April 18, 2017


By Jack Dura
Farmer Staff Writer

Time for a break from the road.
If a slow leak and a flat tire two weeks apart are any indicator, it’s time for new wheels.
Goodbye for now, gravel roads. I gotta stick close to home, but my time is nonetheless occupied.
With the help of some local historians and rural residents, I’m on a quest to photograph McKenzie County’s remaining rural churches and schools.
Research has been swift so far; we’ve got about 12 churches pinpointed, depending on what you’d consider rural.
Banks. Clear Creek. Farland. Garden Lutheran. Grace Lutheran.
Schools are proving more difficult to find.
North Dakota once had enough rural schools for one to stand every 15 square miles.
So that’s a challenge in McKenzie County, an area larger than Palestine.
But I’ve got a few pegged on the map.
Squaw Gap. Stevenson. Sandstone. Nelson (that one’s easy).
As an added bonus, one rural school here is still in operation: Horse Creek, 16 miles southwest of Alexander.
So for now, as my Jeep has logged 15 miles in seven days (sad!), sitting alone in its garage, this new project is in progress.
Prairie churches and country schools have long fascinated me. They’re just about everywhere in North Dakota (even Imperial Cass).
Grahams Island School #1 opened in 1885 and taught children non-continuously until 1958.
Today it’s largely abandoned on the island on Devils Lake, though local efforts have tried to restore it, as recently as 2015.
Other schools are flung far out across North Dakota’s landscape, like the Pretty Rock schoolhouse south of Elgin, near Beer Bum Hill. That’s a lonely place. Especially at sunset.
Some immaculate small town schools still remain, like the Denbigh School, which you can see from U.S. Highway 2. Its out-of-state owner spruced it up all the way to the curtains in the window.
My grandpa and his siblings attended a rural school near Loma.
Last week, I asked Grandpa’s sister Beverly about that experience.
One teacher taught all eight grades with one to three students in each level, she said.
Her dad built a two-wheeled cart for my grandpa’s horse Silver to pull, and Grandpa would give rides around the schoolyard at recess. During class, Silver was staked outside, Aunt Bev added.
“I remember a lot about the actual school,” she said, “the way it looked, a little, black, pot-bellied stove, a cloak room where we hung our coats and played games in the winter when it was too cold to go outside.”
Sadly, those stories and way of life are going by the wayside.
As these century-old structures fall to the elements and the wrecking ball, we ought to catalog them.
So if you can throw me a hint for any around McKenzie County, please do: farmer@watfordcitynd.com
I’ll get after them with my new tires.