Dakota Datebook

Oak Lawn Church

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


In the study of North Dakota’s history, we are often confronted by the deeds and actions of the ‘great men’ of the state’s past; the grit of Theodore Roosevelt, the headstrong courage of George Armstrong Custer, the acrimonious governorships of William Langer or the fatalistic determination of Sitting Bull. Certainly, North Dakota history would have been much less colorful without Roosevelt, Custer, Sitting Bull or Langer, but the nature of the state would have remained the same. A handful of men, no matter how famous, did not create the customs and heritage of North Dakota. No, it was the ordinary people history is more apt to forget; those whose hard work and determination built the North Dakota we know today.
While textbooks may focus on the ‘great men,’ the State Historical Society of North Dakota takes a more nuanced approach. While not forgetting the impact people such as Roosevelt or Custer, the society also works to preserve the memory of those less likely to make it into the mainstream historical record. It was this date in 1933 that the state’s historical society acquired an old Presbyterian log church in Pembina County. The Oak Lawn Church State Historic Site might not be the site of any major battle, or the home of any famous person, but its history instead tells a tale common throughout the state; the tale of a community arising from the virgin Dakota soil.
After a decade of work ministering to local congregations around the region, Ransom Waite, a Presbyterian minister from Mankato, Minnesota began in earnest the construction of a new church building in Beaulieu Township, in the northeast corner of Dakota Territory. The log-built Oak Lawn church was nothing fancy. It lacked a proper pulpit and a permanent roof, the pews were wooden planks and the floor was made of the same soil that the congregation’s farmers tilled each summer. But despite the hardships, and all the splinters from the rough hewed pews, the building served its purpose and remained the community’s spiritual center for the remainder of the century, binding the community together every Sunday. Even after services were moved elsewhere, the local population regularly came together at Oak Lawn to maintain the site and preserve the memory of those who had come before.
It is places like Oak Lawn Church that the true history of North Dakota is found; small communities working to carve for themselves not only a livelihood, but a sense of place, a sense of belonging. And it is people like Ransom Waite who made the state; not by blazing new trails, but by carving communities out of the Dakota prairie.
Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall


“North Dakota Governors Online Exhibit,” State Historical Society of North Dakota http://history.nd.gov/exhibits/governors/ (accessed August 14, 2009).

Snortland, J. Signe, ed. A Traveler’s Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites. Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2002.

“Full Text of ‘Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota,'” Internet Archive http://www.archive.org/stream/collectionsofsta04stat/collectionsofsta04stat_djvu.txt (accessed November 10, 2009).

“Full Text of ‘History of Lyon County,'” Internet Archive http://www.archive.org/stream/historyoflyoncou00case/historyoflyoncou00case_djvu.txt (accessed November 10, 2009).

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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