Published: January 2008 North Dakota
The Emptied Prairie
In the early 20th century, railroads lured settlers into North Dakota with promises of homesteads. Towns were planted everywhere. Houses rose from the sweep of the plains, many, like this one, with a story no one can trace. People believed rain would follow the plow. But they were wrong.
By Charles Bowden

The robin’s-egg blue kitchen looks out on the brown grass of the empty plains. The gas stove lurches away from the wall, and, in the wild yard, the white bones of a deer bleach in the sun. Plaster fragments litter the floors of the rooms, and down in the cellar a galvanized wringer washer stands watch by the long-dead coal furnace. In the upstairs bedroom, a window sash has slipped and become a trapezoid framing the abandoned orchard to the west. Two old cars rust nearby, caressed by the moan of the wind. The stone footing of a vanished barn stares east at wheat and grass. Ghost towns stud North Dakota, and this empty house is just one bone in a giant skeleton of abandoned human desire.

This is the place where American assumptions about the land proved to be wrong. The homesteaders believed rain followed the plow. In the grasslands of western Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, they learned better. And so for almost a century we’ve watched stranded towns and houses fall one by one like autumn leaves in the chill of October. In most of the United States, abandoned buildings are a sign of change and shifting economic opportunities. On the High Plains, they always mean that something in the earth and the sky mutinied against the settlers.

Successive human waves have been bested on the High Plains of North Dakota. Indians on horseback lived a dream of motion and buffalo for more than a century before the U.S. military and hide hunters destroyed their world. For several decades in the early 19th century, trading posts thrived off fur-bearing animals until both the beasts and the traders were also gone. For three years in the 1880s, a cattle kingdom rushed into the cemetery of the bison until blizzards and drought snapped everyone back to reality.

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.”

Bjella explains the man walked the tracks each day for the two miles into town, did this year after year. One day he apparently did not hear the train and was killed. Bjella pauses, lets the tale float almost weightlessly in the air with its whisper of suicide. Self-destruction is not a forbidden subject in North Dakota, and people easily tick off cases in their neighborhoods. One woman came across a death book compiled in the early decades of the 20th century. She says the records show a remarkable number of people killed by trains.

The ground itself reeks of life, the endless sweep of grassland and wheat fields, cattle feeding in place of buffalo. South of the Missouri River, the Badlands stab the eye with bands of color rippling through the eroded slopes. North Dakota is a rarely visited state and surely one of the loveliest and most moving. The land swallows anyone who walks out into it. Everything begins as a promise. A young Teddy Roosevelt on a buffalo-killing holiday from New York in 1883 decided after a few days he would become rich as a cattleman and handed a $14,000 check to two men he barely knew so they could begin his great and doomed enterprise. The Marquis de Mores, a Frenchman with family wealth and a title, in that same year plotted a meatpacking and cattle empire and also lost his shirt, but left a town, Medora, and a château on the hill.

Slope County just to the south has a little over 700 people and a county seat of 24, Amidon. The only other town, Marmarth, was once a railroad head of 1,300 and now has 126 souls. Patti Perry, the economic development officer of the community, has lived here all her life and is third generation. She sits in the town’s bar and café and tries to explain. “The hardest part of living in a declining town,” she offers, “is trying to figure out how to stop it. Things happen so slowly, you really don’t notice at first—five leave one year, then six the next—and you wake up one day and wonder what happened here.”

What happens is that some people cash in on their property and move someplace warmer and easier. The rest grow old and die. There are constant funerals: One guy leaving the bar stops by and Perry asks him if he is going to a service, and he says, “No, I’m all funeraled up this week.” Church attendance dwindles, congregations become mixtures of various denominations, and when those numbers fall too far, the doors shut. Sometimes a congregation decides to burn the building to end the pain.

Tom Rafferty, 59, is the third generation of his people to live in Havelock, and now he has the run of the town. He and his wife are the last residents. The place once had about 250 people, a lumberyard, stockyard, railroad, two banks, three grain elevators, a grocery store with a pool table and liberal hours on serving liquor, and his grandfather’s general store. It was surrounded by seven coal mines. He’s looked through his granddad’s diary from 1908 and notes, “a lot of the entries are about wind.”

