Chasing the Top 10

Darling town, oh so small/Who's the fairest of them all?

Bicyclists gather in downtown Lanesboro.
The tiny southeast Minnesota town of Lanesboro often is cited in "Best of" lists.

On Top 10 lists, nothing breeds success like success.

A little town that's anointed one of America's Loveliest Villages in a book one year is likely to be a magazine's Best Getaway the next and a newspaper's Great Escape the year after that.

Usually, the designation falls out of the sky, like pennies from heaven.

"I don't, quite frankly, know how some of these things happen," says Joy Gieseke, director of the chamber of commerce in Mineral Point, Wis., named one of the 10 Best Small Towns in America by Travel Holiday magazine. "But, yes, it's important. Once you've made the list, it's easier to make it a second or third or fourth time."

Mineral Point also has made the book "America's Most Charming Towns and Villages," and in 2007, it was named one of the National Trust's Dozen Most Distinctive Destinations.

Mineral Point really is charming, in my opinion. I'm also fond of Decorah, Iowa, though I can't imagine why it was named Prettiest Painted Place in the Great Plains in 2000 by the Paint Quality Institute.

And I'd never have figured it for Iowa's mountain-biking capital, though Men's Journal named it one of 52 Great American Weekends (Under $200), recommending trails in adjoining counties.

It's a puzzle. Why does Decorah get the painted-lady prize and not Stillwater, Minn., or Dubuque, Iowa? Why is Decorah named a Midwestern mountain-biking mecca but not Cable, Wis.?

And why is Fargo, N.D., one of the 100 Best Small Arts Towns in America but not Mineral Point, where you can find artists behind every storefront?

"I look at these lists and think, 'How on earth do they come up with this?'" says Kristine Hage, director of the chamber of commerce in Cedarburg, Wis., a picturesque Yankee mill town near Milwaukee.

Readers of Wisconsin Trails magazine regularly vote Cedarburg Best Place to Spend a Day Shopping or Wisconsin Community With the Most Charming Main Street. But the town hasn't cracked any of the national lists.

"I don't give credence to them in the least," Hage said. "Having been chamber director for four years, I find I could say things and no one would come back and challenge it. I could call Cedarburg the Most Prominent Historical Mill Town in the United States, and I can 100 percent guarantee that no one would challenge it. It's powerful but scary at the same time."

Word of mouth

The problem with many lists compiled for books and national magazines is that no writer can be familiar with every town in the United States. That's why many use a process I call "rounding up the usual suspects," basing their selections on articles by writers who may be more familiar with an area but also may have themselves based their articles on the writings of others who may or may not have visited a town.

After Charles Kuralt named Ely, Minn., one of his 12 favorite places in the United States in his best-selling "Charles Kuralt's America," the accolades came fast. The adjoining Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was the only Minnesota entry in the best-seller "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."

Then ABC's "Good Morning America" called it one of the nation's Top 10 adventure areas, National Geographic ranked it one of the world's Top 50 most scenic places and National Geographic Adventure magazine called Ely one of the nation's Top 6 "Outdoor Meccas."

And sometimes, a town makes a list because of good old marketing.

In southeast Minnesota, the tiny village of Lanesboro has been lauded for everything from historic buildings to trout streams, and it was named one of 20 Best Dream Towns by Outside magazine, which cited its "picture-book setting."

"That one really fell in our lap," said Julie Kiehne, director of the chamber of commerce. "As I trace it back, I really do think it's from one travel writer talking to another travel writer. It's who you know at the right time."

But one of Kiehne's coups came because she went after the writer herself, in this case Dan Kaercher, editor in chief of Midwest Living magazine. She noticed he planned to hit the road for a "Best of the Midwest" book and public-television series, so she "courted him by e-mail."

"I gave him a full-comp package and put up him and all his staff," she said. "I showed him everything. I set up interviews and had his whole schedule set up."

When I remarked that the well-paid Kaercher hardly needed free lodgings, meals and theater tickets, she said, "That's what makes them write."

And it paid off. The Lanesboro area, with Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Brainerd lakes, is one of only three Minnesota destinations featured in Kaercher's book, published as "a special tribute to the people and places Dan holds dear to his heart."

"It's so much more valuable than any marketing we can purchase," Kiehne says.

The down side

Sometimes, a writer really does do all the legwork, as in the case of the Chicago Tribune's Alan Solomon, who in 1997 visited 139 towns during six weeks, driving 8,000 miles to find "the best little town in the Midwest."

He settled on the Wisconsin town of Bayfield, gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. But innkeeper Larry McDonald, mayor at the time, says he told Solomon he wasn't sure Bayfield wanted the title, that the town didn't want to change to accommodate the inflated expectations of new tourists.

"In Door County, they claim that the beginning of the end for them was a National Geographic story in 1969," McDonald says. "We've often been told by people in Door that we're 20 years behind them."

Bayfield has 600 year-round residents, but its spectacular setting on Lake Superior still makes it vulnerable to runaway vacation development.

"So, I told him that if he did it, to tell everything, and not to promise what isn't there," McDonald said. "After the story ran, we could see more folks from the Chicago area, but a high percentage of those appeared to like Bayfield the way it was.

"Later, there were some letters to the editor, and one woman said Bayfield had no golf courses and her kids were bored. But a 14-year-old girl responded, saying she and her brother took offense at that, that they thought Bayfield was the biggest playground in the world."

There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all "best of" list. McDonald says he doesn't consult them when he travels, and when he sees Top 10 lists that rate places he knows, such as ski areas, he often disagrees with them. But he thinks lists do "help separate the wheat from the chaff."

"Listening to folks over the last eight years, I think readers tend to enjoy that," he says. "Most people have limited vacation time, and they want their dollars to be well-spent. Writers tend to pre-qualify stuff for us."

The fact is, we all love lists, even when they're completely bogus. We know that no one can say what the 10 Best Small Towns in America are — and what's "best," anyway?

But we suspend disbelief and read the list anyway. If the author mentions our favorite towns, she's a genius. If she doesn't, she's a blockhead.

Either way, it makes a buzz. And that's what it's all about.

Want to see what Upper Midwest towns I think deserve a spot on a list? See:

Last updated on December 12, 2010

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