The Story of How Ghosts of North Dakota Began

The Story of How Ghosts of North Dakota Began

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.

Blabon, North Dakota
Blabon, 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.

Sherbrooke, North Dakota
Sherbrooke, North Dakota

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. Fourteen years later, we have traveled to every county in the state in pursuit of ghost towns and abandoned 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, 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.

As of this writing, it seems spring has arrived. 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.

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.

22 thoughts on “The Story of How Ghosts of North Dakota Began

  1. Is your “O” on the cap for Ohio State? Looks like their colors. (I’m a subscriber & we’re from OH and I spent 2 yrs. at Fortuna AFS, Finley AFS & Opheim AFS, MT).

  2. I enjoy your Ghosts of North Dakota series so much. Thank you for what you are doing. I haven’t lived in the state for years, but was born and raised there and have many good memories. Wonderful people, beautiful scenery — and since I’m a Badlands girl, like southwestern NDak the most. The only thing I don’t recall with pleasure is the winters!

  3. I see that Blabon, Sherbrooke and Pickert are still on Google Maps. My mother grew up on a farm near Hope, which is still very much alive. It still has a K-12 school, I think.

  4. I started following this site when a cousin posted a picture of the church my parents were married at in Bluegrass, ND a German Congrgational Church. Many of my relatives are buried in the cemetery by it!

  5. Have loved your site for many years and had only guessed at the seed that started your journey. Hopefully will be able to continue to enjoy the photos and stories of “old” North Dakota for many years from the NW.

  6. I grew up in a number of railroad towns the one that tugs at my heart the most is Eckman in Bottineau County,the town consisted of mainly Bristols and their families.I was one of them my dad was Ted Bristol.I will forever miss this pretty little town and the wonderful people who lived there.

  7. I just LOVE to read about your adventure to Blabon, Pickert, & Sherbrooke! The trio of towns were the scene of many wonderful childhood memories. Growing up in Blabon WAS an adventure! In fact, your photo of the abandoned house in Blabon at the beginning of this story (and the first one at the beginning of your book) is my childhood home! According to my mother, my Dad constructed it by placing two granaries together! Viola – a rambler! 🙂 On occasion, I bring your book with me when I “sub” – and never tire of showing and sharing the pics and tales of growing up in Blabon! Many thanks to you for your journies and research! It truly warms the heart knowing the lives/structures that housed families/businesses are still of interest -maybe gone in the physical sense but certainly not forgotten! Thank you!

  8. “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.”

    And this is why I took up UrbEx beginning in my high school days in the late 1990s. It saddens me that many of the abandonments I used to visit in the countryside around the Minot area no longer exist. The landscape, in that way, has changed radically over the last 15-20 years.

  9. Troy and Tim, you guys are my hero’s. I am from Landa , ND, and it was a big part of my life. I also worked on the BNRR in Minot, ND in the 70′-early 80’s. I have also been all over this great state. I now Live in Livermore, CA. Can’t talk fondly about it here, however. I also lived in Rapid City, SD, and went to Kindergarten there. I just love the rich history of the Dakotas, and how you two adventurers came to light. I just want to say thanks for all you have done, I never missed a new post. Thanks again guys….GREAT JOB!…Steve Carlson, Livermore, CA

  10. Hi, I came upon your website by accident, but fell in love with it right away. Your pictures and stories are awesome. Will you venture to other states in the future. Thank you and keep up the great work!

    A Friend from Washington State…

  11. As Dorothy Hanson Satrom remarked,, “Growing up in Blabon was an adventure.” I have kept up with this website for a couple of years and love it. Since most of the ND small towns are disappearing, it is wonderful that there are records and pictures of them. Keep up the good work!

  12. Neat story! It’s always interesting how small things lead to great accomplishments.

    Some years ago I took a picture of an odd power line structure on a municipal utility system down here in eastern South Dakota, posted it on an insulator collectors’ website, and which drew the attention of another insulator collector out west I eventually befriended. He had an interest in the history of various power companies and that rubbed off on me at one point.

    After a number of years of research, I am very close to publishing a history book about when the various towns around North Dakota – from Abercrombie to Zeeland – got electricity. The range of towns covered also run the gamut from Fargo all the way down to ghost towns like Omemee.

  13. Thanks for the stories. I’ve traveled most of the state and have seem many of the dead towns firsthand. I’ve lived in Roth as late as 2004 and in some towns such as Sherwood, Bottineau , Wahpeton and Linton. that are still among the living! Keep up the great work!

  14. Thank you for sharing this story. I come from a large family, maternal and paternal. I had family in Hazen, Zap, Hebron, Lincoln Valley, Anamoose. I knew and loved the little towns. Thank you for the stories and memories

  15. Troy– Enjoyed your briefing on how you, your wife and Terry got stated.

    In scanning the ND towns you have visited/explored I do not see the Ghost town of DANZIG,ND in McIntosh County near the SD border. Athougth I believe it has one resident, & at least one old brick bank building

  16. This is a wonderful site. My ancestors were early settlers in North Dakota. It is a beautiful places filled with wonderful people. I had no idea that so many places are now vacant. One would think that with the ability to work from home, someone would be interested in these places and revive them with modern adaptations. Thank you for saving these for our eyesight.

  17. Fun reading the origin story behind the site. I get interviewed a lot about my website too and have never thought about penning the whole story about how I got started either. Love your site, so much fun to see each new place you guys find.

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