What are things like at the University of North Dakota?

It now seems there are a few new questions in nearly every conversation: Are you online or face-to-face? How are [COVID related] things there [on your campus]? How is your institution handling things? Will you come back after Thanksgiving? What is your institution’s plan for the spring? How many cases?

Since this seems to be a topic of significant interest, I thought that I’d give a little review of what’s happening at UND.

First, our COVID numbers are really good. This morning, the UND COVID dashboard tells me that we have about 44 self-reported cases (39 are students) in the campus community. This is down from over 400 in late August. We seem to be averaging around (and, yeah, I’m too lazy to run the numbers) 5 new cases a day over the last few weeks and at present have 52 people in quarantine or isolation at local hotels. 

We also test about 3 days a week and judging by the numbers, these tests are attended and convenient.   

Second, it would appear that UND’s numbers are not major factor in the number of cases in Grand Forks County. In other words, the influx of college students do not seem to be aa major influence on number of COVID cases in town. I suspect that UND’s aggressive testing, mask policies, contact tracing, and capacity to quarantine and isolate both infected and exposed students has helped stem the kind of rapidly spreading outbreak that many folks feared. UND has averaged 5.3 new cases per day over the last 7 days while Grand Forks has averaged close to 25 new cases per day.

These numbers are less comparable if they’re not normalized per, say, 100,000 or whatever. Unfortunately, I don’t know the total size of the the UND population (students, faculty, and staff) to normalize that number. More than that the Grand Forks dashboard seems to offer average number of cases per 100,000 which is not something that I can easily compare to data from UND’s dashboard which shows NEW cases per day because it’s not clear how many individuals have recovered. In any event, this kind of fuzziness is understandable because the two dashboard have different goals. The county’s dashboard is trying to understand the number of active COVID cases to get a sense for the potential spread of COVID whereas the UND dashboard is concerned about the rate of its spread.

Third, I continue to teach face-to-face and have a new appreciation for being in the classroom. My classes however, have been impacted by COVIDs. Not only have some of my students been isolated or quarantined for various lengths of time, but my larger class (45 students) is being taught as a hybrid course. I meet once a week for about 40 minutes with 3 groups of 15 students. The rest of the class takes place online.

In my experience students have been incredibly conscientious about mask wearing and social distancing. I’ve felt no need to police university COVID policies in my classes and students seem respectful of both their own personal space and that of their fellow students.

That being said, I think some discontinuities in the digital environment have made seamless communication between students and faculty a bit more challenging than I expected. Students tend to prefer Snapchat and group texts to communicate, whereas my official correspondence remains confined to Blackboard and email (and frankly, I don’t want to be on a student Snapchat or group text chain!).

That being said, I’m excited to participate in a program funded, I suspect, by CARES money, designed to help us develop more effective hybrid classes moving forward.

I’ve also discovered that with all the uncertainty students (and I suspect colleagues as well!) constantly waver back and forth between the desire for structure – due dates, regular class meetings, clear expectations – and flexibility. Trying to strike that balance will continue to be a challenge for me especially since I tend toward a very flexible approach to teaching and expectations.

Finally, our community has not enforced a mask mandate and has generally done little officially to manage the spread of COVID. That being said (and I know there are those who will disagree with me), most of the people I see out and about wear masks and social distance. I suspect more people stay home than feel a need to go out to socialize. And I think that there is a strong sense that we’re all in this together that connects town and gown. 

The numbers in North Dakota have received national attention for their continued rise even as other states have made serious strides in controlling the spread of COVID. In our community, I remain guardedly optimistic that the combination of thoughtful policies by UND and a strong sense of cohesion among residents in Grand Forks county will prevent major spikes. If we can make it into the cooler months of the winter when socialize naturally slows down and isolation becomes a normal state for much of the community, we might be spared the worst of the COVID surge. Only time will tell. 


Last week, I finally got around to reading Michael Given’s recent article in Epoiesen titled “Walking from Dunning to the Common of Dunning.” Over the course of a 5 hour walk loosely following the 18th century cattle route through the Scottish countryside, Given records his walk using a GPS, a GoPro camera mounted on his backpack, still photography, and a notebook. His goal was to communicate his experience of being in this particular landscape by documenting the interaction between the sounds, sensations, features, wildlife, climate, and his moving body over the course of his walk. As he had been involved in fieldwork in this landscape for the past decade he also encountered a range of memories associated with his time in the field with students and colleagues. The article is vivid and compelling and also free. Go and check it out here.

