How Eric Dayton convinced Minnesotans — and the rest of the country — to embrace the ‘North’
Eric Dayton was in his element. After an unusually warm couple of days in early March — 60 degrees resulting in early snowmelt — the chill was back. The wind, too, whipping through downtown at nearly 50 mph, and dropping the windchill temperature to 4 degrees. As Dayton walked out of St. Anthony Main’s Wilde Cafe, a burst of cold rushed in through the door, along with a frazzled woman. “It’s a freezer out there!” she howled. Dayton, eschewing hat and gloves, smiled in return. “Yep,” he said. Behind the quip was a clear implication: He wouldn’t have it any other way. Winter in Minnesota is what makes Dayton tick.
Once known publicly as a reserved businessman and the quiet son of Gov. Mark Dayton and Rockefeller heir Alida Messinger, Dayton has in recent years thrust himself into the spotlight as a relentless cold-weather advocate who preaches tearing down the skyways and embracing the freeze. He has promoted the appeal of Nordic culture with his restaurant Bachelor Farmer. He has pushed for rebranding the state as a culturally unique North, instead of the flyover Midwest. He has worked to educate and raise money for global warming awareness. In doing all this, he’s become the central character in an emerging movement — to transform Minnesota’s most maligned feature into its most appealing quality.
Yes, Minnesota is cold. But cold, he argues, is cool.
A previous generation has tried to deliver this message; think famed arctic explorer Will Steger. Many, including Dayton and Carson Kipfer — the co-commissioner of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, which are based in Minnesota — find Steger inspiring.
“But now,” Kipfer says, “it’s our chance.
“This time, it needs to come from someone younger, in tune with the younger generation. [Eric is] someone people look up to, and he can really communicate these hot-button topics with authenticity.”
While he follows in the arctic explorer’s footsteps, Dayton brings something decidedly different to the idea: a youthful, hip appeal, complete with Instagram-worthy North hats sold at his North Loop retail store Askov Finlayson, and icy craft cocktails for purchase at his ultracool Marvel Bar around the corner.
Lately, Dayton, 37, has gotten more active than ever. The Great Northern festival, which he helped to create, is heading into its second year. Super Bowl LII, in Minneapolis for the first time in 26 years, has adopted Dayton-esque language, tabbing its host the “Bold North.” Dayton is speaking in panels, hosting discussions and publicly campaigning to Keep the North Cold.
It’s a tough sell. But he is digging in.
“We’ve got to take this head on,” he says. “It’s not like I set out to be the king of winter, but everyone sees winter as our No. 1 liability in attracting talent and luring people to the state. So it’s, ‘how do we turn that into an asset?’
“Let’s take control of the narrative. Let’s tell our own story.”
Not an average kid
When the expeditioners woke up on the Continental Divide on June 30, 1996, the snow was falling so fast they could barely see past their tents.
It was a whiteout blizzard. In the Alaskan wilderness. At 7,300 feet.
The party of five included Steger, two of his friends, now-governor Mark Dayton, then between terms serving as state auditor and U.S. senator — and 16-year-old Eric.
They’d been stuck on the tongue of a glacier for a couple of days already, with no way to communicate with the plane scheduled to pick them up a three-day hike away.
“It was almost like a moonscape. You couldn’t see anything,” Steger says. “But time was starting to run out for us. We couldn’t sit around. We had to push.”
Who broke the trail, putting himself between his team and any danger ahead? The teenager.
“It was without hesitation,” the elder Dayton says. “He just stepped into that leadership role. It’s not an ambition for him, he just takes the lead. He’s very smart. He sees things. He looks ahead.”
From the time he could walk, Eric loved the outdoors. At age 3, he began playing hockey — a passion he embraced through high school — both indoors and on lakes near the homes of his parents, who divorced when he was young. After trying several different positions, he settled on goalie, his father’s former post. When his dad asked him why, he saw the quiet young boy’s eyes gleam.
“He told me, ‘Dad, when the other team gets the puck and starts skating at you, it’s so exciting,’ ” Mark Dayton says. “He loved the adrenaline rush of being on the spot, and he was willing to own up to the agony and the ecstasy.”
In the summers, beginning at age 12, Eric would trek to YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Ely, a program geared toward wilderness backpacking trips. There, he learned a deep appreciation for the world around him, and to leave the campsite just a little better than he found it. His blossoming environmental passion was further fostered by visits from Steger, a good friend of his father, who was never short on tales of his wilderness treks.
“It captured him in a way it never captured me,” says brother Andrew, 3 ½ years Eric’s junior. “I would say hi and chat for a couple minutes, then go back to what I was doing, but Eric would linger. He’d ask lots of questions and mine Will for all the details: where he was going, what he was doing, what was next.”
Eric saw challenging outdoor experiences as a way to test himself, and also as an escape. As the son of a Dayton — his great-great-grandfather, George Draper Dayton, founded Dayton’s department store, which later became Target Corporation — and a Rockefeller, Eric had become aware he was a known quantity.
