Krem: The City on a Hill
Richter, Otto. "Krem: The City on a Hill." North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains
39, no. 2: 1972, 19-25, 38.
The ghost town is a familiar attraction
in the American West and dramatically emphasizes the transient
nature of the pioneer communities. Many flourishing towns, however,
have disappeared completely. Krem, North Dakota, a Mercer County
trading center, was one of the pioneer centers that fell prey
to the changes of time. In this short article, Otto Richter
recalls the people and the economic activities of a town that
is now prairie pastureland.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of names that were once
given to now defunct localities, villages, and towns. The origin
of the name by which such a community was known is often soon forgotten
after the changes of time have wrought their havoc and caused its
demise.(1) In most instances no historian or other interested person
recorded the events and data which would be helpful in assembling
the historical sequence of the town after its death. This is an
effort to write the history of Krem, North Dakota. However, most
of the “Old Timers,” the original actors in the drama
of the town’s short life, are now dead, and much of the data
has been gathered from a variety of other sources. Attempts will
be made to answer a question that has been in the minds of many:
that is, why has the name and location of a town that was once the
largest and most progressive in Mercer County been obliterated and
all but forgotten.
Let us first consider the character of the settlers in the area.
It is safe to assume that three out of every four new settlers in
this area at the turn of the century were of German descent and
came from Bassarabia and the Crimea in South Russia. Although they
came from different villages, they all spoke the same language but
with many dialectical differences. They were accustomed to the same
type of communal living, and invariably had a similar church affiliation.
It is natural to assume that they wanted to create a central market
place for trading and worship.
This picture shows the Krem Roller
Mill in 1904 before its destruction by fire. Standing at the
front of the building are Mr. and Mrs. Fred Richter (r.) and
Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Richter (center), soon to be co-owners of
the reconstructed operation. All photographs are by Edwin Richter,
the author’s father, except where otherwise noted.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
The construction and successful operation of a roller mill was
perhaps the biggest single factor in choosing the Krem town site.
In 1899, Sam Richter, Martin Netzer, and John Kunz formed a partnership
to build and operate the first Krem roller mill. The first manager
or mill operator was Louis Reuter. In 1900 Mr. Reuter was struck
and killed by lightning on a Sunday morning while on his way to
attend church services. Herman Mueller, who had immigrated the year
before from Konstanz, Germany, and who had learned the “miller”
trade in the “old country,” was employed. He held this
position until 1917.
The mill was powered by steam produced by burning lignite coal.
Since the mill was in operation around the clock, it frequently
ran out of fuel. In order to tide the mill over during such a crisis,
straw was obtained from nearby fields. The use of straw required
more alertness for sparks that might ignite the stockpile. Whether
or not such negligence was involved is debatable, but a fire which
destroyed the mill broke out early in the morning of February 14,
1906. The fire also effectively dissolved the original partnership,
but a new one was formed immediately by brothers Samuel and Fred
Richter, and rebuilding plans were set in motion at once. The new
building was already completed when replacement equipment arrived
at Mannhaven on September 28, 1906, on the Missouri River steamer,
Weston. It was installed immediately, and the new mill started operations
on Friday, November 23, 1906.
Ludwig Gutknect, a roller mill employee,
stands near the large drive belt in the engine room. The machine
shown was acquired after fire gutted the first mill in 1906.
Two young boys are visible on the landing in the upper center
of the picture.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
For several years the Krem roller mill operated on a twenty-four
hour basis seven days a week. Farmers in the area brought their
wheat to the 75 barrel mill where it was ground and exchanged for
flour and bran. The brand names of the flour were “The American
Eagle” and “Lily White.” In January of 1914, John
Kunz bought a one-third interest in the roller mill for $6,000.
