Shirley Agnoli: So, even on our cell phones, we have no reception in Kinney. We’re sitting in a hole. Think about it as being a volcano and we're in the mouth of the volcano and we got the crest all the way around us.
Simone: Shirely Agnoli is one of only about one hundred and forty residents who live in Kinney, a tiny town in northern Minnesota. The city center is just two blocks wide and four blocks long. On main street, you’ll find a library, a bar, a town hall and not much else. And its small size pales in comparison to the massive, active mine that sits right next door.
Shirley: You can hear the backup beeps. You can hear the cranes banging on the trucks. You can hear the trucks takin’ off. And, when they blast, the house shakes like an earthquake. If my windows are open, the curtains stand out straight from the aftershock of the blast.
Simone: The mine is digging up iron -- and it’s the reason Kinney was established here in the first place. But the iron -- along with another metal called manganese -- has proven to be a huge issue for the community. For decades, the two metals have been slowly seeping into their water system. Back in the 1970s, the water lines were almost inoperable because they were so plugged up.
Shirley: Our water lines were collapsing. And they were in pretty rough shape. And so we needed lines, but we didn't have the money to put new lines in.
Simone: Kinney tried to get help from the state and federal government, but they were turned away every time. They were told they were just too small, or there wasn’t enough money available. But the situation was dire -- they needed a new water system. With nowhere to go -- Kinney took matters into their own hands.
Simone: On July 13th, 1977, the town decided to secede and leave the union…to become its own country. Kinney was like….“Uncle Sam, We need to talk. It’s not me, it’s you.”
Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I’m Simone Polanen.
Simone: So what’s the deeper story behind Kinney’s attempted secession? It’s a tale of fortitude and creativity from a small community left behind by their own government…and the ticking time bomb that is America’s water systems.
Simone: That’s coming up.
Simone: The story of Kinney’s secession begins -- like many epic tales -- in tragedy. On a cold winter night in 1974, a house fire erupted in the small town.
Shirley: We stood in the kitchen at our house and watched the fire because it was just down the alley from us.
Simone: That’s Shirley Agnoli again. She’s lived in Kinney for more than 50 years, and serves as the city clerk. She was in her twenties at the time of the fire. She says the house was being rented by a man who had grown up in Kinney. The fire started when he threw his cigarette out the window.
Shirley: He smelled the smoke and he went running down to ring the whistle, because at the time if there was a fire, you went and rang the fire whistle.
Simone: The whistle notified Kinney's volunteer fire department. Shirley’s brother, Billy Wiltse, who was a kid at the time and is now the current fire chief in Kinney, remembers watching the truck arrive at the scene.
Billy Wiltse: They couldn't get the fire truck started. They were pushing the fire truck down the street and trying to, to pop the clutch on it. And once they got it started, they went to fire hydrants and they couldn't get water out of them.
Simone: They tried six or seven different fire hydrants. But none worked. The water pressure was too low. While the fire fighters scrambled to find a working hydrant, Billy remembers watching the house burn to the ground.
Billy: I could see flames coming out all the windows and going up the walls and burning through the roof.
Simone: The house had belonged to the parents of Mary Anderson. She’s the heroine of our story. At the time of the fire she was the Mayor of Kinney. But that wasn’t her only job. She also worked as a nurse and owned the local bar in town…in a mining town. She was a petite woman but she knew how to lay down the law with her foul-mouthed patrons…
[ARCHIVAL, Mary: You gotta say, “Hey buddy, cut it out right now. I don’t want to hear you,” And they do, especially if they use bad language. I don’t give a damn how many times I’ve heard it. I don’t like it, so don’t use it.]
Simone: That's Mary herself, from an interview she gave to the Minneapolis Historical Society in 1988.
Simone: Mary had grown up in this region of Minnesota. As Mayor of Kinney, she had gained a reputation as a fighter and a go-getter….someone who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She would host rallies at her bar and other politicians from the area would come to socialize and get a taste of her renowned Serbian home cooked meals. Shirley remembers it well.
