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John Lamb, Published June 18 2013

Fargo men travel the state to document disappearing communities

Road trips usually lead to lakes, oceans, mountains, amusement parks or national parks – some place vibrant and exciting.

Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp are looking for a quieter getaway. We’re talking real quiet.

For nearly the past decade, the Fargo men have been searching out ghost towns for their website, www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com.

Their destinations may be on the map, but they are fading. Larson and Hinnenkamp want to get there and document these towns before they all disappear.

Earlier this year they released “Ghosts of North Dakota: North Dakota’s Ghost Towns and Abandoned Places,” a coffee table book documenting their trips on the state’s byways.

“That’s one thing North Dakota has a lot of,” Larson says. “There aren’t many states that have beautiful abandoned things to photograph.”

“People are kind starved for good picture books of North Dakota,” says Greg Danz, who has sold out of the book a few times at his downtown Fargo store, Zandbroz Variety.

“It’s a combination of interest in photo books of North Dakota and weird history of North Dakota,” Danz says when asked who buys the book. “It’s a fun book. … I’ve had people come in and look for their old hometown in it.”

On the road

Despite their website’s name, the two aren’t ghost hunters looking for haunting spirits, though that’s how this whole adventure started.

A decade ago Larson and Hinnenkamp worked together at a radio station and hatched an idea to spend a night around Halloween. Their spooky sleepover never materialized, but they discovered they each had an affinity for the fading small towns on the prairie.

They started taking short trips out, shooting photos of what remained and doing a bit of research. They started the website the following March, posting the photos and what they learned.

“We started off as two dudes having fun photographing places, putting it up on a website,” Hinnenkamp says.

While some abandoned sites have been combed over by antique pickers, the travelers abide by a ghost towner’s creed: “Take only photographs. Leave only footprints.”

“We don’t disturb anything if we can help it,” Larson says.

Over the years, their eyes for photography have gotten sharper. Hinnenkamp taps a picture of Berwick in the book.

“Blue skies and puffy clouds,” he says. “That’s what we hear from people in New York. They don’t see skylines like that.”

Their site has attracted viewers from around the world, some because they knew the area and others curious about life in North Dakota.

At first, those who logged on did so expecting to read about prairie apparitions, not old communities. But eventually people with connections to these communities found the site.

“It’s become a place for memories for people who fill in the storyline for these photos,” says Hinnenkamp. “People are finding each other via our website.”

And the more people drawn to the site, the more information the photos receive and the clearer the history of the area becomes.

Towns are indexed on the site with photo galleries attached and numerous comments under most shots. Some visitors relate their own history. Others suggest other towns – often ones the viewer has an interest in. But most thank Larson and Hinnenkamp for the website.

Travel tested

Over the last decade, they’ve learned their own lessons. They prepare for walking through tall grass, cover their legs and arms and wear mosquito repellent.

And they never leave home without their phones, which have gotten them out of a few jams and allow them to hit the road without reams of printouts from Mapquest.

They’ve also gotten more competent with their documenting, with Hinnenkamp shooting most of the photos and Larson handling social media. Through their Facebook page, the nearly 16,000 followers can virtually tag along on trips without more people cramming into the car.

“It’s an added bit of fun, it’s like having all of these people with us,” Larson says, adding that he’ll sometimes post photos just after visiting a town and minutes later someone will identify the space or share a bit of history about it.

There have been some bumps in the road. The highway travels have claimed two of Larson’s cars, and paying for gas has taken a bite out of their modest, self-funded budget.

“We got smart about it,” Larson says. “I used to drive a Jeep 4x4. That wasn’t smart.”

Now he drives a hybrid.

Even in breakdowns, they got to see the brighter side of living in North Dakota. When Larson’s Jeep broke down in Bowman, a mechanic flipped them keys to a loaner and let them carry on to Gascoyne.

“It’s a great example of North Dakota nice,” Larson says. “You wouldn’t see that anywhere else.”

Sometime to return

Even with a more trustworthy vehicle, their window for travel is small. Between May and November they’ll hit the road between three and six times, from day trips to long weekends. But with jobs and families at home, time for ghost towns is limited.

This year’s hope is to get up to Turtle Mountain area and Cavalier and Walsh Counties.

They even have favorite places they’d visit again.

“I’ve always been a fan of Lincoln Valley,” Larson says of the Sheridan County township, noting how the general store and a gas station are still standing, even if the opera house is now gone.

“Unless you’re aware of the history, you won’t even know it’s there,” Hinnenkamp adds.

And for another reason the San Haven Sanatorium just north of Dunseith, in Rolette County, is quite memorable, though not particularly safe.

Originally a facility to treat tuberculosis in the first half of the 20th century and a home for the developmentally disabled in the second half, the building has an ominous presence.

“That’s a spooky place to be,” Hinnenkamp says. “It’s weird how a bird three flights up makes a noise and makes you think you heard something else. What sounded like a disembodied voice was actually a pigeon cooing down the hall. There are rumors galore about that.”

Over the years they’ve found that some ghost towns rise again. After visiting Appam in Williams County, they heard the oil boom out west brought a few more people to town.

When they decided to go ahead and print their book, the explorers started a Kickstarter campaign, offering investors of a certain level to suggest their next towns to visit. The campaign raised $12,000 in 30 days, and one donor suggested they visit Wheelock. He later withdrew his request, saying he’d heard trucks and campers from the oil field had moved into town and he didn’t want to remember it that way.

While the pair has been able to make enough money for a second edition of the book to come out by Christmas, they’re not able to make a real profit from the project.

“The real payoff is down the line,” Hinnenkamp says. “Imagine in 10 years how many of these buildings will be gone. In the future, the people with first-hand memories will be gone. … It’s the history most people don’t know about.”


See photos and commentary from their visits at www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533