Jun 15 2011

My Hometown

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?


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18 comments so far

18 Comments to “My Hometown”

  1. Beth on 15 Jun 2011 at 11:58 am

    What a beautiful tribute to the small North Dakota town! Thank you for sharing.

  2. CherylK on 15 Jun 2011 at 1:23 pm

    What a fun post! I do remember those beautiful North Dakota clouds, too.

    I grew up north of you in another small town called Cavalier. I did a blog post about it…think it was last year…hadn’t been back for many years. Some of it was just the same but parts of town were not nearly as nice as when I was growing up. Kinda made me sad.

  3. Katie @Pinke Post on 15 Jun 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Well this tribute to Niagara made me cry! As you know my hometown is eerily similar to yours and also in rural ND. Plus I live in rural ND in another small town today with my family. Fantastic photos and memories you share. I am going to share on my FB page!

  4. Myrna Krueger on 15 Jun 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Thank you for posting! I have those memories, too!

  5. Jen on 16 Jun 2011 at 9:20 am

    My dad was born and raised in Niagara! I received your blog link through Katie @Pinke Post. My Grandpa Myron was the postmaster you mentioned. Weren’t Mildred and Marcy the best?! I loved those cake donuts! Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    Jen (Halstenson) Starcevic

  6. Tim Marks on 16 Jun 2011 at 3:33 pm

    What a great introduction to Niagara. When I got to the school desks it really hit home. Some of the classrooms in my high school had desks like these. This was in a school with 800+ students, in Detroit, between 1967 and 1971. By ’71 the desks were all gone and updated to the itsy bitsy desk seen everywhere today.

    we are going to my 40th reunion this weekend.

    Thanks for showing us a bit of your childhood.

  7. Bridget Smith on 16 Jun 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Oh Linda! I love this post. We are in the midst of touring my mom’s home town in rural California. It has been such a treat to see everything through her eyes! I hope that your town finds some renewal and if I ever pass though I’ll be sure to stop by the museum.

  8. Doris Johnson on 17 Jun 2011 at 9:42 am

    Every name mentioned has a matching picture in my mind as I, too, call Niagara my home town. My grandparents moved from their farmhome in 1916 so my aunt could attend high school in the first 4 year class. I came along in a later generation, growing up in the 40s and 50s. Every two story building on main street had living quarters on the 2nd floor. What you refer to as the ‘park’ was our school yard. You have tugged every heart string and provided a great walk down memory lane. Thank you.

  9. Kathy Paulson Hungness on 17 Jun 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks, Linda! These are memories I have myself of our beloved Niagara! The buildings may be gone, but the memories remain alive. Thank you for putting this together!

  10. Maria Schmidt on 18 Jun 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Linda, this is terrific! I remember many of the same things you talked about since I also grew up there. I still drive through town and think about things that used to be there, especially the old hall. I remember the plays they used to put on. After the elementary and gym burned in Petersburg we used the hall sometimes until the new gym and classrooms were built. I also think about all the games we played in VBS and how different things are now for the kids that attend. I also remember going to the Meat Locker to pick up the meat after we had a cow butchered and how much better the meat tasted than what we buy in the store now. THANKS!!

  11. Dan @ Best Parking on 20 Jun 2011 at 4:47 am

    Wow, a real life Lake Woebegone! This is priceless, I truly envy you for having your hometown preserved almost exactly as you remember it growing up. I grew up in a block that was torn down five years ago to make way for new urban projects, looking at these makes me remember the people and places of my own childhood. Thank you.

  12. Marlene Larson on 31 Oct 2011 at 5:48 pm

    I taught 5th and 6th grade in Niagara in 1959-60 and I still remember some of the people and places mentioned. I boarded with Emil and June Rasmusson the first part of the year until they moved to Northwood, and then later with Lillie Svaren. Many evenings I had supper at Mildred’s Cafe. I still have contact with many of my students and other friends from Niagara. By the way, I grew up near Dahlen and went to school there. Many similar memories there!! We played basketball at Niagara – the gym (hall) seemed huge because there were bleachers!! Those were the days!! Thanks for the memories!

  13. [...] visited, and loved, these little-known places.  It is heartwarming to see people preserving the history and heritage of a state that is home to many, whether or not they still live within its [...]

  14. Marcy on 24 Aug 2013 at 8:35 pm

    This is wonderful Linda. You did a great job. And yes I am Marcy from the café. You helped me out there once in awhile. We can’t let these memories fade away. Thank you so much.

  15. JJ on 01 Mar 2014 at 7:35 pm

    This past summer in Saginaw, Michigan, at a used book sale I purchased a small book of poetry titled “Graded Memory Selections.” On the flyleaf inside the cover is beautifully penned, “Mary A. English. Niagara, N.D.”
    The publication date is 1901. The poems, including many classics, are intended to build a child’s character and are arranged by grade from first thru eighth.
    Curious to know more about Niagara, N.D., I came upon your website. What a treasure—thank you for the tour of Niagara as you remember it.
    The book I purchased is lovely and in decent condition. If you or the historical society could use it I’d be glad to donate it.

