About 3,000 People Attended This Year’s North Dakota Picnic in Warm and Sunny Arizona

Tompkins, Coiya. "About 3,000 People Attended This Year’s North Dakota Picnic in Warm and Sunny Arizona." Forum, 8 March 1998, sec. 1B & 8B.

MESA, Ariz. – Rachel Tompt can’t recall memories of North Dakota without mentioning two priceless things: Fargo’s notorious blizzards and her husband, Ken.

"I met my husband at North Dakota State University," Tompt says. "I met him in a blizzard…He came over to my sorority house and we played cards all afternoon because school was called off."

Tompt and her husband – along with approximately 3,000 other North Dakotans who attended the 36th annual North Dakota Picnic here March 1 – are far from frigid weather now.

Old and new friends

Mesa temperatures reached near 70 degrees as North Dakotans from across the state gathered in Mesa’s Pioneer Park to meet old friends and make new ones.

"We wanted to see who else was here from North Dakota," says Tompt, who lives with her husband in Apache Junction, Ariz., from November to April. "We wanted to see our friends. By the first of March you get a little homesick."

Joining Tompt at the picnic was former NDSU food service director Frank Bancroft, who worked at the university for 32 years before retiring in 1995. He and his wife, Jayne, who’ve been traveling throughout the country in their fifth-wheel travel trailer since October, made a pit stop in Pioneer Park to catch up on North Dakota news. The couple make their permanent home in Hackensack, Minn.

"The one thing that’s amazed me is there is so much beauty in the southern part of the state (Arizona)," says Bancroft, who attended the recent picnic for the first time. "We’ve really enjoyed it here."

Sun and old friends

He wasn’t the only North Dakotan happy to bask in the southwest sun with old friends. Richard Thurlow and his wife, Lizell, owners of Thurlow Welding and Machine in Fargo, have been Arizona winter visitors for 30 years.

"We come down in mid-January and go home the middle of April," he says. "It’s fun for us to get out of the cold weather and our daughter’s family has been down here for 40 years, so we get to visit her and our three grandsons."

But come sunshine or snow storm, most North Dakotans never forget their roots, like Dick Fatland. The friendly Norwegian, and his wife, Alice, make their winter home in Mesa.

"North Dakota is our home and we’re proud of it," Dick says. "We’re from Oakes and we’re proud to be from Oakes."

The Fatlands, who come to Mesa shortly after Christmas and stay until March, have been winter visitors for five years. They enjoy reuniting with old friends in Arizona.

"It would be kind of boring down here if we didn’t have some other people down here to connect with and to play bingo with and to go to activities with," he says.

Entertaining faces

Two familiar faces are entertainers Odell and Marge Braaten of Fargo. The Braatens, who performed at the picnic, play a variety of music at cabaret dances in the Mesa area. They make their home in Mesa from November until the end of March.

"It’s good to see all of the North Dakota people," Odell says. "Marge and I get to meet a lot of new people."

Odell, a part-time musician since 1964, has played the accordion since he was 10. He entertains by singing and playing a variety of music.

"It’s wonderful down here," he says. "The people have been good to us."

You don’t have to walk far across the picnic grounds to find North Dakotans who know the Braatens.

Elly and Gladys Boe, originally from Alamo, hired Odell to play at their 50th wedding anniversary. The couple, who’ve spent the last 10 winters in Apache Junction, now live in Wadena, Minn.

Just beat the blizzard

Arnold and Marge Semchenko left Minot on a 17-day bus tour shortly before last week’s blizzard.

"We’ve had a record winter until last Tuesday," he says. "Those people laughed at us when we left. But we left at the right time."

Twins Leona and Lenora Dohrmann of Bismarck have attended the picnic for four years. They live in Mesa during the winter.

"We look forward to seeing our neighbors," Leona says. "It’s always fun to go to a picnic."

Before the fun begins, someone must organize the event, says Lorraine Hogan, a native of Rugby. Hogan, who serves as secretary/treasurer of the N.D. Picnic Association, has helped plan the gathering for 10 years. She estimates between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended this year’s picnic.

"We’re from North Dakota and we don’t want to see it end," Hogan says. "A lot of people come from out of state to come here. Some people are here on bus tours. It’s always the first Sunday of March."

The children benefit

After the picnic grounds have cleared and North Dakota accents no longer linger in Pioneer Park, children at Anne Carlsen Center for Children in Jamestown, N.D., see the benefits, Hogan says.

Residents attending the picnic are asked to pay $1 with proceeds benefitting the special educational rehabilitation services center, she says.

"The most fun is seeing everything go smooth," Hogan adds, "and just seeing happy people. The most important thing is that, after expenses, it all goes back to North Dakota."

Reprinted with the permission of The Forum

Entertainer Odell Braaten of Fargo (below) takes a break to look over the crowd.
The Hatton (N.D.) Men’s Club set up a booth selling bean soup, lefse, potato dumplings and much more. The Hatton group is marking its 12th year at the picnic.
The 36th North Dakota Picnic was considered a huge success. The annual gathering was held in Pioneer Park in Mesa.
Lorraine Hogan of Rugby dances while two fellow North Dakotans sit out this particular number. Hogan serves as the secretary/treasurer of the picnic association.
Everett Johnson (left), Marian Johnson, Ed Brothen and Peggy Guss Brothen look over pictures from their past in North Dakota.

Side note: Photos by Jeff Topping/ Special to The Forum

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller