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The Gray Lady and the First Lady

This week a whole lot of people are asking, Where the heck is Sims, North Dakota? The reason for the question is that the White House has announced First Lady Laura Bush will visit the Sims Scandinavian Lutheran Church & Parsonage on Thursday, October 2. Sims is a ghost town in Morton County, but the parishioners of Sims Lutheran not only have kept up their church but also done a splendid restoration of their white-stucco parsonage.

Don’t you just love these little stories of American democracy? It turns out the good folks in Sims were assisted in their restoration efforts by the state historic preservation organization. Preservation North Dakota made a grant for materials and also brought volunteer restoration workers to the site—my wife Suzzanne and I among them. The grant money, though, ultimately traced back to the federal Save America’s Treasures program. Mrs. Bush is coming to Sims, then, to acknowledge not only the spirit and labor of local people but also the federal role in historic preservation.

Sims once was a thriving prairie town. It was the creation of the Northern Pacific Coal Company, a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was attracted to the site by coal deposits in the hills and water supplies from nearby springs. The town got its post office, named for the chief clerk in the Northern Pacific offices, in 1880 and was platted in 1883.

The arrival of the railroad in turn brought farming settlers, mostly Norwegian Lutherans, who made Sims their trade center. In addition, the town had a thriving brickyard. Its population peaked at almost 2000—but it also declined fast, so that by 1917, Sims had only fifty citizens. In 1948 the NP tracks were torn up, leaving behind a concrete bridge across Sims Creek.

There were still Norwegian farmers in the countryside, though, and they kept the Lutheran church alive. In fact they built the parsonage before the church, with the first pastor taking up residence in it in July, 1885, and holding services on the second floor. The wood-frame church itself was not completed and dedicated until 1900.

Both the church and the parsonage are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Now for the ghost, known as the Gray Lady, which is what everybody seems to want to talk about in relation to Sims. It’s all a little vague, but evidently in the late 1910s, Bertha Dordal, wife of Reverend L.D. Dordal and also the church organist, died in the parsonage. The good reverend then remarried following what seemed an inordinately brief period of mourning. He and his new wife left—but the story goes that Bertha remained, making her presence known in routine ghostly ways to later residents of the parsonage.

I’m not much worried about the Gray Lady, but I’d keep an eye on the flesh-and-blood live ladies of Sims Lutheran. They have a history of many good and charitable works and also of being, shall we say, assertive. The minutes of a congregational meeting in 1898 record an addendum stating that “the decisions of someone, especially the Ladies Aid or other intruder person shall hereafter be considered nul[l] and void.” Wouldn’t you love to know what that was all about? Anyway, in 1920 the men caved and passed a resolution granting equal voting rights to women.

But those Sims Lutheran ladies seem so nice! I’ll bet Mrs. Bush gets a lovely lunch, as well as some conversation rather different from the usual sort of talk in Washington.

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