Shirley: All the local mayors, you know, local congressmen would come and the bar would be packed. You couldn't even get in the place. Mary was in her glory. She knew them all by name. They all knew her.
Simone: People who knew Mary said she was smart, friendly, and energetic. Shirley says she was a savvy politician.
Shirley: She knew who to call and who to talk to. And you didn't buck her when she said, “We're going to do this.” She was a feisty little old lady that got her way.
Simone: And in 1975, as she faced re-election, what Mary wanted was to fix Kinney's water system, so that what happened to her parent's house never happened to anyone else's.
[ARCHIVAL, Mary: Well, you know, we had a bad water system and our hydrants didn’t work and different things. So, I was interested in politics. I always wanted to be into some political office.]
Simone: Mary won the Mayor’s race...and she got to work right away, determining what needed to be done to fix the water situation. The town needed to repair the filtration system, fix the water plant, and replace the clogged up pipes.
Shirley: I mean, they were 70 years old. And they were still here from the nineteen hundreds when they were first put in.
Simone: The town of Kinney was built in the early 1900’s and it was originally intended to be a makeshift mining town. The water system was only supposed to last 25 years.
Simone: But roughly 75 years after it was founded, the town and its pipes were still standing. And people were moving to Kinney to work in the nearby mine called Minntac.
Shirley: Minntac was booming. They were building and they needed the construction workers.
Simone: In just seven years, the town’s population nearly doubled -- going from about 300 in 1970, to an unofficial total of 600 residents in 1976. Shirley remembers the toll all those people took on the water system.
Shirley: The more people in town the more showers, the more baths. People were washing their cars, watering their lawns, watering their gardens. A lot of water going out.]
Simone: Shirley remembers the water pressure being terrible. But it wasn’t just because of the increased water usage. Remember, it was also because the water pipes were plugged up with iron and manganese, two metals found naturally in the groundwater. They built up in the pipes over time, making it harder for water to get through.
Simone: The metals were annoying in other ways too -- like whenever Shirley did a load of laundry and used a special brand of bleach, her clothes turned orange.
Shirley: That was always that special shirt that you just love. That's the one that got all the spots on it. The one you didn't care about came up right. All the time. It was iron from the water because the water pipes were so full of it.]
Simone: It’s like some fashion craze took over the town…and that craze was splotchy, rust-colored tie-dye…
Simone: And there were also real health risks from drinking water with too much manganese. Consumed at high concentrations for a long period of time, manganese may cause problems with the nervous system.
Simone: But most of the town residents weren't aware of the health risks at the time. And the poor water pressure -- which was the reason why Mary parents' home burnt down -- was enough for the Mary to get fired up. Shirley’s brother, Billy, remembers that moment.
Billy: And her words were: “I'm going to fix this damn town. So nobody else has to live through this.”
Simone: She, along with the other five council members, pleaded their case to state agencies, asking for funding to replace the town’s water lines. They also tried asking the federal government, reaching out to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Authority.
Simone: But all of their requests were ignored or denied -- either because the agencies just didn't have enough money, or because Kinney was too small.
[ARCHIVAL, Jim Randall: It was always hard to get through the paperwork because we were competing with every municipality in Minnesota, small and large.]
Simone: That’s Jim Randall, the city attorney at the time. This is from an interview he gave to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Simone: After filing countless funding applications and wading through bureaucratic red tape, the town was getting nowhere...and Kinney needed water - badly...and it was clear to town leadership, they were gonna to get creative.
Simone: That’s exactly what happened at a city council meeting on July 12, 1977. Both Jim Randall and Mayor Mary Anderson had a spark of inspiration.
[ARCHIVAL, Mary: I said, “I know what we’re going to do, our water is so bad, we can't get any money.” I said, “We should get the heck out of this country.”]
