“In Stanley, these desired virtues grew out of its particular circumstances – the values and aspirations people brought with them when they settled there, the physical hardships they faced on the dry, hostile prairie where they had to rely on each other more than perhaps elsewhere, and the newness and remoteness of the town they built, requiring them to make their own, new society.”
- Richard Edwards, “Natives of a Dry Place”
In his 2015 memoir and history “Natives of a Dry Place,” the academic and author Richard Edwards seeks to recapture life in what he calls Old Stanley, his hometown, during its heyday. Through richly-told vignettes he describes the virtues and values of the people of small-town North Dakota during that time and does so with an eye toward modern day life in our rural communities. In the book’s introduction, Edwards asks: what can we learn from the virtues of a near-forgotten era? Are those values too old-fashioned and out-of-date to be relevant to the way we live now, or might there be something there from which we can learn and aspire?
“Natives of a Dry Place” served as one of the primary inspirations for a rural whistlestop listening tour ThinkND embarked upon in the late summer and early fall months of 2017. We decided it was time to go back to the people of North Dakota to get a clearer sense of what was important, and this time we decided to intentionally spend our time in smaller communities. While North Dakota’s population centers may be the economic hubs of the state, small towns are still its cultural heart and soul, and we believe that by exploring North Dakota’s true roots and hearing from the people that tend to them, we will have a clearer understanding and appreciation of the people whose concerns we hope to help address, and be better able to carry out our charter.
To put together a representative sample for our tour, we spent significant time thinking about town size and geography, as well as the kinds of questions we wanted to ask, and who we wanted to be in the room when we asked them. We wanted to know how people felt about their communities, what concerns kept them up at night, and what gave them confidence that their town would thrive in the years to come. We wanted to see if the virtues that Richard Edwards described – resoluteness, steadfastness, devotion to community, pluck, commitment, dauntless optimism, a spirit of adventure, and modesty – still hold true in small town North Dakota today. We wanted to know if there was a new set of values which better defined communities and people in modern small-town North Dakota.
We developed a set of questions which we sent to participants ahead of time but the conversations we had often happily veered off course into other areas that hadn’t occurred to us but which were raised by the people we invited. We focused our attention on towns between 500-1500 people, which seemed like a representative sweet spot for typical small town size in North Dakota. We averaged 10 people in each town. Participants were a mix of elected and city officials, representatives from institutions like the school, hospital, church, and bank, as well as ranchers, farmers, business leaders, and both long-time and recently-transplanted residents. The uniting factor was that the people in the room needed to be citizens who committed time and energy to their communities and who were generally respected as thought leaders. We tried to invite a mix of men and women, young and old. We wanted the conversations to be casual, so we brought coolers of beer and sandwiches or opened a tab at a local bar. The discussions lasted 60-90 minutes.
Overall, we saw a set of common themes and concerns across all five of the towns we visited. In every town, the idea that theirs was a tight-knit community with deep roots where neighbors help neighbors and human decency abounds was the prominent, almost universally-expressed sentiment. The fierceness with which that belief was held across all the towns was remarkable, especially given that praise for personal responsibility and self-reliance were usually touted in the same breath. Deep senses of both humility and humor were also on display.
In every town, folks said that there were only a handful of people who carried the burden of civic engagement and volunteerism. They fretted over the seemingly-diminished interest in lending a hand, specifically amongst young families and the younger generation.
They worried about the quality of public education in their town – attracting good teachers and future funding concerns dominated those conversations. They also agonized about losing tradespeople like plumbers and electricians, as well as professionals like doctors and veterinarians. Child care was harder and harder to come by, and in some of the towns the cafe was at risk. Local volunteer ambulance service was endangered in nearly every town. Some towns had already lost some or all those services, and lamented having to travel great distances to find them, and others were looking at a generation of near-retirement providers with no youthful replacements in the wings.
