Jun 15 2011
This post is going to be different from most that I write. People from my tiny hometown will recognize landmarks and perhaps remember things long forgotten. Those from other declining Midwest towns may see a bit of their own community and may be able to relate to the changes that have occurred here. But even travelers should read through to the end, because you may see that there’s something to be offered in even the tiniest towns that you drive past along the road. Welcome to my hometown.
Niagara, North Dakota, sits just outside the Red River Valley of North Dakota, 43 miles west of Grand Forks.
In the valley, the land is almost completely flat. Just east of Niagara, the land rises along the Manitoba Escarpment. Can you see it in the distance? The valley land is very fertile, and potatoes and sugar beets are grown in abundance there. Above the valley, the land is dotted with coulees and sloughs, and wheat and sunflowers are the main crops, with corn, soybeans, and canola thrown in the rotation.
Most of the roads are gravel, and these are the better roads. Prairie roads are dirt and most often lead from field to field, but aren’t really for getting from here to there. Street signs are a recent addition to the landscape, so we grew up with landmarks: the High Road (no, there is no low road), Skunk Hollow, Gregor’s Coulee, Norbert’s Corner, and Gertie’s Corner. (This is Gertie’s corner, with some beautiful North Dakota clouds above it.)
Niagara has never been a big town by anyone’s count. Founded when the railroad came through in the early 1880′s, by most accounts, its peak population was somewhere between 100 and 200 people. By the time I was growing up there in the 70′s and 80′s, the official count on the highway map was 76, and if given a piece of paper, I could draw a map of the town and list every inhabitant.
When Niagara celebrated its centennial in 1882, it was typical of many North Dakota small towns, home of several businesses supported by the surrounding agricultural community.
Today, there are 60 residents in town, and the grain elevator is the largest business still in town. You can no longer get gas or something to eat in town. Times have changed.
There is still a main street, but many of its buildings are gone, its businesses closed.
Yes, the main street is gravel, and has never been paved. I remember how exciting it was when the road into town from Highway 2 was paved. But the blacktop ends as it comes into town.
I guess you could call Niagara a lakeside community, although I never thought of it as such. The Niagara Dam was built by the WPA (or was it the CCC?) many years ago. Though used for fishing sometimes, it’s never been much of a recreational lake, and residents of the community remember tragedies that have occurred on the water. Still, it’s pretty to look at as you drive into town.
As I wander through Niagara, I see things differently than most visitors do.
At the lumber yard, I hear the paint cans in the shaker, and the flip-flip-flip of us kids looking at the linoleum samples while Mom and Dad shopped. I see Dick behind the counter, helping customers.
At the cafe, I see a trim building with Mildred or Marcy behind the counter. I taste the best hamburgers ever, and remember that there never were french fries served there; only real home cooking came from the Niagara cafe. I see the biggest, best ice cream cones for the mere price of a quarter. And I hear the dice shaking to determine who pays for coffee, and the feeling of spinning on the stools around the horseshoe counter or sitting in one of the two wooden high-backed booths.
At the old post office, I see the mailboxes that never had keys, but instead dial combinations, with letters, if I recall, instead of numbers, as the code. I remember the smell of the post office and hear the voices of Myron and Squirt behind the counter as they got the mail ready for delivery.
At the Corner, I remember Al finding just the right part when I had car trouble in college. I remember buying candy bars from behind the counter, and getting Watkins products from Caroline. I remember when the Corner moved into town because the four-lane highway displaced its original location, which wasn’t really original because it had been on the other side of the road in years before I remember it.
At the site where the old hall was, I remember community plays and running along the wooden bleachers with their stairs and pathways that were like none other I’d seen, and stories of graduations and basketball games when Dad was growing up.
There’s a barn in Niagara, right in the middle of town, and I remember it as just a barn, but my dad remembers it as the livery stable where they’d board the horses during the day while they were at school.
On one of the street corners, I remember four houses: Sagens, Aunt Ruth’s, Uncle Bert’s, and dad’s cousin Gladys. Uncle Bill wasn’t far down the road. Growing up at Niagara, I never realized how many of our neighbors were my dad’s first cousins. We just all knew each other.
At the church, I remember the four-part harmony that we learned from an early age, and the Surface family taking up two or three pews on Christmas Eve, and playing Too Late for Supper during VBS recess time. I also remember how many people came there from far away for my wedding, with the backdrop of my dad’s and uncles’ sunflower field next to the church as our unique photo background.
At the fire hall, I remember community gatherings, whether for morning coffee after the cafe closed, or more recently, to protest the possible closure of Niagara’s post office, which is the hub of community communications.
At the park, I remember being bundled up to watch softball games, where Robbie ran fast and Coot could reach any ball that came near him. It doesn’t see many kids any more, but that doesn’t mean they don’t beg to go play in the park when we’re in town.
To a visitor, Niagara may not look like much. To those of us who grew up there, we see changes but remember the way things were. Why, then, would anyone want to visit Niagara now, with its lack of services for those traveling through?
Because Niagara has a museum. This tiny town has an active historical society that cares for an 1881 log cabin,
an old Congregational church,
and a one-room school house.
The school especially is well-preserved, with desks, books, and other objects that were typical of the era, as well as memorabilia that’s especially interesting to former residents such as me, as I saw photos of my dad and his siblings, and newspaper clippings about the town.
The Niagara Historical Society meets regularly and has several projects on its list, including new stairs for the school, and repairs to the log cabin walls. The complex isn’t open for regular hours, so you’ll have to find someone with a key to let you in–if you’ll be traveling through, let me know and I’ll send you some phone numbers to try.
And that’s it. That’s my hometown. Is it much like yours?