  16. Doris Svaren Johnson on 01 Mar 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Thank you for sending this my way as I have nearly run out of folks with whom I attended school that remember what it was like in the 40s and 50s.
    The Lillie Svaren that Marlene mentioned was my Mom. The official name of the hall/gym was the English Memorial Hall and C.M. English was a part owner of the Niagara Lumber Co with my Dad, Erling Svaren. I have a copy of the dedication program of the hall in 1916. The ‘new’ school that included high school was opened that same year and my grandparents purchased and moved the old building so my aunt could attend high school. They had lived several miles south of town since arriving in ND in 1906 from Nebraska.
    I remember Steve Nason and his push cart rattling by morning and toward evening when he went from his home (later Knutsons) to the big red barn. His wife would do the separating and sell the best fresh cream I ever tasted. The meat market/locker/creamery building would ship cans of cream out on the train and the cans would be returned to make the trip again.
    The mail would come by the morning train and the big old livery wagon would be pulled by hand up to the post office. Rob McLean was the postmaster and his wife Hilda helped as needed. Norman Halstenson was the rural carrier. And yes the mailboxes had letter combinations instead of numbers. Telephone numbers were only 2 digits long and ‘central’ rang the numbers from the office where most recently I recall Jerry and Charlotte Johnson lived. There was one phone available for public use and the caller would have to wait until the long distance operator provided the charges! During thunder storms, the ‘board’ would flash with the lightning hitting the rural lines. Quite an experience to be the one doing substitute duty. Bjorge’s were the first family I remember living there and as I was growing up it was Evie Westover before Jerry Johnson’s mother had the job.
    I must quit. Niagara flows deeply thru my memories and it was the best place in the world to grow up.

  17. Lisa Heap on 05 May 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you for this! My Grandma Ruth Wolfgram lived in Niagara with my Uncle Elmer and I have some pretty fun memories of being there, going down to the store for penny candy, to the cafe for ice cream, and walking the gravel streets to church and all over town. I remember the old school, and going in there when we weren’t supposed to–the old church next to Grandma’s house, just some really pleasant memories. I dream about Grandma’s house all the time. I’ll make a plan to come to Niagara this summer, drive thru, and remember it all again.

  18. Sue Riggi on 15 Nov 2014 at 7:09 pm

    My great grandfather was part of the group of Niagara County folks who moved to North Dakota in 1882 to try homesteading. He only lasted 1 winter then moved back home and never left. Much of his family still lives in Niagara County, NY! My Aunt recently came across this letter and transcribed it below. She has lots of stories of her gradfathers adventure. My sister and I were just researching Niagara, ND and found this website. Thought the historical Society and some of the locals would find this interesting! If you have any questions I can be reached at sueriggi@gmail.com.

    A letter from Thomas Root to his 34 year old son Elias who was homesteading in Niagara, North Dakota…

    Pekin, NY Niagara County Dec. 4th 1882

    Dear son,
    It is Monday morning & having just started the fire I will improve the time before breakfast to write to you a few words. We have not yet put up the coal stove but the little sheet iron stove is in the sitting room well filled with elm chunks burning and giving out a generous heat. The clock is stroking six: Ma is stirring round and I hear Em upstairs getting ready to be off to school. Dan and Frank are snoring yet. They must get right up for we shall soon be in a hurry. There is a good fire in the range and the tea kettle is boiling. There has been sleighing a week first rate too. The snow is now about six inches deep and is not much drifted. The thermometer this morn 20 above about the coldest for the season: Have not yet got windows in the barn cellar i.e. south side stable about 5 feet high and leveled up the sills, leaving a space the whole length south side which we intent to fill mostly with windows. We have a lot of quite good windows taken from the Olmate house in which I put new ones. And we intend to put enough in barn to afford sufficient light in the stable. Frank has remodeled the mangers in cow stable and greatly improved them. We are all in usual health. We ate Thanksgiving dinner with Albert and the girls. Sidney Campbell’s house burned down last Friday morning. Mrs. C. woke about 3 am and saw the light shining on the snow supposed the chimney was on fire but soon found it was the house. It is supposed to have taken fire from the chimney in some way. They got out most of the effects from the lower part of the house in a damaged condition of course. Insured for $700 on house in Niagara & Orleans.
    Poor Mary Richards has not yet been heard of since 3 weeks last Saturday when she is supposed to have been last seen alone on Goat Island and the sad probability is that she threw herself into the river and will never be seen or heard from more on earth. How terrible a thing is the loss of reason!! Old Mr. Killam was buried last Friday.
    As to biz. The case stands about as follows. There is about $750 of Mrs. Smiths money that I now control and can probably as long as Mrs. Smith and I both live. By securing said money by mortgage I can have the use of it at a percent annual interest. That will make a mortgage debt of $1925 on the homestead. Annual interest of $115.50 which with ordinary health and luck is no great burden. And unless the money affairs of the country greatly change does not seem hazardous. I am anxious to aid you so that you may succeed in what you undertake and I desire your advice and best judgment on the matter. I do not share in the enthusiasm of the Dakota Adventures. I think they all fail to rate contingencies at half their certain value. I cannot believe that the Garden of Eden is located within the Arctic Circle.
    Now a word as to your care of your health. I feel certain that you and Harlow both are subjecting your physical powers to a strain under which you must eventually break down if you thus continue. I appreciate the inspiration under which you are thus pushing what to you seems of prime importance but I do not think that success is attainable, or worth attaining, by inviting a reaction that must be more disastrous than any other form of failure. Don’t think that I have forgotten that you are of mature age and good judgment and know what you have seen and experienced than we do who have neither seen or experienced, but I do know that the change from your habits of past years to those of present is a tremendous tax upon your physical energies ad more than ordinary care is required to guard against serious reaction. I was going to write much more but M. has gone and it is pirosion day. I must go. We expect Minnie before Christmas. Irom has gone, or is about to go, to Spring Harbor into business.
    All send love to you and Harlow and many thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Tolzer for their kind care of the motherless boys off in the frozen world of Dakota.
    your father Thomas Root
    Write the first opportunity

    Sent you a little package by mail the 23, containing two pairs of socks which you doubtless have received.

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