A week ago Sunday we found ourselves Lost in Milnor and Oakes, North Dakota. As I mentioned here on the blog, the nature of these particular adventures was personal – we’d been invited to visit these towns and their areas by our Sarello’s bartender, Brandy Buro, and her boyfriend, Dylan Jacobson, of Oakes and Milnor, respectively. How lucky we are to have these two great young people volunteer to serve as our very own tour operators!
We had little idea what to expect, but were anxious to begin our journey. When Tony, Giovanni and I talk about our favorite adventures so far this summer, the ones that included a human connection are always at the top of our lists. The opportunity to see a town or prairie-setting through someone else’s eyes helps give that area dimension – round out the edges, if you will.
We’ve driven through many (MANY) small towns in North Dakota this summer, and they can tend to look pretty similar to one another if you’re just driving through. Nearly every single town and city we’ve seen so far has an old grain elevator located right next to railroad tracks. The downtown area, if there is one, usually consists of one or two blocks of buildings. No matter what the size, there is usually a bar, and a church, and oftentimes an auto body shop.
We’ve visited towns where every storefront is occupied, and parked cars are lined up all along the street, a testament to that town’s prosperity. We’ve also visited towns where most of the buildings are vacant and the streets are empty of traffic. Regardless of its size, in every town we’ve visited there is always, always, something that captures our imagination, often whispering of glory days now past.
A beautiful old building, now in a state of ruin, surrounded by prairie grass so tall it threatens to devour it. What was it, once? An austere, boxy, old, concrete building, abandoned for years, now with a pretty painted mural on its side and marks along the broken-out windows’ edges where bars might once have been. Could this have been a jail? And how on earth did this gorgeous church land here, in the middle of nowhere? Who built it, and why? Better yet, who are the people who still fill the pews each and every Sunday?
We leave each town with so many questions, each of us trying to imagine what it’s like to live there, both now and back in its heyday. Having someone familiar with the area who is willing to share their knowledge and history with us is a luxury, and so we were feeling very rich indeed in Milnor and Oakes last week.
Our day began in a state of friendly frenzy, as I scrambled to get a blog post written while simultaneously trying to pack for our journey. The laundry was done, but nothing had been organized for the trip yet, and we actually had a schedule to keep this morning. My lovely husband, Tony, kindly volunteered to pack for him and Gio so that I could have some precious, uninterrupted time alone in my office to work on the post. This was another luxury, and so appreciated.
We managed to get out the door by just after 11:00 am, which was our goal. We’d eaten only a light breakfast, and thought we might stop in Wahpeton for breakfast. We’d originally hoped to visit Paula’s Place in Moorteon, but they don’t serve breakfast. However, we had fruit, granola bars and other good snacks in the car, so we decided to head straight to Milnor.
Tony called Brandy when we left to let her know we were on our way. She and Dylan were also driving from Fargo, but would be leaving about 30 minutes after us. She advised us that we were to go straight to Dylan’s parents’ house, where his mother, Lorraine Jacobson, was expecting us.
We hopped onto I-29 and began our journey southward. The outside temperature was already in the mid-80s, and the forecast was set for a sweltering, sunny day out on the prairie. Sunscreen in tow, we were eager to get to Milnor to begin our adventure.
We drove past Mooreton, Barney and Wyndmere, towns already familiar to us from our travels earlier this summer. (Ha! I could not have said that 3 months ago!) As we entered Milnor, we were greeted by its sign which proclaimed, “Milnor Welcomes You!”
We arrived at the Jacobson residence just after 12:30 pm, and were met by Lorraine’s son-in-law, Kelby Sundquist. Lorraine and her daughter, Whitney Sundquist, quickly came out to greet us. Whitney and Kelby live in Milnor, but both work in nearby Gwinner, ND.
Let me tell you something about Lorraine. This was my first time meeting her, and only Tony’s second, but you’d never have guessed it. Lorraine welcomed us with open-armed enthusiasm, as if we were already dear friends, and I immediately knew that I liked this woman. A lot.
