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Gem of the Week: Pembina County turns 150

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PEMBINA, ND (WDAZ-TV) - This week's Gem of the Week is celebrating its 150th birthday.

It's not a person or a single place, but rather a county that is older than the state of North Dakota.

Hugh Ralston, Pembina County resident: "I have no intentions of ever leaving here."

A county of a little more than 7,000 people, but a rich history that predates North Dakota's statehood.

Zelda Hartje, Pembina County resident: "There is so much history here and so much to learn."

Pembina County was founded on August 12, 1867. But before that...

Jim Benjaminson - Pembina County Hhistorian: "The area was settled by fur traders to begin with. So the history here actually goes back much farther than the county."

Fur trade was the first booming industry in Pembina County. But shortly after their arrival, French traders started to move north into Canada. And new people came to settle the land of Pembina County, people of German, Norwegian, and Icelandic descent, who realized the richness of the soil and started its next industry, farming.

Back then, Pembina County was huge. It was nearly 1/3 of the size of the the present state of North Dakota - then known as Dakota territory - and spread as far to the south as present day Wahpeton.

The name Dakota is a Sioux word which means "friend." And the Scandinavian settlers of Pembina County, past and present, certainly echo that name.

Benjaminson: "It’s an area where if someone has some sort of difficulty, if it’s a farmer who gets hurt and can’t do his farm work, or someone gets sick, the entire community will encircle these people and come and help. No questions asked."

One of the biggest attractions in Pembina is Icelandic State Park. The town of Mountain also hosts an Icelandic festival each year in early August to celebrate its heritage.

And while the size and economy of Pembina have changed in the last 150 years, that helpful heritage remains the same.

Ralston: "It’s just the lifestyle out here. I just enjoy it. Nice, peace and quiet."

Hartje: "Happy birthday, Pembina County!"

Behind Pembina, Bottineau County is the second oldest county in North Dakota. It was founded in 1873, 6 years after Pembina County was founded.