I haven’t told you yet how haunted I felt when I saw the Harkin store. It stands alone, its wide porch overlooking the Minnesota River, on a deserted stretch of county highway thick with cottonwoods.

In mid-nineteenth-century Minnesota, Harkin’s general store and post office was a Super Wal-Mart, a destination for people who lived several days in any direction from the bustling town of West Newton. The last stop for steamboat traffic on its way upriver, West Newton boasted saloons and blacksmith shops, a hotel, livery stable, sawmill, and wagon works. It was the ideal place for an enterprising farmer like Alexander Harkin to build a store in 1869. But the town died when the railroad was built through New Ulm, eight miles southeast. People stopped traveling by riverboat. Harkin shut his doors. The townspeople burned down all the other buildings for the nails. West Newton vanished. And when Harkin’s grandchildren finally unlocked his store again sixty years later, they found his entire stock waiting on the shelves, unopened mail in the slots.

This is an excerpt from the article published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion. Purchase this issue, take advantage of our free trial offer ($19 for six gorgeous issues) for the print magazine, or subscribe to the equally beautiful digital edition ($10 for six issues) for the full text.

Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two collections of poetry, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas. Other essays she has published in Orion have been selected as a Notable Essay for the Best American Essays series and won a Pushcart Prize. She directs the creative writing programs at Hamline University and lives with her family in Saint Paul, MN.