The Jacobson’s lovely home a has large yard anchored by a pond behind the house, where Giovanni delighted in watching the active birdlife as we introduced ourselves to one another. Lorraine’s husband, Jay Jacobson, is the Alliance Director for the Dakota Valley Electric Cooperative, which is located just east of the residence. The house is owned by the co-op, and it’s the official residence for the Alliance Director and his family. What a great incentive this is to attract skilled personnel to a company.
Lorraine told us that she had made plans for us to visit her neighbors, Dick and Donna Ruby, who live just up the road at the Ruby Buffalo Ranch. We were delighted to learn that Whitney and Kelby would also be joining us. (Can someone please tell me how two of the most attractive people in North Dakota both happen to be from Milnor, and just happen to be married to each other?)
Lorraine directed us back to our trusty Honda CR-V, and we were delighted when she hopped on her adorable white Honda Metropolitan scooter to lead the way. (Especially Tony, since it reminded him of the Italian Vespas which are omnipresent in Italy.) Lorraine is a reporter for the local newspaper in Milnor, and she laughed as she told us that everyone calls her the “Roving Reporter” because of the scooter. In her straw gardener’s hat, with her notebook tucked away for the ride, Lorraine cut quite a figure as she scooted down the driveway. Roving Reporter, indeed!
We were at the Ruby Buffalo Ranch in a matter of minutes, which is also home to Donna’s restoration antique business, Hilltop Primitives. We made the long drive up to the house, and found ourselves in one of the most idyllic rural settings I can imagine. The Ruby house and its grounds are immaculately maintained: gorgeous flower beds with charming garden accents, sprawling, lush green lawns, and a lovely ranch-style home in between.
Down a sloping hill to the south of the home is a small lake and a pond, where we spotted a large number of white pelicans taking comfort from the heat, and a herd of buffalo cooling off at the edges of the water. Dick informed us that he would take us down to the pasture, where we could get a better look at one of the herds.
Donna let us walk around her yard first, apologizing for the state of the gardens. “WIth this heat, I’m thinking of just giving up,” she tells us, fending off my repeated compliments on the beauty of her gardens. I thought of my own garden wasteland at home, and was very glad Donna was not coming to my house. Other than my two robust raspberry patches, and some hostas, the only flowers visible in my yard this year are the volunteer petunias that are graciously adorning the cracks between our patio pavers. But, I have been an active gardener in years past, and I knew what she meant – wandering around the yard, it was evident that Donna’s gardens were a labor of love and artistry, and a gardener is always more content when the weather lives up to her standards.
The gardens were just lovely, in spite of the heat, and we thanked Donna for the tour. Then Dick, Lorraine, Whitney and Kelby got into two of Dick’s trucks and we were instructed to follow them over to the buffalo pasture. We drove down the Ruby’s driveway and over to another, oh, um…yeah, okay, I’ll call it a road.
We bumped along the prairie brush, listening to the cacophony of sounds coming from underneath our car as we drove over vegetation more than a foot high. We had a great laugh about it, as just six weeks before, our marriage was nearly jeopardized while driving on a well-established, albeit unfamiliar, gravel road. I had to stop along the way to commemorate the event with a photo (I really just wanted evidence that Tony was smiling!) Suffice it to say this was another successful step in the treatment of Tony’s Gravel Road Syndrome.
Photo courtesy of Dylan Jacobson
Dick had given us a warm welcome earlier up at the house and, like Lorraine, he was easygoing and eager to tell us about the ranch. When we pulled up to the pasture, Dick was bringing out Norma, his pet bison. He set a bucket of feed in front of her, and she proceeded to indulge as we all marveled at having such a close-up view of this impressive animal. It was around this time when Dylan and Brandy joined us, and they couldn’t have had better timing.