By then, however, Krem was beginning to decline, and the mill ceased
flour production about six years later, but continued to grind feed
on certain days of the week. The equipment was finally removed and
shipped to a mill in Killdeer in 1934. Although the building itself
was dismantled shortly thereafter, the brick chimney remained standing
for several more years. During a party of this time a bootlegger
found a convenient site for his still. Mann Howard eventually purchased
the chimney, had it torn down, and used the brick to build his home
About 1934, the then unused mill building
was torn down and moved to Hazen.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
Krem began to grow when Martin Netzer built the first general merchandise
store in 1902 which was managed by C.G. Fuerst. This store remained
in the Netzer family for three generations. The following year William
Richter also opened a general merchandise store which was managed
by C.F. Schweigert. Competition between these two stores became
very intense. Their aggressive bidding for business was a major
factor in making Krem one of the leading trade centers in Mercer
County. When the courthouse at Stanton was destroyed by fire on
Wednesday morning December 8, 1905, Krem became a serious contender
for the county seat. Not only was the change promoted locally, but
it generated much support in the surrounding area. On October 21,
1906, the Bismarck Tribune inserted this “plug”
for Krem: “It is likely that the county seat of Mercer County
will be moved to Krem at the coming election. Krem is situated in
the center of one of the richest sections of the state, a gently
undulating country, settled for twenty years with a happy, prosperous
people.” On November 7, 1906, the same paper wrote in part:
“Mercer County was having a fight, as the location of the
present county seat is an outrage. How often the county officials
visit the court house is always a matter of guess work and correspondence
and other matters are not properly attended to. The court house
should be moved to Krem or some other point where someone can find
out what is going on once in a while.” Two days later the
following appeared in the Tribune: “Stanton loses
county seat. Krem wins the county seat by a two-thirds majority.”
However, the subsequent certification of votes, attested to by the
county auditor, Henry Sagehorn, and published in the Mannhaven
Journal showed the report to have been premature: “A
total of 372 votes were cast, of which 236 were in favor of moving,
and 136 were against it. As this was not a two-thirds majority,
the site remained at Stanton.” Prior to Election Day that
Krem community had been so confident of victory that they had had
the new vaults for the various county offices of the courthouse
shipped to Krem via Garrison.
Herman Mueller, for many years the
miller at the Krem Roller Mill, exhibits the mills on the building’s
first floor. Flour is visible in the mouth of the mill into
which he is reaching. Note the style of construction of the
ceiling supports and the electric light.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
During these years other businesses were established. To promote
the prosperity required speculative businessmen. No doubt a few
had no other interest than to make “fast buck,” but
the majority were undoubtedly sincere. Dr. L.G. Eastman leased a
building from Fritz Uhl. Until this time this building had been
used primarily as a recreation hall and an outlet for “Blind
Pig,” but now it was converted to a doctor’s office
and a drugstore. On April 18, 1912, this building received considerable
fire and smoke damage from the burning of refuse in a garden near
Netzer’s warehouse. According to The German American,
had it not been for the men, women, and children of Krem, plus two
cars full of volunteers from Stanton, Krem might have been wiped
out. This paper also stated that “Emanuel Netzer had a $1700
loss, of which $1000 was covered by insurance. Dr. Eastman had a
loss of $400 on his residence and $250 in the drugstore.”
Fritz Uhl owned both buildings and did not carry insurance. Apparently
Dr. Eastman purchased the drugstore building later since he had
it moved to Hazen where it served the same purpose until replaced
by a brick and tile building.
Where news is made a newspaper will get started sooner or later,
and Krem was no exception. Early in 1912, the Krem Publishing Company
was formed. On April 19 of the same year the first issue of The
German American, with D.P. Abbey, editor, was published. It
only lasted until July 26, 1912, when it was moved to Kasmer, and
a short time later to what is now Golden Valley. The final issue
was put out on December 26, 1913. On September 20, 1912, another
paper made its debut in Krem, The Mercer County Star. The
publishers were Thurston and Scheppegrill. Their final Krem issue
was published November 28, 1913, when the operation was moved to
the upcoming town of Hazen. The final issue under this name appeared
May 5, 1916; however, publication continued under a new name, The
The office of the Krem Roller Mill
exemplifies the cage-type style of office-arrangement contemporary
to the early twentieth century. Pictured is Herman Mueller.
Behind him is the office safe, in itself an example of the styles
of that era.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
Most of all towns presently in existence consider themselves progressive
if they have a bank. During its heyday, Krem had two, according
to ads placed in the local paper in 1912. The length of time they
had operated prior this is unknown, but they actively competed with
each other. The Citizens State Bank, with Louis Scharf as cashier
and C.M. Janzen as assistant cashier, made the following claims,
“The bank, with the equipment, the experience, and the strength
to give the best service.” The Farmers Bank of Mercer County,
R.N. Harmsen, cashier, countered with this claim, “If you
make your farm loan with us you will not be obliged to wait many
days for your money. Ask those who have made their loans with us.
German and English correspondence solicited.” It has not been
established how long these banks existed. A third bank, The Security
Bank of Expansion, moved to Krem in 1919. In October of 1926, it
merged with the Union State Bank of Hazen; Ed Kees and Gust Krein
operated the Krem branch for a brief period thereafter.
