From art to technology to education to religion to sports, there’s opportunity around every corner in Ellendale, N.D.
“Ellendale combines the best of small cities everywhere,” resident Ken Schmierer said of “the gateway to North Dakota.”
Despite offering the culture of communities exponentially larger, Schmierer, a Dakotafire and Dickey County Leader contributor, listed a lack of traffic jams, noise and crime among its attributes.
The town of just under 1,400, situated five miles from the South Dakota border on U.S. Highway 281, offers “life on a greater scale,” he said—a claim the community feels confident enough about making that it has put it on banners on Main Street.
According to locals, the border means little in defining “community” in the Ellendale area.
“I don’t think people pay a lot of attention to the state line,” said Starion Financial Market President Aaron Tschosik, whose family moved to town 11 years ago. “We have a lot of customers in South Dakota, and you’ll find Frederick (S.D.) and Ellendale people do a lot of things together.”
Seeing beyond geographical borders is key, according to the town’s leaders.
“To start a business here, you have to look beyond Ellendale,” Brenda Johnston, owner of Harvest Gardens, said. “I think people get an attitude … that ‘it’s just Ellendale.’ It is Ellendale, but a lot of people go through Ellendale.”
And the fact that Ellendale is home to a small college makes its citizenry “fluid.” “They move in and they move out,” Johnston said. “Ellendale is a place of opportunity.”
‘The Million-Dollar Miracle’
A fire at the University of North Dakota-Ellendale in 1972 brought a huge opportunity for Trinity Bible College, an Assemblies of God school that had gone through a series of moves throughout North and South Dakota since 1948. Trinity was chosen from among about 200 entities vying to purchase the campus for $1.
“It was called the million-dollar miracle,” said Dan Kuno, a former Trinity employee, who was among the first Trinity freshman class in Ellendale and still lives in town.
The school covers 28 acres on the eastern edge of town. Although the community does not offer the employment and entertainment available in most college towns, Kuno said Ellendale is a good fit for Trinity.
“I think that’s also good, to pull them away from all of the instant gratifications,” he said. “Students are well-prepared to take more humble positions, not because they aren’t qualified to do greater, but because they understand there is a greater, deeper understanding.”
Ellendale’s relative safety is a big marketing piece for Trinity, whose 225 students come from all over the nation and beyond.
“Some of these kids have never been in a safe community,” Kuno said, adding that many institutions could have thrived there. “If you have the mind to adapt, you’ll make it.”
Ellendale has adapted to the economic opportunities Trinity brings over the years, as well.
“It’s a hand-in-glove type of fit here, as we look at the college in a rural setting,” with the fiscal impact on the community more obvious in a small town, according to Kuno.
Roots in Ellendale
For Jim and Brenda Johnston, roots took hold in the North Dakota soil quickly. They moved to town with a four-year plan to find their way apart from family in Wisconsin while Jim attended Trinity. Two decades after his graduation, they proudly call Ellendale home.
“It’s totally outside my idea of how life was supposed to be,” Brenda said.
The summer after his 1996 graduation, Jim worked as a groundskeeper for his alma mater. He and a friend planted sunflowers throughout the campus, and Brenda suggested he look into renting a local greenhouse to start a new hobby. An April blizzard in 1997 destroyed his crops, but Jim was committed to the project.
“He said we’d just replant seeds and they’d grow,” Brenda said, “and sure enough, they did.”
Harvest Gardens sells a variety of trees, bushes, flowers, plants and fresh produce, along with hanging baskets, gardening supplies and various gifts. Brenda credits the success of the plants to a secret passed down by another Johnston gardener.
“We plant them and water them, but God makes them grow,” Brenda said. “Jim’s mom was a woman of prayer, and she would always pray over the plants and for the people who would get them—that the plants would be a blessing to them.”
This year, the plants weren’t the only things growing at Harvest Gardens. With the help of the Ellendale Job Development Authority and other local agencies, the business opened its 18th season in a new building at the same location. And, although the original inventory has remained largely unchanged, the business has expanded its services with an ice cream shop and small eatery—a good fit, according to Brenda.
“The women come in to shop, and the guys and kids go in and have ice cream,” she said.
