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TJ Jerke, Forum Communications, Published July 06 2012

After 100 years, Whitman, ND, hangs on

WHITMAN, N.D. – This tiny Nelson County town boasts a population of two – four during the summer months – but it was difficult to tell Friday afternoon when more than 300 showed up to celebrate the town’s centennial.

Organizer Bob Vasichek said the “Party on the Prairie” event was Whitman’s last “hoorah” as it slowly becomes a ghost town.

“I told myself, if I’m alive when the town turns 100, we’re going to have a party,” said 66-year-old Vasichek, who grew up six miles north of here.

Muddy Main Street was lined with former residents and neighbors from nearby towns reminiscing throughout the day. Red and white nametags, and the phrase “I haven’t seen you in ages” followed by handshakes and hugs were common.

A late morning parade sported 100 parade entries, Vasichek said, including old tractors, floats sponsored by businesses in nearby towns – there aren’t any left in Whitman – and a plethora of candy.

A train ride, music by Matt Hodek and the Dakota Dutchmen, a pig roast and kids’ activities were also offered, with a street dance rounding off the day.

George Sommerfeld, 69, of Minneapolis, said he hasn’t been back to Whitman for eight years. Friday’s celebration brought back many memories, as well as old classmates, he said.

“I wanted to see what was happening and meet up with the people I grew up with,” he said.

The 1960 Michigan High School graduate said he finished eighth grade in Whitman with five other classmates.

Doc and Caroline Hagen live three miles north of Lakota, about 15 miles southwest of Whitman. The two sat down for lunch under a white tent along Main Street where John Sandford’s auto garage once stood.

The couple grew up in nearby Devils Lake but have fond memories of hunting waterfowl around Whitman since moving to the area in 1971.

Doc Hagen, a graduate of UND’s medical school, said he knows many former Whitman residents through his clinic in Michigan.

“I think he knows everyone,” Caroline Hagen said. “So it’s fun to come over here and take in the celebration.”

The town sprang up in 1912 as the Soo Line Railroad made its way through North Dakota. The name Whitman came from the railroad’s civil engineer, E.A. Whitman, who planned the tracks and towns.

More than 20 businesses once called Main Street home, and now memories and signs the centennial committee placed at their original locations are all that’s left of them.

“It’s sad to see Whitman is ready for the funeral service,” Doc Hagen said.

Dale Mayer, the centennial parade coordinator, said he remembers his time spent in town, specifically 1973. He was in fifth grade and the Whitman school closed, forcing him to attend school in nearby Michigan.

“It was too bad,” he said. “It made things a little more difficult for the handful of us.”

Sommerfeld, too, reminisced. He stood on the corner of Main Street and First Avenue picturing the time when Saturday nights meant a trip into town.

City Hall used to be here, and he remembers taking in dances and playing different sports as part of his physical education class.

“The hall was a popular place,” he said. “The town also extended all the way down from the hall, so it’s always amazing to see them gone.”

Mayer, wearing his neon yellow centennial committee shirt, lives two miles from Whitman so he has watched the town slowly slip away. He, like Vasichek, wanted to throw one last party.

With very few people around, Mayer and Vasichek said contributions from former residents really helped make the centennial event.

Vasichek said donations came in from around the country from those who wished they could have attended.

But, to the surprise of centennial committee members, many were still able to make it despite Friday’s early morning shower.

“Even if the town is old and gone, it’s unbelievable how many people showed up,” Mayer said.

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TJ Jerke writes for the Grand Forks Herald