James Tufts, the sprightly 4-year-old Mayor of Dorset, Minnesota, squeezes my hand. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I do this stuff all the time.”
The 4-year-old Mayor of Dorset, Minnesota, James Tufts, is putting his tiny upstate hamlet on the map and we’re here to meet him. James made history about a year ago when he was elected at the age of 3, succeeding his older brother, Bobby, age 7, who had already served two terms and was two days older than James when he won his first election. (There was an intervening term when the office was held by a 16-year-old.)
Dorset is one of those places in the northern Midwest that one might be tempted to dismiss as drive-through or flyover in nature. To be sure, it can be darn tough to make a living up here; the topsoil is thin and the winters are harsh. Farming yields far less than it does even an hour or two downstate. In a sort of cruel irony, the need to winter over is greater. This is a catch-22 that can force entire local economies to a precarious edge. But relegating Dorset to obscurity would mean missing out.
Dorset, in a display of typical plucky bravado so prevalent “up north,” cheekily bills itself as the Restaurant Capital of the World. It holds an annual Taste of Dorset Festival every August at which the main event, aside from the eating, is the mayoral election. It’s all done by write-in, and it’ll cost you a buck to put your candidate’s name on a slip. Then the names are drawn out of a hat. When we ask James what he thinks got him elected, he says, “Just lucky, I guess.” We think he’s too modest, but that’s Minnesota for you.
Dorset has battled back after lightning strikes destroyed two of its four restaurants by fire in 2014. Just one month prior to our visit, Companeros and the Dorset House reopened, after a couple of summer employees who had met and married while working at the combined restaurants successfully spearheaded a financial campaign to purchase and rebuild. It’s just the sort of story you want to hear: equal parts love and grit. That’s Minnesota for you, too.
Dorset is tight-knit, “more like family,” explains Emma, mother to James and Bobby. “When I was in a tough emotional and financial place, this town embraced me and helped me get back on my feet. Whatever the community wants from us, we’ll give.” She does more than that, it would appear. While many moms would argue they have very little to do with their kids’ personalities, it’s clear Emma expects “professional” behavior out of her 4-year-old Mayor of Dorset. Both boys look and act the part. When we ask James what his duties are, the response is, “Shake hands and be nice to people.”
James wants to know if he can show us his favorite places around town. Why not? Off we go to the candy store to fire cork guns and gaze on the merchandise. He’s precocious, talkative and gregarious. Bobby gazes fondly at his brother, allowing him the limelight and chiming in when necessary. Check out our video below (or here if you’re in a reader). Sorry about my fingers!
You begin to think of these two as older than their years; their engaging personalities are perceptive and guileless. Somehow the idea of a 4-year-old Mayor of Dorset, Minnesota seems like the most natural – and charming – thing in the world.
James is a national celebrity, with appearances coast-to-coast ranging from Good Morning America to Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots. Both boys are surprisingly blasé about all the fuss. To them, it’s all part of a day’s work for the 4-year-old Mayor of Dorset, Minnesota.
Bobby confides that he’d like to run for President someday, and we encourage him to consider doing it right now. “You’d make a much better candidate than anyone,” we insist, and he beams. According to the Dorset Daily Bugle (“published once a year in Dorset, Minnesota, whether there’s unbelievable news or not!”), all the nation’s presidential candidates have reached out to his younger brother for advice: “Be nice and no poopy talk.” Other headlines in the paper report, “Obamas retiring to Dorset,” and “Norse mosquitoes ready to slaughter Zika ones.”
At the end of our visit, we’re disappointed that we have to leave. We could easily spend a few days in Dorset this summer, or even a month or two. The next Taste of Dorset is scheduled for Sunday, August 7, and we fantasize about submitting our choice for mayor on an official ballot slip with the requisite $1 fee, or even stuffing the ballot box, which is perfectly legal. Re-electing the 4-year-old Mayor of Dorset, Minnesota might just be the most meaningful political activity we engage in, both this year, or ever.
Tips and Practicalities: Dorset is located in northwest Minnesota on Highway 34, six miles east of Park Rapids and one mile north of Highway 226. Within a few miles of Itasca State Park (where the Mississippi Headwaters are located), Dorset is a mecca for bicyclists, walkers and rollerbladers who use the scenic Heartland Trail. Highway 34 is ablaze with autumn color beginning in September.
Dorset’s boardwalk shopping and dining options include four restaurants (Companeros, Dorset House, La Pasta, and the Dorset Cafe), antique and gift stores, an ice cream diner and a combination book and candy store. Stay in town at the Heartland Trail Bed and Breakfast.