HERON LAKE, MINN.
Warren Sontag loves the new role he's been playing since retirement: guest lecturer on town history.
The town elementary school, inspired by the high school's push to integrate its curriculum with its immediate surroundings, has invited Mr. Sontag to speak occasionally to third-graders about local history. Few residents are better equipped than Sontag to teach about tiny Heron Lake (population 750) and its even smaller neighbor Okabena (population 216).
Sontag's grandfather came from Austria in the 1880s. He sought religious freedom and was one of the first settlers in Heron Lake. In 1902 he founded a lumberyard - at just the right moment. The town was bustling and that same year a public school, city hall, and 90-seat Methodist church were erected.
But Sontag and his father, the heirs to the business, have seen some tougher times since. Sontag's father, who took the business over in 1925, almost lost it during the Depression of the 1930s. The yard was saved, however, when a fierce storm knocked down a number of barns and insurance money allowed farmers to rebuild.
Sontag, who took over the business in 1960, has watched farms consolidate and farm families shrink in size.
"In the early teens, the population was greater here than it is now," he says a bit sadly. Apart from four years in college and another four fighting in Korea, Sontag has always lived in Heron Lake and he doesn't want to see it fade. "I think the town is going to survive," he predicts, "but I don't think we'll see much growth."
What has thrilled Sontag, however, has been the chance to get to know the town's youth. "Since I've spoken at the school, the kids come up to me on the street," he says. "I see them riding their bikes and they stop to speak to me."
His perceptions of the children might thrill their parents, too. "They're so well-behaved and appreciative," he marvels.