A variety of businesses served Krem. Fritz Uhl operated a pool
hall during the earliest days. Later Otto Krause did likewise and
was followed by Ed Doherty. The latter called his establishment
Doherty’s Pool Hall and Lunch Room and advertised in this
manner: “For a quick meal of the latest the market affords,
a refreshing soft drink, a fragrant cigar, or a game of pool, this
is your place. Barber shop in connection.” Since hotel space
was in demand, Martin Netzer added several rooms to his residence
to serve this purpose. Shortly thereafter a regular hotel, known
as the Krem Hotel, was built. Mrs. E. E. Searle was an operator
in early 1912, according to an ad placed in the local paper: “Krem
Hotel, Mrs. E.E. Searle, Proprietor. Rates $1.50 and $2.00 per day.
Clean Beds, Warm Meals. Served at all hours day - day or night.”
The hotel building was later moved to Hazen, where, with a few alterations,
it became the Staley Hotel. Mrs. Doberstein operated a rooming house
in her spacious home on Main Street, presumably after the Krem Hotel
went out of existence. Other businessmen included Frank P. Wernli
who owned and operated of the Knife River Lumber and Grain Company.
A Livery, Feed & Dray Stable was run by John Keierleber, and
subsequently by William Rahn. Adolph Krueger, Sr., opened the first
blacksmith shop a short distance from the village school. This establishment
was later relocated on Main Street. One of the blacksmiths, a sort
of Jack-of-all-trades, advertised that his place of business was
an “Automobile Garage-General Blacksmithing-Woodwork Repairing,
J.F. Smith, Proprietor.” Emmanuel Schwalbe opened the first
meat market. Other proprietors were Gottfried Schulz and Son, who
advertised: “Highest prices paid for cattle, hogs, sheep,
and hides. Fresh and Salt Meats.” Fred Trunske acquired the
establishment in the fall of 1913. Karl Richter also had a business
which he operated form his residence. His assistant was Louis Stuhldreher.
The Krem Cooperative Creamery played a big role in Krem’s
history. Some of the butter makers were C.B. Jensen, H.M. Clements,
and K.R. Richter, M. Frank operated the Economy Store until October
1913, when he liquidated his business. F.E. Searle was a painter
and decorator. Henry Klundt and Fred Schimke did well drilling.
Klundt later built and operated a garage which he eventually sold
to move Richard and Arthur Isaac. J. Ogden became a housemover when
it became apparent that a business migration was in the making.
C.S. Barrows sold insurance for North-west Fire and Marine. The
German Investment Company, Inc., was headed by L.G. Eastman, President,
R. Scharf, Secretary, and C.N. Janzen, Treasurer. Farm machinery
was sold by August Isaak and K.R. Richter. Finally, the Netzer store,
when operated by Emanuel Netzer, advertised itself as the “The
Little Store” with “The Very Little Prices” and
a “Square Deal” for you.
Emil Netzer, grandson of the store’s
founder, liquidates the family business. Soon after the fall,
1928, sale, Netzer and his family moved away from Krem. The
author photographed the scene one morning on his way to the
country school where he taught at the time.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
The Krem Mercantile Company probably had one the most interesting
histories of all the town’s stores and shops. It was originally
planned and set up by Fred Krause, Jr., in 1910. Jacob Krause and
Paul Goetz became joint operators of the store, but the following
year Fred Krause, Jr., bought out the interest of Paul Goetz. Early
in 1913, Gust Lindquist and Fred E. Erickson became the new proprietors.
One of their ads proclaimed that they handled caskets, furniture,
picture frames, wagon boxes, bobsleds, and oils of all kinds. Their
motto was “The Quality Store.” Another ad read: “Dealers
in EVERYTHING From a Knitting Needle to a Threshing Machine.”
The business was next sold to John Bohrer and Gottlieb Klein. This
short-lived partnership lasted only until August 3, 1917. Then Jacob
Bohrer, brother of John, bought out Klein. The brothers continued
until 1924 when they sold the business to Joe Weisman who operated
it until its closure several years later. Thereafter, the vacant
building was utilized several times each year for the “good
old country hoe-downs.” The last such dance was held on July
Krem’s last businessman and postmaster was Gottfried Heine,
Jr. He purchased the remaining stock of merchandise from Emil Netzer,
grandson of the family that had held out the longest in the town’s
struggle for survival. Gottfried put up a new building near his
residence and kept that little “Country Store” going
until the postal department decided to abandon the post office in
approximately 1941. He and his family were the very last inhabitants
The wreckage of St. James Lutheran
Church reveals the strength of the tornado that ripped through
Krem in 1933 or 1934. St. James was founded by dissident members
of St. John’s Lutheran Church congregation about 1920.
