Dispatch #8: The Prairie Churches of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota:
A Report for the J.M.Kaplan Fund
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     We rendezvoused with Dale Bentley at the welcome center in Pembina, right over the border. Dale is a very big guy, over three hundred. He has a long Fu Manchu beard and a  resonant, theatrically trained voice and is twenty years younger than Ed and Frank. Cold does not affect him. He spent the next two days in short sleeves, unphased by biting winds with below-zero chill factors. Dale had driven up from his home in Buffalo, west of Fargo, four hours to the south, in his car “Dimples,” so named because the roof and hood had received multiple dents from a hailstorm last spring. So we drove around in two cars, and didn’t get to know him as well as Frank and Ed, but he too is a passionately dedicated preservationist, and just about the only person in North Dakota who is fighting to save its prairie churches, which the National Trust For Historic Preservations included on its  eleventh-most endangered list for 2001. The list calls attention to endangered architectural heritage across the. It was the first-ever listing for North Dakota. 

             Dale came from a town in Minnesota “whose historic church was taken down and replaced with a one-level modern structure devoice of any architectural details,” he explained,  “which is partly why I got into it. Religious architecture to me symbolizes being somewhere that allows you to put the rest of your life into perspective, and not necessarily in only religious ways, either,” Dale added. “Since beginning the Prairie Churches Project, I spend more time in church than anyone I know.”  He spends hours and days on the road. The distances in North Dakota are tremendous. I suggested he get an ultralight plane. There is certainly no shortage of places to land, and a big guy dropping out of the sky would make quite an impression and would alert people to his mission.  Dale was mildly amused. He became Preservation North Dakota’s Executive Director and only staff member last March. He is pretty much a one-man show, with a few influential friends. The organization is eleven years old and its sole focus is to identify, preserve, restore, and re-use historic rural churches across the state, although it does help promote all kinds of preservation projects across the state, and other initiatives like the National Trust’s “Barn Again” program.

     Here we were in one of the most remote corners in the U.S.A., northernmost dead center,  but even here it was immediately apparent that we had entered “the greatest country in the world,” as President Bush likes to call it. The welcome center had been done with the kind of money that doesn’t exist in Canada for such things. It had a very nice little interpretive museum for being in the middle of nowhere, including some beautiful Mandan artifacts. The gift shop sold hand-painted eggs, or pysanki, made by old Ukrainian women in the western part of the state, where the culture is still strong. Each egg takes 42 hours to paint. It is a delicate and painstaking process. Wax is carefully dripped on the section you have painted, then you move on to the next one. In the U.S. the process of historification and ersatzification, commercialization for the tourist  trade, is more advanced. The past is more in the past. 

     Melissa Grafe, the curator of the museum, was twenty-three and from Pennsylvania and just out of college. This was her first post in the “real world,” and she was already able to give an informative overview of  Pembina County’s history. She came with us to look at St. John’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church on the other side of town,  one of only a few domed Ukrainian prairie churches in the state. Most of them are Lutheran or Roman Catholic or Moravian or Methodist or other Protestant Icelandic, Swedish, or Norwegian white clapboard churches with spires. Pembina, the Chippewa word for highbush cranberry (Aneteminan sipi), is at the meeting of the Red and the Pembina rivers. It was an important tradepost when Métis  voyageur paddled canoes laden with furs, bison hide, and pemmican down to St. Paul, and in the l997 flood of the Red River, a huge volume of water was discharged, turning the town into an island. St. John’s was between an outer levee and the one surrounding the town, and it was flooded up to its windows. The walls were soaked, and the foundation was desolidified.  The church was started by Lutheran Icelanders in l885 who in l937 sold it to Ukrainians who put on the dome. A second dome was added in l956. Melissa had the tabernacle in her office for safekeeping. Preservation North Dakota has offered to assist with a  three-four thousand-dollar grant to help restore it and raise it as  unobtrusively as possible at least fifty-eight inches so it wouldn’t be flooded again during the next catastrophic flood. The congregation, even though it was down to five members,  was matching it. “Our grants are grassroots seed money,” explained Dale.  “They get things going, serve as a spark. I guess you could say I’m kind of  the Johnny Appleseed of rural preservation.” If it wasn’t for Preservation North Dakota, and Kaplan’s help, most of the endangered churches wouldn’t have a prayer, because the state is reluctant to get involved if it’s an active church, due to the church-and-state thing, and if it isn’t, there is no one to match PND’s grant, so it is really up a creek. The other problem is that the Catholic churches are torn down once the membership is less than twenty-five. The diocese tried to shut down the little Catholic church in our town in the Adirondacks and transfer our priest to another, larger parish (The RC’s have been losing a lot of their priests these days, and there are more churches than priests for them), but the citizens got up a petition and persuaded it otherwise. “Congregations can’t always afford to get priests in, and when they can, the ones they do get are usually not prepared for the issued that face small congregations in rural North Dakota,” Dale went on. “It’s almost as if North Dakota needs to be a place for mission work like Africa. Religion and the rural way of life are both dying, and they need to be reinvented.”

