North Dakota’s Endangered Species
Congregants of Blanchard Lutheran Church in Blanchard, North Dakota, were still reeling from the closing and demolition of their church on this date in 2011. The country church established in 1913 closed that year in May, and was bulldozed and burned that fall. A Facebook page with pictures now commemorates the church whose membership had dwindled to 17 people.
The story of Blanchard Lutheran is one of many similar stories across North Dakota. Many of the state’s prairie churches have vanished. In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation ranked the prairie churches of North Dakota on its list of 11 most endangered historic places. The structures are threatened by deterioration, Mother Nature and neglect. The Trust found that about 400 of the state’s 2,000 churches were empty or threatened by lack of maintenance or the wrecking ball.
North Dakota pioneers hailing from Germany, Poland, Iceland, Scandinavia and other countries built the simple, pretty structures that can be found almost anywhere in the state. Many prairie churches are over 120 years old and some date to the 1870s.
The prairie churches’ endangerment is also brought on by rural populations moving to major cities. Citing research on U.S. churches that spanned the last 400 years, the Forum newspaper reported that one in four rural congregations now had memberships of less than 50.
One group out to save the state’s irreplaceable places is Preservation North Dakota, a Bismarck-based nonprofit. The group started in 1991, and assisted in completing a study of the state’s prairie churches. One example of the group’s non-church work is the Hutmacher Farmstead in Dunn County, which Preservation North Dakota acquired in 2005. Restoration efforts began in 2007.
But despite such efforts, buildings continue to disappear, like the rural church near Reynolds, North Dakota that closed in June due to low membership. Months later, the church was destroyed in a controlled fire following the sale of the land and the removal of its bell.
From the Pembina Gorge to the Badlands, prairie churches can still be found. But nothing lasts forever.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura