OSAKIS, MINN. -- Jesse Jackson came to my hometown yesterday. It was, Mayor C.J. Moore proclaimed, "the biggest thing that had ever happened" in this snow-covered town of 1,326.

No one knew quite what to expect. A presidential candidate had never visited Osakis (pronounced (O-say-kiss) before, and the last time some residents saw a famous black man up close was in 1963 when the "Inkspots" performed at the local high school.

But this resort and farming town went wild over Jackson. The Community Center was filled to its capacity of 310 a full hour before Jackson arrived. Hundreds more shivered outside in the bitter cold. When the Democratic presidential candidate saw them, he decided to hold a second impromptu rally at the high school.

About 800 showed up for that. Jackson, wearing a red "Osakis Silverstreak" sweatshirt and a Minnesota Twins baseball cap, soon had the whole place chanting, "I am. Somebody. I am. Somebody. Respect me. Protect me. Never neglect me."

"I think I'm in love," one young woman swooned.

"He did a fine job. He made a very positive impression on everyone," said Newman Olson, president of the First National Bank of Osakis and a lifelong Republican.

Asked what they thought about Jackson after his two-hour visit, nine of 14 students in one social studies class at Osakis High said they would seriously consider voting for him.

Only Alicia Maus, a junior, said she was unmoved. "I don't think he can get elected because he's black," she said.

Osakis, 120 miles northwest of Minneapolis where the prairie meets the Minnesota lake country, is not a place to show emotion easily.

It is populated for the most part by Scandinavians and Germans. They are a stoic lot, not given to quick opinions or emotional outburst. Politics here tends to be progressive but middle-of-the-road. Conversations are short and direct, usually ending with a noncommittal, "You bet," "That's different" or "Whatever."

No one can recall a black family living here.

For weeks, the big question has been, why would Jackson want to come here?

The easy answer, said Tom Ellis, editor of the Osakis Review, is "I brought him here." Ellis is a controversial figure. He prints a quotation from Horace Greeley each week on the masthead of his paper that says, "Journalism will kill you in the end, but until it does, it will keep you greatly alive."

The original plan had been for Jackson, campaigning for votes in the state's Feb. 23 caucus, to visit neighboring archrival, Alexandria, which has a televison station and thus considers itself "a major media market."

But Paul Wellstone, Jackson's state cochairman, stopped by Ellis' office on his way to Alexandria.

"I told him if you bring him to Osakis, we'll put on a free pancake breakfast," Ellis said.

Wellstone quickly agreed. "He {Jackson} wanted very strongly to come to West-Central Minnesota. We saw Osakis as a presentation of small town America," Wellstone said.

Two authors, writing more than a half century apart, popularized different versions of life in small town Minnesota.

In the 1920s, Sinclair Lewis based his bestselling novel, "Main Street," on his hometown of Sauk Center, 15 miles from Osakis. More recently, Garrison Keillor created a fictional town, "Lake Wobegon," that sounds very much like Osakis -- a place "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average."

Neither book captures the reality of life here today. Osakis, like small communities across the Midwest, has been in economic doldrums for more than five years.

Jackson demonstrated that the town faces some of the same problems as big cities by asking the same questions at Osakis High School that he asks in inner-city schools.

Five students stood up when Jackson asked how many knew someone who had died of drug-related causes, 17 stood when asked whether they knew some jailed for drug use, about 75 stood when he asked how many knew someone in their age group who had contemplated suicide, and almost everyone in the crowd of 800 stood when asked whether they knew someone who had tried drugs.

Economic problems are equally real here. There are six empty storefronts downtown, and more than 30 homes are for sale. The local Coast to Coast Hardware Store is closing after 45 years.

"If he appeals to the distressed farmers and small businessmen, he could get a lot of support here," said Lillian Ortendahl, one of town's most active Democrats. "There are a lot of people still hurting here. But we are a proud people in rural Minessota, and we don't let a lot of people know we have financial problems."

After some initial doubts, local business leaders decided it was a coup for the town to host Jackson.

The Republicans jostled with Democrats to touch him when he arrived in the 8-degree-below weather. The local volunteer ambulance service took over security. And insurance agent Mike Mathews placed his son Steve -- wearing heavy leg braces -- in the front row at the Community Center. He beamed when Jackson embraced the boy.