RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. – Chris Ingraham didn’t exactly get off on the right foot with his future neighbors.
There are better ways to ingratiate yourself, after all, than calling their corner of Minnesota “the absolute worst place to live in America.”
But the Washington Post reporter has more than mended fences. All it took was moving his family there.
“A week after they moved in I felt like they were already part of the community,” says Melissa Benoit, one of Chris’ forgiving neighbors.
Chris, his wife Briana and the couple’s three-year-old twins Jack and Charles, moved to Red Lake Falls last spring, six months after Chris created a social media squall by outing Red Lake County as the nation’s worst place to live, based on government data measuring factors like scenery and climate.
This fall Chris shot a deer, just the latest sign of how much life has changed for the former east coaster.
“My D.C. friends are probably going to cocktail parties and what not right now, and I'm standing here with sugar beets and a whole pile of gourds,” laughs Chris, standing on his lawn near a corn shock and a harvest bounty dropped off by various new friends and neighbors.
It’s a far cry from the barrage of angry Tweets unleashed on Chris after his initial article.
As someone who grew up in the heart of "ugly country" on this map, I hereby declare this map garbage. https://t.co/wlOYnvYgcY— Matt Privratsky (@MattPrivratsky) August 17, 2015
“It was almost immediate,” says Chris, remembering the blowback.
Campground owner Jason Brumwell saw it from the Red Lake Falls side. “The word was this guy was an idiot,” he laughs, looking back.
But Jason – not being a tar and feathers kind of guy – instead invited Chris to come for a visit. Chris accepted, despite his wife’s best instincts.
“I thought it was some kind of trap,” laughs Briana.
Concerns were allayed when Chris pulled up to the county courthouse and was greeted by a crowd of welcoming people and the high school drill team.
“Don't have to worry about pitchforks,” Chris remembers thinking. “Things are going to be okay.”
Jason and other local boosters escorted Chris around the county, introducing him not only to pretty scenery but some darn nice people – which would come into play a few weeks later when Chris and Briana were discussing a reoccurring family quandary, in the presence of Chris’ mother.
The family of four had outgrown its tiny row house – at the same time Briana was wanting to leave her job with the Social Security Administration to raise Jack and Charles.
“My mom was like, ‘Why don't you think about going to that nice town that you visited just a few weeks ago. Wouldn’t that be fun? Those people seemed so nice,’” says Chris, recalling the conversation.
Chris and Briana laughed it off at first, but the more they thought about moving to Red Lake County, the more it made sense.
The house the Ingraham's bought in Red Lake Falls has given them more than twice the space, at half the price of their Maryland row house.
Chris is still a data reporter for the Washington Post, but traded his hour-and-a-half commute for a basement office he shares with two bunnies. His stories are filed online and his contacts with sources maintained on the phone.
While Chris works, Jack and Charles play down the hall. “Instead of a coffee break, I take a toddler break,” smiles Chris.
No more nanny for the Ingraham boys. Red Lake County's lower cost of living allows Briana to say home with the twins. Days are spent in a spacious playroom and on regular field trips exploring the vast spaces of Red Lake County.
The family now eats meals together. Back in Maryland, Chris barely got home from work in time for good night kisses.
“I don't know how we'd be able to do this,” say Briana, remembering how tight their finances had been on the East Coast.
But the change for the better hasn’t just been financial.
“People just drop by to say hello,” says Chris. That doesn't happen on the East Coast.” The Ingrahams received so much food, they purchased a deep freeze to store it.
Still, the move to Red Lake Falls did come with concessions.
“Yeah, restaurants, definitely miss the restaurants,” say Chris and Briana, practically in unison.
Sampling every eatery in Red Lake Falls takes exactly one day - breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sushi is in especially short supply.
Yet Chris and Briana soon learned Red Lake County excels at something even more nourishing - food for the soul.
“It’s just open and overwhelming and kind of awe inspiring,” says Chris, surveying the landscape from the driver’s seat of his car. “It reminds me of the ocean in many ways, just because it’s so broad and vast, the farmlands.”
Space is a constant theme for Chris and Briana - space in their park-like yard, in the farm fields surrounding their town and in their oversized double garage. A garage is something new for Chris. He's never before had one.
“Our house in Maryland, it was 900 square feet on four stories with basically just a little patch of grass the size of the coffee table for a lawn,” Chris says. His deck in Red Lake Falls is bigger than his entire lawn back east.
“Physical space makes a difference in your daily life,” he’s concluded. Chris is convinced it’s making a difference for his boys too. “You can almost watch their little brains expand as you put them in an environment with more room,” he says.
Chris and Briana have made the most of their new town, making friends and becoming involved in community activities.
This fall Jason Brumwell helped Chris learn to shoot a rifle, then took him hunting. His first year out the reporter shot a six-point buck. Though in small town fashion Chris' hunting mates ribbed him for not bagging a bigger one.
“We’re kind of here to get the full Minnesota experience and I feel like you kind of can’t do that unless you go deer hunting,” Chris says through a broad smile.
Just over a year ago, Chris called Red Lake County "America’s worst place to live." No better case has ever been made for dropping the data and just dropping in.
“You don’t realize the hidden beauty that’s really everywhere,” Chris says.