Gackle residents find ways to build community despite population loss
by Heidi Marttila-Losure photography by Troy McQuillen
Want to know how Gackle, N.D., has changed since its heyday in the 1950s? The person to ask is Marilyn Elhard, who has watched the changes from her viewpoint behind the counter at the local bank. She’s been there for almost 61 years—outlasting several owners, and having a longer tenure on Main Street than most of the businesses that remain.
“We were a booming town,” Elhard said, listing of the variety of businesses that Gackle once had: three car dealers (one of which was also an implement dealer), three grocery stores, a drugstore, men’s and women’s clothing stores, a hardware store, a funeral home, a locker plant, a theater and several restaurants.
The locker was known across the region for its sausage. The theater was the oldest continuously running theater in North Dakota until just a few years ago. “And the hardware store was really a hardware store,” Elhard said. People would go into the store, ask the owner for something, and he’d say, “‘Let me go upstairs, maybe we have it.’ And most of the time they had it.”
Gackle’s population peaked in the 1950 census with 604 people. The 2010 census showed its population had dropped roughly in half, to 310. Of all the businesses Elhard listed, just a handful remain. “We’ve had big-time change,” Elhard said.
There are some new businesses, however. And the ambulance service and school are still serving the community, with new or upgraded facilities. As local business owner James Owen said, “Doesn’t look like we’re dead yet.”
When change comes to a small town, the challenge for the community is making sure that change is as positive as it can be. That’s what members of the Gackle community have been doing—looking for opportunities to make Gackle better.
Enrollment Challenges, Community Support
The Gackle-Streeter school’s facilities don’t look anything like a one-room schoolhouse: The gym has a new floor, the rooms are brightly painted, and smartboards and other current technologies are used in classrooms.
The atmosphere, however, has the almost family-like feel that one-room schools once did. With just 107 students, prekindergarten through 12th grade, pretty much everyone knows everyone else. The children benefit from the individualized attention that comes from having small class sizes (last year’s graduating class had just five students; this year’s class has 11).
That enrollment number can also prove a challenge, however. North Dakota’s school funding formula depends heavily on student enrollment, “which is great if you have students,” explains Gackle-Streeter Superintendent Duke Larson. “But it’s very difficult if you don’t.”
Hiring can be difficult in a small town also, especially one that’s not in the Bakken, offering oil field wages. Last year Gackle-Streeter sought a technology teacher. About 14 other schools in North Dakota were also looking for technology teachers—and North Dakota State University had graduated one student with those credentials, Larson said.
“That gets to be stressful,” Larson said, adding that Gackle-Streeter was lucky to have one good candidate apply.
A small enrollment also has made things difficult for sports programs. This fall the school started a new co-op agreement with Napoleon, which means student-athletes must travel 40 miles to practice and most home games. Previously, they had been traveling 28 miles to Medina. And now, each sport only has one game per season in Gackle.
That one home game, however, packs the bleachers.
“The community is really supportive of the school,” Larson said. “Activities at the school get a good turnout.”
Saving a Drive
When the grocery store in town closed, Gackle residents faced a drive of at least 12 miles to Streeter, if not 37 miles to Jamestown, to get milk or bread. Gackle Co-Op Oil Co. then decided to add on to provide Gackle residents at least the basics that they might need in groceries, or in hardware supplies, since it is now the only hardware store in town as well.
“It’s more of a convenience store,” said Teresa Remboldt, who has managed the co-op for 12 years. “We don’t have everything. But people will tell us, ‘Oh, you saved the day.’” They haven’t had to run to Jamestown for one plumbing fitting, for example, which would have lost them half a day of work, Remboldt explained.
Remboldt said she tells folks, “’If we don’t have it, you don’t really need it.’ We can always find something to make it work for them until they can get somewhere to get exactly what they need.” That solution might involve duct tape, she said with a smile.
The co-op ends up serving as an informal gathering spot in the mornings, when the same people stop in to catch up on the latest news. After the loss of the bowling alley and the movie theater, the community needs those kinds of places, Remboldt said.
“I do my best to keep this place open,” she said.
Roy Musland said he took the opportunity to be president of Dakota Heritage Bank in Gackle in July of 2012. Musland, who grew up in Edgeley, said he’s very thankful he did.
“You just kind of realize how much you miss a small town,” he said. “I really like the small-town feel and flavor.”
Musland describes Gackle as a friendly German community, where the ethnic heritage still comes through in the cooking. Hunting and fishing are also both significant parts of the culture. Marvin Miller Lake, named after a local farmer, is a big draw. Musland said that at certain times in the summer there is steady traffic through town headed for the lake.
“I almost can’t believe there are that many fish,” he said.
Musland said the farm economy is a big part of the community, as well as the business at the bank. Local farmers even did well last year, when the area ended up with too little rain; drought-tolerant varieties pulled the crops through.
The community faces challenges, however. Musland said Gackle is not as vibrant a community as it once was, in the years when he was growing up in Edgeley. Most of the small towns in the region are struggling.
