Church Steeples Vanishing on N. Dakota Prairie

Brown, Patricia Leigh. "Church Steeples Vanishing on N. Dakota Prairie." Denver Post, 7 July 2002.

Harwood, N.D. - with their steeples visible for miles, anchoring the distant landscape, the churches of North Dakota have been called the lighthouses of the prairie. Built by Norwegian, Swedish, German, Icelandic and other homesteaders who flocked to the treeless terrain in the 1880s, these windswept landmarks of rural life, beacons of faith and optimism, are rapidly vanishing.

The flight of people from the North Dakota countryside has been silently devastating to this obscure but historically significant rural architectural heritage. Erected by settlers every six mile or so, past where the pavement - as highways are called here - ends and dirt and gravel take over, prairie churches are disappearing at a rapid rate.

Even as they do, former church members and neighbors, working singly or in small groups, are aggressively rallying to halt their demise. Some are restoring them out of their own pockets and resurrecting them for weekly services. Others are banding together to open them for special occasions, such as heritage services that draw hundreds of former members from out of state.

A survey in 1998 by the North Dakota Historical Society and other groups found that of the state's nearly 2,000 historic church buildings, at least 400 had been abandoned. Seventy-eight percent of them are in one-silo towns of 2,500 people or fewer, as farm economics have driven people to jobs far away.

Throughout the Great Plains, depopulation has left hundreds of historic churches vacant and at the mercy of the elements, said Jim Lindberg, assistant director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Denver, which placed the churches on its most endangered list last year.

In its 111-year-old life, Ringsaker Lutheran, along the banks of the Red River in Buxton, was home to 362 baptisms, 50 marriages, 97 funerals and innumerable lutefisk dinners for 600 people.

"When I was growing up, often the only occasion during the week where farm people got to socialize was at the church," said Kim Nesvig, 49, who grew up a mile west of Ringsaker. "It was a place to shoot the breeze. But there was only one kid left in Sunday school. It makes it hard to have a choir."

In the warm embrace of churches, farm families from Norway, Sweden and elsewhere, living miles from one another, preserved their cultures and forged communities. "The little churches speak of the human connection to the land," said Dale R. Bentley, the executive director of Preservation North Dakota, a nonprofit group based in Buffalo, N.D., which is trying to halt their demise.

"In North Dakota we are one generation from our roots," Bentley said. "Lose them and you lose the human connection to the prairie."

Reprinted with permission of the Denver Post.

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