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Paint The Town: Sprucing Up Our Communities

By John Gaddo and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, March 21, 2024

Root River valley communities benefit from the regional Paint the Town Grant program. (Photos by John Gaddo and Nancy North)

Paint The Town: Sprucing Up Our Communities


SOUTHEAST MINNESOTA – Spring projects are upon us: sprucing up our surroundings, yard and garden clean-up, sweeping out cobwebs from the porch and garage, touching up those flaking, peeling areas on the house.

Not surprisingly, it’s the same thing community groups are doing to spruce up, brighten up and touch up their surroundings—after all, warmer days bring evening walks, family visits, and returning tourists – and we want things to look their best!

Many hands and lots of elbow grease go into dressing up our communities for another summer season and one of the sometimes-overlooked programs helping organizations meet their goals is the Paint the Town Grant program. Sponsored by the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), this grant program is designed to build community collaboration with a unique, hands-on approach.

“Every small town has a story to tell,” said Tim Penny, SMIF president and CEO. “Whether paint is used toward a downtown mural or revitalizing a historic structure, the visual impact across the region is transformative.”

It’s a competitive program with proposals accepted and evaluated each spring – and a program that many Root River valley area communities have benefited from in the past. 

“I always look forward to the Paint the Town Grant cycle which offers free paint for various community beautification projects,” Penny said. For example, “in Peterson, the public library now has a mural on the side of the building that depicts a gnome mailing a letter, adding to a community-wide gnome theme which draws tourism to the area.”

A Paint the Town Grant provided paint to update several historic buildings in Spring Grove, including Giants of the Earth, the local historical society. (Photo by John Gaddo)

As you travel around the region this year – or need destinations for a getaway day trip with visiting friends and family – be sure to keep an eye out for projects that have been completed in recent years in your community or a neighboring town. Here are just a few to watch for.

Weaving together resources in Spring Grove

Spring Grove has been working to brighten up its historic downtown attractions for several years. In 2021 the community received a Paint the Town Grant to enhance three historic Main Street Spaces that house the community’s nonprofit arts and cultural organizations.

A community mural is the focal point of this alley next to Spring Grove’s Ye Olde Opera House Community Theater. (Photo courtesy of SMIF)

“We used it to paint the façade of an historic building downtown, we did some interior renovations to the local historical society, Giants of the Earth. We also used the paint to create a new community mural,” said Courtney Bergey Swanson, one of two Community Economic Development Associates (CEDA) employees who assisted with the project.

“We were able to hire a local artist for the mural,” Bergey Swanson said. “She had studied a local elder’s rosemaling work, which is traditional Norwegian design, and created her young modern spin on it. It mirrors a Habitat for Humanity project because we were able to use multiple generations of the Spring Grove experience and create something new.

Among the historic buildings in downtown Spring Grove benefiting from SMIF’s Paint the Town Grant program is this red barn-like building that houses Heart Rock Coffee and Bluff Country Artists Gallery. (Photo by John Gaddo)


“Giving our community more spaces like the alley project is a lovely way to encourage more shopping, walking, and hanging out downtown. We hope that it inspires further beautification projects around the community.”

“I’ve heard a lot of comments from others in Spring Grove about the space itself, not just the mural,” said CEDA employee Rebecca Charles.

“A lot of people have said that they’re not Norwegian but they appreciate that the space welcomed them. It’s a really welcoming experience saying you may not be Norwegian but at heart you really are. It gave them elements to help them feel welcome.

“The space is next to the community theater which sells out every show. They are going to use this space as an outdoor lobby. When the space isn’t in use by the theater the community can use it – they take their lunch there and visit with friends.”

Caledonia’s Pocket Park Mural

Thirteen gallons of paint is all it took. Polly Heberlein from the Caledonia StreetScapes Committee shared some of the highlights of creating their mural in this blog post:

“Our StreetScapes Committee enjoys coming up with unique, fun and exciting ways to brighten up our downtown area – including the large 3-D mural located in Caledonia’s new pocket park!

Caledonia’s mural is located downtown in the Pocket Park at 119 S. Kingston St. just south of the city’s only stop lights intersection. (Photo by John Gaddo)

“The mural (completed in 2021) is 48 feet long and 8 feet high. It is visible from our one and only set of stoplights in town. The mural’s stone border sets the stage, creating a window effect to draw the viewer in closer to see the woods beyond.

“Our committee chose the ‘woods or forest’ theme for several reasons. We wanted the people sitting in the park to get the calm feeling of actually being in the woods – it just seemed like a great fit. The coloring of the paint used creates a natural flow for your eyes to travel from the green grass, bark chips and flowers in the park and continue on the path within the mural. 

The vacant lot and building that stood behind where the mural would eventually be painted. (Photo courtesy of SMIF)

“Lanterns at the start of the walking path in the mural will actually match the lantern in the park itself. The woods theme also represents our area in regards to the tree types, stream, wildflowers and wildlife that can be seen in the mural.

“Sarah Pederson of Lucid Painting from Coon Valley, Wisconsin, was our artist. She took time to carefully research the flowers, birds and wildlife within the mural to ensure the color, size and proportion would be a true likeness on our finished product and that the outdoor scenery backdrop and tree types were a natural fit for our area. Sarah was a dream-come-true to work with.

