local economy.

Merlyn Seaton pulled out his phone, opened a map of Hungary, and told all with earshot: “If you look all the way along the southern shore, every little town begins with Balaton.” Someone mentioned that the local Historical Society had a couple of Balaton bars on display. But no one was quite sure though how the town had gotten its name. That sort of detail would be left to those preserving the town’s history.

Too often, Europeans see America through a prism of big cities and TV shows. Cities like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles take centre stage and the small towns of middle America go largely unseen. But for all the differences between the two countries, the similarities between small-town America and village life in Hungary are many.

Centennial mural Balaton Minnesota

Centennial mural Balaton Minnesota

There’s a pride of place, a sense of ownership, a tangible feeling of community. There are local characters, spoken of with fondness, whose exploits are part of the lived history. Something that might make it different from any of its Balaton counterparts in Hungary though, is the sheer number of centenarians given the small number of people. Stella Tisue was born in 1888 and died in 1996. She was Grand Marshall of the Centennial Parade back in  1992. Multiple record-holder Ruth Anderson died at 112 back in 2011. She was the oldest living twin in the world, the oldest person in Minnesota, the ninth oldest in the USA, and the twenty-third oldest in the world. Inez Wedland, who died earlier this year, lived to be 100. Amazing women.

A lot like rural Hungary, agriculture is the mainstay. Hogs are big. As of 1 December 2018, there were 8.9 million pigs in Minnesota and some of them live around Balaton. That’s a lot of pork. Given the high numbers of Somali immigrants in the Twin Cities, the lamb and goat market is growing, too. The surrounding fields were full of soybean and corn. Rick Anderson’s farm has been in the family for 120 years. He’s a third-generation farmer of Scandinavian stock with an ability to tell stories that would get him an Irish passport. Kenny Holm is building a different legacy. He left his farm in the late 1970s and set up Heartland Mechanical. His two sons now work with him in a business that is doing southwest Minnesota proud.

The last class graduated from the high school back in 2000 and the rest of the students moved out to a school in nearby Tracy a few years later. The grocery store shut soon after and other businesses began to close their doors, too. The town, like many villages in Hungary, seemed to be dying a slow death. But then came the shrimp.

Using a system created by Texas A&M University, Ralco, the third-generation local international agri innovator, started trū Shrimp and is using patented Tidal Basin™ technology to grow shrimp indoors in the old high school, now obviously refurbished. It sounds mad, but it’s true. The 40-foot-tall Balaton Bay Reef Training and Innovation Center is the only one of its kind in the world. And the locals vouch for the quality of its shrimp. I heard impressive numbers (as in tens of millions) when discussing the dollar impact the venture could have on the town. Big things ahead, I suspect.

Balaton Area Historical Society Balaton Minnesota

R to L: Geneva Swan, Mary Mattson, Shirley Wendland, Jerry Schlenker, Jenny Kirk, Theresa Zaske, and Larry Sloan

The following morning, Geneva Swan, Mary Mattson, Shirley Wendland, Jerry Schlenker, Theresa Zaske, and Larry Sloan met me at the Historical Society for a chat, their curiosity probably on par with mine. I’ll admit to being disappointed there were no Hungarian-sounding names (that Horvath was a Hungarian name was a surprise), but such is life.

We sat around the table, trading questions. They asked about my Balaton, and I asked about theirs. First up was the pronunciation. They say Balaton (as in the weight, ton) and run it all together. And I say, well I say, Balaton. Second up was the cost of living. As usual, the mere mention of average Hungarian salaries elicited surprise and perhaps an explanation as to why more Hungarians haven’t come to visit. They’ve had a few, though, most recently a young Hungarian musician named Tamás, who lives in the Twin Cities, popped in while in the southwest for a music festival.

Then, of course, we spoke about how Balaton got its name. More than one story is making the rounds. Some say it was named after a railroad employee and stockholder who went by the name of Balaton. Others say it was to be called at the town’s first businessman, Mr Bell. But then a travelling salesman suggested it be called after the most beautiful lake in the world, my Balaton. More still prefer the quirky notion that it was named by vote – with residents taking a ballot on the name. Ballot on? Balaton?  I love that one. And had the town not been beside the lovely Lake Yankton, that would have gotten my vote. But what are the chances that its proximity to a lake was the reason it was named after one? Jerry showed me a clipping about a Philton Balaton who said he remembered Lake Yankton being called Lake Balaton… and the plot thickened.

Everyone I spoke to mentioned the shrimp. There’s an optimism afoot that things are picking up. They’re seeing more kids playing in the lakeside park. The annual Summer Fest and the Vet Run are drawing bigger numbers. It seems as if the town is getting a new wind. Jenny Kirk, the editor of the Balaton Press Tribune, the town’s weekly paper, was also there that morning. They’ve added a couple of pages since she came in fulltime in March. It’s impressive to see a town of its size sustain a printed, full-colour weekly. New subscriptions are taken out every week and the paper’s circulation is growing; readers get a lot of reading for their dollar.

Some we met, like nurse Kristin Deacon, who bartends at KirPatricks to make her travel money, are no strangers to Europe. Others, like Bruce and Jana Timmerman, have had their interest piqued by our visit and may well decide to put Budapest and the Balaton at the top of their first trip across the pond.

And while not everyone we met was familiar with the Hungarian Balaton, I think I’m pretty safe in saying that fewer still in Hungary will have ever heard of the American one.

If you’ve reason to visit the Twin Cities, take the time to visit Balaton in Lyon County, Minnesota. Population 643. As their annual tourist brochure says: A pleasure to visit…wonderful to call home!

First published in the Budapest Times September 2019

Photo Credit: Theresa Zaska

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