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Tiny town, big memories: Churchs Ferry Alumni continue traditions

D. Webster

As North Dakotans return to activities like summer concerts, festivals and picnics, many small town residents are also ready for their annual get togethers – and that includes one town with barely any people living in it. Prairie Public’s Danielle Webster has the story.

On US Highway 2 along the county line dividing Ramsey and Benson Counties – there’s a tiny town with only seven official residents living in it. It’s called Churchs Ferry, and it’s where my grandfather and father graduated high school. In 1987, after the last lone graduate of Churchs Ferry High School earned his diploma, the residents planned a school centennial celebration. Ever since, they’ve held an all school reunion every summer that used to be called Churchs Ferry Days.

The celebration used to include a weekend packed full of activities – a demolition derby, street dance, fireworks display, parade, and even dance recitals and fashion shows. These days, the gathering is a little more understated.

Louise Nelson is from the class of 1970.

“Friday night we have a supper at 5:30, Jim is cooking,” she says. “Then Saturday we have our annual alumni meeting in the morning, and then we have a lunch for everybody at noon. People love to visit all afternoon when they come back. Then we have horse rides – two years ago, when everyone came back, they toured Churchs Ferry and people really enjoyed being on the wagon and going around to all the old spots.”

Following the tour on Saturday is a catered dinner and program, where returning members of graduating classes will be recognized. The weekend will also include an auction that Louise says doubles as a “comedy routine.” She says items for the auction are donated.

Louise says they expect roughly 60 people to attend, although there’s always a few locals who decide to show up last minute. She says it’s always good to get together and reminisce about the old days – but it’s also very bittersweet, because most of those “old spots” are just gone.

I took a stroll on Orvis Street with my dad – Dan Webster, class of 1974 – to look at what’s left.

He motions to a point in the distance. “You can see the lake, the town’s demise,” he says. “You can see the bridge over here, the one bridge. You see the bridge in the water there,  yet?” I do.

He’s pointing to the waters of Devils Lake, which crept closer and closer to Churchs Ferry as the lake level began to rise in the early 1990s. By the year 2000, the federal government gave the residents two options – take your chances and stay put, or take a buyout and move away.

Most people took the money – with the knowledge that no matter what happened with the level of the lake, no one could return.

My dad opens the door to the last “usable” city building left.

“This used to be the grocery store,” he says. “And then this was the fire hall attached to it. And then when things were going to hell, you know, they decided since the grocery store was no more and the bar was in tough shape – they said, well, we might not have a grocery store but we’re not going to lose our bar.”

This building is where Churchs Ferry alumni hold their meetings and annual reunions. The bar area is a perfect setting for a gathering, and the old fire hall is where the auction will take place. Right when you walk in you’ll notice a full trophy case – where years of accomplishments of Churchs Ferry kids are on display.

“After I graduated, they had some really good teams,” he tells me. “They were one game away from going to state. Right when I played, we weren’t very good. But afterward, they had some good teams.”

Outside, other buildings do still stand – the old city hall, school gymnasium and Masonic Lodge. But harsh winters, soggy soil and lack of adequate upkeep have taken their toll so the buildings remain locked. If you stroll around the gravel streets, you may notice remnants of sidewalks and shrubbery that used to wind around the homes many alumni say they can still see.

One other building, a one room schoolhouse my dad says might have been where music lessons were taught, is where roughly a hundred years of keepsakes are being kept. School sweaters, letter jackets, choir uniforms, yearbooks and class composite photos hang on the walls, while old library books, desks and other remnants of the past have been carefully saved and preserved.

Credit D. Webster
Churchs Ferry, ND

The schoolhouse does not have electricity. Linda Dressen Walters, class of 1963, is the current president of the alumni association. She says the plan is to keep the main building heated year round in order to preserve its integrity for future meetings – and it will be a safe place for those relics.

“When we get all that secure, our little museum – we’re going to move all those items down here. By being here, people will be able to look at the museum items, take a look through the annuals, sit down, it will give everyone more access to enjoy.”

Other members of the alumni association have gathered to make sure the building is in tip top shape for this weekend’s reunion, and were more than willing to chat with me about growing up in Churchs Ferry. John Smith, class of 1970, and Ole Nord, class of 1972, remember causing a little mischief in the streets.

“One thing that we used to do was, you could come down this street here with a spotlight and you could put out every street light. You could get ‘em all off, if you had two people doing it,” Ole says.

“Yeah, we could shut the town down,” John remembers. “They had a photocell on each light, which, it thought the sun came out when you hit ‘em with the spotlight. And it took a while for them to reboot.”

Jeff Sorum, class of 1969, says Churchs Ferry was nearly the picture perfect town.

“Churchs Ferry really was a Rockwellian, Norman Rockwell type thing. We had our own softball, baseball fields that we mowed and we’d have three people playing baseball. We had the town kids and the country kids; we’d have five, six, seven kids that were within two, three years of each other and we were all tight. It truly was that spot.”

Jim Sorum, class of 1971, says while much of the town is lost to history – it still lives on in the memories of those who keep coming back.

“It’s sad, because you kind of want it to be the way it was when we grew up, you know, full of neighbors, and activities. It was just a vibrant little town. So to come back… you still hear the voices in your head, you still see it in your mind, and it doesn’t feel like it’s been fifty years, but it has,” he says. “You still feel it. You don’t live in the past, but you better not forget the past. And I think that’s where I see it; this is the place we all got our roots, right here. You can’t ever come back and have it be the same, but you don’t want to forget what it was like and the people who were around you. You don’t want to forget that. And that’s why I come back.”

The Churchs Ferry Alumni Reunion is taking place this weekend. Organizers say some attending are traveling from as far away as Arizona. 

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