Despite seemingly-long odds, thoughtful and insightful conversations ensued around the root causes of the problems at hand, and what could be done to resolve them. Citizens acknowledged the civic engagement issues were a result of changes in modern society regardless your size or place on a map – that civic and social engagement being replaced by perceived connection via social media, and that the economic factors which have resulted in most families being dual-income (working outside the home) families now mean fewer non-working individuals available to volunteer for church, town, and school functions. But the rural-specific concerns – education funding, lack of qualified workers and essential services, and the reality of a commodity-based economy – felt extremely local and especially acute to the thought leaders we spoke with, who didn’t necessarily have solutions to these critical challenges, but knew the future of their towns likely depended on finding them.
We set out from Bismarck on a warm, late-July day and intentionally took the dusty back roads, gravel much of the way, 110 miles to Mott for our first stop on the tour. In the basement of the tidy county courthouse (Mott, population 750, is the Hettinger County seat) atop a hill overlooking Brown Avenue, the town’s main street, we moved two tables together in Veterans Hall, where the town’s American Legion and Boy Scouts meet, and waited for folks to arrive. We were anxious – it was our first stop and lots of our invitees had RSVP’ed as “definitely maybe,” so there was no telling what kind of turnout we’d get. Thankfully, by the time we got started, we’d doubled the size of our set-up and the number of chairs around the table exceeded what had been even our most optimistic guess. Heartened and relieved, we opened the floor to participants to introduce themselves and provide us with initial impressions of Mott. Here were town officials, farmers, teachers, a banker, a real estate agent, and attorney, a heavy equipment repairman, and small business entrepreneurs, among others.
The people in Mott talked animatedly about their attachment to the land, the actual “physical yearning” for the landscape that kept them there, or drew them back after leaving for years. A farmer said it was “in his blood,” and all the younger generation in the room talked about the isolation of Mott being “an untapped natural resource,” and described friends from larger cities visiting just to “listen to the quiet.” Most talked appreciatively about how peaceful and clean Mott was and, driving around the town later that evening, it was impossible to argue with them. These people had a deeply personal connection to the countryside around them.
In Mott, the virtues of modesty and humility seemed to take a slightly unconstructive bent, the locals acknowledged. While the town encouraged and indeed had a relatively thriving start-up and entrepreneurial culture, there was also a distinct sense of judgement placed on anyone who deigned to be too successful or showy in their achievements. Some questioned how supportive the town was when a new business tried its hand. There appeared to be a conflicted tension between encouraging enterprising ventures and reining in the overly-assured.
Newness in all forms had its challenges. A new school, the bond for which was approved by a margin of a couple of votes, was near-completion when we visited, and those around the table seemed to welcome it for the most part, but there was concern too. We’ve paid for a fancy new building, a local farmer said, but we aren’t paying our teachers a decent wage. New walls and equipment won’t be worth the investment, many agreed, if quality teaching candidates are dissuaded by nominal salaries.
Transplants to Mott offered another glimpse into the friction between old and new here. One farm family mentioned going to see their grandkids perform in school activities and not recognizing many of the faces in the audience – who were all these young parents, and why didn’t they see them around town otherwise? Those around the table (who were all natives or near-lifelong residents) agreed and expressed frustration and puzzlement about the lack of participation by newcomers to Mott in activities and events in and outside of the school.
“Here,” one town native said, “we don’t care where you’ve been or what you do, just who you are as a person.” He meant that as a vindication of Mott – that there was no bias here, no judgement passed or preconceived notions, so everyone should feel accepted. But one imagines a different interpretation: indifference to the roots or backgrounds of newcomers could have the opposite effect and make people feel unwelcome, dampening their enthusiasm to participate in town activities.
There was considerable discussion about how to better engage new residents. Some bemoaned the demise of the Welcome Wagon as a tool for breaking the ice, but others thought it felt like an invasion of privacy in modern society. Perhaps the Welcome Wagon is a relic of a different era, but it was clear from our discussion in Mott, as well as in the other towns, that a thoughtful approach to newcomer outreach could be implemented in these communities and yield significant rewards - even a new young electrician or teacher, if they’re lucky.
When a recent young transplant to Ashley, a Vermonter via the University of Minnesota’s veterinary school, tried to install a shower by herself in the dilapidated old farmhouse she bought on the outskirts of town, it didn’t go well. So she found the number for a local plumber and called for help. She left a number of messages. When she finally connected with him, he was evasive about when he might be able to come. Frustrated and mystified, she mentioned the interactions to her boss, the town’s long-time, well-respected veterinarian. He asked if she’d mentioned to the plumber where she worked. No, she said, but why in the world would she need to tell a plumber about her job? Just tell him who you work for, said her boss. She did as she was told, and the plumber was at her house almost immediately.