      Compared to what we had been seeing, St. John’s was nothing special. At best, a preyatnaya. And the other ethnic groups churches were your basic American simple, solid, white clapboard country church with Gothic windows, no different from the three in my little hamlet, which were built half a century earlier and when I got home and took a new look at them, are actually nicer. What’s special is the grit and faith of the settlers who came and built them, and the dedication of people like Dale. But heritages shouldn’t be compared. Each should be treasured for what it is. Neverthless, this makes Dale’s job an even lonelier one. I don’t see a lot of tourist potential in these churches, or in much of anything else in the northeastern corner of North Dakota, which is the richest part of the state, except for the Pembina Gorge, which is  quite spectacular, especially when the fall migration is passing through.   

       Since this was the only part that we were going to visit, Dale showed us some pictures of churches and homesteads elsewhere in the state that we were going to be missing.  Two had been struck by lightning. Their steeples make them sitting ducks. There is a school of thought that lightning rods actually increase the odds of being struck. Some of the churches had no town any more and were derelict. The last two institutions to go are the bar and the church. Four hundred of the two thousand churches in the state and counting are vacant.  Some are only accessible by four-wheel-drive. A few are stone, one way down south is sod. 

      To Icelandic State Park, which has a little architectural petting zoo of the Icelandic immigrant buildings, but a very nice one. There was a beautiful reconstruction of a dovetailed log homestead.  Henry Duray, the ranger who showed us around, was from Warsaw, North Dakota and of Polish descent. He told us that the founder of the Icelandic colony, Gunlogson, had an interesting quote on a community’s heritage : “You can let it be forgotten, or you can let it live to inspire future generations.” Henry went on to say, “There were a hundred and six one-room school in Pembina County. None is being used. Now the churches will be going down one the other, like the Last of the Mohicans.”  

        Dale explained that “North Dakotans have been through hard times and they’re notoriously tight-fisted. If they contribute money, they don’t usually want anyone to know about it. We have been told that the best place to hit them up is when they are overwintering snowbirds in Arizona. They seem to lose some of their thriftiness when they get down south.  But North Dakotans are also very active in the community. More has been accomplished by volunteers in this state than almost anywhere else in the country.” In l998 a hundred volunteers spent well over 13,000 documented hours touring the state and inventorying its churches. “To our knowledge, this is the largest volunteer architectural survey ever taken,” Dale said. 

     We passed big breadloaf haystacks and in the distance a large top-secret government radar station. Until a few years ago, North Dakota was the world’s third-largest nuclear power. 

       The Vikur Lutheran Church, in Mountain, is the oldest Icelandic Lutheran Church in the country. It was erected in l884. The interior was simple and austere, instead of an iconostasis there was a pump organ. There are seven Icelandic churches in the county, five of them in this parish. Then we traveled a few miles south to the Gardar Pioneer Church, another Icelandic temple. It is located only a few hundred feet from the city limits of Gardar, but is known locally as the “country” church. (In the early years a disagreement within the congregation caused a new “city” church to be built only a few “blocks” away.)