Imagine our surprise when Dick invited us to step up and pet her, gently warning us to watch our feet since an adult bison weighs about 1,400 pounds. Later I visited a website, Your Rancher dot com, which features information about the Ruby Buffalo Ranch and other buffalo farms in the midwest. There were pictures of Dick and Norma together, with a footnote at the end of the article cautioning readers to never approach a bison, or pet/scratch its back, highlighting the extremely unique relationship between Dick and Norma. But Norma was very mild-mannered, and Giovanni was absolutely thrilled with this experience. None of us could believe that we were petting an actual bison.
Up at the house Dick had told us that he was from Kansas, and had grown up on a cattle ranch. For many years before starting the buffalo ranch, Dick had experienced success as a beekeeper with his business, Ruby Apiaries. His son, Doug, purchased the business several years ago, and that’s when Dick launched the Ruby Buffalo Ranch.
The ranch is spread out over about 1,000 acres, and has been successful for the Rubys. At its peak, it was home to over 1,800 bison, but as Dick gets closer to retiring he has downsized to approximately 275 animals. An obvious entrepreneur, I wonder what he’ll get started on next once he retires.
Dick returned Norma to the pasture, and then announced that it was time to feed the herd. He offered seats in the feeder truck to Lorraine and Giovanni, who was more than happy to tag along. There were about 30-40 bison in the pasture in front of us including several calves, and they were scattered about, grazing in the grasses. There was an impressive bull in the herd, with great horns and a huge girth. Dick told us that he has about 25 female mates in the herd, and Giovanni’s eyes grew large with this information. “Mom, can you imagine having 25 wives?” he asked me before falling into peals of laughter.
A little ways beyond the fence was a long trough, around which there were no bison gathered. None, that is, until Dick drove the feeder truck alongside it, dispensing food into the trough. Then there was an immediate move toward the food, but the animals slowed down as they neared the trough, waiting for the bull to take its place at the head of the trough. I never knew there was such a thing as bison etiquette.
The sun was just beating down on us as we stood out there on the open prairie, and I’m pretty sure I was melting, as redheads are prone to do in excessive heat. Even still, I can’t recall ever having this much fun on any other field trip, and I am so grateful to have these wonderful new friends in Milnor.
It was time to leave the ranch, and Dick offered to take us over to his honey plant before we said goodbye to Milnor for the day. I didn’t know until earlier this summer that North Dakota is the top producer of honey in the nation (has been for over 7 years), and this fact is evidenced by the many white boxes we’ve seen in clustered groups out on the prairie all around the state. Dick’s invitation was simply too good an opportunity to pass up, and we happily made the journey back down the “gravel” road to follow Dick into Milnor.
Photo courtesy of Dylan Jacobson
I’m going to wrap this up for now, and continue later this week with more on our adventures in Milnor and at Ruby Apiaries. But before I go, I’d like to share this with you: as wonderful as our time was in Milnor and Oakes was, none of it would have been possible without the amazing opportunities we had to interact with local residents.
A town is just a town, is just a town, until someone comes along and tells you why it’s their home. As we left Milnor later that day, Tony declared that he wants to own an acre of land in North Dakota, anhd he wants it to be in the Milnor area. He spoke most passionately about this, which surprised me. I didn’t expect to hear this, ever, from my gravel-road-weary City Boy. But something that day affected him in a way that touched his heart, and it wasn’t the bison, or the bees.
It was Lorraine Jacobson, and Dick and Donna Ruby, who opened up their lives to let us in. Their pride in Milnor was obvious and infectious. It was Kelby and Whitney Sundquist, who couldn’t have been nicer in answering my questions about life in a small town. And it was Brandy Buro and Dylan Jacobson, another beautiful young couple, whose excitement about Lost on the Prairie and their own home towns made the entire day possible. Only time will tell if Tony’s desire for land in Milnor will come to fruition. Until then, thank you, thank you, wonderful new friends, for helping us get lost on your prairie.
Photo courtesy of Dylan Jacobson
Coming up later this week:
– The conclusion of our Milnor visit with Ruby Apiaries and downtown Milnor
– Our amazing adventure at the Buro family farm outside of Oakes, ND – it just keeps getting better and better!
– In search of Danzig, our journey to North Dakota’s German-Russian Triangle