When she told this story to the group we’d assembled at the American Legion in Ashley, everyone smiled and nodded. Its lessons were instructive: the primary reason for its telling was to make a point about the difficulty newcomers have navigating the social and cultural quirks of a small town, but our thought leaders raised something else: that Ashley is extremely cautious of newcomers. Everyone sympathized with the plumber’s reluctance. “Folks who show up here without roots or local connection usually aren’t here to work or contribute,” a town elder explained. The new veterinarian was in luck - she had someone to vouch for her - but what of others who don’t work for a pillar of the community or have a recognizable name?
Despite their admitted apprehension, another relatively new transplant to Ashley in the group said she had other job offers in other towns and had lived in various other small communities in North Dakota but ultimately chose to live and work Ashley primarily because if its welcoming atmosphere and close-knit community. She talked about not having to cook any night during the summer if she didn’t want to because there was always a charity BBQ or benefit potluck supper for some local cause or person who needed help. “Ashley rallies around Ashley,” was the way a long-time resident phased it.
Ashley was where people talked most clearly about family values and safety being major factors for their quality way of life. There was distinctive pride in the legacy, tradition, and ethnic heritage of Ashley. The town had recently participated in a cultural heritage tour series, and they spoke happily about efforts to revive ethnic recipes, and teach kids the languages and traditions of their ancestors.
Perhaps it is this robust sense of identity, connection, and security that leads to the skepticism of anything or anyone might disturb the comfort and harmony of the existing order. But they too face the same worker and quality candidate shortages as the other towns we visited. We sensed a pattern forming – to solve some of the most critical issues facing these towns, it seemed they might need to get over their newcomer wariness and start to better embrace new ideas and people more readily.
But then we went to Belfield.
A stranger wandered into Belfield a couple years ago and applied for a job as the town auditor. She lived in a neighboring town, but she wasn’t from there either. She’d relocated her family from Las Vegas, to escape from crime and find a better way of life. Belfield’s town elders were dubious about hiring her. But they were also in a bind. The previous auditor had walked off the job amidst a swirl of controversy and corruption. This stranger was willing to roll up her sleeves and straighten things out. Brows furrowed, they hired her.
Fast forward three years to the night we met with Belfield’s thought leaders in the newly-refurbished basement of Memorial Hall in late August. Long one of the community’s only public meeting spaces, Memorial Hall had fallen into serious disrepair and the town auditor decided it was time to fix it. She’d received bids for the work but they were all more than the city could afford, so she and her husband had spent the previous several months rehabbing the space on nights and weekends, making it fit for gatherings again, for a fraction of the price. It was a bright space which smelled of new carpet and fresh paint. She’d installed a disco ball over the dance floor. A larger-than-expected crowd cozied into a small side seating area decorated with comfortable couches and chairs. As people filed in, they happily commented on the space’s amazing transformation.
We’d promised to have folks out by 6 pm that evening, in time to still get food at the town’s popular Pavilion Supper – a summertime weekly charity fundraising dinner which benefited a different non-profit or community organization each week. Belfield administrators said a Facebook page which was established at the request of some of the town’s younger citizens had been a effective tool for letting townspeople know about upcoming events and announcements.
When we first went around the circle and asked folks about what they were proud of about their town, most mentioned the auditor’s hard work, determination, and tireless passion for the community. The old adage about one person being able to make a difference isn’t obsolete in Belfield.
We heard another consistent refrain: Belfield people are “humble and kind.” The auditor and her husband were the poster children: they were quick to demur and deflect praise to others whenever they had the chance - but it extended to the town’s general population too. People still wave at strangers driving around town or walking down the street, everyone said. One woman told the story of her Girl Scout daughter who over the course of several blocks had dropped all of the money she collected for cookies. Dozens of neighbors found the money and in the end the girl recovered every cent.
And then there was hope. The people in Belfield were full of hope for the future.
