The Grand Forks Mercantile Exchange | March 23, 2022

This week, my company is moving out of our long-time downtown office space to a fancy new building about two blocks away.  The whole thing has been a little weird for me because I have worked in our old building – the Grand Forks Mercantile Exchange – for 17 years, which is two years longer than I’ve lived in any one house.

While I typically don’t like to talk about my job on here (I can’t imagine my coworkers would be pumped to know they were associated with this nonsense), I feel I owe it to the Merc Exchange to give it a proper sendoff.  Plus, I work for an architecture firm, and if anyone would forgive me for telling a building story it’s a bunch of architects.

The most important thing for you to know about the Mercantile Exchange is that I have spent the last 17 years in unflappable conviction that it is haunted.  It is also important for you to know that there has never been a single iota of proof of this being the case.  No moving furniture, no weird noises, not even a random light flickering during a storm.  No one has ever had a weird premonition, or felt a cold breeze in the summertime, or seen a spectral image.  Even more disappointingly, there is nothing in the Merc’s history to suggest a scenario that would be appropriate for future hauntings, like star-crossed lovers or an Ancient Egyptian burial ground.  It’s just a building.

If it’s possible to make it even less romantic, it’s just a building that was originally set up for the purpose of warehousing a wholesale grocer.  The early settlers of North Dakota were not exactly precious about recording the days of yore, but as far as anyone knows the Grand Forks Mercantile Company Building was first constructed in 1893 – four years after North Dakota became a state – by Nash Brothers Wholesale.  Grand Forks is so named because it is set at the confluence of the Red River and the Red Lake River, and so it’s unsurprising that the downtown was an old-timey mecca of wholesale distribution, from farm machinery to building materials, to tobacco, to, you know, food.

Check out this sexy description of downtown Grand Forks from an account written in 1897:

“Grand Forks enjoys the distinction of being one of the best business towns in the west, and for that matter in the country, for the business done here in a general way, in proportion to the population, is equalled [sic] by few cities in America. This is due in a large measure to the enterprise and “push” of our businessmen. In none of the metropolitan cities can be found more complete stocks of goods than are carried by Grand Forks merchants. Grand Forks citizens have no occasion to go to St. Paul or Chicago to buy merchandise of any description, for while the tastes and requirements of Grand Forks citizens are doubtless as fastidious and exacting as any, yet the merchants appreciate this fact, and the best there is in the different lines of goods can be found in the mercantile establishments of Grand Forks. The splendid tributary country of prosperous communities and thriving farming population enables our business men to carry large and well selected stocks, and it is no wonder that our business men draw a large share of trade from a distance.”

As you know, North Dakotans would rather gnaw off their own arms rather than take a compliment.  As a response to the exuberance in the aforementioned commentary, in 1897, the Grand Forks Mercantile Company Building burned itself the ground.

The next year, Mrs. Minnie Clifford (along with the architect John W. Ross) rebuilt the Grand Forks Mercantile Exchange for $20,000.  The new building once again included warehouse and retail space, as well as fifteen apartments set within red hard-pressed brick from Winnipeg, Manitoba, because Grand Forks loves us some Canadians.  Mrs. Clifford was obviously a witch because her foresight (to install a brick wall) protected the retail and apartments from total destruction when it was gutted by a second fire in World War II.

From 1898 to 1996, the Grand Forks Mercantile Exchange housed Pure Foods (Hugo’s original food store, for those of you who are in the know of North Dakota grocers), the Ford Model T dealership, the John Deere Implement, and the S&H Green Stamps Premium Store.  When my company took it over in ’96 the front retail façade was painted a mint green in support of(?) the main floor tenant, a consignment shop called The Pink Hanger.  We (“we” – I was in high school) converted the retail to a restaurant space and fitted out the upper two floors with offices.

Anyways, I think the Mercantile Exchange is haunted because, even without any woo-wooing down the corridors, it carries the ghosts of the past 100+ years.  There are charred lintels above the windows from the second fire.  The structural beams have remnants of John Deere green.  The back stairwell is formed from the skeleton of the vehicle elevator that moved cars, trucks, and groceries up to the second and third floors.  And throughout the whole building, the tilted – one of my coworkers just had to lift her feet if she wanted to roll over to talk to her neighbor – wood floor is a novel all on its own with its tire, high heel, and life ruts, a few of which were made by yours truly.

(Also, the basement looks like a scene out of a horror film, although the only terrible thing that’s happened was some water damage.  Once we found a transient woman down there moving stuff around, but she was less “threat” and more “outside-the-box hiring potential.”)

In my early days with the company before I had kids and/or a desire for more than two hours of sleep, I pulled an all-nighter to get a proposal out the door.  I was the only one in the building when the sun came up, and for a few minutes the entire river valley was awash in fiery beams of gold – no fire department necessary.

We are officially out at the end of the month.  I’m guessing a new tenant will soon take our place and make their own ruts and memories.  My company will become a part of the structural ghosts – which, now that I type it, is probably the reason we restored the building in the first place.

I took some pictures of the historic elements I noted above and put them on Instagram if you’re interested.  Kyle took the photo of me (and the Merc Exchange, and my ample nostrils) above.

This week’s news has an undefeated team, a viral grandma, and a ranch in Sterling.  Read on.

Three students at LaMoure Public School – Rose Wendel, Makayla Jones, and Molly Musland – won third place in a documentary competition hosted by C-SPAN. (Grand Forks Herald)

Grandma Judy Wanek traveled from Breckenridge to Fargo for a night of karaoke – and went viral. (Fargo Forum)

The Four Winds-Minnewaukan boys basketball team went undefeated – and won the state championship – this season, and here is a nice interview with their coach about their hard work. (Facebook)

In case you missed it, I put up a bunch of stories on North Dakota Nice this past weekend, including:

After a long hiatus, I’m bringing back North Dakota Grows with a story on Black Leg Ranch Meats, the Doan Family, and holistic cattle and bison management. (North Dakota Nice)

Spring is the perfect time to start planning your backyard rink, and so here is story I wrote on ODRs (Outdoor Rinks) for The Red Cent. (North Dakota Nice)

My best friend Raemi does not live in North Dakota.  She lives in Boston.  However, I thought all of my fellow North Dakotans (and Bostonians) would enjoy a story about her cat, named DolphLundgren. (North Dakota Nice)

Let’s Be (Official) Pals!

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