“I liked sports and wilderness travel because it really didn’t matter what my last name was or what my dad did,” he says. “When it’s pouring rain, you’re soaking wet and in the cold and someone needs to light a fire and someone needs to pitch a tent, there’s no social hierarchy. I’m not going to pay someone to do it. We’re all just equals on a team.
“I saw it as a way to just be Eric, and succeed on my own merit.”
In his early 20s, Dayton joined NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and climbed Mount McKinley, narrowly skirting tragedy when an avalanche partly buried his team.
And in 2004, Steger summoned him for another trip, through the Canadian Barrens — far more challenging than anything Dayton, then 23, had yet done.
After training for six months, they set off with four others on the 1,700-mile dog-sledding trek that would take them north of the Arctic Circle through temperatures that dipped to 80 below with windchill. Steger once again relied on Dayton’s calm presence, steady demeanor and leadership that belied his age.
“He was 23 and I was 66, but I found myself asking him for advice,” Steger says. “I’ve never known someone remotely that young that had those kind of instincts. But I always trusted his opinion. He just had this capability of understanding people and complex reactions. He innately had that.
“Eric was not an average kid. He is very, very rare.”
Not flyover country
In 2013, Dayton and his brother Andrew had an idea, but they weren’t sure how to start the conversation.
So they made hats. One hundred and fifty stocking caps, all displaying a simple message: NORTH. Four days later, every one had been snatched up from Askov Finlayson.
“We didn’t have to explain it or sell people on it,” Dayton says. “People were like ‘Yep, I’ll take it, I’ll never call it the Midwest again.’ ”
It was the first hint that he had struck a nerve, that others felt the same way he did.
After high school, Dayton had moved away from the Twin Cities for undergrad at Williams College in Massachusetts and later for grad school at Stanford and a couple of stints abroad, studying for a year in Paris during undergrad and working for six months in Chile at age 24.
He realized then that not everyone saw his home state the way he did.
“When I moved to other parts of the country, I found at best people didn’t know anything about Minnesota and at worst, they had this kind of stereotypical, condescending impression of what it was — that we all live in log cabins with no indoor plumbing and have accents like from the movie ‘Fargo,’ ” Dayton says.
“It kind of pissed me off. Why are we flyover country? Why are we the butt of jokes? It was really frustrating to me because I knew how great this place was.”
Dayton was further miffed when he traveled to Scandinavia in 2007 and realized that the northern climate had a very different identity within a European context.
“The Nordic thing was getting global attention,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why is northern Europe getting so much acclaim and the comparable region of the U.S. is written off, disregarded?’
“I’ve never been anti-Midwest, but what Minnesota stands for is basically an East Coast perception on the rest of the country. They’re deciding who we are and what to call us.”
He wanted to rethink everything.
Discovering a mission
In 2011, Eric and Andrew opened Bachelor Farmer, a Nordic-inspired restaurant, and Marvel Bar — the building’s basement cocktail room. High-end retail shop Askov Finlayson followed later that year.
The businesses found quick success. But Eric Dayton’s concern with the state’s shortcomings continued to bother him. He fretted about the economy. He worried that Minneapolis wasn’t attracting the talent necessary to move successfully into the next era.
One of the biggest reasons for the sluggishness, he believed, was how Minnesotans approached their own state.
“Are we going to be positioned as a compelling city in the country in the next 50 years or are we going to be left behind?” he says. “We have to have a strong pitch. If people here spend half the year complaining, how do we expect anyone else to come here?”
On Twitter, Dayton hammered that reasoning. When cold forecasts from news outlets and TV stations sounded a little too negative and unseasonably warm forecasts a little too positive, he shot back.
You’re creating a damaging negative mindset, and it borders on cheerleadingfor climate change, he tweeted in response to one Star Tribune post.
Another day, after WCCO called a 48-degree February warmup a “top 10 weather day,” he tweeted at broadcaster Jason DeRusha: So #Top10wxDay of fall and winter are days when it doesn’t feel like fall or winter? … Perhaps today is a good opportunity to sound the alarm about climate change instead of celebrating its effects.
And he’d begun another cold-weather discussion, too.
In October 2016, reports surfaced that the downtown Macy’s — a historic building that once hosted Dayton’s department store — would shutter. Mpls.St.Paul magazine’s Allison Kaplan, in a sentimental column, pleaded with the Dayton family to save the century-old landmark.
Dayton took to Twitter to respond.
I’ll make you a deal, @AliShops, he wrote, you bring down the skyways and I will buy that building.
His message — that the skyways were vastly harming downtown Minneapolis’ vibrancy because they pull people off the street and create disincentives for would-be, first-floor entrepreneurs — set off a debate that echoed across the city on television stations, in newspapers and on social media.