      Here we met Sir Magnus Olafson, a delightful eighty-two year-old, who was awarded  the Knights’ Cross of  the Icelandic Order of the Falcon, the highest honor Iceland gives to those who are working to preserve it heritage, by the president of Iceland in l999. Sir Magnus was born on a farm a mile away and now lives in Edinburgh, six miles away. It was refreshing to meet a knight whose knighthood had not gone to his head and who had remained completely down-to-earth.  “Weather and the economic situation” were the main push factors in Iceland, he told us. “There was a major volcanic eruption that covered much of the grazing areas inches deep in ash, in addition too which white arctic ice drifted down and closed off the fjords. There was no more land,  it was all subdivided, so people were starving. There was a movement to go to Brazil, but the Portuguese government was slow in providing the assistance they promised, so they came here.

       “The big migration,” Sir Magnus continued, “started in 1870 with four young men who came to Milwaukee. They wrote back about the opportunities, and in 1872 fifteen more people, including the first young lady, came. In l873 they were followed by 165 people, including my grandparents. My father was born that year on the train from  Quebec to Milwaukee, just as it was approaching Coburg, Ontario.” Unlike the Ukrainians, the Icelandic immigrants had hundred-percent literary and brought thousands of books. “I was born in l920 on Father’s homestead a mile away. I’ve been cash-renting the land for many years, during which  I was the office boy for my neighbors, who are big potato farmers. In  1879-80 lots of Icelanders flocked here from Gimli, north of Winnipeg, where there was lots of smallpox and pestilence, and others came from Minnesota where there were lots of grasshoppers. When they came here the grass in the Red River Valley was as high as a  person. The soil here is dry and good and easy for breaking. There are rocks but they were used to that in Iceland. They did well to move. During World War II  a lot moved to Seattle to work in  defense plants and didn’t come back. Now lots of that generation are coming home for their final resting place in cemetery here, which  I’ve had the privilege of looking for the last fifteen years.

      “The Myrdals, Rosemarie’s boys (she is a former lieutenant governor and a great friend of the preservation effort, whom we were about to meet) farm most of the land here. There are only three farmers, let’s say, four families in the whole of  Gardar Township. There used to used to be a house every quarter-section. Some worked only 40 acres. At the highest point of population, in 1900, there were  770 people, now there are only six or seven on the  townsite.

      Sir Magnus accompanied us to  Thingvalla Church, in what used to be known as Eyeford, N.D. Built in l889, it is the only building that remains. Here we met a local farmer/rancher named Curtis Olafson/ “My grandma played this old pump organ for 70-some years,” Curtis told us.  She played from the age of fourteen into her 80s. She was born in 1854, grandfather in l861. Father was born in l898 and had me in 1952, so I’m third generation here. The biggest challenge we face in preserving these churches   is the decline in rural population that has been going on since the 20s. The next township has 36 square miles, but in five years only one farming operation will be left. Now people buying land as investment and renting it out for forty dollars an acre. The taxes on  a quarter are $600. People are buying them for summer vacation places or hunting camps and are only contributing to the local economy for two weeks of the year. The culture of the Old Country limited the role women to cooking and having children. Now they’re more educated and have career aspirations and want cultural and shopping opportunities that don’t exist here [Curtis himself was divorced. Knowing of other cases of women who didn’t want to be kept down on the farm or the ranch,  I wondered if this had been a factor.] The nearest city is Grand Forks, one and half hours away. The schools and townships are being consolidated, just as in Iceland, where rural kids go live with relatives and get their schooling in Reykjavic. In North Dakota we have open enrollment, and home schooling increasing. The kids are very educated and their work ethic is instilled and they are getting better job offers from other places, so not many are returning. Our farm was homesteaded 1883. I was hoping my nineteen-year-old son would come back and farm it until  we went to Iceland last year and saw my grandfather’s farm. It was picture-postcard, on a hill, and had been in in the family many generations, yet there came a time when they were forced to leave to seek better life elsewhere and they ended up here in North Dakota. The young people here are faced with the same choice. History is repeating  itself, but for different reasons. That trip put it into perspective. Now I’m not that adamant that he has to come back and farm.” 

      “Because people are living and working long, you almost have to skip a generation  to be able to pass on the family farm here,” Dale observed. Curtis has a diversified operation : 4000 acres of  tillable land, 500-600 head of beef cattle that he  inseminates artificially, using planned matings off a computer. “A guy visiting from Iceland asked with disgust, ‘Don’t you let the bull do anything ?,” Curtis said. “I have lots of irons in the fire. I just wish they’d get hot all the same time.” 