I walk a good bit both in Grand Forks and in my summer job as an archaeologist (and I’ve blogged about it here, here, herehere, here, here, and here). Plus for the last four years, I’ve had the companionship of a pair of dogs who prefer to be walked separately and who have many clumps of grass the require sniffing. This year, in particular, I’ve gotten in the habit of going for 5 to 10 mile walks a few time a week punctuated by the occasional run and bike ride. Unlike Given’s walk, these are not purposeful walks from one place to another. I don’t document each walk them carefully or think intensely about the interaction between my body and its landscape. In fact, as often as not, the walks are circuits where I end up at the same place that I started. And on many days, I’m not especially attentive to the experience of my walk or my surroundings. A few times recently, I’ve even listened to music or a baseball game on my walk, effectively shutting out the local landscape entirely. 

Given’s article got me thinking a bit about the difference between habitual walks such as those that I make nearly every day and the carefully documented trek that Given recorded in his article. Obviously, denizens of the Dunning landscape would have made the walk more regularly than the archaeologist. I’d even guess that Given made parts, if not all, of this walk regularly during field work, but these walks were likely less remarkable and carefully documented than the walk described in this article. At the same time, these less remarkable walks undoubtedly informed his encounter with the landscape during his highly documented trek to the Dunning Commons. He makes just such a point by telling us about memories that he had of earlier times along the route during field work or even the lines of site between places made significant through their archaeological work. Like the time-lapse video embedded in his article, this well documented walk collapses the experience of many other walks, encounters, and activities into a single, 5-hour event event. 

Every now and I imagine teaching a class on the Grand Forks Greenway. The class would consider the various histories that intersect in this contemporary urban park. Most of the time, I think about this class during my walks along the Red River (of the North) and along the sunken remains of roads (and amid the foundations depressions of homes) that once defined out the Lincoln Park neighborhood. I don’t know the names of most of the trees – although some elms continue to help mark out the roads and cottonwoods run along the course of the river. I also don’t know the names of the animals, although grey and red squirrels, prairie dogs, foxes, deer, frogs, turtles, the occasional snake, a wide range of birds, and something that might be a beaver have occasionally popped out to say hello.

I’ve walked various paths through the Grand Forks Greenway all year around and traced the edge of “Lake Agassiz” during spring (and the occasional fall) floods when my paths are inundated. I’ve also waded through the snow, slipped across the ice, and walked delicately atop the packed snow of cross-country and snowshoe trails. I’ve even walked along the route of the froze Red River in the mid-winter when the ice is several feet thick. 

I keep thinking about writing an article on the Red River in Grand Forks that draws on these experiences and combines them somehow with perspectives gleaned from environmental history and archaeology. Given’s article offers a nice point of departure as my ideas begin to solidify. If you’re an observant walker, do check it out!   

A Book by its Cover: Sixty Years of Boom and Bust

About 4 months ago, I imagined this summer as a series of three or four week blocks during which I’d work on one or two tasks. Now, six-weeks into the “new normal” my summer has become an exercise of juggling a bunch of overlapping deadlines. 

Among the more exciting of these deadlines are a series of book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota scheduled to appear in August, September, and October.

I’m particularly excited to get back to working on a book that’s due out in September: Kyle Conway’s edited volume Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota 1958-2018. It will be a particularly significant contribution to the growing “Bakken Bookshelf,” and contains articles by most of the leading scholars on contemporary North Dakota and the oil boom.

After a few weeks of going back and forth on cover design, I can now say with some confidence that we have a cover.

Sixty Years Cover AM1 01

We also have a finalized text for the back of the book:

In the 1950s, North Dakota experienced its first oil boom in the Williston Basin, on the western side of the state. The region experienced unprecedented social and economic changes, which were carefully documented in a 1958 report by four researchers at the University of North Dakota. Since then, western North Dakota has undergone two more booms, the most recent from 2008 to 2014. Sixty Years of Boom and Bust republishes the 1958 report and updates its analysis by describing the impact of the latest boom on the region’s physical geography, politics, economics, and social structure.

Sixty Years of Boom and Bust addresses topics as relevant today as they were in 1958: the natural and built environment, politics and policy, crime, intergroup relations, and access to housing and medical services. In addition to making hard-to-find material readily available, it examines an area shaped by resource booms and busts over the course of six decades. As a result, it provides unprecedented insight into the patterns of development and the roots of the challenges the region has faced.

Here’s a link to its table of contents.

We’re very eager to share advanced copies of the book with anyone who might be interested in writing a review or a blurb.

Walling In and Walling Out

This weekend, I read Laura MacAtackney and Randall Maguire’s new edited volume Walling In and Walling Out: Why Are We Building New Barriers to Divide Us? (2020). The contributions offer a diverse range of studies on walls and borders that draw upon the perspectives informed by archaeology, sociology, and anthropology as well as public policy. For readers broadly familiar with recent conversations around walls and borders will find both the usual suspects (Reese Jones, Anna McWilliams as well as the volume’s editors), and some new perspectives on the borders of Europe (Dimitrios Papadopoulos), the role of walls in racial segregation in Puerto Rico (Zaire Disney-Flores) and Palestine (Amahl Bishara) and the Mexican-American border (Michael Dear and Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barriga). 

