North Dakota has dozens of small towns approaching ghost town status. As the population declines, they tend to go through a transition period during which the population fluctuates. Aging residents pass away and young people go off to college. It’s not uncommon for a town to be abandoned, only to be re-inhabited for a time–drawing in those who are attracted to the solitude and the dirt cheap cost of living. Heaton is one of those towns.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Miller, the sole remaining resident of Heaton. We found him on the tractor, working well past sundown on a chilly November evening.
Only twenty five years old, Miller was raised on a farm about a half mile outside of town. As a child, Miller and his friends used to ride their bikes into town to get a can of pop and a candy bar at the local store. “There used to be an old bank there,” Miller says. “We’d sit on the steps and eat our candy bars.” The store closed in 2003. Miller says the Post Office closed when he was quite young, but he remembers going into Heaton early one morning to get their baby chickens off the mail truck. “We were excited about that,” he says.
There were perhaps fifteen residents in town in those days, enough to justify a trip to town on Halloween. “I remember we used go there and trick or treat when I was real young, too,” Miller says. There were two elevators, a lumber yard, a post office, a bank, and a church in Heaton back then.
But over the years, the population steadily declined. “Everybody that was there was getting older,” he says. “People passed away. Some just moved.” A tornado that wiped out some of the structures contributed to the decline.
The owner of the gas station went into the nursing home and then passed away some time later. Miller’s father bought the place and turned it into a meat processing facility. “That’s going pretty good for us,” he said.
In 2009, he bought a house and moved it to a vacant lot in the center of town. “I got in there about January of 2010,” he said. He wasn’t the only resident at that time, however. “When I moved in, there was another family living in town and they had three kids,” he said. They split up and moved out of town last summer, leaving Miller and his dog as the only remaining inhabitants. Miller’s closest neighbors are now an elderly couple who live just west of town.
When asked if he gets lonely, Miller said “Yeah, I guess. I grew up on the farm and I’m pretty self-sufficient. I enjoy the freedom of that.” Miller had planned on returning when he finished college, and had hoped to find a farm to buy. But when he bought his house, he was attracted to the Heaton lot by the availability of water and electricity. “I enjoy the freedom,” he says. “You can go and do what you want, but I guess it does get a little lonely.”
A farmer by trade, Miller works for a local rancher and maintains his own cows and chickens. Like any other farmer, Miller starts his day by feeding his animals, then spends most of the day at work. “You never know how many hours a day you’re gonna have to work,” he says. “During the busy times it’s morning ’til dark pretty much.” In his free time, Miller goes hunting and fishing.
In addition to water and electric, Heaton even has fiberoptic internet service. Last summer, Daktel installed it for all the farms in the area, Miller said. “Every farm in our area has it too, so we’re livin’ pretty good.” Miller has to provide his own heat in the winter via a propane furnace.
Despite the modern amenities, living in a ghost town is not without challenges. Although the mail comes via rural mail delivery, Miller drives to Jamestown or Bismarck about once a month for groceries. He visits the grocery store in Carrington, about twenty five miles away, for more immediate needs. The small town of Bowdon about eight miles away is a frequent stop as well. “They have a credit card gas pump there, and a little grocery store too,” Miller says.
We noticed on our last trip to Heaton that things had changed quite a bit in the six years since our previous visit–many structures were gone. Miller says many of the properties were forfeited to the county due to unpaid property taxes, and then Speedwell township took over and razed many of the properties due to health hazards. And the process of ‘cleanup’ will continue. “They plan on burning a couple of the old buildings down this winter,” he said.
Miller says the property owner of several lots in Heaton is a Montana resident who only occasionally comes to town. “He was back here about a month ago,” Miller says, “And he was coming to get some of his stuff out of these old houses, and he said a bunch of stuff was missing. And I said, the front door’s been open on the place, and there’s been a lot of people coming through and going through these places. It’s kinda like, what do you expect?”
Although proud to be a resident of Heaton, Miller doesn’t plan on spending the rest of his life there. “I’d still like to get out on a real farm,” he said. He expects to end up on his parents’ farm or his grandmother’s farm, which is just a couple of miles from Heaton.
I asked Miller if he plans to leave Heaton empty when the time comes. “I’d hope… I plan on selling my house, I mean if I could leave it there and sell it or if I have to sell it and have it moved, either way.” I asked him what are the chances he could sell his house to someone knowing they would be the only residents of Heaton. “You’d be surprised, I think. It would be pretty easy to sell it.” What does a house sell for in Heaton? Miller estimates he could get twenty thousand for his. And if he can’t sell it, he’s open to renting it. “There are a lot of jobs here,” he says.
Being the last resident of Heaton does have it’s advantages. “People ask me where I live and I tell them I’m the only one left in Heaton. I’m the Mayor, the Sherriff and everything,” Miller says. “They get a kick out of that.”
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy