North Dakota’s southwest is one of the state’s most depopulated regions, Slope County especially. The city of Marmarth, founded in 1907, had over 1,300 residents by 1920. It had a theater, car dealership, jewelry store, opera house and other businesses. Today the town has about 140 residents. The county’s only other incorporated town is Amidon, the county seat, population twenty. The county has around 760 residents. Compare that to the state of Rhode Island, which is about the same size, but with 1.1 million residents!
While towns like Marmarth, Amidon, New England and others dot the southwestern rangeland, there are also ghost towns and depopulated locales like Pierce, DeSart and Mound, remnants of pioneer arrivals that began in the 1880s.
New England is Hettinger County’s oldest town, several decades older than surrounding communities. Its population peaked around 1950, exceeding 1,100 people, but it, too, has since declined.
Settlement of southwestern North Dakota brought a need for services, and on this date in 1907, a post office and grocery store opened in a dugout sod house near East and West Rainy buttes. The village of Rainy Butte was never very big; just ten people in 1920. The post office lasted only seven years, with mail redirected to Pierce, North Dakota.
Wet conditions in the early 20th century were somewhat deceiving, attracting people to the historically dry region, but following World War I, arid conditions returned, driving many families away. Census records indicated declining numbers ever since.
Amidon’s 20 residents makes it one of the nation’s smallest county seats, and Marmarth is home to the only gas station in the whole county. I wonder how many Rhode Island has?
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Wick, D. A. (1989). North Dakota place names. Bismarck, ND: Prairie House.