Wandering down Belfield’s main street, hope isn’t the first thought that occurs to an outside observer. Crumbling, shuttered facades were more common than open businesses. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. The grocery store looked like a tornado had hit - turns out it’d been closed for almost 20 years. The most recent oil bust in North Dakota had been rough on Belfield, just like all the previous busts had. One woman said she’d seen her town die at least twice. The postmaster told us she lost the rentals of 300 boxes in 16 months during the most recent downturn.
We did not expect to encounter our listening tour’s most hopeful, least isolationist group here. “Belfield is a diamond in the rough,” said a young man who moved to town in the last few years because his wife’s family owned a ranch there. Along with a police officer, he’d revived the youth baseball program and they were hoping to get a youth hockey team going too. The strong work ethic of people here came up multiple times. Folks were confident about Belfield’s future, despite what looked like long odds. The thought leaders didn’t perceive a lack of civic engagement. They believed that their kids and the younger families were equally committed to helping and volunteering in the community, a vote of confidence for the next generation we didn’t hear anywhere else. One long-time resident summed up Belfield’s unlikely optimism this way, “We don’t have fear, because we’ve already seen the worst.”
Aesthetically, Crosby stood in stark contrast to Belfield. Main street was immaculately kept and humming. The line at the locally-owned coffee shop was so long we couldn’t wait in it for fear we’d be late for our meeting. Earlier in the month the town had celebrated its centennial and members of the organizing committee estimated that at least 1200 plane tickets were purchased by folks coming in from all over the country to join the festivities. It was by all accounts, a grand commemoration of the Divide County seat. The revelry had died down by the time we arrived, but the town still looked ready for its close-up.
Spirits had been stifled a bit, though, by this summer’s drought. Everyone mentioned the drought and the near-instantaneous domino effect it had already had on the local business economy. The Centennial had brought folks to town and allowed some respite from the drought’s grim impact, but now it was on everyone’s mind.
We’d invited a large cross section to our event here – business owners and operators, farmers, elected officials, insurance agents, ranchers, city administrators, and others. However, we had a tough time getting in touch with invitees in our follow up calls, and it happened that a number were out of town the day we scheduled. It ended up our most sparsely attended event, but our most boisterous and fun. The six women who met us in the back room at The Bypass, a local saloon on the edge of town, were a vibrant group, eager to share, and strongly committed to bettering their community.
Located in the state’s far northwest corner, Crosby’s story is one of necessary self-reliance. But, as was true in most of the places we visited, folks spoke fondly of their rascal kids and the good neighbors who they could count on to tell them not if but when those rascals were getting into trouble. Perhaps because of the makeup of our group, children were a primary topic of conversation. The quality of education in the school was again a concern – particularly the question of how to attract good teaching candidates. But mostly they talked about how uniquely kid-centric Crosby was, and how family friendly that made the town, especially for young families, many of whom moved back during the oil boom but who stayed on because of family connections and the positive environment for their kids. One woman who’d grown up in Crosby, left after high school for 15 years, and returned recently with her husband and young children, remarked about the change that had taken place in the years she’d been away. “There are people here who are dedicated to putting life back into this town now,” she said. “It makes me want to stay and contribute too.”
Of all the towns we visited, the thought leaders in the room in Crosby seemed to be the most connected with what was going on at the state and federal level that impacted their town. They questioned the level of relief the state was offering in drought-related assistance, suggesting much more was needed. They communicated with their state senators and representatives, and knew them by name. They spoke about reaching out to local leaders, and challenging long-held, sometimes antiquated ways of doing things.
One business owner told the story of trying to make change. “I went to the town council meeting and suggested a new way of doing something that needed fixing. They said, ‘No, we can’t do it that way, we don’t do it that way.’ No further explanation. So I just said ‘Well, why can’t we?’ and their feathers got all ruffled. I didn’t say it in an argumentative way, I was legitimately trying to understand. But you can’t even ask questions in this town without being labeled a troublemaker.”
