North Dakota's Ghost Towns Get Life, of a SortWhat began as a failed promotion by two radio disc jockeys has turned into a quiet effort to breathe life into North Dakota's ghost towns.
By: Dave Kolpack, Associated Press
NFARGO, N.D. (AP) — What began as a failed promotion by two radio disc jockeys has turned into a quiet effort to breathe life into North Dakota's ghost towns.
The project is called Ghosts of North Dakota, started eight years ago by two native sons who had planned to overnight in haunted locations. That never took off, but the idea of documenting history and visualizing days gone by appealed to Terry Hinnenkamp and Troy Larson.
Their goal, Larson said, is to keep taking photos until there are none to take.
"If we can do something in a non-in-your-face way to spur restoration or renovation in any of these places, we would be all about it," Larson said. "But we don't like to be too political either."
Their website (http://ghostsofnorthdakota.com) has photographs from 100 faded or fading old towns, along with whatever brief history that could be gleaned about the place. Their work shows remnants of humanity, but more often features no people, light poles, cars or anything else that might compromise the authenticity of a photo.
Their most recent post features the town of Forbes, on the South Dakota border, where they made photos of a stone house museum, school, post office, bank and saloon. One striking picture shows a square wooden house, fairly intact, flanked by a barn settling to its knees and a third, smaller building that's fallen to little more than a pile of wood.
"On nearly every trip, we go out looking forward to seeing a certain town, but on the way home, we realize another town was better or more fun. Forbes was that town on this trip. The pleasant surprise," the duo writes.
The website has more than 10,000 followers on Facebook. Some fans have become contributors; about one-fourth of the material on the site is submitted.
Mark Johnson, 35, of Fargo, has posted work from the towns of Omemee, Temple and Brantford.
"What's really neat is when they have the galleries posted, folks will see them and will retell all their memories about back in the old days," Johnson said. "It's fascinating to read them, and lots of times people from these towns are re-connecting through this project."
Another contributor, Sara Schindler, posted pictures of Aylmer, a settlement about 40 miles southwest of Rugby still home to two people. Schindler described a former general store, garage or storage shed, an abandoned home and "possibly some kind of blacksmith or other repair shop."
"The general store building has moved off it's foundation and the basement is filled with water so probably won't stand much longer," Schindler wrote.
The enthusiasm for the Ghosts of North Dakota project didn't surprise Jim Davis, an archivist for the state Historical Society.
"I think that some people study ghost towns because they love the detective work, they may contain some fascinating history and the basic fact that they are ghost towns means that there are few toes left to step on when writing the history," Davis said.
Doug Wick, a North Dakota native and researcher who wrote the book "North Dakota Place Names" in 1988, said the state had about 3,200 named towns in its heyday. Today's state highway map lists about 500.
Davis attributes the withering of many towns in recent decades to the decline of family farms that serve as economic drivers.
But it started long before. Many tiny towns formed around railroad stations set as little as 7.5 miles apart back in the days when people travelled by horse and wagon. The advent of the automobile made it easier to travel farther and smaller towns lost out to communities that offered cheaper prices and support, he said.
And many people left during the Great Depression, Davis said.
Davis said many people support the restoration of ghost towns, but it would be a waste of time without a viable local economy. The society has received offers from people who want to restore an old community and give the land to the group, but maintenance costs are usually too high, he said.
The first town Hinnenkamp and Larson documented was Blabon, about 60 miles northeast of Fargo. It sparked an Internet exchange with a resident of Norway whose great-grandparents owned the general store and saloon in Blabon, about 60 miles northeast of Fargo. The family moved back to Norway about 1915, stung by the harsh conditions and the death of their young daughter, whose grave is the only record of the failed attempt to fulfill the American dream.
"It really had an impact on both Terry and me," Larson said. "We started to go, wow, it's not just pictures of buildings in empty towns. It has a bigger impact for some people."
When they first started researching towns, Hinnenkamp and Larson looked at old railroad maps from different eras to get leads. They later graduated to Internet sites Mapquest and Google Earth and began using satellite photos that give them an idea what they will find. They recently started using GPS.
Sometimes they're too late and wind up in an empty field.
"For us, it's a missed opportunity," Hinnenkamp said.
Both say they love the peace and quiet of the ghosts of North Dakota.
"You kind of get a sense of fragility about who we are, where we're going and what's going to be here when we're gone," Larson said.