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: And it just struck me. And I said, “Well, I suppose we could succeed and apply for foreign aid as a foreign country.”]
[ARCHIVAL, Mary: That’s what I was saying, “Get out of here.” And I said, “Then maybe as a foreign country we can get some help.”]
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: And so we talked about it and it got legs and it kept having legs. So Mary said, “Jim, why don't you draft something?” And I did.]
[ARCHIVAL, Mary: So we decided to secede from the union.]
Simone: To secede from the union in order to get foreign aid…you’d think it’d be the kind of idea someone throws out at a meeting and everyone goes “hahaha…yeah…” and just...moves on.
Simone: But Mary was serious. She asked Jim to draft a letter threatening to secede from the union and send it to the secretary of state in Washington, DC.
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: She knew that this would not have a bad effect, that it would get us some publicity and she was pushing me all the way to get it done.]
Simone: In the letter, Jim made it clear that Kinney wanted to secede as peacefully as possible.
Simone: He wrote: “If necessary, we will be glad to declare war and lose. However, if this is a requirement, we would appreciate being able to surrender real quick, as our Mayor works as a nurse in a hospital, and most of our council members work in a nearby mine and cannot get much time off from work."
Simone: Then, he presented the letter to Mary and the council the next day.
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: Nobody was against it. Everybody signed on. So, you know, screw ‘em. We did it.]
Simone: Screw them. We did it. Jim sent the letter to the US Secretary of State... \and that was that.
Simone: Jim, Mary and the rest of the council...they didn't really expect much of a response. Longtime Kinney resident, Billy Wiltse, the current fire chief, remembers the town didn’t either.
Billy: Everybody thought it was kind of a joke, that it was some kind of a publicity stunt. Nobody that I can remember really took it seriously that Kinney was just gonna become its own little country in the middle of Minnesota.
Simone: Kinney couldn’t actually legally become its own country -- an 1869 Supreme Court Ruling made any state’s secession from the union null and void after the Civil War. But that wasn’t the point. The point -- at least to Jim and Mary -- was to stir up attention.
Simone: And just like any good post-breakup glow up, Kinney definitely started turning some heads…But they had no clue just how much attention they would actually receive.
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: People just tend to like underdogs, everybody kind of recognized we were an underdog and that it was, you know, kind of tongue in cheek. So I'd say the press coverage was for the most part favorable.]
Simone: After the break, Kinney gets its 15 minutes of fame, a passport, and a Navy. That’s coming up.
Simone: Welcome back.
Simone: Before the break, the tiny town of Kinney, Minnesota voted to secede from the union. City attorney Jim Randall and Mayor Mary Anderson started contacting various newspapers in the area to get the word out. But for almost seven months, no one bothered to write about their new found nation.
Simone: Until February 5th, 1978, when a local paper published a story titled "Move Over Monaco, Here Comes Kinney." Two days later, it made national news on NBC.
[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: The town of Kinney, Minnesota needs a new water system. And since the federal tax collectors take all the money these days, Kinney is asking help from Washington, but it says the red tape is so horrendous the town fathers have voted to secede from the union and become a foreign country.]
Simone: Town fathers? Ugh, The Mary erasure!
[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: Because they say foreigners seem able to get help from Washington more easily than Americans. If necessary they say they will go to war with the US and lose. They don't say what would happen if they went to war with the US and won.]
Simone: Other major news outlets followed suit. Between February and April of that year, it’s estimated that more than 50 articles were published -- some even as far away as the Philippines and Switzerland.
Simone: Shirley remembers her town making headlines and the commotion that followed.
Shirley: So now everybody wanted to come and see what Kinney looks like. What's the foreign country right in the middle of the United States? It was just little old Kinney, no different than any other little town, but we had a lot of people come through.
Simone: In addition to crowds coming into town, letters flooded in from around the world. Telephones at City Hall and the local bar wouldn't stop ringing.
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: People tended to get a kick out of it, they kind of liked it. We were kind of tweaking the federal government and the federal government is a big, fat, moving target for a lot of people.]
Simone: Jim and Mary realized their sudden fame was the perfect opportunity to raise awareness and hopefully attract some funding. So, they decided to have some fun with it. Together, they came up with the idea of making passports. Jim sketched a design of their official seal: a green eagle with its wings outstretched over a red and white star. Beneath it, their motto: File in Triplicate -- a nod to the impossible bureaucracy the council encountered when applying for government grants. Jim then printed up several hundred copies. Shirley's husband was the first to get his hands on them.
Shirley: He bought the first passports and brought them home and said, “Here's our passports.” And he said, “Now you're legal. You can go and come and go.” And I said, “I really need this?”
Simone: Shirely wasn't the only one who was confused.
Shirley: My grandma called, and she wanted to come visit and she says, “Can we come visit or do we have to get passports so we can come?” And we said, “No, you're allowed to come into the city without a passport. You can buy one after you get here, if you want one.”
Simone: The passports were just a gimmick, of course -- and they turned out to be a moneymaker for the city. The Republic of Kinney sold a couple thousand passports for a buck a piece. Mary Anderson said she made $2500 and decided to invest the money back into the town's community center.
[ARCHIVAL, Mary: So I bought two stools and a refrigerator and fixed the roof. And, uh, bought three tables and 36 chairs and a furnace and electric roaster, electric coffee pot and plastic plates and plastic knives and cups…]
Simone: In addition to passports, the town kept dreaming up other ways to get creative with their new informal “country.” The school district held a contest for students to design the national flag. Someone donated a canoe to the city -- it became the sole vessel of Kinney's Navy. Jim Randall said some residents went so far as to change their address.
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: Some people even started naming their business, the Republic of Kinney, some folks started getting their mail by that name.]
Simone: All of this was written up in the press -- and eventually the publicity paid off! On March 2nd 1978, almost a year and a half after Kinney had declared independence, a state agency approved a grant of sixty thousand dollars. By the end of that year, the “Republic of Kinney” had received state development grants amounting to nearly two hundred thousand dollars.
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: It shows what we did at that time. And we did it. We pulled it off. We'd declared victory and we won. Long live the Republic of Kinney!]
Simone: Kinney and its roughly 450 residents now had enough money to complete all the repairs for their water system. By 1981, the city replaced its water and sewer lines, drilled a 450 foot well, and had new fire hydrants. The water was flowing again. This was a special time, as Shirley’s brother Billy remembers.
Billy: I've always told people, and I still tell people, at that time, Kinney was the greatest town there ever was.
Simone: But soon after their glorious victory, Kinney took another hit. Starting in the mid 80s, iron mines all around Kinney started closing. This was closely related to some national trends -- the unemployment rate had increased and there was a downturn in the steel and auto industries. With less demand, and mines closing in Kinney, this meant thousands of workers in the area were furloughed and the town started emptying out. With fewer residents and fewer tax dollars...Kinney ran into financial problems, again.
Simone: But Kinney -- and their Mayor -- weren’t about to give up. They decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1987, in response to the crisis, Mayor Anderson and the residents of Kinney decided to put together a summer arts and crafts festival to help raise funds for community improvements. They called it Republic of Kinney Day. Shirley remembers the crowds.
Shirley: The park was loaded. And, we had a lot of people coming in and that's when they had the little booth out there selling the passports.
Simone: They continued the tradition every summer until the mid 90s -- renaming it Secession Days -- in honor of the historic feat that Mayor Mary Anderson pulled off.
Shirley: I pat Mary on the back and I give Mary a lot of credit. I'm proud to be part of that, that our mayor was, um, thoughtful enough to think of something like this, to do it, you know?
Simone: The town planned their last and biggest celebration in the summer of 2007 -- the 30th anniversary of their secession. Mayor Andersen -- well, former mayor by this point, served as grand marshal, presiding over the three day event. They held a parade, set off fireworks, and of course, in Kinney tradition, set up a customs booth to sell more passports.
