Four Days in Fargo (September 2021)

It’s the early 1890s. A young man from Wisconsin steps off the train in Bismark, North Dakota to grow wheat on the 160 acres (65 ha) he’d obtained either from the federal government or the Northern Pacific Railway (now part of the BNSF Railway). The railroad, desirous of customers, had painted a pretty rosy picture of how easy it would be to grow crops on the Northern Plains. It wasn’t. It was a hard life. His family grew to seven children, but only four survived past infancy. The weather could be beyond harsh. But he hung on and perhaps even prospered – for a while.

Let’s just say this advertisement wasn’t entirely truthful…

Then wheat prices soared during World War I. These lofty prices inspired (maybe) a farm loan (or two) for (possibly) a new tractor or whatever. Then the war ended, wheat prices crashed, the loans couldn’t be serviced, the farm was lost, and he and his were functionally homeless. I never knew my grandfather but I’m sure that this loss, for a farmer, was humiliating. Thus going back to Wisconsin was probably not an option. So, like so many before him, he gathered up the family (including my father) and headed west, to California, where my great uncle farmed 800 acres on the mesa east of San Diego. And so it was that I came to be born in California rather than North Dakota. And let’s just say that 800 acres (324 ha) outside of San Diego ended-up being worth oodles more – to my great uncle at least – than 160 acres (65 ha) outside of Bismarck. πŸ™„

Anyway, all those years ago my grandfather had to pass through Fargo to reach Bismarck and his new farm. That’s my only familial and historical connection to Fargo. In the last 30 years or so, we’ve been through it twice on the train (Amtrak’s Empire Builder), once by car, and once by truck. We didn’t stop any of these times. So when some personal business drew us to the upper Midwest, we decided to spend a few days doing touristy stuff and a few short hikes in and around Fargo.

The classic movie theater in downtown Fargo

Probably too often, saying “Fargo” conjures up a movie, a TV series, or a brand of wood chipper. The real Fargo is the largest city in North Dakota and sits on the Red River of the North across from Moorhead, Minnesota. It impressed us as organized and prosperous, with a diverse population. The local airport is larger than ours but still very manageable. It does, however, feature a suspicious number of direct flights to warmer places. πŸ€” We found the downtown area to be both charming and vibrant, with several very good restaurants, interesting small shops, and lots of new apartments. The older part of the city (say east of University Drive to the river) features a variety of classic older homes set amongst expanses of overarching trees. We liked it, along with the close-in part of Moorhead on the east side of the river.

The Lindenwood Park Pedestrian Lift Bridge links North Dakota and Minnesota across the Red River

We found the part of Fargo farther to the west (including the separate town of West Fargo) to be a more utilitarian, more spread out, and less interesting proposition. All the necessities of life can be found there but it does sprawl. And there are many fewer trees, which just makes it easier to see how flat the plains really are. It also made us wonder what it was like out here in winter when a Canadian polar vortex comes howling, unimpeded, across the plains. Locals suggest (jokingly?) that this keeps the riff-raff out – which may include us too. 🀨

Our tourist highlights were a variety of restaurants (Mezzaluna, Rustica, Beer & Fish Company, Rosewild, The Spice Grille (Caribbean), Thaikota, Wurst Bier Hall, BernBaum’s, Ishtar Mediterranean), the Plains Art Museum (Fargo), and the Hjemkomst Center (Moorhead). The art museum was in a restored wooden beamed warehouse, with hand-nailed wooden floors – which were almost as captivating as the art (likely due to too many episodes of This Old House).

Glen Appleman / Sid’s Taxi Cookie Jar / 1978
Curtis Hoard / Head With Sticks / c1970
Plains Art Museum / Floor Detail / 2021

The Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead features a full-sized Viking ship (based on the Gokstad burial ship) and a 1:1 scale copy of the Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik, Norway. What amazed us about the ship is that it was built by local craftspeople in Hawley (MN), then sailed across the North Atlantic to Norway! The church was also constructed by local craftspeople. Talk about the proverbial labor of love! And possibly a hobby that got a little out-of-control. πŸ€”

The viking ship
Viking ship planking detail
The replica church

In addition to this tourist stuff, we had time for three shorts hikes: (1) at M. B. Johnson Park (MN) to see the Red River up close, (2) at the Sheyenne National Grassland (ND) to see remnants of the tallgrass prairie, and (3) at Buffalo River State Park (MN) to see another river and more prairie. The weather was perfect – warm, sunny, and clear 😎 – for all three hikes. Of course, all the trails we were on are also marked as Nordic trails, which suggests that sunny, but VERY FAR from warm, weather also happens. πŸ₯Ά

Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Fargo and Moorhead. We even got to spend an extra day when our flight from Fargo was canceled due to equipment failure. πŸ˜₯ Could we actually live there? Well, maybe. It would have to be at a closer-in, near downtown location and not in the western sprawl. And full-on winter might take some getting used to (as our demographic is only supposed to live in Arizona or Florida). And there’s more about a place than just weather – cost of living, taxes, politics, transportation, etc., etc. But, yeah, we could, if that’s what we wanted to do.

The LovedOne picked up a wood chipper catalog at Menards and was reading it on the plane. She kept muttering how “…this would make it so much easier to hide the body.” Should I be worried? πŸ˜‰

Farewell to Fargo
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7 comments

  1. Thanks! It partly to dispel the family myth that Grandpa was a swashbuckling cowboy rather than just a wheat farmer. πŸ™„ I don’t know, it might be a quicker finish than with the Cuisineart she has now. πŸ˜‰

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  2. Loved hearing you tell your ancestry/origin story! You should probably only get (really) worried if your wife does indeed buy that wood chipper

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  3. The “Midwest” is kind of a big place. And we’ve certainly been in parts of it that are boring – just miles & miles of feed corn. But some parts are pretty interesting – but you have to search for them.

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  4. Now you have me wanting to go to Fargo. We’ll put it on our list. How did you manage nine restaurants in four days? That’s impressive. πŸ™‚

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