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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 Richte
r.

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 in Hazen.

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 Hazen Star.

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 4, 1930.

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 of Krem.

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 imminent.

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, Jr., Bismarck.

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, 1969.
Innumerable incidents are his personal recollections and conversations told by his parents and friends.
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