Simone: But, sadly, the event was Mary’s last...only three months later, she passed away. A local newspaper reported that her funeral was attended by nearly 100 people -- more than half the population of Kinney at the time -- including blue-collar workers, residents of Kinney and a who’s who of political leaders. She was 92.
Simone: These days, Kinney still has problems with their water and it’s fallen to Billy, the fire chief and the city’s sole employee, to manage it all.
Billy: We have a high content of iron and manganese in our water. And the manganese is building up inside of the lines. And I've had a few residents, since I've started working, that their water pressure has dropped off to practically nothing.
Simone: Billy says there was one resident who was concerned about the health risks of the manganese in the water. She came to speak at a city council meeting, shortly after putting a filter system in her home.
Billy: And she set little cups in front of all the, everybody, on the city council. And then she got a gallon bag out of her purse and asked them if they wanted a drink.
Simone: Billy says the bag was full of dark, hazy water.
Billy: And it raised a concern with city council, what the water looked like. And I told them that it’s the same water that's going into everybody's house. And I told them the only thing they could do to make the water any better going to her house would be to replace the lines. And he said that would mean replacing every line in town. That's just not economically feasible.
Simone: Water infrastructure repairs are usually prohibitively expensive for any town -- big or small. So, this issue extends far beyond Kinney. Thousands of water systems across the US are desperately in need of repairs, and all of them need to be updated regularly to comply with new pollutant regulations. But the federal government hasn’t been spending nearly enough to cover the cost. In 2019, they allocated less than one percent of what the EPA estimates is needed to fix our nation’s water systems. And this level of underfunding has been pretty consistent over the years.
Simone: Without a huge influx of government spending, things will get worse. We’ll see low-income communities drinking water that makes them sick. We’ll see more boil water notices, more water shut offs, and we’ll spend more on bottled water…which isn’t well regulated, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
Simone: The current system puts the burden on communities to ask for help with their water infrastructure.
Simone: Just look at Flint, MI -- where for years the water was contaminated due to the city’s decision to not protect the water against corrosive lead pipes. It took the protests of activists, including an 8 year old, nicknamed Little Miss Flint, for politicians to pay attention to the lead in the city’s water. As of last fall, pipes were still being replaced.
Simone: Like Kinney, Flint and other communities have been forced to take matters into their own hands. And like Kinney, they shouldn’t have to go to such great lengths to get safe, clean drinking water.
Simone: File that in triplicate…and long live the Republic of Kinney!
Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Sarah Craig. Next week, we are blasting off with Sally Ride...
Tam O'Shaughnessy: I kind of waited for the phone call from NASA or the president or somebody to say that we're going to do something to honor Sally, the first, very first American woman in space. I got no calls.
Simone: The rest of our team is producer Kinsey Clarke. Associate producers Jake Maia Arlow and Julie Carli. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott and Zac Stuart Pontier. Tape Sync by James Napoli. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord & Sam Bair. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With Music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka.
Simone: Special thanks to Shirley Agnoli, Billy Wiltse, Scott Kuzma, Bill Convery, Lori Blair, Heather Cooley, Jennifer Palmiotto, Jeff Freeman, Christopher Welter, Sheryl Kochevar
Aimee Brown, Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey. Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles and Nabeel Chollampat.
Simone: And thank you. For listening! And actually, I have a little favor to ask .. We’re doing a story about Beanie Babies -- you know, the little stuffed animals that we went absolutely bonkers over in the 90s. And we’d love to hear from you...about your favorite beanie baby stories: investments gone wrong, purchases you regretted, collections bordering on hoarding, or finding that one special find...we wanna hear what you got. So give us a call at 646-504-9252.
Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter at Simone Polanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.
[ARCHIVAL, Jim: Take care of yourself. Be creative. Don't be afraid to try something different.]