1 little town, 2 starkly different realities: America’s warring visions play out in a Minnesota prairie town

Even in Benson, Minn., pop. 3,000, neighbors can live in different worlds. It’s another measure of how America’s divisions have seeped into the national fabric.

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A customer carries a box of baked goods from a bakery at sunrise in Benson, Minn., a small prairie town where two neighbors — in their own, well-kept, century-old homes — can live in vastly different worlds. I

A customer carries a box of baked goods from a bakery at sunrise in Benson, Minn., a small prairie town where two neighbors — in their own, well-kept, century-old homes — can live in vastly different worlds.

David Goldman / AP

BENSON, Minn. — The newspaper hit front porches in this wind-scarred prairie town in western Minnesota with this front-page headline:

“COVID-19 cases straining rural clinics, hospitals, staff.”

Get vaccinated to protect yourselves, health officials urged.

But ask around Benson, stroll its three-block business district, and some would tell a different story — that The Swift County Monitor-News, the tiny newspaper that’s reported the news here since 1886, isn’t telling the truth. The vaccine is untested, they say, dangerous.

Some will go even further: They’ll tell you people actually are being killed by the coronavirus vaccines.

One little town. Three thousand people. Two starkly different realities.

It’s another measure of how America’s divisions have seeped deeply into the American fabric, all the way to Benson’s 12th Street, where two neighbors — living in their own well-kept, century-old homes — can live in different worlds.

Reed Anfinson, publisher of The Swift County Monitor-News.

Reed Anfinson, publisher of The Swift County Monitor-News.

David Goldman / AP

In one house is Reed Anfinson, publisher, editor, photographer and reporter for the Monitor-News. Most weeks, he writes every story on the paper’s front page.

His editorials lean left, but he says he works hard to report the news straight.

In an America of competing visions, though, some in town say he has taken sides. Nowhere in the Monitor-News, for example, will you find reports that local people are dying because they’ve been inoculated.

“There are no ‘alternative facts,’ ” Anfinson says. “There is just the truth.”

But his neighbor Jason Wolter wonders: Whose truth?

Wolter is a Lutheran pastor who reads widely and measures his words carefully. He suspects Democrats are using the coronavirus pandemic as a political tool, doubts President Joe Biden was legitimately elected and has zero doubt that COVID vaccines kill people. He hasn’t seen the death certificates and hasn’t contacted health authorities, but he’s sure the vaccine deaths occurred: “I just know that I’m doing their funerals.”

He’s also certain that information “will never make it into the newspaper.”

Over breakfast in a town cafe, he starts talking as if Anfinson were there.

“You’re lying to people,” he says. “You flat-out lie about things.”

Wolter says he’s considered the possibility that his conservative politics wrongly skew his view.

“There are times when I’ve thought: ‘Well, what if all my angst over this is misplaced?’ ” he says. “Maybe everyone else is right? ”

But he worries more about America: “This is a dark time.”

Jason Wolter prays at the dinner table with his wife Tracy (from left), daughter Bella, 17, and son Zeb, 9, at their home in Benson, Minn. “There are times when I’ve thought: ‘Well, what if all my angst over this is misplaced?’ ” he says. “Maybe everyone else is right? ” But he worries more about America: “This is a dark time.”

Jason Wolter prays at the dinner table with his wife Tracy (from left), daughter Bella, 17, and son Zeb, 9, at their home in Benson, Minn. “There are times when I’ve thought: ‘Well, what if all my angst over this is misplaced?’ ” he says. “Maybe everyone else is right? ” But he worries more about America: “This is a dark time.”

David Goldman / AP

Anfinson gets around to just about everywhere in Swift County: the city council, the county commissioners, the school board and nearly every other gathering of consequence. He’s there for school concerts, community fund-raisers, the county fair. His white Jeep is often spattered with mud from dirt roads.

He is 67 but looks at least a decade younger. A man who casually quotes Voltaire, he loves newspapers deeply and mourns the hundreds of small-town papers that have gone under. He’s proud that his reporting means something in this town, whether it’s covering a high school award or an expensive building project the community rejected after he wrote about it.

But there are times it’s exhausting. And expensive. With declining circulation and advertising, he estimates his three little local newspapers are worth at least $1 million less than they were a decade ago.

“The easy part is speaking truth to power,” Anfinson says. “The hard part is speaking truth to your community. That can cost you advertisers. That can cost you subscribers.”

It t can be easy, looking around Benson, to mistakenly see it as a land that time forgot.

Bartenders often greet customers by name. The cafes feel like high school lunchrooms, with people wandering between tables to say hello. Many farms and businesses have been owned by the same families for decades. Anfinson’s family has been here for generations.

But plenty has changed.

Stores closed. Little farms were bought up by more successful farmers. Swift County’s population has dropped about 30% since 1960, leaving it with about 10,000 residents.

And a county that was 98% white in 1990 has seen a stream of new minority residents, particularly Latinos. The county is now 87% white — far whiter than much of America — but far more diverse than a generation ago.

“There are a lot of people coming through that I don’t recognize,” says Terri Collins, the mayor, whose family has been in Benson for five generations. “I used to know all of my neighbors, and now that’s different. And I don’t know what to blame for that.”

Once, neighborliness and good manners were near-commandments here. Now, there’s often anger playing out. Neighborhood shouting matches are more common, a gvoernment official’s car was vandalized, and a “F--- Biden” flag flies along a school bus route. Collins and the town police chief say they sometimes worry about Anfinson’s safety.

“Ten years ago, I don’t think anything like this would happen,” she says.

The Anfinson and Wolter families get along, at least outwardly. They wave when they see each other. When one family is out of town, the other will sometimes watch their home.

“We’re still personable,” Wolter says. “I just don’t trust him.”

Though he knows some dismiss him as a conspiracy-monger, Wolter also criticizes conservative politicians for trying to make it illegal to burn the American flag and worries that his conservative opinions could sway what he sees as the truth.

“For better or for worse, I don’t really trust anything I read,” he says.

He says the answers come from research, what he finds online, and not from the Swift Country Monitor-News.

Anfinson prefers not to talk about Wolter, at least not directly. He’s watched Benson’s fragile web of community fray too much.

Instead, he speaks proudly about the Monitor-News, how it prints letters to the editor that are harshly critical of the paper and how he reports the truth even if it costs him.

His newspaper should bind people together, he says.

Instead, he says, America and Benson are growing angrier.

A worker polishes a marquee at a theater in Benson, Minn., where many businesses have been owned by the same families for decades: through the droughts of the 1930s and the thriving years around World War II to the population decline that began in the 1950s till now. But plenty has changed — including a political divisiveness clear even in this small prairie town.

A worker polishes a marquee at a theater in Benson, Minn., where many businesses have been owned by the same families for decades: through the droughts of the 1930s and the thriving years around World War II to the population decline that began in the 1950s till now. But plenty has changed — including a political divisiveness clear even in this small prairie town.

David Goldman / AP

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