We first visited Leith, North Dakota, in Grant County, about fifty miles southwest of Mandan, in May of 2007. We had heard that it was a shrinking rural community with a few abandoned places to photograph, and we found that to be true, but we could not have known that Leith would become a place of conflict just a few years later when a white supremacist would move-in and thrust Leith into a national spotlight.
We watched from afar with dread as buildings in Leith were vandalized with spray-painted swastikas and decorated with banners of hate as Leith’s residents were threatened with violence, their community meetings disrupted by vile characters. The apologists for racists like those who invaded Leith would tell you they simply wanted to live in an all-white community, but a simple look at Census statistics reveals there are dozens of tiny rural communities all over North Dakota that are already one-hundred percent Caucasian — not out of hate, but simply by default. They could have easily settled in any one of those communities and lived peacefully. No, these people wanted to impose their will on Leith and the remaining sixteen residents.
Through several years of turmoil, meetings and demonstrations were held, ordinances were passed and enforced, and the hate-mongers were eventually driven out. We visited Leith again in July of 2015 to see how the town had fared.
Terry suggested we should stop in the local bar for a chat and some refreshments to help stimulate the local economy in whatever small measure we could, but we only stayed a short time. After what Leith has gone through, we found smiles in short supply and people apparently (but understandably) wary of strangers. We asked about some of the buildings which once stood in Leith, and the bartender told us many of them were “pushed down and burnt down” after the racists moved on. She described the situation succinctly as “a crock of bullshit.“
The former Leith Creamery building, which once stood next to the home with the red front door, is gone. Intentionally razed for reasons that vary, depending on who you ask.
Vacant lots dot the townsite in Leith. Many of the places we photographed in 2007 are now gone. Bad weather limited the amount of time we spent in Leith, so we didn’t photograph everything we’d hoped to.
The racist who started the turmoil in Leith had moved to Sherwood, North Dakota by the time we visited again, and had designs on another town we’ve photographed, Antler, North Dakota. In the interest of preserving our prairie heritage and pioneer architecture, we can only hope they run him out of town, too.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright Sonic Tremor Media.
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy