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Mike Jacobs: 'Home Country' visit stokes nostalgia

A recent trip turned into a bittersweet odyssey through the landscape of my childhood.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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Circumstances took me west last week. My specific objective was a memorial service for a lifelong friend. A coincidental objective was to visit my two sisters, one in Minot and one in Stanley. We are what’s left of our nuclear family. Our two brothers died less than two months apart in the spring of 2011.

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The trip turned into a bittersweet odyssey through the landscape of my childhood – the landscape that I consider “home country.”

For me, that country begins at the continental divide, where U.S, Highway 2 rises to the Missouri Coteau and the landscape opens up, offering distant vistas of rolling hills and river valleys, some with badlands. It happens that the divide also marks the eastern edge of the Bakken. The landscape I remember was agricultural; today it is a rural, industrial landscape. Oil wells are prominent, and they are vertical – derricks and storage tanks alike – so they draw attention.

Before oil, I described Stanley, my hometown, as like the town in “The Last Picture Show” – same tumbleweed blowing down the street, same duffer shuffling from the bar to the barbershop. When the oil boom hit, Stanley resembled Tatooine in the first “Star Wars.”

Stanley was full Friday night, July 15. I drove to Tioga to get a room. Tioga is an old oil town. Oil’s been important there since 1951, when the first well in the state began producing.

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Losing out on a room in Stanley turned out to be serendipitous. It allowed me a deeper drive into “Home Country." Highway 2 crosses the White Earth River Valley. The river is almost insignificant, though I did catch fish there, and once I fell in and needed to be fished out.

Coming out of the valley I drove into a spectacular sunset that colored the northwest quadrant of the sky. Yes, the sun sets in the northwest in midsummer. Natural gas flares added to the color – either augmenting the sunset or marring it. I could make both arguments.

The Tioga Tribune, one of North Dakota’s best weekly newspapers and a prize winner in national contests, reported the big news in town, a bar owner's contention that police were trolling for drunk drivers and cutting into her business.

I got up early Saturday, July 16, because I wanted to explore Stanley, where the population more than tripled in a single summer. It’s not just the landscape that has changed — so have the demographics. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints has become an important element in the area. The meeting house in Stanley has parking for more than 100 cars. In the old days, Stanley had a couple of Lutheran churches, a fair-sized Catholic Church – the one my family attended – and a smallish Baptist Church, which splintered when an evangelical congregation that we outsiders referred to as “the holy rollers” started a church in town. The point is, there were no Mormons.

The memorial service was held at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which is in the northwest corner of Section 25 in Crane Creek Township, 153-91 on the government land survey. If you’re familiar with the land survey, you’ll understand that many of the mourners parked in another township, Wayzetta, which once had two townsites, Amanda and Epworth. Epworth still appears on some maps, but Amanda has disappeared.

The closest now is Belden, a Finnish community. The general store there has long since closed. We used to stop here to stock up for our fishing trips to the Van Hook arm of Lake Sakakawea, which is the reservoir behind Garrison Dam. We invariably headed to an area now called Brendl Bay, after the landowners. My grandfather won a homestead claim in a lottery when the federal government declared the north part of Fort Berthold reservation “surplus” and opened it to homesteaders. Dad grew up there, and had an enduring fondness for the place.

At the service, I talked with a woman who grew up in Elbowoods, the center of the Indigenous community at the time, and we reminisced about watching the water creep up the streets. “They wouldn’t have built it today,” I idly remarked. “They shouldn’t have built it then,” she replied.

The service took place outside on a beautiful summer morning. It was a straightforward Lutheran service. There was something powerful about standing under the open sky hearing the closing hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I didn't sing along. Instead I listened to the beautiful soprano voice of the woman directly behind me.

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I didn’t hang around for lunch after the service. I’d promised Suezette I’d be home by 5. My route took me past Plaza, which is named for its town square, one of the few in North Dakota, and past Wabek, now a ghost town, where my father remembered hearing A.C. Townley at a Nonpartisan League rally, probably in 1920. Then it was down the continental divide and the long drive home.

You’ll wonder about my fascination with the continental divide. One of our farm neighbors expressed it so plainly that I can hear him still: “I can straddle my legs and pee in two oceans,” he boasted.

I arrived at our new home at three minutes past 5, very nearly fulfilling my promise. The whole nostalgia-soaked adventure took 27 hours.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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