“Nationally all the trends are moving back toward cities, and outside analysis has said the skyways are hurting us, but we don’t have the will to do anything about it,” he says. “I think Macy’s closing was a wake-up call, and if that isn’t a call to action, I don’t know what is.”
The Skyway Avoidance Society was born. Dayton created membership cards and began handing them out in return for downtowners signing a pledge to avoid the skyways “at all times and in all conditions.”
By March 2017, the movement had accumulated nearly 500 members.
But not everyone agreed — in fact, plenty vehemently did not.
Dayton penned a Star Tribune op-ed titled “A Farewell to Skyways: The Case for Bringing Them Down” in April. It received 356 comments, many of which employed a multitude of all-caps text and exclamation points to illustrate their own points: they loved, needed and relied on the skyways.
“They’re not going anywhere,” says Bill Deef, Meet Minneapolis’ senior vice president of public affairs who has lived downtown for 30 years. “It’s just not realistic. It’s a convenience. It’s a way of life.”
And, says Joanne Kaufman, the executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association, it’s a safety measure.
“We used to call Hennepin Avenue the Grand Canyon because no one would cross it,” she says. “That has changed because some skyways do extend [over the street], and the light rail has helped … I’m the person constantly called about crime on the streets. So before we start talking about taking down the skyways, we have some other problems to solve.”
But while some grumbles of criticism are evident, John Munger, the executive director of the Loppet Foundation — which organizes activities for kids and other events, including the annual Luminary Loppet, one of the Great Northern’s staple events — appreciates Dayton’s persistence in keeping the conversation afloat.
“Eric has been a real leader,” he says. “He doesn’t back down, he doesn’t go into a corner. He keeps moving forward. It takes a certain kind of person, with fortitude, to just keep pushing in spite of all that.”
From Dayton’s perspective, it would take greater willpower to stay quiet.
“This is my city,” he says. “This is my state. This is my home. I don’t know how to not care. If you see a way you can improve it, some way to help, how could you not?”
Gaining traction, moving forward
It hasn’t always been easy for Dayton to speak up. In 2005, after returning to Minnesota from Chile, he took a job as a business analyst at Target — the company his grandfather helped create. At the same time, he served as the youngest member, by decades, on the Minneapolis Institute of Arts board of directors.
“It was more than I was ready for at the time, and I didn’t think I really deserved it,” he says. He started to suffer from panic attacks whenever he had to speak publicly.
“I hadn’t built my own foundation yet,” he says. “I wasn’t strong enough to support that [responsibility]. I had more work to do.” He confronted the problem, like other obstacles he’d faced, head on, leaving Target for Stanford, where he took public speaking classes and developed the skills and confidence he would need to launch his trio of businesses.
Now, he feels he’s earned a voice because of what he’s done to contribute to the community through both business and activism. And he feels a deep-seated obligation to do something meaningful with all he’s been given.
“I see Eric stepping up and out into a more public role as both part of his nature and also part of a strong desire to be a responsible citizen and do his share,” his mother, Alida, says in an e-mail. “Eric learned from both Mark and me that having inherited wealth brings great responsibility, and I know that Eric feels this responsibility keenly.”
His message has gained traction in notable ways. Last year’s first-ever Great Northern festival combined several individually run winter events (such as the Loppet and the pond hockey championships) and new, unique attractions. It included a formal dinner party, held in the middle of the street near Bachelor Farmer in February, with wool blankets and towers of shellfish.
Suddenly, the word “North” is everywhere. The Minnesota United’s slogan: The North is Rising. The Vikings use it in several manifestations: Defend the North. This is the North. Sound the North. A Timberwolves ad says “The North is on the Rise.” And there’s the Super Bowl tagline, Bold North. If you ask Dayton, that’s grass roots momentum at work. But others see a movement that leads back to him.
“The Super Bowl committee has definitely heard Eric’s thesis,” the Loppet Foundation’s Munger says. “I don’t know if they would credit him or if it’s entered their subconscious, but he has had a lot to do with this change in attitude.”
Where will Dayton go from here?
Some would posit that he’s building a portfolio of issues, a campaign for some future office. Dayton says that while he no longer says “no, never” to a life in politics, it’s not in his plans.
“I wouldn’t do it for the office. It would have to come from a really strong desire to accomplish something,” he says. “But what I want to accomplish now, I think I can do without running for office.”
Success as he defines it would come instead in the little things: the gradual changes in the way we talk about our geography or the prospect of a meteorologist pointing to Minnesota and talking about weather “in the North.”
He dreams of a city buzzing in late January with street-level traffic, winter festivities and tourists who have come to see Minnesota in its prime season.
It might be idealistic to some, but to Dayton it couldn’t be more real.
“I just want to have a positive legacy,” he says. “I look at the legacies of both my families, and it can be kind of daunting. But I try not to dwell on it too much.
“My hope is just to leave the campsite a little better than I found it.”