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Northeast Region

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Cultural Linkages Across Borders

The buildings and landscapes of northeastern North Dakota were shaped by early commerce that included fur trade with the Selkirk settlement and Hudson’s Bay Company outposts and steamboat traffic on the Red River of the North. French and Métis entrepreneurs established footholds in many small, scattered settlements along the border with Canada and west at least as far as the town of Bottineau and the Turtle Mountain region. Near the Canadian border the settlement of Pembina emerged as a link in that commerce and the southern reaches of that influence extended to Georgetown on the Minnesota side of the river near Fargo and to the Gingras Fur Trading Post (PB9) near Walhalla established in 1846. Oxcart freight traffic along an informal route linked communities in northern Minnesota with early settlements in Walsh and Pembina counties of the northern Dakota Territory. Clearly, culture and commerce moved freely across several boundaries and ultimately invited railroad connections with centers of commerce in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Duluth. There was even a fleeting attempt to tap into political discontent led by Canadian Louis Riel and to annex the Selkirk-Winnipeg area settlement to Minnesota.

The meandering Red River of the North was never especially accommodating to riverboat traffic, but even before the railroads had pushed north to the border, the Red Lake River drainage basin connected lumber markets near Crookston, Minnesota, with Grand Forks. There are early accounts, difficult to verify, of “float homes” in Grand Forks having been built from locally milled lumber floated down the Red Lake to the Red River. Cultural ties across the border between Canada and the United States also attracted investment and commercial ventures by English and Scottish settlers in this northeastern region. The cultural core of the largest Icelandic American settlement in the United States took hold near Walhalla on the Tongue River, where immigrants from eastern Wisconsin and from agricultural settlements around Gimli, Manitoba, followed the encouragement of Lutheran ministers and imported Icelandic cultural features from an island nation devastated by famine, volcanoes, and earthquakes.

Major cities like Grand Forks, Park River-Grafton, and Devils Lake were established as service centers along the Great Northern (GN) Railway, which extended across the northern counties of North Dakota and brought immigrants to small communities along the northern route. Railroad baron James J. Hill built upon relationships he had formed through his interests in Red River steamboat companies to construct the enormously successful Great Northern. In contrast to the more southerly Northern Pacific (NP) Railway, the GN enjoyed a reputation for serving the commercial and cultural needs of immigrant communities, and extended its reaches to communities north and south of the main line with branch lines along a service region that extended some two hundred miles wide along the state’s northern border. In the 1880s, the NP joined the GN in promoting immigration to North Dakota lands along the railroad lines by distributing over 600,000 brochures, printed in English, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, and Norwegian, for overseas recruitment. By 1883, NP immigration agencies employed 831 local agents in the British Isles alone, and 124 general agents, with many local agents under them, in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany. Immigrants from Canada and Norway were first to settle in northeastern North Dakota, but there was also a swell of emigration from Germany, England, Ireland, Sweden, Russia, and eastern Europe. Many of the well-educated Scandinavian immigrants became involved with government and public service. By the time North Dakota achieved statehood, the northeast region had become especially influential in assignment of state institutions, notably the University of North Dakota (GF21), which was modeled after East Coast institutions. Jewish immigrants were recruited and sponsored by the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society. When fledgling agricultural settlements near the GN proved unsustainable, many Jewish immigrant families relocated to Grand Forks, where they became influential civic, business, and cultural leaders. Grand Forks’ B’nai Israel Synagogue (GF17) reinvested in that heritage by rebuilding during the Great Depression.

The railroad also allowed architects and suppliers of building materials to reach all areas and thus architectural styles and other features of culture were disseminated westward from Grand Forks and Devils Lake, and connected to Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago to the east. In rural parts of the region, popular culture was embodied by progressive communities that built libraries, recreational amenities, parks, Chautauqua grounds, and dance pavilions. Land speculation and commerce led to the establishment of local banking interests that served their home communities. The state invested in a school for the deaf at Devils Lake (designed by the nation’s first deaf architect, Swedish immigrant Olof Hanson; the buildings have been repurposed), and constructed the only state-owned grain mill and elevator (GF29) to compete with private interests outside North Dakota.

Following World War II the northern half of North Dakota, and especially the areas near Grand Forks, Langdon, and Nekoma and extending west to Minot and beyond, was altered by construction for military defense, air force bases, nuclear missile silos and control stations, and radar detection sites. The U.S. military’s presence in northeastern North Dakota was established decades earlier, though, with such military cantonments as Camp Grafton (RY11) and Fort Totten (BE3). Much of the legacy of federal investment in military infrastructure remains in active use today and is regarded as a vital part of local economies.

From the beginning, communities formed a close dependency on water resources. Through most of the twentieth century, river basins like the Red and such lake drainage basins as Devils Lake served community growth and transportation needs. There were, however, occasional fluctuations and spring floods that were aggravated by the Red River draining toward the north. In 1997, the most devastating flood recorded to befall an American city inundated the city of Grand Forks. Seventy-five miles to the west, the community of Devils Lake and surrounding landscapes in the closed drainage basin of the “Great Spirit Lake” continue to struggle as communities are slowly swallowed up by a lake that now reaches elevations never before documented. These events have posed daunting challenges to the preservation and stewardship of buildings and landscapes, but they have also hardened the commitment of people to preserve their endangered architectural heritage.

Writing Credits

Steve C. Martens and Ronald H. L. M. Ramsay

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