Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Immer noch solide...

Posted 5/14/19 (Tue)

Ashley, like many small communities in North Dakota, continues to shrink. It has lost nearly half its population since the community peaked in 1950.

Yes, this county seat farming community in McIntosh County showed fewer than 800 people in the 2010 census with a 2016 projection at less than 700.

However, there are several unique things about Ashley that make this community important, strategic and loaded with heritage.

When you’re driving through North Dakota and you say hello to another prairie town, usually the first thing you see is a water tower.

You will see a water tower in Ashley too, but as you drive down Main Street from the west, which doubles as N.D. Highway 11, there’s a striking five-story brick building off to the right.

Originally built as a flour mill in 1919, it was never used as a mill because of nearby competition. It was turned into a creamery in 1939.

After serving the area for several decades, the structure was remodeled and received its most recognizable name, the Village in the Mill.

In the 1970s, the lower floors of the “mill” housed a cafe, bookstore and the Ashley Tribune. The upper floors were refurbished as apartments. Now, it is used for lodging.

There is no other building quite like it in North Dakota.

Ashley personfies the heritage of the Germans from Russia. Just driving through town, you’d never see clues of the rich, German heritage. On the surface, it appears to be just like any other North Dakota prairie community.

However, one of the unique features about this south-central neighborhood is in the languages people speak.

Ninety-eight percent of the population is Caucasian and about 55 percent of the population speaks English in their homes. The other 45 percent speaks German in their homes, making it one of the most German-speaking communities in North Dakota.

Approximately 67 percent of the population is of German descent, with another 15 percent having Russian ancestors, thus the Germans from Russia moniker.

Seven percent of the population is Norwegian, 3 percent British and 2 percent French. To this day, Ashley remains a true melting pot of the immigrants who built the state of North Dakota.

Because Ashley is just 7 miles from the South Dakota border, statistically, it is one of the warmer communities in the state, which begs the question, why aren’t more people retiring there because of the mild winters?

The grocery store on Main Street churns out pies and donuts  in that old, German tradition. People come from miles around to pick up a dozen donuts or a couple of pies. Move over Tim Horton’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.

The people who live in Ashley and those who grew up there and have since moved away, are fiercely loyal to their hometown. They all understand the demographics but they are not going to let go of their sacred white elephant.

Folklore has it that this little town also has a shady moment in its recent past.

After Gordon Kahl and his son Yuri were involved in a shoot out with federal marshals near Medina on Feb. 13, 1983, Gordon Kahl  fled on gravel roads. Two marshals and a local cop were shot so pursuit didn’t immediately happen.

Apparently, Kahl took back roads to Ashley, approximately 60 miles south, so he could completely avoid perceived road blocks.

It is said that Kahl holed up in Ashley for several days until the excitement died down. After that he was again on the lam and later died in a house fire in Arkansas.

Today, Ashley is as clean and modern as any North Dakota community. It has all the amenities a person would want, except maybe a beach, is easy to navigate and one can make friends in Ashley very quickly because of the friendly nature of those with German background.

Unfortunately, the economy is depressed and it’s hard to find a job locally. There are plenty of incentives from the city of Ashley and McIntosh County in case you are interested in starting a business. The more jobs you can create, the bigger the grants and the greater percentage of savings on loans.

Ashley has always been a likeable community and has always been welcoming to tourists and strangers.

It has a stable business district and school system and because the courthouse is in Ashley, the community will be around a long time. It is rock solid, or as the Germans say, “immer noch solide.”