It was the third Thursday in June, so of course, as state auditor, I had to visit the 147th Viola Gopher Count .
You may assume I was interested in the gopher count because I oversee local government spending, and the event involves cash-based transactions.
Maybe you think that as a former math teacher, I am attracted to any event with the word “count” in the name. Or maybe you know how much I enjoy cheese curds.
While all are true, there is a deeper reason I made the trip to Olmsted County.
But first, some history. My interest in Minnesota’s gopher bounty started when I was about 10 years old. Back then, my mom was on the Burns Township Road and Bridge Committee, and she took over the township’s newsletter. I loved helping her put the publication together.
As Mom added all the clip art she could fit on the page, I pored over the articles scattered across the kitchen table. I noticed how the meeting minutes always ended with “Gopher Feet:,” then a name, a number, and a dollar amount.
I had so many questions. Why would someone bring gopher feet to a meeting? Why would they get money for doing that? What happens to those feet after they’re counted?!?
I’d go on to learn that rural communities had significant problems with gophers damaging crops and
infrastructure. They needed a way to manage that population that was simple, affordable and effective.
Minnesota’s gopher bounty was the answer. Townships and counties could pay residents for proof of trapping the animals.
This humble solution brought neighbors together. People show up to meetings and events to collect the bounty and see the inner workings of local government while they wait for their payment. Trappers share their tips and get to know their neighbors better. Those connections led to conversations. Those conversations led to even more ideas, some of which found their way into the articles Mom put in the newsletter.
Today, I see those local solutions in the reports and examinations we do at the Office of the State Auditor to oversee over $40 billion in local government spending. In our numbers, we see how cities, townships, counties, and schools find ways to balance tight budgets, keep our communities running, and provide a safety net for those in need.
And in one town, they took a local solution to the next level and built a celebration that reconnects residents across the country and across generations. At 147 years old, the Viola Gopher Count is likely the second-longest running community event in the United States, just six weeks shy of the Kentucky Derby’s record. In addition to the count, there is a parade, royalty, contests, family reunions and bingo.
In a time when unity seems hard to come by, Viola’s celebration reminds us that local solutions can still bring us together. When Congress can’t agree, or the state Legislature is deadlocked, local government steps in. Endless fights are a luxury towns and counties can’t afford. The entities responsible for plowing snow, getting kids to school, and connecting people to health care have no choice but to get things done. And lucky for us, they do it in a way that brings neighbors together.
So the next time you see the words “gopher count,” I hope you think of all the good things local government does to bring us together.