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Revisiting Grand Forks, North Dakota: from flooded to flourishing

My wife Sherry and I recently spent a week in Grand Forks, North Dakota with our son, celebrating his 50th birthday. He's lived there for some time. Our daughter made a surprise flight from the Seattle area where she lives to celebrate her brother's 50th birthday. The four of us had not been together as a family in five years. For Sherry and me it was a great time visiting with our adult children and interesting to revisit the area where we lived nearly 25 years ago. Sherry's first assignment as a newly ordained minister was to serve as a minister to three rural churches northwest of Grand Forks. We lived in the manse next door to one of the churches in Gilby, ND (population:244 in 2000).

From a record, disastrous flood in 1997 to flourishing in 2024

Grand Forks and its sister city of East Grand Forks, Minnesota, make up Greater Grand Forks. Located on the banks of the Red River of the North, one of the few rivers in the U.S. that flows north, the two cities and surrounding towns and farmlands endured many devastating floods through the years. But the Flood of 1997 was the worst since 1826, cresting at 54 feet, the river flooded three miles on to the plains on each side of the river, forced the evacuation of nearly 50,000 people and damaged or destroyed a large portion of the area's buildings and infrastructure. The damage to property was estimated at $3.5 billion.

We moved to the Red River Valley in December, 2000, three and a half years after the flood. But the effects of the flood were still evident with damaged structures still standing but not repaired, large chunks of farmland no longer useful for farming and piles of ruined possessions still being carried to the curbs for pickup in Greater Grand Forks and folks still frightened when rain clouds gathered. Everyone we met had a "story about the flood" and the pain involved even speaking about it was obvious.

The two state's governments, U.S. federal government and Manitoba province created a commission to make sure such damage was avoided in the future. Many resources were dedicated to studying how to prevent such flooding damage in the future and in a few short years an improved system to control flooding of the two major cities was in place.

The flood control system is within an eight-mile area of flood walls set in the Greenway along both sides of the river. The Greenway is a 2,200-acre open space within the flood wall along both sides of the Red River. It includes a campground, two golf courses, three disc-golf courses and 20 miles of multi-purpose trails (walking and bicycling), and access to the river via boat launches and bank fishing sites. We stayed at an Airbnb only two blocks from the Greenway. Our daughter, a runner, and I, a walker, enjoyed time on the paths that followed the river and gave access to the downtown areas of both Forks.

Enjoying some old Forks' traditions and discovering some new ones

Grand Forks, ND is home to Widman's, located right downtown on the street that parallels the Red River. Widman's Candy has been in Grand Forks since 1955 producing all sorts of special candies. But the daddy of all candies is the "chipper"-a chocolate covered potato chip made with locally grown potatoes. While many other candy producers make a version of the chipper, it's pretty much agreed that Widman's made the chipper first and made it famous. We brought a box home to some friends and heard later from the husband, "I'm pretty sure she ate more than her share."

Another interesting historical point of the North Dakota side is some city streets still paved with Granitoid paving stones. R.S. Blome Granitoid Pavement is an historic paving system that was created to bridge the gap between horse-drawn vehicles (that needed sure footing) and the advent of automobiles (that needed a hard surface). The pavers, a mixture of Portland cement and shaped granite chips, were laid over a prepared, sloped gravel road bed in five-foot sections. The sections, rather than individual stones, could be removed to access underground utilities. Over the years many of the old streets with pavers and sandstone curbs were patched or paved over with asphalt to reduce maintenance and the 'wavey' surfaces that resulted from years of use. However, a movement by some local preservationists got a few of the streets listed, in 1991, to the National Register of Historic Places. The sections protected still can be viewed south of the downtown area.

Citizens of Grand Forks, North Dakota have long taken great pride in their regional artists and showcasing locally produced art. Art for Vets, housed in downtown Grand Forks, is a group of current and former military people (Grand Forks Air Force Base is on the outskirts of the city) and community members who support art training, art shows and provide studio space for artists.

Eva Branvold, our friend who lives out in the Gilby area, is a retired art teacher. She recently participated in a project of Art for Vets to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Maurice Sendak's children's book "Where the Wild Things Are." Artists were challenged to make "life-sized characters" from Sendak's book that could be taken to schools as part of the celebration. Eva took great pleasure in showing us her "animals" and we enjoyed learning about the work of Art for Vets.

Well, there were many other new and old experiences from NoDak that we experienced, but space limits what I can share. You can drive all the way from Chinook to Greater Grand Forks on US2. Coming home we made a stop at a place we used to visit when headed west from where we lived in North Dakota. Rugby, North Dakota is the "geographic center of North America." There's even a stone monument (definitely homemade) that marks the spot alongside the highway. Apparently the stop has lost some of its panache...what used to house a Visitors' Center is now a beauty salon. I guess folks comfortable looking at live photos from outer space are not so intrigued by this important geographic spot any longer. Still, it was a good place for us to take a selfie and enjoy our last stop before leaving NoDak country.

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