Little House on the Prairie

Attracting the modern-day Ingalls family to northwest North Dakota.

For the past seventy years, census figures for North Dakota have been as flat as the Great Plains. Since 1930 the U.S. population has swelled from 123 million to 296 million, yet North Dakota has fewer residents today—approximately 634,000—than it did in the early nineteen-thirties. And in the northwestern part of the state, where ghost towns and abandoned farmhouses dot the landscape the problem of “out-migration” is particularly acute. 

While many have a fatalistic view of the area's long-term prospects, some residents believe the population decline can be reversed. One particularly motivated group—the Northwest North Dakota Marketing Alliance (NWNDMA)—has developed an organized campaign to attract newcomers, utilizing prairieopportunity.com to sell potential settlers on the benefits of living in northwest North Dakota. A handful of area townships are doing their part, too, offering free property to anyone willing to build a house on the land. 

While it's too soon to tell whether their efforts will succeed, prairieopportunity.com has already received thousands of inquiries from outsiders looking for a change in lifestyle. “There will be a recovery because it's so pristine here compared to a lot of other places,” predicts Steve Slocum, who works for a Williston, North Dakota bank and serves as press officer for the NWNDMA. “Being out here in the middle of nowhere is getting to be chic,” he says. 

Although “chic” may be too strong a word, living in a remote, unspoiled corner of America definitely has its advantages. While inhabitants of major population centers fret about violent crime, the high cost of living, noxious air pollution, and never-ending traffic jams, residents of the six counties served by the NWNDMA—Burke, Divide, Mountrail, Renville, Ward and Williams—remain blissfully unaffected. “You don't deal with those issues here,” begins Steve Andrist, publisher of The Journal—Crosby, North Dakota's weekly newspaper. “The crime rate and cost of living are both very low, and the commute is non-existent,” he says. 

Another prime selling point is the abundant wildlife, which attracts hunters, fisherman, and animal lovers alike. Located east of Montana and south of Saskatchewan, Canada, northwest North Dakota is blessed with a healthy population of deer, pheasant, elk, moose, duck and geese. And anglers come from far and wide to fish for Chinook salmon, Walleye, Northern Pike and paddlefish. For Slocum, however, the best thing about being close to nature is how it contributes to a sense of peace. “Personally, I enjoy watching the sun rise or seeing pheasant or deer on the way to work,” he says.

But Slocum acknowledges that any discussion of North Dakota wouldn't be complete without mentioning another aspect of Mother Nature—the winter weather. “We don't try to sugarcoat it,” begins Slocum. “We have four seasons here. Three are beautiful and one is really distinct,” he says, alluding to the frigid wintertime temperatures, which frequently dip below zero degrees Fahrenheit. 

Another notable downside is the lack of cultural diversity. Not only is the population fairly homogenous—mainly Caucasians of Northern European descent—there aren't many options when it comes to popular entertainment. “It requires a long commute to go to a concert, the theater, or a professional sports event,” admits Andrist, who notes that it's a four-and-half hour drive from Crosby to the capital (Bismarck), and both Grand Forks and Fargo are seven hours away. But Andrist points out that locals don't necessarily feel like they are missing out. “Even people who have easy access to those things don't use them on a regular basis,” he says. 

Nevertheless, those who come to northwest North Dakota and expect to be entertained are likely to be disappointed. Certainly one won't find a two million square foot shopping mall or 20- to 30-screen multiplex. In fact, Williston's recently remodeled movie theater still features a sign that boasts, “Our Screen Talks,” undoubtedly an effective selling point circa 1930, when “talkies” were still a novelty. 

All of this explains why the NWNDMA and prairieopportunity.com are trying to attract a specific type of person to the area; hard working, friendly, independent young adults able to pull their own weight and contribute to the sense of community. “Our unemployment rate is about two percent so we're looking for people who have job portability,” begins Slocum, referring to those folks whose jobs allow them to work remotely—via phone, fax, and the Internet. “Ideally, they also have children and above-average incomes. We want the type of people that take pride in taking care of themselves, all the way down to entertaining themselves,” he continues. 

In order to attract the “right” type of person a handful of northwest North Dakota communities are offering incentives, including the attention-grabbing offer of free land. Of course, giving away property to encourage development is hardly a new idea. In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of undeveloped land to any homesteader who met certain minimum requirements. And in recent years, several municipalities in Kansas have been touting their own version of a free land program. 

But the concept hasn't quite taken hold in twenty-first century North Dakota. Last year, North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan proposed the New Homestead Act of 2005, which promised tax incentives and other financial rewards for businesses and individuals willing to move to rural communities suffering from out-migration. But the bipartisan legislation stalled in committee, despite the support of Senator Chuck Hagel (Nebraska) and three other Republicans.

Meanwhile, local free land programs haven't been well received, either. In Crosby, “lots are available for free to anybody who is willing to put a house on the property,” confirms Andrist. To date no one has taken the town up on the offer, which is no surprise to Slocum, who says the available lots are among the least desirable around. “It's not 160 acres like the old homesteading days. The lots are those they couldn't sell,” he says. 

Nevertheless, prairieopportunity.com has already helped to attract several newcomers. For instance, Shawn and Esther Oehlke, a forty-something couple with two school-age children, recently moved from New Mexico to Crosby to start SEO Precision, a small company that designs and builds fast-steering mirrors for defense and aerospace applications. 

And, if nothing else, the press coverage generated by prairieopportunity.com has provided much-needed national exposure. The site even attracted the attention of Arab news network Al Jazeera International, which recently sent an American camera crew to Crosby—located six miles south of the Canadian border—to profile what it characterized as “real America.” Despite hailing from the network's Washington, D.C. bureau, the presence of three Al Jazeera employees raised the hackles of some residents, including the local sheriff, who called in the U.S. Border Patrol to investigate. 

“It sure made everybody here nervous when they heard an Arab network was coming,” begins Slocum, who believes it was much ado about nothing. “I got a call from a special agent from the Border Patrol who asked, ‘Did the cameraman seem like an American to you?’ I said, ‘Well, just as much as you do, special agent….’ There's a slim chance a terrorist is ever going to show up around here,” he concludes. 

Meanwhile, Slocum says the NWNDMA will soon be stepping up its promotional efforts. For one thing, the association is planning to produce a new DVD called “The Prairie Opportunity Symposium,” which will be broadcast on the Web and serve to educate potential settlers about the area. “We will cover everything from history and real estate to education and recreation,” says Slocum, hoping to reach those—and only those—who have what it takes to make their way in northwest North Dakota. 

“We don't look down on metropolitan living,” says Slocum. “If you are happy in the big city that's where you ought to stay.”