In the background is the untouched Krem schoolhouse.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
Unfortunately for Krem, all the business enthusiasm had its limitations.
As Northern Pacific Railway started construction of a northerly
branch out of Mandan, the most economical route apparently followed
river banks and adjoining valleys. The first state of this project
was completed on July 4, 1912, when Stanton welcomed the first “Iron
Horse” with appropriate fanfare. Railroad officials then gave
Krem a high priority in the proposed westward extension, but eventually
decided to use another route. Several reasons were offered for the
decision. Because only steam locomotives were available at that
time, it became questionable whether an adequate supply of water
could be made available at the proper locations. The Krem route
also required more grading and bridge- building which would naturally
require additional funding and the additional time involved in the
construction. However, one gets the impression that these were only
excuses. It should not have been too difficult to test for an adequate
supply of water. Furthermore, records are available that prove that
certain investors had purchased land suitable for town sites along
the Knife River and Spring Creek areas and even had some town sites
platted. Had the railroad chosen to lay its tracks through Krem
first, it is doubtful if all the towns and villages west of Stanton
would have sprung up, or survived if they had. All this is only
speculation. Whatever methods and means were used and whoever pulled
the right strings is not so important anymore. The fact remains
that the demise of the largest town in Mercer County suddenly became
Area farmers line up to deliver milk
to the Krem Creamery in 1905 or 1006.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
Some of the far-sighted business men began to look for favorable
relocation sites, particularly in the new town site of Hazen, which
came into being in 1913. A few “Die Hards” put up a
tenacious, but losing, fight for survival. Rumors were rampant that
the Northern Pacific Railroad had offered to relocate the Krem Roller
Mill to Hazen. The owners stubbornly refused and allowed the apparently
generous offer to topple by the wayside. Yet, we cannot criticize
their spirit. The following excerpt from The German American
of April 19, 1912, may have reflected the thinking of more of the
townspeople that just the assistant editor:
“Now the danger of the fire is past, we realize what it
would have meant if all of Krem had been destroyed by flames”
Just think! No Krem on the map, no central city, of Mercer County.
“We wouldn’t like to see Krem go,” said one
of the brave Stantonites who came to our aid. Indeed, we would
not either. Since the first pioneer said, “This is the place
for a town,” Krem has always been a good business place,
and we believe it will be a busy place for busy people. We remember
hearing a business man from one of our neighboring towns’
say, “He wanted to see people, so he drove to Krem.”
And Krem has been growing steadily all this time. Its mill, its
stores, its banks are doing well. Not even the railroad news and
railroad stories have harmed us. Of course, one evening a visitor
prophesied, “Krem will never have a railroad.” “Yes,
if the Northern Pacific were the only railroad system in the United
States, or our plains as high as the Rocky Mountains, then perhaps
we might call Krem a lost town. But Krem has survived many storms
and will hold its place for the future. It requires confidence
and work to build up a town. If some people have little faith
and threaten to leave Krem - we only say, Do not move, neither
will the supporting territory. Let’s boost Krem!”
The remains of the engine room of the
Krem Roller Mill. Aside from the ruins, very little indicates
that a prosperous industrial operation once existed on the site.
This picture was taken in August 1971 by the author.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
During the early years, the religious needs of Krem’s citizens
were met by St. John’s Lutheran congregation, organized in
1900 with a charter membership of 50. The congregation purchased
a plot on November 10, 1903, for $100, and plans were made to build
a church and a parsonage, and to use a portion of the land as a
cemetery. The buildings were completed in 1905. Until 1908 the church
was served by pastors from neighboring congregations. Except for
a few years in the early twenties, St. John’s had its own
pastors from 1908 until 1942 and for a time was one of the major
congregations in the county. In 1920, a countywide tornado demolished
the church building, as well as fifty percent of the other remaining
buildings in Krem. The main street was blocked with wreckage and
debris for several days.
Shortly thereafter, efforts were made by the membership of St.
John’s rebuild the church structure; however, dissention split
the membership. One group selected a new location, built another
church, and became affiliated with the Missouri Synod. Misfortune
dogged this newly formed congregation. A second tornado stuck shortly
thereafter and destroyed the new edifice. A different church building
was moved in form the Kronthal area, a distance of about twenty
miles. After approximately ten years of services in this building,
another tornado forced the congregation to rebuild again. This last
building remained until the town died and was moved to Hebron.