I came away from reading this book with a few new ideas that I will eagerly apply to some of my work-in-progress.

1. “Borderwork” and “Boundary Work.” Dimitris Papadopoulos introduces the idea of “boundary work” which echoes with Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet’s idea of “borderwork” from their book, Lande: The Calais Jungle and Beyond (2019). These ideas emphasize that borders and boundaries are not limited to activities at the border itself, but permeate the surrounding landscapes and societies as part of a larger apparatus of control. The ability, for example, of the Customs and Border Patrol agents to work outside almost all Constitutional limits on their authority within 100 miles of the US border is perhaps the most obvious example of how borderwork extends itself geographically. More subtle, but no less significant, is the massive and largely unsupervised technological infrastructure that supports this work that collects information on millions of individuals with few limits on who can use this data and how it can be used. Moreover, the promotion of a kind of ethical and legal ambiguity surrounding the rights of individuals at the borders themselves has worked to reinforce the risks associated with the movement between jurisdiction. Much of this risk is not real, but by exaggerating the ambiguity of individual rights at these points, the CBP both asserts its power and reinforces the idea that borders are fraught and dangerous. It goes without saying that this ambiguity and attendant sense of danger and risk has also served those invested in politicizing borders, immigration, national security, and even trade. All this is part of a larger process of borderwork.  

2. Temporality and the Border. A number of authors emphasized the unique temporal dimension of borders not only historically, but also experientially. From a historical perspectives, borders present themselves as solid and persistent, but our experiences over the last 50 years has demonstrated that this is not always the case. The collapse of the “Iron Curtain,” the reconfiguration of national boundaries in the Balkans and Central Europe, the emergence of the European Union, and new immigration agreements between countries ensure that the permanence of borders is largely illusory.

Temporality also shapes our interaction with borders. The experience of waiting in line whether at passport control at an airport or while sitting in the car at a busy point of entry, communicates the significance of the border at the individual level. At the same time, a series of technologies accelerate the collecting and sharing of information between agents at the border and the vast national and global security apparatus. The tension between the time experienced by an individual and the speed of information collection reinforces the status of borders as landscape of control just as the seeming permanence of border installations obscures their historical fluidity.    

3. Borders as Bricolage. A few contributors noted that borders are places where technologies and policies from various times and situations come together to create distinctive spaces. The use of concrete barriers and barbed wire which became prominent in anti-tank and anti-personnel developed over the first half of the 20th century rub shoulders with state-of-the-art digital technologies ranging from high-speed cameras to thermal imaging, motion detection devices, and massive data infrastructures designed to identify and track individuals. Helicopter mats, first deployed in the Vietnam War, appear alongside installations to support small scale and weapons-capable drones.

This juxtaposition of technologies from various eras offers a view of borders that are both timeless and always evolving. More than that, from the perspective of material culture, they show how aspects of the past persist in the present and communicate the kind of ambiguity and multiple temporalities central to borderwork.    

4. Wall and the Carceral State. The book is not just about national borders, but also the kind of walls that shape our every day lives. From the “peace walls” that divide denominational communities in Belfast and to gated communities in contemporary Puerto Rico, walls also produce and reinforce divisions on the basis of race, class, and ethnicity. Moreover, as Laura MacAtachney has pointed out, these walls tend to formalize past divisions and create “very localized forms of place identity” that risk the creation of new forms hostility and division. 

There was less discussion of the emergence of the carceral state in the late-20th century and the role of prison walls as a kind of borderwork which extends throughout the emerging security state. It seems easy enough to see law enforcement with their interest in protecting property represent an extension of the private prison industry which requires a constant flow of inmates to reward investors. 

5. Floodwalls, Sea Walls, and Nature. Missing in the book, but part of my everyday life, was a discussion of floodwalls and seawalls that mark efforts for humans to exert control over the other that they typically define as “nature.”  These walls, of course, take on many of the historical forms of fortification walls whether earthworks or textured to look like Classical ashlar masonry. 

Moreover, the flood walls in town are part of a larger strategy of borderwork which extends on either side of the wall. On the town side, pump houses appear throughout neighborhoods and provide back pressure to prevent the rising river water from entering town via storm drains and sewers. On the river side, various structures have been removed and a large green belt is maintained to allow the river to flow smoothly through town without becoming dammed and over flowing the walls locally. Of course, like most walls, these are permeable with storm drains and waste flowing through the wall to the river and during most of the year, roads also cross the walls providing access to parks and walking trails. Bridges cross the river as well.