“Caledonia is the Wild Turkey Capital of Minnesota and is also known for wonderful whitetail deer hunting, so of course, those two animals are front and center in the mural. 

Artist Sarah Pederson’s 3-D illusions bring this mural to life. (Photo by Nancy North)


“The 3-D effect is what makes this beautiful mural even more special. It gives the illusion that you can actually pet some of the painted animals within and even pick some of the wildflowers.

“This unique 3-D mural has had such a positive effect on our community. We feel the mural will help make Caledonia a destination, encouraging many to come and enjoy. Whether a resident or a visitor, young or old, ALL will enjoy Caledonia’s new 3-D mural.”

Rushford Community Works Together To Preserve Historic School 

The Rushford Area Historical Society (RAHS) is entrusted with preserving a variety of historical landmark buildings, according to society president Terri Benson. The Grinde School House is one among several located in RAHS’ historic park, 401 S. Elm St. in Rushford.

In a summary of the project, posted by SMIF, Benson said the school “was ‘transplanted’ to the current Rushford Area historical park as a way to preserve the heritage of country schools in rural America. It is currently used for events and tours for students, adults and international visitors. It also displays the artifacts from prior generations on how the education system began in rural areas of America.”

It began with a 2021 SMIF grant – and 20 gallons of paint.

A view of the Rushford Area Historical Society’s Grinde School House, near its historic depot and museum, adjacent to the Root River Trail. (Photo by John Gaddo)

“The exterior of the Grinde School was in need of a little TLC, so with assistance from the SMIF Paint the Town Grant we were able to give it a fresh coat of paint,” Benson said. “But getting the paint was the easy part; the challenges were in accessing the peaks of the building, repairing the deteriorated parts of the siding and lining up the volunteers with ever-changing weather conditions.

It all took longer than expected – power washing the building, scraping the siding, and reaching into difficult peaks need extra resources, like a truck with a bucket lift.

“A local painter who uses a hand sprayer offered his services for the building. RAHS gladly accepted the offer, said Benson. 

Volunteers prepare to power wash the historic Grinde School House prior to being freshened-up with a new coat of paint. (Photo courtesy of SMIF)

“After the building was painted, there were trim details to be done. Local volunteers came through again and the windows, doors and a few spots around the building got their finishing touches.”

“As the painting project was in the process – from scraping and repairing to the painting and follow up trim work – we received encouragement from those on the bike trail and community members,” according to Benson. 

“Anyone that participated in the project or the admirers walking by would state, ‘It’s so good that the RAHS is keeping the School maintained – for future generations.’  

“SMIF’s support was an integral part in getting this project started,” Benson said.

And now, she concluded, “our little Grinde School house is ready for more tours and educational programs about how our education system started in the Rushford area.”

The Spring Valley Creek Mural 

Located on the side of the S&S Bait Shop, at 104 East Main Street, is Spring Valley’s colorful Spring Creek Mural, an 8′ x 16′ painting designed by local artist Andrea Hindt and painted with the help of community volunteers. It was installed in 2022.

According to the Spring Valley Economic Development Authority’s project summary, Sue Kolling, a trustee with the Osterud-Winter Foundation, a partner in the project, shared that a year earlier, “Steve Tammel and Springy (Steve Volkart, Owner of S&S Bait Shop) were standing here during the Ag Days fishing contest. Steve looks at the (building’s exterior) wall and says, Springy, you need a mural! A year later, we had our mural!”

Steve “Springy” Volkart (owner of S&S Bait Shop), and Andrea Hindt (artist) stand in front of the Spring Valley Creek Mural in Spring Valley. (Photo courtesy of SMIF)

The mural is visible to people crossing Spring Creek into Spring Valley’s Historic Downtown from the east on Fillmore County Road 1.  

People are encouraged to scan a QR code added to the mural’s bottom right corner. The QR code directs people to the mural’s story, the various pieces of Spring Valley’s story that it incorporates, and a list of community partners who helped make it possible.


About the Paint the Town Grant Program

SMIF donates up to 100 gallons of paint per project, with the goal of fostering inclusion through volunteer engagement, promoting creativity, celebrating local pride and enhancing the beauty and interest of a space.    

“By making this grant specific to towns under 10,000, SMIF can help small communities access resources that are sometimes limited,” according to SMIF’s Tim Penny. 

Since 1997, the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation has distributed more than 10,700 gallons of paint to 314 projects in southern Minnesota through various programs. The Paint the Town Grant program was officially launched in 2015.

New in 2024 will be grants for paint to use in public art projects, including creative placemaking initiatives which incorporate the arts to create a place-based asset in a community. Examples could range from painting board games on public picnic tables, to painting a pop-up park in an alleyway downtown, or using paint on temporary or permanent art installations that enhance the vibrancy of a community. Watch for these and other new projects in our area communities in the years to come!

If you have a last-minute idea for 2024, applications can be submitted to SMIF through March 28, 2024. Learn more on the Paint the Town Grant Guidelines and Application page.




John Gaddo is co-publisher of Root River Current.

This story includes stories and descriptions originally published by the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation; adapted with permission.

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