The St. John’s congregation retained its original site, but
faced the problem of declining membership. By 1942, the membership
had become too small to support its pastor independently. The congregation
disbanded in 1947, and the majority of the members were accepted
into the Peace Lutheran Church of Hazen. The St. John’s building
was sold and moved the following year to a site north of Dodge.
Krem’s only surviving building
was originally the summer kitchen belonging to the Samuel Richter
family. Most of the other structures were dismantled and moved
as the citizens left the town. This photograph was taken in
August 1971 by the author.
-Courtesy of Otto Richter.
The name “Krem” is attributed to Carl Semmler who is
said to have called it thus because he was an immigrant from Crimea.
In fact, Semmler came from Old Arzis, Bessarabia, which is quite
distant from Crimea. A different version of the story holds that
Mr. Semmler was a schoolteacher in the Crimea and that his wife
was a native of the same region. Whatever the truth of the matter
is, one fact cannot be overlooked: a large percentage of the new
settlers of the area actually came from the area of Russia they
were so proud to call “Crim.”
The first postmaster, appointed during North Dakota’s territorial
days, September 17, 1888, was Samuel Sprecher. He held this position
until January 8, 1890. The site of the post office was at or near
the homestead of Carl Semmler, about five miles from the site of
Krem, and remained there until 1900 when Mr. Semmler decided to
engage in business interests in Mannhaven. In 1900 the post office
was transferred to the platted, but never incorporated, town site.
Between September 17, 1888 and 1941, twelve postmasters served the
community. Their names were Samuel Sprecher, Adam Sailer, Carl Semmler,
Louis Reuter, Martin Netzer, Christ Schweigert, Christ G. Fuerst,
Paul Goetz, Fred Krause, Jr., Magdalene Herr, Emelie C. Klein, and
Gottfried Heine, Jr.
The migration from Krem was not a pell-mell affair; rather, it
was an almost daily business covering several years. After 1914
when the town reached its peak of about 300 families, the outward
movement proceeded steadily. Many nostalgic memories and scenes
are wrapped up in the buildings and their removal from the town.
Very little was left behind. It was almost a daily sight to see
a building in transit. The moving equipment was cumbersome and the
mode of power extremely slow. Sometimes it was necessary to resort
to the steam engine and at other times to plain old “dobbin.”
Since modern highways and bridges did not exist, a cross-country
routed had to be found. Generally, this was not too difficult unless
a stream had to be crossed. One such difficulty lay in the frequently
used path from Krem to Hazen. The greater part of the year this
was a so-called “dry creek.” However, its banks were
always unpredictable and caused many moving projects to become frustratingly
mired for days, weeks, and occasionally months. Marks of those difficulties
are still manifest today. This mischievous dry creek which crossed
our farmland raised an abundance of wild hay every year and much
of it could be mowed during late summer.
Of the numerous buildings Krem once boasted, only one remains now.
This was a summer kitchen for Sam Richter’s family. Richter
is mentioned in one the local papers as the mayor of Krem. Part
of the former mill’s powerhouse foundation is still evident.
Aside from these, two cemeteries, still used occasionally, remains
as mute reminders of the past. Since most of the town’s area
eventually became pasture, the basements and cellars were leveled
with a bulldozer to prevent livestock from becoming entrapped. Except
for numerous saplings that have now grown into stately trees and
a few clumps of lilac bushes, the area has reverted back to what
if was almost one hundred years ago, part of the vast prairie. One
gets the feeling that biblical prediction about the temple in Jerusalem
also befell Krem.
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota History:
Journal of the Northern Plains.
(1) The writer wishes to express his sincere appreciation for
the valuable assistance given him by Hubert Stoelting, Auditor
of Mercer County; The Register of Deeds of Mercer County; William
Rahn, Stanton; K.R. Richter, Hazen; Richard Isaak and Fred Krause,
He is also grateful for the historical information received from
the North Dakota State Historical Society archives, from records
of St. John’s congregation now in the archives of Peace Lutheran
Church, Hazen, and from photostatic copies of the following newspapers:
The Mannhaven Journal, December 8, 1905
The Bismarck Tribune, October 21, 1906
The Mannhaven Journal, November 9, 1906
The German American, April 19, 1912
The Mercer County Star, December 5, 1913
Lund, Leonard. “Krem, Remembered for Flour Mill, is Dead but
was once a Lively Town,” Minot Daily News, June 14,
Innumerable incidents are his personal recollections and conversations
told by his parents and friends.