LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Late Summer, North Dakota

The lure was Fort Abercrombie, but no contest, the highlight for me on our latest blue highway North Dakota road trip was getting to ride the combine. Not just any old combine but a great big John Deere with GPS steering, driven by, of all things, a farm worker from Slope County, someone who’d grown up about 15 miles from my family farm and ranch.

But, in my excitement about the combine, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For the most part, we don’t stray too far from home during the gardening season, however, the offer of a trip to rendezvous with our friends, Mike and Suezette, was too good to pass up. We met them at Fort Abercrombie, a place I’d not been to and Jim said, I “was whining to see.”

After starting our day with BLT breakfast, we drove south on state Highway 1804, with Lake Oahe to our west. To the east was Potato Hill and Rattlesnake Butte (of which there are several in North Dakota). Then, it was east on state Highway 13 through farming country, lush in comparison to western North Dakota, where harvest was completely under way. We followed the Big Beaver Creek drainage to Wishek, where the streets are dotted with bright baskets of petunias and there is an American Legion post much like those found all over the United States. Edgeley has even more petunias, and Jim explained to me that there is a greenhouse there. Nearby, on a cattail wetlands, I observe 20 Great Egrets.  Traveling this close to our sister state, we picked up South Dakota Public Radio.

The only stop we made was the marker for Camp Buell State Historic Site, from the Sibley and Sully Expeditions (1863-1865). Jim always teases that I find it painful to pass any “brown sign” — I fully admit to this history nerd gene. I’m so darned grateful that people have taken the time, trouble and expense to erect such markers and care for such sites.

It is relaxing to drive through central North Dakota, much like it was in western North Dakota in the days before the Bakken oil boom.

We arrived at Fort Abercrombie in time for an hour or so of wandering around and reading the signs. The visitor center is new since Jim’s last visit.

Here’s what Bertha Rachael Palmer writes about the fort in her book, “Beauty Spots of North Dakota”:

“This plot of six and a quarter acres contains a portion of the military reserve upon which was built in 1858 the first Federal fort within the limits of the state. The site is just east and adjoining the town. The land lies in a bend of the Red River of the North and was on the Old Cart Trail from Winnipeg to St. Paul. As many as 600 carts have come in on one train. The fort was in a very important position and the troops quartered there experienced many stirring adventures. Fort Abercrombie was located where the West began in those days. Here four troops of soldiers wintered in 1873 on their way to join Custer at Fort A. Lincoln on the Missouri. In 1874, 1,800 mules were kept there in eleven big bars, to be sent on to Fort Totten in the spring. This was the transportation depot for all points west: shops of all kinds were maintained here, among them a saddler and a wheelwright. Today the park in memory of the times long past is a quiet peaceful grass-grown tract enclosed by an iron fence (not there anymore).”

We had a little fun with the very heavy buffalo robe that is at the Visitors’ Center for just this purpose.

Time for some libations and dining at the Abercrombie hot spot, where it was Bingo Night. The food was good, and the locals seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Mike had secured reservations for us at a nearby B&B, so we followed them there. The Fairview Bed and Breakfast is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Adams Fairview Bonanza Farm (17170 82nd Street SE, Wahpeton, N.D. 58705 701-274-8262). It is owned and operated by the delightful John and Tuula Kube.

I had barely gotten out of the car when Mike said to me, “want to ride in a combine?” to which I immediately said, “Yes!”

The company that farms the Kube land was harvesting the hard red spring wheat field adjacent to the farm site. I jumped into the vehicle with some guy and off we went! As we stood in the stubble and waited for the combine to come around to us, I told the guy I’d grown up on a farm.

“Where? he inquired.”

When I told him near Rhame, he said “You gotta be kidding? The guy running the combine is from there!” And so he was.

I went to school with Steve’s older brothers and sisters. What great timing, eh? I told him I’d think of this moment every time I eat pasta or bread for the rest of my days.

My “driver” took me back to the Adams Fairview Bonanza Farm. I had much to learn about N.D. bonanza farms.

From the B&B brochure:

“Located in the Red River Valley, the Fairview Farm was founded in 1881 by John Quincy Adams of Quincy, IL. He took advantage of the cheap railroad land and gave it to his son as a wedding present. In 1884, William Phipps and Nettie Adams came to the Dakota Territory. On his 9,600 acres, he mostly grew grain, and also raised 10,000 head of sheep. The farming was done with 200 mules and many men to cultivate and harvest. There was a mess house, bunk house, office building, several barns, one measuring 176 ft. by 84 ft., grain elevator at the end of a railroad spur, foreman’s house, etc. … The house was built in the 1880’s and in 1904 it was extensively remodeled…”

The next morning’s treat was breakfast prepared by Tuula, who was born in Finland — Finnish Baked Pancakes. We gorged ourselves. I give the Fairview B&B my highest recommendation.

John then gave us a tour of some of the historic buildings that remain on the place.

Now it was time to return to Bismarck, so we bid everyone goodbye. Our route took us by another bonanza farm nearby, the Bagg Bonanza Farm. It was not open on a weekday, so we simply admired the beautifully restored buildings, took photos,and agreed we’d come back someday for one of the events they hold.

From the handout at the Fairview, I quote:

“The origin of Bonanza farms involves the fertility of the Red River Valley, federal land grants to the Northern Pacific Railroad and the collapse of the Jay Cooke banking establishment.

“In 1864, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill giving the Northern Pacific Railroad every other square mile for 40 miles on each side of the tracks for every mile of railroad it constructed. It did not start construction until 1871 …

“Jay Cooke’s bank failed that year and the US entered a time of depression as a result of this huge bank’s failure. The NP had to sell land in order to meet its obligations. The price of shares in the company dropped to a fraction of their face value. The company was put into receivership. The NP was desperately trying to survive. …

“James B. Power, the head of the NP’s land department, saw this as an opportunity to attract wealthy Eastern and foreign capitalists. He arranged for George W. Cass and Peter B. Cheney, directors of the NP, to purchase a large acreage in the Valley. They hired Oliver Dalrymple, an excellent farmer and business manager, to operate their holdings as well as his own and that of the Alton farms. The land was bought in 1874, broken and backset in 1874, and the first crop averaged over forty bushels to the acre. This was a bonanza to the owners, considering that farmhands earned fifty cents a day.”

I had learned from John Kule that there are only three remaining bonanza farms in present times.

If you are interested in more information on bonanza farms, there is much to be found at the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies Collections.

Our plan also was to stop at many of the interesting places we’d just driven right by on the day before. After the Bagg Bonanza Farm, our next stop was Wyndmere, followed by Gwinner (the home of Melroe & Bobcat).

LaMoure is a very pretty town with lovingly cared for buildings, and an especially beautiful county courthouse.

This sign tells the dramatic tale of the quarrel between nearby Grand Rapids for the siting of the county seat. LaMoure won.

There are some additional old buildings of interest in LaMoure, including the old creamery.

West of LaMoure is, of all things, the only Coast Guard Station in North Dakota and this display of a old steamboat from the nearby James River.

The town is named for prominent citizen Judson LaMoure.

Our final stop of the day was Fredonia, where we ate good food at the local cafe. I recommend the Red Rooster cheeseburger with onion rings and a chocolate malt. The Home Plate cafe uses a good old green malt making machine to this day.

The final stop of the day was in Napoleon for some famous sausage. Time for us to pick up a new state map.

Did I mention that I got to ride a combine?!

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