It occurred to me the other day that we’ve told the story about how Ghosts of North Dakota began in countless interviews over the years, but we’ve never posted it here, so for those who might be interested in how this project began, this is the tale.
In 2003, myself and Terry Hinnenkamp, my roadtrip friend and fellow adventurer, were working at the same Fargo Top 40 radio station, Y94. Halloween was coming up and we had this goofy idea that it would be neat to find an abandoned place and spend the night in it while recording our experiences for a program we would put together later, to air on Halloween — a kind of radio campfire story.
We began searching the web for abandoned places that might serve the purpose and immediately ran into a problem. There were lots of written accounts of places that were supposed ghost towns or which had a lot of abandoned places, but there were very few photos. Trying to find a place to spend the night was difficult without seeing what the places looked like. So we decided we would take a day trip one Saturday to check out a couple of locations ourselves.
The day of our adventure came and Terry and I, along with my wife, Rebecca, who was pregnant at the time, hopped in our rusty Ford Escort wagon (a car which would meet its end on a future trip, but that’s another story) and drove about forty-five minutes northwest of Fargo, to Steele County, with the intention of visiting three places — Blabon, Pickert, and Sherbrooke, North Dakota.
We had been told Blabon had once harbored as many as 3,000 people, so we were excited to see what was left and how many people still inhabited the town along a long-abandoned railroad line. We arrived to find there was really only one structure remaining that looked like it could be an original structure, a crumbling wooden home. We took a look inside and it was immediately clear that, even if you could get the permission of the owner to spend the night, there would be no place to sleep amongst the rubble — it was too far gone. There were several other abandoned homes of a more modern appearance, and several inhabited ones in Blabon, too. We would later discover Blabon never had anywhere near 3,000 residents. In his book, North Dakota Place Names, Douglas Wick reported the unofficial peak population as 150 residents in 1914. Nevertheless, Blabon, which once had a grain elevator, a store, a bar, a post office and a few dozen homes, had shriveled to a shadow of its former self. We took a few photos and moved-on down the road.
When we arrived in Pickert, North Dakota, just a few miles west, we discovered there was nothing at all to indicate a pioneer-era town existed there. There were a few modern homes around a highway intersection, and that was all. We found nothing of an abandoned or historic nature to photograph, so we turned-around and drove northeast toward our final stop. A few minutes later, we arrived in Sherbrooke, North Dakota.
I would argue Sherbrooke is where we got bitten by the bug to keep doing what we do. It’s a true ghost town with zero residents, and as we drove into town, it was admittedly a little spooky. On one side of the road we could see the stone and brick foundations of ruined structures, and on the other, abandoned homes shrouded in years of untended overgrowth. We rolled to a stop on the road, and before Terry and I had even unbuckled our seatbelts, Rebecca had leapt from the car and started exploring. To this day, we still get a chuckle that the pregnant lady was the most fearless in the beginning.
We roamed Sherbrooke for about an hour and got our fill. There were moments of historical fascination, like when we discovered a stash of newspapers from the 80s in the garage of one home, which gave us a pretty good idea when the last residents had left, and there were moments of creepshow scares, too. We explored around the back of one home that was so overgrown with foliage that you could barely see it through the trees, and when we came into a clearing, we saw a small playhouse, once the scene of a child’s merriment, abandoned and decaying, with whimsical, tasseled curtains still hanging in the windows. It felt very much like something you’d see in a scary movie, and you couldn’t help but, if only for a moment, feel fear for what you might find if you looked inside.
Unfortunately, many of our photos from our first couple trips have been lost due to our inexperience, but we learned a lot from those early adventures. The trio of Blabon, Pickert, and Sherbrooke would each individually prove to be examples of places we would encounter in the future. Some places would be a grab bag, with a mix of some abandoned places and inhabited ones, some would be what we deemed “busts,” where there was nothing to photograph, and others would be true North Dakota ghost towns, with no residents remaining and much to shoot.
If my memory serves me correctly, it was the weather that turned on us, and spending the night in an abandoned place for Halloween quickly became more of a task than we were willing to to accept, but we had discovered something else. Terry and I had a mutual appreciation for history, and telling the tales of lost places through photographs. It would take a few more trips before we really figured out what we were doing, and why. We discussed what we had found in Blabon, how so many places that had once existed had now vanished. We questioned whether we should continue to photograph these places, especially considering we were totally amateur photographers. Who would care about our photos when there were so many more talented photographers out there? Eventually we came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter if our photos were the best photos, it only mattered that they existed. All of these places would eventually be gone, and if they couldn’t be preserved physically, maybe they could be saved virtually, through photographs, so there would be a visual record of these places after they’re gone.
After our first few trips, we decided we needed to share our photos with others, but we didn’t have a website, so I sent our photos to one of the few ghost town websites on the internet at that time, hoping they would post them with our findings. To our regret, we never got a response. I had recently started learning to write HTML code, so I decided we would start our own website. One afternoon, I bought the domain name “Ghosts of North Dakota,” a metaphorical title meant to signify our fascination with echoes of the past (and which would also unintentionally attract fans of the supernatural), and built a comically rudimentary website. As amateurish as it was, we immediately started getting positive feedback in such quantity that we realized we had to continue.
And, here we are. All these years later, we have traveled to every county in the state in pursuit of ghost towns and abandoned places. We’ve visited an abandoned asylum, a one-of-a-kind military base, and hundreds of other vanishing places. We’ve upgraded our camera gear and our photography knowledge, and we’ve graduated from railroad maps and road atlases to Google Earth and satellite navigation. We’ve put three vehicles permanently out to pasture in the endeavor (one of those stories is here), we’ve published five books, met some interesting, friendly characters, been chased out of places by some not-so-friendly ones, and had a blast every single minute. This project started by accident.
It won’t be long before we’re out there again, kicking up clouds of dust on some lightly traveled gravel road leading to another fascinating destination. Thank you so much for coming along for the ride.
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy