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!

Sign up for the weekly North Dakota Nice email and get a story and the news delivered to your inbox once a week (and never more than that).

The Apple Tree | March 9, 2022

Last week, the New York Post put up a graphic that identified North Dakota as “the best state at solving Wordle.”  I’m not sure my participation is helping those numbers, but I absolutely love Wordle because I love WORDS.  I’m sure you’re thinking, “Oh man you are so deep I hope they have a Nobel Prize for deepness because you would win it” – but listen, some people like sports and other people like collecting decorative spoons and I like words.  

I like the look of words; such as how “murmur” is flat and unassuming but is filled with lines that roll up and down.  I like the sound of words; “truth,” for example, is spoken in a short staccato at the front of your mouth, while “lies” slides slowly from the back.  I like how words can be broken apart and pieced back together to make new words, such as how “icicle” and “dream” make up “dreamsicle” and all of those things are different but can be married into the same family and therefore related. 

(That feeling you’re experiencing right now is what happens when your entire body does a massive eyeroll.)

Words need to be used, so I take them out for a spin through writing exercises.  There are roughly an infinite number of ways to do a writing exercise, but my preference is to pick out a single word and see what story it wants to tell.  So, I play Wordle because it’s supplying me with an endless stream of possible words for writin’.  Here’s a poor example of Wordle performance, but good example of finding some great words:

Screenshot_20220305-115422_Chrome

I feel like I could spend two weeks on those five words alone.  “’I’ll write myself a note so I don’t forget,’ she said; both of them knowing full well she wouldn’t.”  “The pride paused momentarily behind the blue line.  With a tap of the goalie stick, they emerged; moving as one on a hunt for the net.”  (Meh, that one is pretty terrible.)  I mean, BRINE alone is worth the day.  “He packed the cooler tight with his personal brine of Coors Light, beef jerky, and clementines, and loaded up the fishing boat for a long, slow pickling in the summer sun.”

Anyways, I recently used the word APPLE and thought I’d share the story with you.  Please don’t tell me if you think it sucks.

 —

THE APPLE TREE

Try as he might to convince everyone otherwise, Ronald Moen sure did love his apple trees.  In fact, he loved them so much that Jerry figured he’d better mention it, just so there wasn’t any trouble.

“Oh, yeah, they’re real delicious,” Jerry said, using his watering can to gesture to the Moen’s front steps – which, because it was now August, was decorated in an acre’s worth of handpainted wooden sunflowers.  “Ron and Melba keep a basket of them on the porch for anyone who wants some.  They’ll give you a whole bagful if you ask…you know, so…”  The egg salad sandwich he had for lunch flipped in Jerry’s stomach at the thought of being unneighborly to these nice young folks.  “You don’t need to worry about those trees.  If a branch or the cherries are bothering you, you tell Ron and he’ll take care of it, to be sure,” he nodded.  “You don’t need to worry about those trees.”

Mark – who had the same baby face of all the other Tollefsrud boys; Jerry’d have to rib Bob Tollefsrud a bit about it the next time they were at the VFW – grinned.  “As soon as I saw those apple trees, I knew we were going to buy the house.  I had apple trees in my backyard growing up, too.”

“Oh, yeah?”  Same look of mischief, too; whole family of scamps.  Jerry wiped a leather-tanned hand over his forehead.  “Well, like I said, Ron and Melba keep a basket on the porch, so…”

It was at that moment that the Moen’s garage door opened and Ron came lumbering out.

“’Lo!” he bellowed, sucking in his Santa Claus belly so he could slide a small axe into the waistband of his toolbelt.  “Ronald Moen, how you be.”

They exchanged the usual introductions – who knew whose cousins, how it sure was a hot time to move but winter was right around the corner so no complaining allowed, if Mark’s kids and Ron’s grandkids were excited about school, that sort of thing – and then Mark said,

“I was telling Jerry here how much I like your apple trees.  I’m going to go get one of my own this afternoon.”