Over the course of our discussion in Crosby, the room was often filled with loud laughter, maybe even some hooting and hollering. The women gathered in that room were a dedicated and fierce lifeforce with which to be reckoned. Despite the drought and the economic trouble it was creating for many of them personally, they were collectively confident and upbeat about their town’s future, and it was contagious. As we drove out of town, into the dusk of a perfect late-summer North Dakota evening, we were filled with hope, a little awestruck by, and loath to say farewell to this cadre of passionate, funny, brainy women in this small hamlet in an isolated corner of our state.
“What brings us together overcomes what divides us,” one life-long resident said, and pretty much every thought leader who joined us for our stop in Towner repeated a version of that sentiment. Most of the group assembled in Towner on that hot Tuesday night were headed to a rare midweek high school football game after our conversation – a makeup for the previous Friday night’s game, which had been cancelled because the town they were supposed to play couldn’t field a full 9-man team. On this night, what brought Towner together was a love of their school, football, and the TGU Titans.
The school tends to be a major focus when your town’s population is just over 550 people and you’ve already consolidated with two other nearby communities. Much of Towner’s vibrancy can be credited to the school and the courthouse. (Towner is the McHenry County seat.) That said, people here feel like they can get everything they need in Towner, which was a sentiment we didn’t hear in any of the other towns we visited, and particularly striking given that Towner was the smallest town of our tour.
But there were roadblocks to fully realizing a self-sufficient and fully-functioning independent community here. Participants talked about the large numbers of residents who commute to larger towns, like Minot and Rugby, for work, and wondered if that might be some of the reason for a downturn in civic engagement in Towner - that people’s commuting schedules - having to leave earlier and getting home later to their families – have impeded any free time they once had to give back to their community. “We’re down to a half-dozen people doing all the work,” said one frustrated resident. A rancher mentioned that when his wife was charged with finding volunteers for a church event, the average age of those willing to help was near 80. Some were troubled that a diminished sense of pride and connection might be to blame, but couldn’t put a finger on anything specific to Towner that might be the cause – just the churn and change of modern society, social media, and shifting priorities.
That said, a strong work ethic and distinctly Western culture were both mentioned as elements that made Towner special. The hardware store owner told us that his store was constructed using only volunteer labor in just seven days. Numerous comments were made about a well-defined expectation of community service that existed in Towner. “It’s what keeps me here,” said a school administrator. There was a happy sense that a lot of the younger generation was staying put instead of out-migrating. One long-time teacher noted the sense of pride he had when he noticed a recent uptick of former students who “stick around, make their homes here, and help build the community.” A businessman who’d lived in other small towns before settling in Towner said he thought Towner had more “camaraderie and characters” than any other small town he’d experienced.
As we were wrapping up and getting folks out the door in time for kickoff, we learned one more thing. As the town’s primary social and economic development organization, the Community Club, had slowly faded, an unlikely force of good had sprung up: a motorcycle club. The Gallows Motorcycle Club had refurbished the old VFW Club and made it available for community gatherings and fundraisers, and just generally “done a lot of good for the town.” Civic pride was alive and well in Towner, it turns out. It just came dressed in maybe a little more leather than usual.
The TGU Titans defeated North Star that night 22-0.
We set out to see if any of the virtues from small town North Dakota in its heyday still held true in modern day rural North Dakota. We found that a vital mix of those qualities not only still exist but thrive, and that each town had its own unique, complementary assets – stewardship of and connection to the land in Mott, respect and honor for local heritage and the past in Ashley, a hard-wired spirit of resilience in Belfield, a wise and passionate next generation of female leaders emerging in Crosby, and the idea that dedication to community can overcome political and social differences in Towner.
And, perhaps because they are crucial in these isolated towns which are at the mercy of nature and commodity prices, the good humor and powerful kinship present in the room at every stop was a joy and honor to witness.
All the towns we visited have work to do for their communities to correspond with the ideals to which they aspire. But there are many more reasons – both concrete and intangible - to be hopeful for the future in those towns than to bet against them. If ThinkND’s whistlestop listening tour is any indication, the virtues that defined rural North Dakota in its earliest days are still respected and exemplified in our communities today, and we are fortunate to have thought leaders and dedicated citizens who are committed to continue pulling at the oars to not only preserve that beloved and honored North Dakota small town way of life, but to help it evolve and succeed as the times require.