Yellowstone Trail Alliance meets with consultant in step to develop cultural, historical tourism route

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

Efforts to revitalize a historic Yellowstone Trail brand advanced greatly on November 19th, as core stakeholders from St. Paul to Ortonville convened in Granite Falls to kick-off the development of a Yellowstone Trail Cultural Heritage Tourism Master Plan.

Yellow signs along the Hwy. 212 route mark the path for the Yellowstone Trail.

It was in January of 2018 that the first meeting of the Yellowstone Trail Alliance of Western Minnesota (YTAWMN) was held, also in Granite Falls. The gathering brought together a group of area individuals interested in history and economic development from communities along the Yellowstone Trail. The trail runs approximately 3,600 miles from Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts to Puget Sound, Washington. In Minnesota, it follows Highways 212 and 7 from the Twin Cities to Ortonville. Along with the Jefferson and Lincoln Highways, the Yellowstone Trail is one of the first three coast-to-coast highways. However, of those, it is the only one built as a cooperative effort between communities. Starting in 1912 it was completed in under ten years. 

Since the initial YTAWMN gathering, members have continued to meet monthly to discuss how to use the brand to promote tourism-related development. The Yellowstone Trail’s corridor included eight communities initially, according to Alliance member Nicole Elzenga, stretching from Buffalo Lake to Granite Falls. 

“By the close of 2019, the organization had begun incorporating the remainder of western communities running from Montevideo to Ortonville. Sixteen in all,” she says.

The group also works in tandem with the national Yellowstone Trail Association (YTA). The original YTA was disbanded in the early 30s with the onset of the federal highway system. However, it has been undergoing revitalization since a group first remerged 25 years ago, led by retired Eau Claire, Wisconsin Professor's John and Alice Ridge.  

Hoping to expand the Minnesota Alliance of trail communities, YTAWMN has also been working to foster relationships with remaining stakeholder communities on the east end of the Minnesota Yellowstone Trail, from Stewart to St. Paul. Since YTAWMNs inception, the group has hosted several events, published promotional materials, and put forth multi-community initiatives that seek to simultaneously raise and utilize the Yellowstone Trail Brand.     

As inspiration, the group has often looked to local legend, Michael J. Dowling. Dowling led an influential life despite losing both legs, one arm, and four fingers on his remaining arm after being caught in a blizzard at the age of 14. Raised by the Lende family in Granite Falls following the event, his final resting spot is in Olivia. He is recognized as the greatest champion of the trail, and as the national YTA President declared the trail would one day bring an abundance of tourists to all the communities along its path.  The one-hundredth anniversary of Dowling’s death was April 25th of this year.  

On April 26th, 2021, YTAWMN efforts received the news that the Renville County Historical Society was informed it had been awarded a $53,686 Legacy grant through the Minnesota Historical Society Cultural Heritage Partnership program to hire a consultant to assist with the development of a tourism master plan. With funding secured, a core group was formed consisting of county historical society directors and other key trail champions who will inform the trail plan process.

Jim Roe speaks at the recently held meeting in Granite Falls to discuss plans for the Yellowstone Trail.

Much of the stakeholders' roles will be to help identify cultural heritage assets currently existing along the route, and how these assets can be utilized and promoted within each unique, individual community together. Such assets can include natural heritage resources as well as cultural facilities and spaces, industries, festivals and events, occupations, and organizations.  

“We see this as the first step toward the development of a coast-to-coast, historical-based attraction created by the communities along its path,” says YTAWMN President Becky Heerdt. “The Master Plan will help individual Yellowstone Trail communities connect their unique stories and assets so that they may be developed and marketed cooperatively. It is then our hope that Minnesota’s efforts can be modeled along with the 12 other Yellowstone Trail states.” 

To jumpstart their efforts, the Master Plan Group advertised a Request for Proposal to hire a consultant to develop a Master Plan that would result in building a cooperatively beneficial brand for the Yellowstone Trail. One of the respondents to the Request for Proposal was Jim Roe, whom Heerdt says the group found themselves unanimously drawn to, not only because of his experience and connection to the local area but because of his passion for the project. Roe is no stranger to the area and found the idea of the Yellowstone Trail project resonated with him as his family is rooted in not only Western Minnesota but Granite Falls, specifically. He wrote in his proposal letter, “My grandmother, Hilda Johnson, owned and operated the Granite Café in the 1930s and later ran the Granite Hotel. I spent much of the summer of 1968 in the city, where every day I walked the suspension bridge and watched the river rush beneath me, always hoping to see a really big fish.” 

Roe’s previous work as a planning consultant in his business, Jim Roe Museum Planning in St. Paul, includes work across the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. With Granite Falls being the geographical center of the Yellowstone Trail, it seems fitting that Roe traveled there last week to meet with Yellowstone Trail proponents for a planning meeting to kick-off his work on the Master Plan. Once developed the plan will provide a tourism asset assessment, digital and GIS mapping, recommendations for interpretive planning and visitor experience as well as marketing and planning. 

The group will be meeting with Roe monthly as he works to have the Master Plan completed no later than October 2022.  Those interested in learning more about the local Yellowstone Trail Alliance can visit their website at yellowstonetrailmn.com