How a futuristic dome city was nearly built in Aitkin County
SWATARA--A futuristic dome city was never built on the swamps of north central Minnesota. It nearly happened back in the early 1970s, but the plans were abandoned.
SWATARA-A futuristic dome city was never built on the swamps of north central Minnesota. It nearly happened back in the early 1970s, but the plans were abandoned.
A big reason for that was Terry Mejdrich.
"It was totally impractical for the time," Mejdrich said. "I mean, they were going to dome the city, but dome it with what? The technology wasn't available to build a dome a quarter mile in diameter and probably 400 or 500 feet high."
Mejdrich was a young math teacher when he started hearing rumors about the Minnesota Experimental City, or MXC. It was proposed by Athelstan Spilhaus - a famous inventor, meteorologist and futurist, who ran the Institute of Technology at the University of Minnesota.
Spilhaus wanted to build an entire city designed for scientific advancement. It would house 250,000 people in ever-changing modular buildings. There would be monorail systems and moving walkways. The city was supposed to be self-sustaining, so plans involved high-rise parking garages filled with beef cattle, and a power plant.
All of this would be built under a massive geodesic dome, right on top of Mejdrich's hometown of Swatara, north of Aitkin.
"At first I didn't believe it," Mejdrich said. "It sounded crazy."
But Ford, Boeing and Honeywell had all invested. So had the state Legislature. It was expected to cost $4 billion. It sounded like a sure thing, and Mejdrich did not want to live under a dome.
"It was kind of overwhelming," he said. "I'm a farm kid. I'm more comfortable picking up a shotgun and heading for the woods."
At just 26 years old, he led a group of friends and neighbors to fight the experimental city. Hundreds joined him. They rented buses and protested in St. Paul. Some of them even made signs, and marched 170 miles from Swatara to the state Capitol building.
And they won. In 1973 the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency voted to abandon the project amid local opposition and concerns about cost and feasibility.
Mejdrich still lives on a piece of his family's homestead down the road from Swatara. It was always small but these days, the unincorporated community is looking pretty sparse.
There are about a dozen homes. The general store, where a younger Mejdrich bought his groceries, went under in the 1980s. The old church building is being auctioned off by the county, and the Swatara school is empty. Most of the windows are busted out. For awhile, somebody used it as a makeshift horse barn.
Mejdrich sees the lack of domes and moving walkways as a victory for the local community. Not everyone agrees.
Richard Fleming owns the old Swatara school. He was living in Detroit Lakes but bought the place last year after reading about the 1970s experimental city dreams online. He and his wife are homeschooling a few of their 10 kids in a pair of trailer houses out front, while they renovate.
"They were going to build a dome over the town," he said. "It was just the perfect sci-fi setting."
For Fleming, the idea of the dome city still resonates. If they can't live under a dome, he said living in a place where a dome was nearly built is the next best thing.
The closest operating business to Swatara is a bar about 4 miles away, called the Corner Club. The poster behind the bar dates back to the 1980s. It shows a model holding a bottle of Schmidt lager. Her crop top T-shirt reads "Honest to Minnesota."
Science educator and writer Sharon Moen talked to people at the Corner Club a few years ago, while researching a book "With Tomorrow in Mind" on Athelstan Spilhaus. She understands why the dome city was a tough sell. Even so, she thinks it was as a missed opportunity.
Spilhaus was striving to perfect the modern city, and she said, he got really close. We had just landed on the moon, why not build a city under a dome in rural Aitkin County?
But by the early '70s that faith in science was dwindling, and not just in Swatara.
Moen said what happened Swatara is still happening all over the country. She said it's playing out over and over on the news - in stump speeches to coal miners.
"It's people that are so afraid of changing their lives, or livelihoods," she said. "Gripping on as hard as they can to something that is crumbling. There's going to be nothing to hold on to. It's going to be rotted."
At 4 p.m. on a recent Thursday a handful of local guys relaxed at The Corner Club. The bar doesn't stock Schmidt anymore so Herb Stansberry drinks Bud Light. He talked about the old days, like when the Schmidt beer girl on the poster came to the bar and signed copies. And when a bunch of academics from the cities tried to build a dome over Swatara.
"No, I didn't want it," he said. "What the hell would I want it for? I would have moved out of here if it happened. If I wanted to live in a friggin city I'd move to a city."
Stansberry admitted Swatara has seen better days, but said it's still better than some big city - especially one under a dome.