The Johnstons say Ellendale is a good fit for retail.
“The people from Ellendale support us, but … we just draw people from all over the place,” Brenda said.
And their inventory isn’t the only draw.
“People who don’t even know him will come in” just to get Jim’s regional fishing report, Brenda said.
Strength in numbers
Earlier this year, the city of Ellendale, the Job Development Authority (JDA), the Chamber of Commerce and other community organizations joined together to create a strategic planning committee.
Previously, “everybody knew what their responsibilities were, and they just kind of focused on the responsibilities at hand,” Tschosik said, rather than “looking at how we could all help each other get to the goal.”
Now, each group is represented at a quarterly meeting to discuss issues affecting the community, “to get everybody on the same page,” he said.
Such an orchestration can mean the difference in a community’s fate, according to Kuno.
“If you can keep that focus in front of you, there are no barriers. There are challenges, but there are no barriers,” he said.
The JDA “fills a gap” for financing new businesses and business expansions for the good of Ellendale. Recently, a large community day care center closed, and one of its employees opened a new in-home facility.
“Day cares are really hard to finance through a bank. They generally just don’t make a lot of money,” Tschosik said, but are vital to the success of a community, “so we’re helping get that up and running.”
But some of the recent progress in town has struck a nerve. Four old buildings, including the 1909 Nodak Hotel building at the corner of Highway 281 and Main Street, were demolished late last year.
“The one that was probably the most controversial of all of them,” Tschosik said, but “it was just beyond repair, so I understand the feelings. People get emotional—but sometimes you’ve got to do what’s necessary.”
Now, the town is reimagining its possibilities.
“I think some of those bare spots maybe don’t look that great, but it’s kind of like having a blank canvas if you’re a painter,” Tschosik said.
Finding a home for growth
Recently, Ellendale has been redefined with the return of several younger-generation adults taking over family businesses and farming operations. And the real estate market is struggling to accommodate.
“Home prices are escalating so fast. Once one gets on the market, it goes,” Ellendale Public School Superintendent Jeff Fastnacht said.
Recently, Fastnacht heard at the local coffee shop that a house was coming for sale just after offering a job to a new teacher. He inquired about it, and it sold within a week.
“That middle-size family home is just gone,” Fastnacht said.
“Move-in-ready homes are rare,” Tschosik agreed.
Contractors have discussed building spec homes to sell, but they’ve said it is not profitable, and new construction is difficult for private parties, too.
“When you build a home, when that home is appraised, a lot of times it appraises for less than the price of construction, so you have to make up that equity in cash,” Tschosik said.
Bob Johnson, general manager of Dickey Rural Networks, said moving to Ellendale from Fargo two years ago was “tough.” He and his wife purchased a “fixer-upper” in town and do miss some of the conveniences of the city life.
“Without a doubt, there are some trade-offs,” he said, “but if you live in a location for the right reasons, you can make anything work. … People are really plugged in in town, because people know you really have to be involved to make things happen.”
Building on a fiber network
DRN has helped keep the community plugged into the world, too. Three years after its completion, residents in town still are quick to point out DRN was the first telecommunications provider in North Dakota to bring fiber optic Internet, telephone and cable to all of its subscribers—a resource Johnson said keeps Ellendale competitive in the world marketplace.
“It connects rural America to the world,” he said. “People with creativity can actually make some extra income on the farm.”
And quality telecom services are important in the heart of Ellendale, too, he said.
“It’s important that the service is there, and the speed is there, so that we don’t hold up opportunities for our Main Street businesses,” he said. “Be it hospitals, be it schools, be it Main Street businesses—all of them have the fiber and the capability to pass data back and forth.”
Conversation ongoing between school, community
Fastnacht doesn’t think his role as school superintendent requires him to stay inside school walls. Before a 2011 vote on a school building project, he spent some time at the coffee shop each morning, answering voter questions and sharing the school board’s plans. His community outreach is credited with the success of the $5 million project, which built a new athletic facility and renovated the elementary school.
“People who would maybe be the followers of the information” could become involved in the conversation, he said. “I do think that helped,” but he said the community itself passed the project.