“You’re gonna need more than one so they can fertilize each other,” Ron boomed.  Across the street, Jerry’s old, nearly-deaf dog lifted his head because Ron’s voice could awaken the dead.  “My mother-in-law gave us them two as a housewarming gift.  Gave us saplings because she loves finding work for me to do.  Yep, they are a lot of work.  A lot a-dang work.”

“I don’t –” Mark started.

“They get real buggy, you know.  Plus, we didn’t have a fence when we were first married and the deer were always after ‘em.  A lot of work.  You hunt, don’t ya?”

“Yes.”

“Me, too.  I had to miss the goose opener a while back because them apples were dropping like a rainstorm.  We donated thirty pounds to the food bank that weekend.  It was in the paper.”

“I think my aunt said something about that.”

“Who’s your aunt, Glennie?  Yeah, she makes a pretty good apple pie.  Melba does, too.  She said she brought one over to your wife last night.”  He rubbed his belly.  “That’s why I keep those dang trees, so she can make apple pie.  Lotta work.  You should get yourself a couple of maples instead.  Real easy, and they have that nice bright color.  That’s a maple right there.  Couldn’t get one in the back, though, because I didn’t want to shade them apple trees too much.”

“Maples are nice,” Mark said.  “I’ll see what my wife wants to do after I get that apple planted.”

“Two trees,” Ronald said, and Jerry’s dog barked.  “You need two to produce fruit.”

“Yours are close enough,” Mark kept on grinning.

Jerry’s egg salad sandwich turned over again.

“My what now?” Ron said, after a pause.

“Your apple trees,” Mark said.  “I don’t need two trees, because yours will fertilize mine.  They need to be closer than fifty feet, and the one is right on the edge of the fence.”

Ronald put one hand on his belly, and the other on the head of the axe.  “Well, they need to bloom at the same time.”  His voice no longer rumbling over the sunny sidewalks.

“Oh, that’s no big deal,” Mark said.  “The Garden Center has some young apple trees that’ll fit the bill.”

“The Garden Center,” Ron murmured.

“Yessir.  I’d love to have you guys over for a beer later this week.  Maybe you can give me some pointers on how to take care of it.”

“Will do,” Jerry said.  Ronald rubbed his belly.

“Speaking of the Garden Center, I’d better get after it,” Mark said.  “Great to meet you guys.  We’re really happy to be here.”

Jerry nodded and Ron nodded and Mark nodded and Jerry’s dog went back to sleep.

Ronald didn’t see Mark plant the apple tree, but Jerry did.  Jerry saw everything from the rocking bench on his front porch.  He watched Mark return with the young apple tree, the top wrapped loosely in the striped bag of the Garden Center.  He watched Ron help Melba into their own vehicle, his voice echoing across the block about his desire to surprise her with a supper out.  They returned during the few minutes Jerry’s wife convinced him to spend inside eating his own supper.

Ron was out in the garage when Jerry returned to the porch.  Jerry waved a beer in his direction, and Ronald crossed the street and settled himself onto the top step.

“New neighbors,” Jerry said.

Ron took a drink.  “S’pose we need them so we don’t have to keep looking at each other’s old mugs.”

“Funny thing about the apple tree.”

Ron snorted.  “Lotta work.”

They sat together for a long while, until the only lights in the neighborhood belonged to the street and the two of them.

“Well,” Ron said, hitting his knee, “’Bout that time.”

Jerry went inside but he didn’t go upstairs.  Instead, he stood by the window.  Across the street, Ron closed the garage door.

Jerry’s dog sensed movement first, and Jerry squinted, trying to make sense of the dark.  Finally, Ronald’s belly took a shape of its own.  It stretched and shifted until it became a man lugging a large package wrapped in striped plastic over to the Tollefsrud’s front steps.  Ron set the tree – a second tree, identical to the one Mark had planted earlier that evening – by the door, and adjusted the ribbon Melba had tied to the front.  Next to the tree he set a grocery bag filled with apples.

