Then, around the turn of the 20th century, the railroads lured settlers, largely Norwegians and Germans, into the void with promises of homesteads. Towns were planted everywhere—what one state historian calls the Too Much Mistake—in this isolated, semiarid region until, starting with the Depression and the dust storms of the 1930s, the farms faltered, then failed. The state now holds dozens of abandoned towns. Today in western North Dakota a 3,000-acre (1,200 hectares) spread of wheat is necessary for survival, and so the ground is littered with dead towns and empty kitchens where people once painted the walls a cheery robin’s-egg blue.
Greg Bjella, in his 50s, has no memory of who once lived in the house with the blue kitchen, but then there is almost a willful amnesia in North Dakota. He lives just down the road on land his grandfather homesteaded. Epping, with about 75 people, has been home to the family ironworks since 1906, a business Bjella still runs during the warmer months of the year.
“We’ve even had a baby born to a family in Epping,” he says, “which I’m sure has not happened in 20 years.” Ten years ago, a strong wind ripped the front off the ironworks, and Bjella has rebuilt it in stout fashion because, he explains, “when I’m gone, it will have to stand on its own.”
That’s the rub in rural North Dakota, a sense of things ebbing, of churches being abandoned, schools shutting down, towns becoming ruins. And all this decline exists amid a seeming statistical prosperity: Oil is booming, wheat prices are at record highs, and, as the average farm size grows, the land is studded with paper millionaires living in the lonely sweep of the plains, with surrounding community gone to the wind.
North Dakota is among the windiest states in the Union and one of the coldest south of Alaska. Twice the legislature has considered changing the name to simply Dakota to shake the chill from its image. The state’s population has stabilized at around 600,000 thanks mainly to the growth around its cities—Fargo, Grand Forks, Mandan, and Bismarck. But out on the land, the population has relentlessly bled away. So there is money and prosperity and the numbing sense that comes from living in a vanishing world.
Across the field from Bjella’s place, a couple of miles from Epping, is a concrete house with yellow walls. He says an old bachelor lived there, and then one day his home burned, and he rebuilt with concrete so it would be fireproof. The roof is largely gone, and the two rooms—14 feet by 20 (4 meters by 6)—are stripped of furniture and littered with fallen plaster. Wind pours through the windows. On the floor of one room is a rotting phone book and a coverless copy of The Book of Knowledge with the proud boast: “Answers Every Question a Child Can Ask.”