Dakota Datebook

Sunrise Ranch Lighthouse

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Seventeen miles southwest of Mandan, nestled in the bottomlands of the Heart River, is a ranch called the Sunrise. It started as a 160-acre homestead, filed in 1883, by a Swedish immigrant named Magnus Nelson. Two years ago, the Nelson Sunrise Ranch was inducted into the ND Cowboy Hall of Fame in the ranching category.

Since Magnus’s day, the Sunrise has since grown to 8,000 acres, with only 10 percent under cultivation. Used primarily for raising cattle, this native prairie-land is still wild and rugged enough to be called, by some, the “Little Badlands.”

The Sunrise has been passed down through the family to Magnus’s grandson, Clifford, who says, “When Grandpa came here, there was literally nothing here. They talked about the Indians traveling through and coming right into the house. The main thing they wanted was fresh bread. They’d get two or three loaves, and then they’d be on their way. They never bothered anybody. I suppose they had corn bread, but this was (yeast) bread made from wheat flour.”

Eighteen years after staking his claim, Magnus Nelson did something rather unusual – he built something that typically warns travelers away. It was 1901 – people still traveled by horseback or in horse-drawn buggies and wagons. Out there in those isolated hills, it was easy to get lost after dark, and that made for some dangerous conditions, especially in the winter. Ranch land also lacked fences that people further east could often use to guide themselves to safety.

So Magnus did a sensible thing – he built a sandstone lighthouse on a bluff overlooking his spread. When winter storms threatened, he or one of his family members would climb to the top of the hill and light a lamp in the lighthouse as a beacon of safety. It worked – several times, endangered wagons or riders would take refuge in the Nelson home, where they found food, warmth and hospitality. The Nelsons further used their unique lighthouse for entertaining visitors – especially for those who liked to play cards.

Magnus died in 1913. By then, he had expanded his original claim into a 1600-acre operation. Five years later, Nelson’s son, Adolph, obtained full ownership, and in 1942, Adolph, in turn, expanded the ranch by purchasing a piece of land known as “Chata Wakpa” or “Big Heart” in Indian terminology. This ranch, too, had a colorful start. It was originally homesteaded by John Hager, a Confederate Army officer.

Hager raised horses, pasturing as many as 700 at a time. Every fall, he turned his horses loose on the unfenced prairies, and some traveled as far south as the state line. Then, in the spring, Hager held a roundup to find and gather his animals, which were marked with the Circle C brand. The Circle C is still registered to the Nelson family today.

For a while, the ranch was made available to area folks for camping, and it also was used for rodeos. In 1961, Adolf’s son, Clifford took over the operation, which he still runs with his wife, Norma.

By 1983, the homestead’s centennial, Magnus Nelson’s stone lighthouse had deteriorated. Because of its high, exposed location, it had been hit by lightning on more than one occasion, and it was not in the greatest shape. But the original sandstones were still on the site, so family members rebuilt the structure and added a new roof in time for the hundred-year celebration.

Source: Knutson Gjermundson, Colette (editor). Nelson Sunrise Ranch. The Cowboy Chronicle Extra. July 2003, p. 9-10.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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