“There were a lot of suicides,” he says. “I think in many cases it was financial—they were down and out—and in other cases, it was the loneliness.”

You crawl down into a cellar in another town, walk past a dead badger, then climb the sagging stairs to the debris of an abandoned life. On the floor is a handmade book, its buckram cover with the crayoned title, “MY SHOWER,” and dated Saturday, June 9, 1951. It is illustrated with images cut from magazines, and the first one is of a young woman, lips red, hair blond, and written in a clear hand in ink, “The Bride.” Now it is refuse along with children’s toys and other things left behind. Or you enter another house where clothes hang in the closets and a dead cat shares the floor with a funeral book, Abiding Faith, that lists those in attendance and what floral arrangements they gave. The wind blows and outside two figures dance across a field, creatures that look like wolves through binoculars but could be dogs. Moose have also returned, along with the mountain lion. North Dakota has a feral edge to it.

Melvin Wisdahl is just shy of 83 and lives with his wife, Morrene, in Corinth, a town of six. When he was a boy, it was a town of about 75. He’s spent his life with wheat and work and politics—a supporter of the prairie populist group called the Nonpartisan League, which influenced the state for decades. He’s a solid man in his flannel shirt and torn jeans, with hands that show a lifetime of labor. His two sons now work 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) of wheat, canola, and other crops, plus cattle on the side, but Melvin figures that after them, with ever larger operations needed to make a living, well, it will all go to pieces.

“It was economics and drought,” he says softly, “drove everybody out. The drought of the late ’30s, then the war—everyone left for the defense industries. I’m 82 and never left and never wanted to leave.”

He contents himself with growing white burley tobacco in his garden, though he has never smoked, and fiddling with two stills, though he does not drink. And reading—sometimes he climbs a knoll by the house so the cell phone will work and calls the Progressive Populist magazine down in Texas to give them a piece of his mind. He’s also been a board member of a bank. He is the survivor.

“You can imagine,” he says, “some of the trauma the first people went through here. I remember my mother telling me she never got used to the wind because in her valley in Norway there was no wind.”

Morrene Wisdahl recalls how the well on her people’s place was hundreds of yards from the homestead, and the water froze in winter. She tells of how in summer that well was circled by wild mint and yellow buttercups, smiling at the memory, and suddenly the beckoning of the land to its first settlers fills the room.

Melvin explains the drive behind settlement by recalling what his uncle told him of Norway: “They starved us out.”

“I saw Corinth in its heyday,” he reports, “and I saw its dissolution. Blacksmith, two groceries, lumberyard, pool hall, hotel, hardware, bank, International Harvester dealer, dance hall—the biggest one in all of the local towns—all the toughs would come and fight all night.”

The town and Melvin and Morrene are bedrock America, but here the rock is shattering. He and his brothers and his late friend Oscar all served in World War II. Every winter he’d go by Oscar’s and say, “Well, do you remember how you were years ago at this time?” and Oscar would always answer, “Cold.”

He stops, pinches his nose, and all but weeps, and says, “I’m sorry.”

Then he continues, “I saw boys in a fetal position. They were afraid to move. And they wet themselves and soiled themselves.”

In the neighboring house, an infantry uniform hangs in the closet, the campaign cap perfectly folded on the shoulder. Sometimes in winter, snow drifts in.

Something is ending here that no one ever saw coming. There is nothing to be done: It is simply the acting out of an economic reality.

It is hard to watch. Yet it is impossible to look away.

In Alkabo, the two-story public school still stands, fully equipped with trophies, musical instruments, and books. The students have long gone. The neighboring baseball field is named Field of Dreams.

Just south is Writing Rock, where two stones bear prehistoric drawings. The native people said the rocks could tell the future, but then scholars took one stone away for some years. Since that time the stones have been mute.