“This school, this community had wanted a new athletic facility for a long time,” he said. “When you’ve got two varsity teams needing a gym, and two junior high teams needing a gym and an elementary team needing a gym at one time … it’s busy.”
The project was an “easy sell” in the midst of holding junior high basketball practices as early as 6:30 a.m.
The plunging stock market actually helped spur the project along, according to Fastnacht.
“Once it hit the paper that you had $5.1 million of interest-free money, that was a slam dunk,” he said, and it received the go-ahead from 80 percent of voters.
Last year, the school was faced with a unique problem that led to a different sort of expansion. Between the start of the school year and Christmas break, enrollment grew by 32 students, and a vast majority were third-graders. The class started with 18 students, and ended the year with 29—an increase of 61 percent. By Christmas break, a second section of the grade was needed.
Some alternative classrooms were rearranged, and a certified teacher’s aide took on her first teaching job to fill the void.
In the upper grades, the school is integrating the concept of “koinonia,” by which “families” are created among peers.
“Tests aren’t everything,” Fastnacht said. “They should have never been everything. Building relationships with our kids—and our kids with our adults—is very important.”
The “families” are composed of students in grades seven through 12, to help the younger members see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Middle school is not fun. It’s awful,” he said. “There’s a level of maturity seniors tend to get that year, and pass it on to these younger kids that it’ll get better.”
Bringing urban recreation to rural setting
Jami Eberle was raised 20 miles from Ellendale before moving to Las Vegas and Denver. She and her significant other returned to Ellendale six years ago and brought big city-style educational opportunities back with them.
Although Eberle’s company, JEBERLECO, is located in a historic Main Street building, its presence is felt throughout the community, with fitness classes in the park and at the lake, and painting parties in private homes. Cooking classes, yoga classes, art exhibits, concerts and other events are held at the studio.
“It’s not too often in Ellendale that you’re going to get sushi, so we are bringing some outside culture into the small-town area,” Eberle said. “If somebody asks for something and we think of a way to facilitate that happening there, we just kind of run with it.”
Eberle said it is her hope that people in Ellendale will give some of her events a try, and that people of various interests will begin to commingle in other areas of town as well.
“People go out and support the events that are sort of within their interest group, and it’s hard to break into any of the other groups and suggest” that they can enjoy each other’s’ hobbies, she said. “Come out and try something new. Change is OK! If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come back. … People seem sort of resistant to change in general.”
Eberle said she is happy to be home—at least for now.
“I don’t know if I will live in Ellendale for the rest of my life, but for a long time to come, given that we have just bought a house and have kids,” she said. “We really enjoy it. We can still vacation to the big city.”
Rebuilding a piece of history
Just off of Highway 281, community revival efforts are showcased in the historic Ellendale Opera House.
“They probably never actually had an opera,” said Jeanette Robb-Ruenz, president of the Organization of People in Ellendale for the Restoration of the Arts, or OPERA, Inc. “It was more or less a community center for all different events.”
The building housed its first event in 1909, and fell into disrepair sometime in the 1970s.
“There was a time that historic buildings were not ‘the thing,’” Robb-Ruenz said. “I want this building restored, so it’s usable to the community again—businesses on the main level, like there always were, which would generate income for the building itself, the auditorium fully restored—usable all year round, for anything and everything. There’s no end, I guess, to what things could happen in here.”
An eight-member board of directors oversees projects that mostly are completed by local volunteers.
“We wanted to make this lobby, as we call it, as historic to the Opera House as we could,” so hours were spent carefully removing, stripping and refinishing as much of the original wood floor as possible. Additional flooring was purchased to match as closely as possible. Since it was finished prior to the community’s 125th celebration in 2007, “this room is used almost continually for something.”
The roof and back wall have been upgraded, and work continues on the 1,000-seat auditorium upstairs.
“It’s fun to have things upstairs when we can, so people can see what shape it’s in,” Robb-Ruenz said. “The acoustics in this place are phenomenal. That’s what made this place so great.”
So far, projects at the Opera House have totaled nearly $275,000.
“We’re continually fundraising. We have to be, in order to keep up with our projects and maintain what we’ve got,” Robb-Ruenz said. “You’ve got to preserve your community’s history.”