Gibbon, Minnesota, population 746, is a small town surrounded by farm country in southwestern Minnesota. But in 1987, the school entered into an agreement with its neighbors, Fairfax and Winthrop, to combine its schools. The three districts officially consolidated four years later. But for students who remember that time, especially for students in the towns that lost its high school, there were trade-offs for tripling their class size.
“You lost your town, if you will,” former Gibbon resident Jeff Haas said. He graduated from Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (GFW) in 1989. When the high school effectively got relocated seven miles away, the town lost a large part of what brought people together – education and sports.
“We felt ripped off that our school was taken away from us and we had to go to, really a rival school,” Bridged Ahlbrecht Hieb, one of Haas’ former classmates added. Not only did the town founded in 1887 lose some of its identity, it also meant the majority of students were riding in a bus from farms for even longer periods. For some, it could take upwards of an hour to get home, because kids had to endure transfers.
What happened in Gibbon, Fairfax and Winthrop was happening all over rural Minnesota.
“Any town below 5,000 was in some type of decline since the 1950s,” according to Joseph Amato, former dean of Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest Minnesota State University. People were starting to drive farther distances for basic necessities, as they saw commerce in their local communities shrink.
“The doctor was disappearing from the town, three cafes became one, some towns ended up without a coffeeshop,” Amato said. In Gibbon, many residents can remember decades ago when there was competition between two grocery stores on the main street. Today, there aren’t any.
That trend wasn’t helped by a farm crisis in the mid-1980s, which choked many farmers.
“It hit the areas that were most vulnerable,” Amato remembered. “And those would be the areas that had the least cash on hand. The farm crisis was not just a food crisis, that the corn prices and soybean prices were low. The farm crisis was that the mortgage rate of everything was low too, so you couldn’t get money,” he said.
Towns were losing population, some farms folded, or were bought up by others. Today, the average farm size is much larger than it once was – a direct result of the crisis more than thirty years ago.
Despite the anxiety felt by students and parents of the consolidation, there were some benefits. Gibbon students, for example, gained access to classes they would never have had an opportunity to take. A downside is that students faced more competition in athletics, and many Gibbon students who would automatically get a spot on a sports team, wouldn’t make try-outs under a combined GFW.
And the towns didn’t have to wait long to unite. That happened in 1989, two years after the districts combined. The GFW Thunderbirds won the Class B state championship in football, beating Perham 27-15. That was enough to bring all three towns together, after winning a state title that has not yet been repeated.