Alum Taps Into Hometown’s History
Historic Preservation Grad Opens Cooperative Pub Honoring Prohibition’s Namesake
Tonight, residents of Granite Falls, Minn., population 3,000, will hoist pints of Deer Brand Lager and Hop Dish IPA at the new Bluenose Gopher Public House to honor the 159th birthday of the establishment’s namesake: Congressman Andrew Volstead, former mayor, resident lawyer and notably, congressional sponsor of Prohibition, enacted 100 years ago this week.
Among the revelers chuckling at the irony will be UMD graduate Sarina Otaibi, who led the effort to open the Bluenose. The brightly lit gathering spot with restored pressed tin walls takes its name from Volstead’s Capitol Hill moniker, a nod to his Minnesota heritage and upright morality. Its success since opening in April shows how history and place can inspire economic resurgence and community resilience at a time when rural small towns are seeing declines in population and income.
Otaibi, who earned her Master of Historic Preservation degree from Maryland in 2011, rallied more than 275 investors—family, friends and strangers—to restore a long-empty 19th-century former tap room on her hometown’s main street, originally a pre-Prohibition tap room. The stone building’s history, coupled with the town’s strong connection to Volstead, were irresistible; a pub made perfect sense.
“If there were ever a town that should have a pub, it’s this one,” said Otaibi. “It’s really powerful for a public house, or any business, when you have that story behind it, and we had this really great story to tell.”
Otaibi has worked independently and as the rural programs manager for Rethos, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, to help small towns like Granite Falls reimagine, restore and reuse historic buildings and spaces. She personally restored seven of them, including the 19th-century church where her grandmother was married. At Rethos, she helps coordinate efforts to revitalize small-town main streets and promote economic growth. Otaibi believes that these projects preserve not just brick and mortar, but the centuries of stories that define a community’s identity and strengthen its social fabric.
The Bluenose is one of only a few cooperative public houses in the country, where the members own and operate it together. It’s reminiscent of Volstead’s other claim to fame, the Capper-Volstead Act, which allows small farms to form cooperatives for producing and marketing their agricultural products. The model is sometimes seen in food markets, but rarely in other retail or service industries. Otaibi sees it as a viable option for small communities.
“We’re hoping that this creates a model that other small communities can replicate, maybe for the café that they lost or another business they want to keep going,” she said. “Because it is community supported, it can be sustained for the long term.”
Melissa Peterson and her husband, who live 20 miles away in Clara City, got involved in the Bluenose two years ago after seeing a flyer seeking co-op investors and volunteers willing to donate sweat equity. The hands-on restoration process and groundswell of community support resonated so deeply, they bought a house and are moving to Granite Falls in two weeks.
“The Bluenose project was a really neat thing to be a part of and gave us a sense of ownership,” Peterson said. “We’ve felt more wanted and welcome in Granite Falls than any other community we’ve ever been.”
Interim Dean of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Don Linebaugh said Otaibi’s “determined energy to create wonderful places” at the Bluenose and elsewhere is something for the school to take pride in.
“Sarina took her degree from Maryland back to her community in Minnesota to do good, and her amazing work on the preservation and activation of small-town main streets demonstrates her commitment to creating great communities to live, work and play,” he said.
Part of Otaibi’s inspiration to create a cooperative public house in Granite Falls, according to Linebaugh, was her experience studying pubs in England during an experience studying abroad with the preservation program in Yorkshire, England. Just as pubs have taken the role of communal “third places” in that country, the Bluenose is also community-focused, complete with regular live music, Minnesota-grown beer and wine, a wall of board games and a kids’ menu; beyond being a nice place for people to meet, it has quickly become an economic asset to a once-sleepy downtown.
“Thirty years ago, Granite Falls was a really vibrant and bustling community, but then people started leaving to go to bigger cities,” said Peterson. “Places like the Bluenose are a reason to stay and even come to these small towns, instead of a place to grow up and leave. People are coming in from the bigger cities and neighboring towns to eat and listen to music. I’ve heard people say that it’s the first time they’ve seen cars parked downtown after 3 p.m. in years.”
She suspects that if Volstead were around today, he’d approve of the new co-op in town.
“From the beginning, the community piece has been our mission,” said Otaibi. “I think [Volstead] would have been very proud of it. He would probably be one of our most loyal customers.”