      Thingvalla is the valley of the Parliament, the world’s oldest, established in 930, seventy years before Christianity came to Iceland. “We have four services a summer here,” Curtis went on. “The cemetery-owners association owns the building and maintains it. The congregation is the same people,  but a different legal entity, and it was  legally disbanded in l984 when it became part of a six-point parish. It was difficult to attract a pastor. Who would want to deal with six different congregations ? So five of them disbanded and a new corporation formed all under one church council, which made decision-making very easy, instead of impossible. In the  unified congregation there are baptised members, about 200 of whom are active.”

        “In the old days,” Sir Magnus said, “if Curtis and I had had a falling out, one of us would have gone off and built his own church.”

        “Kaplan  saved the roof,” Dale told us. “They’re our guardian angel. Without their help we’d be sputtering along. They gave us the means to get the Prairie Churches Project off the ground and running.   The rural churches have a history of  great hardship in the grandparents’s generation and  parents hardened by the Depression and very frugal and protective and not open to change. It is increasingly important that we preserved some of this rural heritage, before it is all gone.  Each generation is becoming less connected to its roots, and fewer people are doing fewer things that are  more expensive than ever before. But consequently descendants who are making 50-80-100 grand are slowly coming back and seeing how much their grandparents, who  couldn’t rub two cents together,  did and are rethinking their values.”

      In Edinburgh, we met Rosemarie Myrdal,  one of  Preservation North Dakota’s most dynamic and connected board members, who cares deeply about the welfare of North Dakota and its architectural heritage. She was very anxious to promote tourism.

“Tourism is the number-two industry in the state,” she told us. “People are coming to the state for heritage tourism, enjoying their tours of the different ethnic pockets.” Most of them admittedly are the descendants of North Dakotana who have come back to see how their ancestors lived. Besides the Scandinavian areas, there are Mennonite and native American reservations, Oglala Sioux and Mandan, and in Fargo there was an Orthodox Jewish colony about which a book called And Prairie Dogs Went Kosher : Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest has been written. She took us to the country store in Gardar which was all stocked for tourists, but a little to Norman Rockwelly and ersatz for my liking. I wandered the aisles in search of something to buy, to make a small gesture of contributing to the local economy, something genuinely North Dakotan, like the pysanki in Pembina. But it was all made-for-the-trade stuff.  At last my fancy was caught by a  hoaky little ceramic figurine of a frog in shades sitting in a deck chair with a case of Bud beside him. I collect frogs, “the batrachian.” The prize frog in my modest collection is a pre-Columbian frog king from the Amazon, who stands three inches high. (See the piece on the Amazon women in the Past Dispatches. But then I thought, it has become our national patriotic duty to keep buying stuff. We must consume to help the economy, or the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.  But this only encourages the production of more of it. I don’t need this frog. I have everything I need, more than I need. I’m deaccessioning, not acquiring, and it the house of cards comes tumbling down, that might not be such a bad thing. I hate to see places and cultures, lose their character and become ersatsified. North Dakota, it seems, was in the early ersatzification stage, still harmless, but a trend I did not want to support. So I left it there, wondering if I had done the right thing.

       Near Luvergne, we stopped at the derelect Lund Norwegian Church, built in l906. “We’re going to lose this one,” Dale said, which was too bad, because it had beautiful lines and motifs; it was the only otlychnaya I saw on our brief penetration of North Dakota. The front door was open and swinging, and coons had moved in. Someone had ripped out the banister to the choir gallery and was in the process of ripping out the wainscoting. But the structure was still salvageable. “The cemetery association doesn’t want to get involved,” Dale said sadly. “They joined with the church in town [this was the “pioneer church,”  Dale explained. Later, a church in town was usually built], but it burned this past year, and they’re building  a new, windless, eight-foot-ceilinged, low-to-the-ground, supposedly ‘maintenance-free’ building with artificial siding, rather  than restoring this beautiful structure, and we offered a grant and architectural assitance to re-use the historic church, but they want a ‘no-maintenance,’ one-story place of worship. The Lund Church closed in the sixties and has had no maintenance for forty years. Structurally it’s still sound, but  without anybody to take interest in it I’m afraid it’s a goner. Twenty percent of the churches in North Dakota are in this condition.  In the southwestern part of the state, few are left at all.” I asked about the possibility of converting it to a private home, and Dale said there are a few examples of this happening in the state. 

