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Burying Billy Buttons

Given the recent favorable action by the legislature, the state recreation area at Pembina Gorge soon will become Pembina Gorge State Park. This action is great news in the Rendezvous Region of northeastern North Dakota. Travelers attracted to the area by the vistas of the gorge will find much more to explore — as was evident by the events associated with the demisemiseptcentennial — you know, I’m just going to say “175th” — of Walhalla, the oldest town in the state.

Arriving in Walhalla on Saturday — a slower day, not the parade day — of the 175th celebration, we made our first stop at the corner between the Walla Theater and the Walhalla Mountaineer. The Walla, built in 1950, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, then lovingly restored by the community, is once again what it was — a venue not only for movies but also for community events. This is important space for the region’s burgeoning heritage tourism industry. The Walla was the venue for the wildly successful historical pageant staged for the 175th.

The Mountaineer ceased publication three years ago with the retirement of its publisher, Rodney Huffman. The building was acquired, however, by Rodney Bjornstad (a History graduate of North Dakota State University), and I look forward to talking with him soon about plans for it, because the corner building is a place-making landmark for the town. In the meantime, Bjornstad spruced up the old office beautifully. Its faux-stone tin siding is striking.

North of town is the Gingras Trading Post, a state historic site staffed only on occasion the past few years, but surely it will require regular staffing and hours as tourism ramps up. Complementing it to interpret the legacy of ox-cart and fur-trading days, on the Saturday of our visit, the state historical society opened the restored Kittson Trading Post to the public. On hand to greet a stream of visitors were Rob Hanna, the society’s honcho of historic sites, and Steve Martens, the emeritus architecture prof from NDSU who consulted on the restoration.

One of the smart elements in the Walhalla 175th was that organizers laid out a tour of historic points of interest in the countryside roundabout, encouraging people to make Walhalla their center for explorations over several days. This is tourism-smart. We knew, for instance, that Walhalla originated as the settlement of St. Joseph, but what happened to St. Joseph when the original location became Walhalla?

Following the tour, we drove over to LeRoy to learn that the St. Joseph parish moved over there. In addition to visiting St. Joseph Church, I think it’s worth the drive to LeRoy just to picnic under the magnificent cottonwood tree that stands alongside, a symbol of the region’s antiquity.

The nearby French community of Olga is another fascinating place, the more so when you learn that this was where the Métis military mastermind of the 1885 rebellion retreated to hide out when the resistance collapsed. Whenever I meet someone from Olga, I think, wow, your ancestors received the Blessed Sacrament elbow to elbow with Gabriel Dumont at Our Lady of Sacred Heart Church. One of these Olga folk is Leo Beauchamp, a prolific and beloved memory painter whose work you will find in Walhalla at the chamber of commerce, the public library, and all over the place. His style is distinctive, his manner unassuming.

What a delight that Saturday evening to run into Leo at Walhalla’s Hillside Cemetery for events associated with the marking of the grave of a horse. Yes, a horse — a horse named Billy Buttons acquired by the roving evangelist Oliver Goldie while working among the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Rev. Goldie wanted his faithful horse to be buried beside him. Billy Buttons died in 1895, Goldie in 1898. They are, at least, buried in the same cemetery. I can tell you more stories about Walhalla, but I’ll try to be more succinct than Rev. Goldie.

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