Farm-town hangouts play a vital role in connecting people, communities
NEKOMA, N.D. — It's November — a Friday, late afternoon — in Nekoma, population "26 on a good day." Snowflakes dance in the chill breeze before settling to the ground. From as far as 60 miles away, people are leaving their farms, homes and businesses to drive through the dusk over snow-covered roads.
They want food and drink. They want camaraderie and companionship. And they know it's all waiting for them here at the Pain Reliever.
"Well, people are thirsty. And we serve the coldest beer in town," proprietor Bob Wilhelmi — a lifelong Nekoma resident and an active farmer himself — says with a smile when asked about the Pain Reliever's popularity.
He's being modest. Yes, the Pain Reliever is the only bar and restaurant in Nekoma. But the 17-year-old business also is a bonafide farm-town hangout, a place that connects its customers and strengthens its extended community.
A very short list of community events and activities held at the Pain Reliever: Christmas parties (22 in 2016 alone), groom suppers, bachelor and bachelorette parties, birthday parties and the annual early Thanksgiving meal organized by Nekoma's three churches.
One sign of the establishment's connection to its community: Snowmobiling is popular in the area; the Nekoma Trailblazers is one of the oldest snowmobiling clubs in North Dakota. So the Pain Reliever, normally open six days a week, opens on Sundays during the winter to give snowmobilers a place to warm up.
But the personal connections fostered by the Pain Reliever may even be more valued than its community contributions.
"Sometimes you need a break to get out and visit with people. We can do it here," says Renee Ivesdal, a longtime customer who lives in nearby Edmore.
On the day of our visit, she made hors d'oeuvres at home and brought them, free of charge, for other customers. That one-for-all approach isn't unusual at the Pain Reliever, where regular customers occasionally jump up, unasked, to help employees at busy times.
"We've had so much help from people in the community through the years," Wilhelmi says.
Ivesdal has been a fan of the establishment since 2001, when her groom's supper was held there. New to the community, she was marrying a local farmer.
"I was a little nervous about what was going to be on the menu. But everything was great," she says. "And even though I was a newcomer, Bob made me feel like I was one of the (local) kids."
Farm-town hangouts benefit both individuals and communities, says Sean Brotherson, North Dakota State University Extension family science specialist.
"Especially in rural communities, what we call social capital or community capital is really important. (That capital is) resources created within a community that people draw on for their well being, especially their social well being, and the opportunity to feel a sense of identity or belonging or connection," he says.
That can be particularly beneficial for farmers and ranchers who often work alone. They may have access to the radio or internet, "but for human well-being, there's no substitute for face-to-face communication," Brotherson says.
And because farmers' and ranchers' schedules can vary greatly, depending on what they're doing, making that personal connection may be difficult to arrange in advance. Farm-town hangouts provide a flexible opportunity to visit personally with other people, Brotherson says.
Rural communities often have a relatively large rate of retirees. Farm-town hangouts can help seniors "age in place," Brotherson says.
Many rural communities in the Upper Midwest are struggling with declining population and a dwindling business base. In responding to that, Brotherson says, communities should consider the importance of maintaining or establishing a place where people can connect.
Nekoma's current population "might be 26 on a good day," Wilhelmi says. He pauses an instant for effect before adding, "That's on a good day."
Like much of the rural Upper Midwest, this north-central North Dakota farm town has experienced a decades-long trend of fewer and bigger farms, fewer and smaller farm families, fewer residents and fewer businesses. Today, the Pain Reliever, the Nekoma branch of the Osnabruck Farmer Co-op Elevator and Kyle Moen's carpentry business are the only ones left in town.
But Nekoma — a Chippewa word that means (take your pick), "I promise to go somewhere" or "I promise to do something" — once had international prominence.
The town played a key role in America's anti-ballistic missile program, which protected U.S. missile silos from enemy attack. The heyday came in the early 1970s, when 430 Army personnel were stationed at Nekoma's Stanley R. Mickelson Complex. They and family members lived in 250 housing units at the site.
Nekoma "reveled in its prosperity," according to the town's 2005 Centennial book.
"It was a fun time. We kept busy," Wilhelmi says.
The Nekoma base became active on April 1, 1975, and was fully operational six months later. But by then, Congress — responding to criticism of the project's cost and effectiveness — had already voted to deactivate it. The base was shut down in early 1976.
One measure of how that affected Nekoma: Wilhelmi's fifth-grade class went from 27 to seven pupils, which led him to leave teaching.
He worked for a time as an assistant work programs officer for The Young Adult Conservation Corps, a federal jobs program that had a camp at the former ABM site in Nekoma. When the camp closed in 1982, he became a full-time farmer with his father and brother.
Bob Wilhelmi remains a full-time farmer and raises a number of crops.
He shrugs when asked if that helps him relate to customers, 90 percent of whom he estimates are farmers or have close ties to ag.
"Maybe being a farmer can help me communicate a little better. Most of the time I just listen, though," he says.
Happenstance bar owner
Wilhelmi entered the bar and restaurant business, almost by happenstance, in 2000. The caretaker of the ABM site, faced with the possible expense of tearing down a wood building once used for offices, offered part of it to Wilhelmi.
"He told me I should take it and start a bar. I told him we (Nekoma) already have a bar," Wilhelmi says.
But Wilhelmi talked with the owner of the existing bar, who says he was planning to close soon. So Wilhelmi launched the Pain Reliever, beginning it strictly as a bar but adding food the following year.
Today, the 5,300-square-foot Pain Reliever — its walls lined with signs, knick-knacks and animal mounts — can seat up to 180 people and has served as many 285 customers in a single evening.
The Pain Reliever's core customers often live within a few miles of Nekoma. Bob has known most of them for years; a few are his former students.
Most of the remaining customers come from a roughly 60-miles radius. Canada — the U.S.-Canadian border is 27 miles north of Nekoma — accounts for some of them.
Bob's wife, Jean, operates the business, too. Daughters Aly and Megan occasionally help out, as well. Bob says he and Jean don't spend a great deal of time at the business, relying "on others to cover for us."
But Bob and Jean always want to be at the Pain Reliever on Saturdays, when the establishment has its buffets with eight to 10 employees on hand.
"Saturday nights are big nights. The buffets are popular," he says.
Does the Pain Reliever have a specialty? "Well, I'd have to say our steaks are good," Bob says.
The establishment's signature seasoning — available to the public in bottles and labeled simply as "Bob's" — consists of seven spices and is good on meat or just about anything else, he says.
Wilhelmi, 67, is interested in having someone else take over the Pain Reliever.
"If I could find someone else, they could have a chance at it for a while," he says.
His biggest satisfaction "is the people that come. They're the ones who make it happen. I just wait to get out of the kitchen at night to talk with them. That's the fun."