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Published April 24 2011

Wyndmere family loves the thrill of the egg hunt

WYNDMERE, N.D. - On a beautiful Easter Sunday in Wyndmere, N.D., Ashtin Wittenburg is stumped. She can make neither heads nor tails of her grandfather’s clue: “3-2, 2 _ _, 2 _ _ _ _.”

She and her teammates run through a handful of possibilities. An address between Third and second streets? A phone number? The serial number on a train car?

Finally, one of them managed to wrangle some help out of a group of competing family members that leads them to the baseball field. Ashtin’s cousin Wyatt makes a beeline for the dugout, returning moments later with the prize in hand: A plastic purple egg, one of eight they’re looking for around town.

“Is it always this hard?” asks Brett Pauly, a first-timer to the hunt. He’s assured it is – last year, one clue went unsolved.

The completed riddle – a 3-2 count, 2 on, 2 outs – is indeed a doozy. But that’s the way Wally Wittenburg, the architect of the sprawling egg hunt that’s become the centerpiece of his family’s Easter tradition, likes it.

“They’ve got to try to think like Grandpa thinks,” he said.

It started two decades ago as a small, around-the-house egg hunt for the grandkids. After a few years, when Wally started to notice the parents doing more than their fair share of the hunting, he upped the ante, turning the event into a scavenger hunt that spanned the breadth of the town.

Instead of stashing plastic eggs in the yard or in the flowerpots, he sprinkled them around Wyndmere, furnishing the participants – a group that reached 27 this year, split into six teams – with a series of cryptic hints.

Once in a while, he outsmarts (or simply confuses) the field. “Over under?” The egg was hidden beneath the highway overpass bridge. “Butter churn?” Check under a mural on the local creamery. “Big h _ _ _ t?” Teams might spend half an hour poking around for big hearts before realizing they’re supposed to be looking for a big hoist.

One year, his wife Nancy, got her car stuck in the snow trying to find a hard-to-reach egg.

“Most of his clues have made sense,” she said, “but once in a while ...”

This year’s masterstroke was a series of U-shaped faces, with some of the smiles turned upside-down. Flip the page, and it became a crude map to the town’s Quonset huts.

It’s a ruthlessly competitive affair – some years have seen underhanded tactics like key-swiping and driveway-blocking come into play. Wally even used to put cash in the eggs before a few were swiped from their hiding places (those incidents notwithstanding, it’s a testament to the neighborly good will of Wyndmere that Wally can hide eggs on lawns and in places of business without causing a stir).

But beyond bragging rights and the winner’s purse, the tradition is also an important draw in bringing together four generations of Wittenburgs – a group that now includes Wally’s four children, 13 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

“It’s really a family magnet,” said Carl Wittenburg, one of Wally’s sons. “Everybody looks forward to it. We talk about it at Christmas and all the other family functions.”

One of Carl’s sons, away for college, was the only grandchild unable to attend this year, but asked Carl to pass on a message: “He wanted to make sure you knew that he was the three-year defending champ.”

For Nancy, the Easter tradition is sometimes a reminder of how quickly her family has grown up. Grandchildren who were barely walking in years past are now among those helping hide eggs for their younger siblings and cousins.

“I just like having them here,” she said. “Time just goes by so fast.”

The youngest of the children get their own crack at a smaller-scale egg hunt. This year, they also got to meet the Easter Bunny (an appearance that coincided with the absence of one granddaughter’s boyfriend).

This year, Wally and Nancy skipped prize money altogether. Instead, they used it to buy a series of wooden crosses – one for every egg hunter – from a local craftsman who donates the money to churches.

“We hope you’ll take them home and hang it on the wall,” Nancy told the assembled family after they trudged back in from the search, muddied but largely successful, “and remember what happened at Grandpa and Grandma’s.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502