If you have a jar of honey to trade for a pumpkin or a bag of vegetables to swap for a used trumpet, Barter Fest in Hewitt is the place to be this Saturday. The music and merchandise festival, in its third year, was dreamed up by Michael Dagen, an audio engineer, and his wife Amber Fletschock, a visual artist.
The two moved to Hewitt, a city of fewer than 300 people near Wadena, several years ago and have been building a home base for their artistic endeavors ever since.
Their efforts have dramatically affected the town, drawing grants to fix up its enormous former school, now a history museum, for example. “Our next project is we’re creating a lending library in the museum,” said Dagen. “We’re excited about it. People are dumping (off books) left and right. We’ve never had a library, not since the school was there.”
Fletschock and Dagen in their studio. (MPR Photo/Chris Welsch)
The couple has expressed the kind of entrepreneurial zeal that sometimes accompanies those new to a small community. Ground Level wrote about the phenomenon, which University of Minnesota Extension sociologist Ben Winchester calls the “brain gain,” here.
Dagen and Fletschock have also transformed an old hall into an art and recording studio and headquarters for the couple’s band, Dorthy Fix, which will play at this year’s Barter Fest.
The festival will include a lineup that’s hard to imagine winding up in Hewitt any other way, including the jug band Alien Brain and the Jugular Vein, Duluth-based fire dancers Spin Collective and the folk-rock band The Brothers Burn Mountain.
But the event is about more than music and trading, said Dagen. It’s about old-fashioned community building. “Barter Fest has grown in attendance and in people’s minds, when it comes to the ideas behind it,” he said. He described an “invisible barrier” that is crossed “when you start to think of value without money. You have to engage with people to figure out what is that thing worth. It’s so much more rewarding.”
Dagen recalled past trades such as a piece of Fletschock’s art for a massage, one of Dagen’s guitars for a yoga class and two blue hubbard squashes for a processed rabbit. “Later they threw in a jar of dried onions because they felt we got the better deal,” said Dagen.
“The deals always seem to get worked out so that both parties leave satisfied,” he said. “I have found that the experience feels so natural once you get into it. Often the swap breaks the ice and leads to a conversation and maybe a relationship.”
He likens these highly-personal exchanges to what must have taken place among settlers on the frontier. “That’s the way it was,” he said. “That’s how they ran, these small communities. Everybody knew everybody. They knew how to get what they needed. Over the last one hundred years, that has slowly eroded. People got disconnected and got afraid of each other.”
“Nobody has much money out here,” Dagen said. “But the cost of living is low, so you don’t need a lot to get by. You can live within your means and do things that don’t cost money.” That includes camping for free and making trades during Barter Fest. The bartering kicks off at 10 am on Saturday (you can bring money if you have nothing to trade), and the music starts at Hewitt’s noon town whistle.