Jerry nodded, and headed off to bed.

The photo above was taken at an apple orchard somewhere in Minnesota (it was two years ago and my memory stinks).  This week’s news has a boatful of water samples and a lead dog.  Read on.


One of the lovely readers of North Dakota Nice was a member of the organizing group who put together “Voices for Ukraine” – an event in Grand Forks where community members were able to talk about their experiences and connections in Ukraine. (KNOX Radio)

Grand Forks’ Madison Eklund is taking a four-month sabbatical from her job as a postal worker in order to embark on a solo – she is one of less than 10 people to take this trip, and the first to do it alone – 1,600-mile canoe trip from St. Paul to the York Factory in Canada…and she’ll be collecting water samples along the way for the state of North Dakota. (Grand Forks Herald)

This article is a brief look at the North Dakotans who were deemed worthy of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” – including a man who bagged a fox with a treasure trove of money, and the World Champion Miniature Writer. (Fargo Forum)

North Dakota’s mobile food pantry is on the move, heading to Center, Hazen, and Beulah next week. (KX Net)

Congratulations to Cavalier’s Eva Robinson, who took 14th place in the Jr. Iditarod sled dog race – and to her lead dog, Frost, for receiving the Blue Harness Award! (Grand Forks Herald)

Squirt International | February 23, 2022

Last weekend, my ten-year-old played in the Squirt International hockey tournament in Fargo, North Dakota.  The “Squirt” in “Squirt International” refers to the age group in which he skates – specifically, fourth- and fifth-graders.  My son, a fourth grader, is a first-year Squirt.  I’m not sure why “Squirt” is the nationally-recognized term, but my guess is it has something to do with the fact that kids of this age like to hold their water bottles out in front of their pelvic region and squirt water/Gatorade all over the ice to simulate going to the bathroom.

The “International” part is because this tournament attracts 240 Squirt teams from all over the United States and Canada, who descend on Fargo for three four-day hockey tournaments (80 teams per weekend) in February.

For the past year, my fellow hockey moms have been warning me that Squirt International was “a big deal.”  As a marketing professional, I am permanently skeptical about anything pitched as “a big deal,” as everything about marketing is “a big deal,” even when it’s “not really any kind of a deal at all.”  Also, I started this blog because it’s a best-kept secret that North Dakota is awesome; and, as such, was wary that something of such “International” magnitude would be allowed to be located in Fargo.  I was so convinced that it wasn’t a big deal that I had an entirely different story written for today.

Anyways, I was wrong.

First of all, it turns out that Fargo was an ideal spot for the tournament.  There were enough hockey rinks between Fargo, West Fargo, and Moorhead that all 80 teams were able to play during normal human hours.  While urban areas like the Minneapolis metro also have a lot of rinks, in Fargo all of the rinks were a five-or-so-minute drive from the hotels.  Speaking of hotels, ours was totally cool with hockey families taking over the entire place.  The area restaurants were also cool, the Fargo parents who ran the concessions were cool, and whomever had to sweep up fifty billion pin bags (more on that later) was definitely, definitely cool.  Maybe Fargo should host the next Winter Olympics; the tagline basically writes itself (“Good Sports?  You Betcha!”).

Second of all, I knew I was wrong when I showed up to the Scheels Arena for the Opening Ceremonies and there were so many hockey players on the ice – 600, to be inexact – that I could smell them from the seats.  The music was bumpin’, the beer was flowing, and my shy little goalie was so pumped up that he spent twenty minutes dance-skating in circles with goalies from Grand Forks, Los Angeles, and Nevada.  The Opening Ceremonies included a group photo (somehow they convinced hundreds of children drunk on adrenaline to sit still for ten solid minutes), a warm-up skate, and the Squirt Olympics.