      On to the Ladbury Church, listening to Rush Limbaugh berating Jimmy Carter for his smarmy liberalism and having the temerity to get the Nobel Peace Prize. A white pelican was sitting on a lake, indifferent to his apoplectic rantings. My theory about Rush is that he is a closet liberal and this will only come out after his death.  The Union Congregational Church was built in l899 in the little town of Kensal, twenty miles away, where it was a originally a Methodist church, and in l926 was moved here on skids with a steam tractor, where services were held for the next ten years, then it was closed, except for the occasional funeral or picnic. It is a small, simple, basic rural church, the size of a one-room schoolhouse. George Amann, a local farmer of Polish and Swiss descent, came in a dumptruck and overalls and apologizing for his appearance, let us in. “This is our demonstration project,” Dale said. “The entire east wall of the basement had fallen in,” George told us. “When we began the project, there were only six people here that cared about this building, and we couldn’t  afford  to fix it, so with Preservation North Dakota’s assistance we put concrete piers in sixteen places to support the weight of the building. The new guy who had bought the gravel pit donated the gravel, and six volunteers spent fourteen hours a day hand-shoveling nine-and-a-half semi-loads into the basement to equalize the pressure on the remaining walls. Then we started on the rest of it. We didn’t know they had a bell until we rebuilt  most of the steeple.” The original carbide light fixtures are still there. Through the window there were glimpses of  endless, treeless prairie. “I want the things in this community saved,” George says. “I’m so tired of seeing North Dakota’s heritage pushed into a hole in the ground.” The entire cost of this massive restoration came in at just under sixty thousand dollars, with about $9200 cash being spent to leverage the remainder of donated time, materials, and talent.

       “The first people here came in the 1870s and were all English,” George goes on. “The descendants of one  family, the Keyneses,  traced themselves back to England  with the help of the Mormons all the way to 420 and found out that they were related to practically every royal family in Europe.    To the west and the northwest there were Norwegians, to the north Danes, to the East Presbyterian Scots. My grandfather left Galicia, Poland, in 1893, and in l926 he came here from Germany. My mother’s side, the Kunzes, are Swiss and Ojibwa.” George himself was a German Roman Catholic, and he took us to his church, St. Mary’s, on a little forested island in a sea of sunflower, which had not been harvested. It looked just  Poltava, where there was endless sunflower over your head when I last went there, around the same time of year. George said you can leave sunflowers standing through the winter and harvest the seeds in the spring. The church was Gothic, with Moorish and Spanish influences. The original architect had died in a car crash, and his son had taken over the project and changed things, adding elements from churches he admired in Mexico. It had sixty-seventy beautiful stainglass windows, and art decoish murals and stenciling that were done in the fifties. The congregation was about seventy-strong, and in September, seven hundred people came to the annual turkey and kraut banquet. 

     How are you going to preserve these churches ? I asked George, and he said, “First you got to get people to go to them. We had a Catholic Church that would have cost a million to renovate, instead they burned it and built a new one for the same price. You know how the new priests are. If you can get one.”

        We went down to Buffalo and saw the little stone church that Dale and his friend Daryl, who is the president of the Buffalo Historical Society, renovated and turned into a museum with all kinds of fascinating stuff Dale had salvaged during his travels around the state. Then we said our goodbyes and headed back up to Winnipeg, a six-hour drive. We had been traveling for seven days. The whole trip was 3083 kilometers, almost exactly two thousand miles.  

       At the border the Immigration Canada officer queried us at length about what we had been doing in North Dakota, and I realized it was not to see if we were for real, but because the fate of the prairie churches was something that  concerned him. “Who’s going to take care of these places ?” he finally asked, and waved us through. 

      So in my estimation, this is a brilliant, enlightened, and noble thing for the J.M.Kaplan Fund to be doing with its money.

      The latest from Ed Ledohowski is that Dale Bentley has called him (none of the three preservationists even had each others’ numbers, so I performed this act of cross-pollinization in the interest of furthering transborder collaboration), and they’re going to get together soon.


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