But Musland sees some opportunities, especially as other places grow. Jamestown will be building an ethanol plant and a large fertilizer plant, both of which will need workers. Those workers will need housing, which Gackle could possibly provide. There are even some families working in the Bakken but living in Logan County.
“There are things happening,” Musland said.
Gackle’s Bank of Knowledge
Dakota Heritage Bank celebrated 100 years in business in 2005.
“And I’ve been here 60 years of it,” Marilyn Elhard said with a laugh. “Doesn’t seem that long.”
Roy Musland, president of the bank, said that last year when the bank celebrated Elhard’s 60 years at the bank, he figured that about a billion—a billion!—dollars had passed through her hands in that time.
“She’s just a great resource,” Musland said. “She knows or is related to everybody.”
She’s been a resource to the whole community, not just to her employer. Elhard said that over the years she’d often have little old grandmas come in and ask for her help: “’Marilyn, will you do this? Will you straighten out my checkbook?’ And then at the end of the year they’d come in with noodles, and they’d come with crocheted doilies,” Elhard said. “Now I’m the little old grandma.”
Elhard, who said she’ll soon turn 80, started working at the bank as soon as she finished high school. “The cashier that was here (then) was super in training me,” she said.
She also learned along the way, through many changing technologies. “As the computers came in, which I still don’t like, I had to learn,” she said. “But I don’t learn any more (on the computers) than I have to.”
She’s worked long past retirement age, and could quit if she wanted to. But, she said, she doesn’t have much to do at home since her husband passed away. And there’s no need to retire if it doesn’t seem like work.
“I call it therapy,” Elhard said. “I have aches and pains like everybody my age, and you know weekends, I really feel ’em. But I come to work and it’s gone. My mind is off (them).”
Elhard is passing along the family banking tradition: Her daughter, Patty Elhard, has been working at the bank for 35 years.
‘Gold Mine of Opportunities’
James Owen has two big responsibilities in Gackle: He’s co-owner of Double J Manufacturing, and he’s the squad leader of the Gackle Ambulance.
Owen and his business partner, Jeff Enzminger, started Double J after they were both mechanics at the co-op. “We had talked about doing our own business,” Owen said, “and (Enzminger) talked me into doing it.”
They started with mechanic work but struggled. They eventually realized that mechanic work had a limited customer base—they weren’t likely to pull in anyone from farther than 60 miles away. Then a customer asked them to build some free-standing corral panels. “We built 10, put them out in the lot and never quit building them,” Owen said. “Orders kept coming in.”
Manufacturing opened up a much larger market potential for the business. Now the business has a network of dealers in several states, and 12 employees on the payroll.
The blessing and the curse of small towns are in their workers, Owen explained: “I think we have higher-quality individuals in the Dakotas that are willing to work hard. The challenge is trying to find enough help.”
Double J advertises all over, but it is competing with oil field wages. Owen said he would like to find some of the people still unemployed after the latest recession and move them up to Gackle. He’s not sure why they wouldn’t consider it. “It’s God’s country up here,” he said. “It’s peaceful. It’s safe. Communities can be nosy, but they also keep an eye out for everybody.”
A few more workers might also help with Owen’s other responsibility at the ambulance service. He started volunteering with the service about 12 or 13 years ago, when he thought he’d just be a driver. Then he became an emergency medical technician because more help was needed.
“It’s been a struggle,” Owen said, explaining that the Gackle service was the third-smallest in North Dakota for a while. The volunteers recruited enough people to keep it going, and they keep asking. “To be successful you have to continually recruit,” he said. “You also have to make sure people are trained properly and feel part of a successful organization.”
The service has also benefited from a grant that provides funds that it can use to reimburse volunteers. Owen testified at the state level in favor of the program, explaining that if the Gackle service wasn’t there, it might have a ripple effect and take down four or five other services, because their volunteers would be taxed by trying to respond to emergencies in Gackle. Providing some compensation to volunteers has been key to keeping them in the program, Owen said.
Owen said the service was on the verge of shutting down numerous times, and could still use more people, but is holding its own now. “The community realizes it’s a needed service.”
And in fact, the community has recently invested significantly in the ambulance and fire service by putting up a new building on Main Street. The building also houses the local public library. People had talked about a new building for a while, but they had considered applying for federal funding for it—and federal requirements would have put the cost of the building at around $400,000. The project was shelved, until they looked into doing the project with local funding and financing, which brought the cost of the project down to about $250,000. Along with a variety of fundraisers, the fire department did a tax levy, and the local bank also provided financing. The new building is working out well, Owen said.
Owen said Gackle, like many small towns, is facing the problem of outmigration. It has to continually work to bring families into town, which is something he and Enzminger have tried to do by providing jobs through their business.
“If things are left alone and left to die, they will die,” Owen said. “You have to continually work to make things happen.”
Owen sees “a gold mine of opportunities” in small towns—maybe they won’t have much compensation, but they often provide free training and a way to increase skills. In a bigger city, those opportunities might not be so obvious. Owen said he likely wouldn’t have gotten involved with the ambulance if he lived in a bigger city. “Looking back now, it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”
“You just gotta take the bull by the horns and make things happen,” he said.