Church Steeples Vanishing on N. Dakota Prairie
Brown, Patricia Leigh. "Church
Steeples Vanishing on N. Dakota Prairie." Denver Post, 7 July 2002.
Harwood, N.D. - with their steeples visible for miles,
anchoring the distant landscape, the churches of North Dakota have
been called the lighthouses of the prairie. Built by Norwegian,
Swedish, German, Icelandic and other homesteaders who flocked to
the treeless terrain in the 1880s, these windswept landmarks of
rural life, beacons of faith and optimism, are rapidly vanishing.
The flight of people from the North Dakota countryside has been
silently devastating to this obscure but historically significant
rural architectural heritage. Erected by settlers every six mile
or so, past where the pavement - as highways are called here - ends
and dirt and gravel take over, prairie churches are disappearing
at a rapid rate.
Even as they do, former church members and neighbors, working singly
or in small groups, are aggressively rallying to halt their demise.
Some are restoring them out of their own pockets and resurrecting
them for weekly services. Others are banding together to open them
for special occasions, such as heritage services that draw hundreds
of former members from out of state.
A survey in 1998 by the North Dakota Historical Society and other
groups found that of the state's nearly 2,000 historic church buildings,
at least 400 had been abandoned. Seventy-eight percent of them are
in one-silo towns of 2,500 people or fewer, as farm economics have
driven people to jobs far away.
Throughout the Great Plains, depopulation has left hundreds of
historic churches vacant and at the mercy of the elements, said
Jim Lindberg, assistant director of the National Trust for Historic
Preservation in Denver, which placed the churches on its most endangered
list last year.
In its 111-year-old life, Ringsaker Lutheran, along the banks of
the Red River in Buxton, was home to 362 baptisms, 50 marriages,
97 funerals and innumerable lutefisk dinners for 600 people.
"When I was growing up, often the only occasion during the
week where farm people got to socialize was at the church,"
said Kim Nesvig, 49, who grew up a mile west of Ringsaker. "It
was a place to shoot the breeze. But there was only one kid left
in Sunday school. It makes it hard to have a choir."
In the warm embrace of churches, farm families from Norway, Sweden
and elsewhere, living miles from one another, preserved their cultures
and forged communities. "The little churches speak of the human
connection to the land," said Dale R. Bentley, the executive
director of Preservation North Dakota, a nonprofit group based in
Buffalo, N.D., which is trying to halt their demise.
"In North Dakota we are one generation from our roots,"
Bentley said. "Lose them and you lose the human connection
to the prairie."
Reprinted with permission of the Denver Post.