Community Builders -

Ernie Johnson

By Steve Harris | Spring 2024 Inspire(d)

'Ernie’s Station' in Whalan: A Garage Full of Community

Community-building happens in all kinds of places. A church. A local café. A bowling alley. Even an old garage, like Ernie’s Station, owned by Ernie Johnson of Whalan, Minnesota

Ernie Johnson next to his fully restored 1937 Plymouth pickup at “Ernie’s Station” in Whalan, Minnesota. / Photo by Steve Harris

Ernie grew up in Whalan, a bluff country village perched on the Root River about four miles east of Lanesboro. He remembers the hometown of his youth as small-but-lively (the population still barely reaches 60) and filled with things to do.

“There were kids everywhere,” Ernie says, “playing ball, fishing, swimming, sledding in the winter. All the mothers in town were our mothers. All of us kids were like brothers and sisters. In fact, when we got into high school, Whalan boys wouldn’t think of dating Whalan girls. We went to other towns to meet people”. 

“If boys from other towns showed interest in Whalan girls, we made sure they knew we were keeping an eye on them. We all watched out for each other. Whalan was like one big family.” The town is also “family” in the way people support each other during emergencies (that nearby river has produced a few floods) and personal crises (benefit dinners are not uncommon). 

Ernie certainly enjoyed the benefits of a close-knit community as a young boy, and as an adult, he’s helped build it. For years he served on planning/zoning committees and claims to know town boundaries and property lines better than any surveyor. Having been connected to Whalan for more than half of the town’s entire existence, he’s a treasure-trove of local history and gladly shares those stories, often at Ernie’s Station.

Ernie’s Station from outside. / Photo courtesy Ernie’s Station

The small gas station was first built in 1917 by Carl and Emil Severson, the construction partially financed by Emil’s pay as a World War I soldier. The station’s second owner in the 1930s expanded the building, and then Norman Larson became its longest-serving proprietor from 1954 to 1991. In 1993, Ernie, then working full-time in road construction in the Twin Cities, had the idea to buy it.

“I didn’t really need a filling station,” he says, “but I liked the idea of having a place to collect fun things you find in a place like that. I bought the building and when I saw something that fit, I’d buy it. That’s how ‘Ernie’s Station’ started.”

When he took over the building, it had four vintage gas signs. Today, after three decades of garage sales and old barn picking, the building is delightfully crammed with hundreds of automotive antiques, including his collection of vintage gas pumps with original glass globes. You also find unique tools, promotional sales banners (“Chevrolet – a Six in the price range of the four”), and oil signs from a variety of companies. “My favorites are from Tydol,” Ernie says. “The Nourse signs, originally from Kansas City, are special, too.”  

One of the vintage oil signs at Ernie’s Station in Whalan, MN./ Photo by Steve Harris

You’ll also find Whalan’s first telephone booth (its hand-crank phones still work), vintage maps and photos, and an honor-system pop machine. “I hoped people would enjoy seeing everything,” he says with a smile. “Turns out they have.” The Ernie’s Station guest book reveals visitors from across the United States and beyond (even New Zealand!). Car club members frequently cruise by eager to show off their classic rides and to visit with Ernie while he works on his own restorations. 

“I have my first car and my first truck,” he says. “Not many people can say that. I spent nine years restoring that 1937 Plymouth pickup. I got it in high school from my Uncle Sam Sethre and used it when I was trapping gophers. I wasn’t old enough to drive so I had to stay on his farm. Now the pickup is totally restored; I’m very proud of how it came out.”

Beyond Ernie’s Station, Ernie and Joan, his wife of 50 years, also played a central role in building another popular Whalan tradition (now on hiatus). “A few of us were talking one day about ways to promote our town,” he says. “We agreed an annual festival might help. Dave Harrenstein from the pie shop told us about a small Iowa town that held a parade each year. The town was so small the parade stayed in one place while people walked around it. A ‘stand still parade’ sounded fun – we decided to give it a try.”

Original gas pump globes at Ernie’s Station. / Photos by Steve Harris

Whalan’s “Stand Still Parade” became an amazing community-building event each May. In year three, CBS news showed up, and that national media exposure led to bigger and bigger crowds every year. People from all over fell in love with small-town Whalan. They couldn’t seem to get enough of the marching bands (stationary, of course), antique car displays, fire trucks, a petting zoo, lots of good food (including Norwegian goodies like lefse and rommegrot made by local Lutheran church ladies), craft vendors, family games, live music, and more.

Classic cars were part of the Stand Still Parade and are also a frequent sight outside of Ernie’s Station. / Photo courtesy Ernie’s Station  

“Joan and I directed the Stand Still Parade for 11 years,” says Ernie, “and worked on it year-round. Everybody in town got involved. My Station was filled with visitors all day. It really pulled our entire community together.”

Sadly, the pandemic brought Whalan’s Stand Still Parade to another kind of “stand still.” After 25 years, its future remains in doubt. It’s a reminder that while communities are built, they also evolve over time. “Many of our friends and neighbors are gone now,” says Ernie. “But there are still many wonderful things about Whalan. People love living in this beautiful place. Thousands of people bike the trail running through it, the Aroma Pie Shoppe is busy all season, and the Cedar Valley Resort is a popular lodging-destination. Whalan is still a lively place.”

That’s all true because of community members who value their town. People like Ernie Johnson. “The people of Whalan care about their town because they care for each other,” he says. “Like I said, this is family here. It’s always been that way. I hope it never changes.”

Steve Harris

Steve Harris is a freelance writer from Lanesboro, Minnesota. Visit his website at

To learn more about Whalan, Minnesota, visit the Lanesboro/Whalan Chamber of Commerce at To visit “Ernie’s Station,” make your way to 510 New St. in Whalan. As the sign on its front door says, “Open when here. Closed when gone!”