Plains Folk

Newcomers to Manfred

One cold morning in December I was coming home from Omaha on I-29, ugly weather, and pulled over where a car was broken down. The two people unfortunate enough to be stuck in the freezing rain and snow were Wanda and Richard Melchert. I hauled Wanda into Sisseton to call relatives and a tow.

Her grandparents had lived in Manfred, North Dakota, and she and Richard were moving there from New Mexico. That piece of information went into the deep access file of my mind.
On a sunny May morning years later I walked into the Vang Lutheran Church, in Manfred, for a meeting of Preservation North Dakota (the state organization for historic preservation) that was to discuss preservation of rural churches. To my surprise, Wanda was hosting the meeting.

One of those North Dakota things, in a couple of ways. First, a matter of scale. Wanda says what she likes about Manfred (population 50?) is getting to know a particular place really well. The same goes for the whole darned state. Pretty soon you know someone everywhere.

Second, that newcomers right away become wheelhorses in town. You see this in one town after another—newcomers arrive from some distant point for no good reason anyone can figure, fall in love with the place, get active in community affairs, and make a difference.

It’s not just a statistical matter of demographics. Remember that many towns in the region have suffered much worse than net out-migration over the past half-century, maybe three-quarters of a century. They have had absolute out-migration, meaning people left, and no new ones arrived. This is the most dispiriting situation possible.

So when new people arrive, they are a little suspect. Once the suspicion wears off, though, there is another effect. People start to think maybe we have something here after all; this might be a place to live, not just to leave. Maybe we aren’t just the remnant; maybe we’re the chosen few.

Manfred got its start when the Soo Line built through in 1893. It enjoyed mushroom growth, with two lumber yards (businesses basic to town-building), two hardware stores, grocery stores, a bank, a hotel—a regular emporium. Today, though, a tour of the business district consists mainly of pointing to grassy places where things used to stand.

The brick Biesecker bank (later the post office) still stands physically solid (which financially, in its time, it was not). Other old business buildings are in bad shape. The grand old Manfred School was gutted for salvage.

Then, though, there’s the white Vang church. Here is a place of refuge, and perhaps crystallization. Its gleaming spire is intact and holds its bell—rope-rung to summon us for meeting. Inside the ceiling and walls surround us with the comforting textures of pressed metal. The grandly carved altar and pulpit, the original pews, the floor and wainscoting warm us with wood.
It’s part of a three-point parish served by Pastor Fred Schmidt, coming out of Minot. He never went to seminary. After 31 years as a rural mail carrier, he entered his ministry via a special lay deacon’s program. People like this remind us of the etymology of the word “pastor.”

I used to think that towns like Manfred were doomed for sure, and many of them are. Their survival as places depends first on the initiative of local people, and second on finding some viable place in the new economy. In 1970, maybe even in 1990, I would have considered that laughable. I don’t anymore, because I’ve seen up and down the plains that a town’s fortunes no longer are matters of inexorable fate. With today’s transportation, communications, and amenities, the barriers are down. It’s up to us.

As crystallization points, though, we desperately need places like the Vang church. They ground the survivors of decades past, and they summon the newcomers of decades to come. They make a location a place.

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