The Squirt Olympics had five(?) events like sharp-shooting, obstacle course skating, and goalie races happening simultaneously on two rinks.  Obviously, Kyle and I were only focused on the goalie races (and getting beer) – and since our son managed to get himself to the very back of a line of 100+ goalies for their timed trials, Kyle figured he had lots of space to procure us the aforementioned beers from a grown-up line equal to that in length of the goalies.  Our son was at the starting gate when Kyle returned sans anything but himself, annoyed because the person in front of him ordered eight vodka-cranberry juices with twists of lime, and those drinks took so long that Kyle had to leave the line to get back for the race.  Fortunately, our son’s team later played the vodka-cran’s team, meaning we got to carry around a pretty solid (one-sided) parental rivalry before the puck even dropped.

Thirdly, there was a huge amount of parental effort that goes into Squirt International.  As you can imagine, it’s hard enough to feed 15 kids, their parents, and their siblings in one go; but even more difficult when there are 79 other teams trying to do the same thing.  As such, the moms on my son’s team organized two potlucks…which meant that two moms had to sleep in hotel rooms with simmering pulled pork and taco meat for the entire weekend.  The moms also printed up Fat Heads (giant pictures of our children’s faces), packed up gift bags and, with the dads, toted kids all over town to games, photo shoots, and whatever else.  For my part, I brought hamburger buns and got myself dressed every day.

Finally, the biggest deal about Squirt International was the pin trading.  You may be thinking, “Like those little buttons we wore on our jean jackets back in the 80s?”  NO.  Fancy enamel pins with additional enamel whosiewhatsits that shift and spin and light up.  One of the teams had a pin that was as large as my hand and weighed a solid two pounds.  Each kid was given a prescribed number of their own team pins, which they used to trade for other team pins.  This trading happened in large piles on the floor; at every rink, hotel, and restaurant there were groups of kids kneeling down, their fabric pin books open to show off their wares – think New York street hawkers with fake Gucci bags.

The pin trading system was vast and complex.  In one instance, my son – who decided to forgo swimming in order to trade – bartered with another kid to swap my son’s biggest pin with a 2019 two-parter pin that was deemed “super-rare.”  When I asked what made it super-rare, my son just looked at me like I had suggested Sidney Crosby was not the best player in the world, so apparently I should stick to fake Gucci bags and stay out of the pin market.

We’re back home now, still trying to catch up with laundry and basking in the glow of all of our super-rare pins.  I’m going to celebrate Squirt International’s conclusion with a vodka-cranberry (with a twist of lime) and make a mental note to tell all of the next year’s first-time Squirt moms that Squirt International is a big deal.

The photos above are as follows (left to right):

  • The Lakeville South (MN) pin was one of the most popular because it was giant (that’s Kyle’s hand for scale) and the hockey player moved back and forth.
  • Approximately 1/5th of the goalies in the Olympics goalie race. Kyle took this photo, and I’m not even sure our kid is in it.
  • Kyle has been streaming our son’s games on Facebook Live.  The moms and dads on our team were so appreciative of his commentary that they made him this rad t-shirt.

This week’s news has t-shirts, Top Chefs, and grandmas.  Read on.


The (very large) Marsh family in Dickinson is selling t-shirts in support of the Stark County Association of Deputy’s youth-and-resident-in-need program. (Dickinson Press)

Students in Wahpeton put together a fast – and highly effective – gift basket auction (with thanks to many area businesses) to raise money for a local family who lost a son on February. (Wahpeton Daily News)

Bismarck’s Stephanie Miller is typing up her apron as a contestant on the Bravo TV show “Top Chef.” (KX Net)

Employees at Dickinson’s CountryHouse Residence got grandma Marilyn Wert to Bozeman, Montana so she could surprise her granddaughter at her college basketball game. (Dickinson Press)

I put up another one of my Flash Fiction stories – this one based on a conversation I had with another hockey mom, who said her son only scores when she’s in the bathroom.  You can read it here.