The borderwork extends north, of course, to the national border with Canada. Strategies to control the flow of the Red River in Grand Forks, Fargo, and elsewhere impacts the flow of water across the border. Devil’s Lake, for example, continues to rise and swallow up farmland and towns because releasing the water into the Red River drainage would carry run-off and other pollutants north to Canada, Lake Winnipeg, and the Hudson Bay. 

It seems to me that the flood walls provide a concrete example of the way that we establish the division between culture and nature and this involves using the same walls that work to define human groups to define the blurry edges of our cultural reach. 

Trends in Grand Forks Housing 1945-1970

One of the things that I’ve been gently working on over the last few weeks has been the analysis of some of the data that we’ve collected from Grand Forks on mid-century housing. We’re still at the early stage of trying to understand patterns and it goes without saying that what we’ve documented are the houses that still exist, rather than those that were built or lived in.As a result, our data will be skewed by preservation.

That being said, when we look at the location and date that the houses were built, they appear to follow larger trends in the development of the city. While a few outliers exist — that is houses that are much earlier or later than the houses around them — most of the houses in Grand Forks are consistent with their neighbors. Of course, certain neighborhoods were lost entirely, but Lincoln Park and parts of Riverside appear mostly to have been pre-war meaning that they might not skew our data on post war housing, by too much. 

For example, the chart below shows the main types of housing present in Grand Forks.


The most common type from the mid-1950s on were the 1-storey ranch or rambler. Prior to that period, though, there was considerable variety in housing with Cape Cods, Hip-roofed boxes, and various plain residential styles side-by-side in neighborhoods. In the mid-1950s, Grand Forks saw the construction of a number of houses in the “Prairie” or “Desert” contemporary style. It’s tempting to connect these with the construction of the iconic Wells-Denbrook studio building on Cherry Street which was built in 1954 in the Desert Contemporary style, but it’s more likely that their studio was part of a larger trend.

Another little query that we could run simply was the rise of the attached garage. This was the manifestation of two trends. First, most detached garages faced alleys and by the late-1950s, most homes in Grand Forks no longer had alley access.  


By the early 1960s, the convenience of an attached garage which mostly opened onto the front of the house was a desirable, if not mandatory feature, for new construction. The role of the front facing garage (sometimes puckishly called “garage with attached home”) in defining late-20th century domestic architecture (and a scourge of 21st century architecture) emerged as part of the changing relationship between the house and the alleyway and the rise of automobile culture. 

It’s nice when the data we’ve collected reveals these trends so clearly.

Houses also got bigger in Grand Forks between 1945 and 1970. Again, this shows their square footage TODAY rather than when they were built, but I would guess that the basic trend toward larger homes is consistent. 


In 1945 and 1946, the average home was under 1000 square feet; by the late-1940s, home had gotten larger and the trend continues through the 1960s. The year 1960 remains a strange anomaly in our data with only 50 homes built and they tend to be a bit larger than pervious or subsequent years. We need to try to figure out what’s going on then (and whether it’s a data problem or something “real”). By the early 1960s, the average home was over 1200 square feet where it remained for the rest of our study period.

The Mystery of the Missing Building

If you follow me on The Twitters, you probably know that I’ve been fascinated lately by a building included on several 20th century Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Grand Forks, ND.

The building is always shown on a separate sheet and labeled as Aaker’s Business College. According to the maps, it stood on Belmont Road somewhere north of the intersection with 13th Avenue South and Lincoln Drive (formerly Boulevard). This is pretty close to my house and on my regular walking and running route.

SB 1912 27

SB 1912 01

A bit of research made it clear that this was not a casual building. I was an impressive three-storey structure an elegant, Second Empire-inspired mansard roof built in 1892 to house Grand Forks College which was a Lutheran “Classical College” and “preparatory school.” Grand Forks College closed in 1911 and soon thereafter the building and its 6-acre campus was acquired by Hans H. Aakers as at the Grand Forks campus of his Aaker’s Business College. 

Aakers012  1


Aaker’s was a business college founded in Fargo, ND by Hans H. Aaker, the second president of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He stepped down from that position in 1902 to found a business college in Fargo which opened a branch in Grand Forks several years later. There’s some confusion on whether this is in 1905 or in 1912 when the Fargo campus was closed. The latter date appears to coincide better with the purchasing of the Grand Forks College building.

The building remained Aaker’s Business College until 1918 when Aaker traded it for the smaller building of the Lutheran Bible School. This building then became home to the Lutheran Bible School, a Lutheran Brethren preparatory school that would eventually become the Hillcrest Academy in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. It would seem that Aaker’s Lutheran connections served him well as Aaker’s Business College continued on into the 21st century until it merged with the for-profit Rasmussen College. The Lutheran Bible College likely sold off some of the land from the original 6-acre campus which was then developed along Chestnut Street. They stayed in the building until 1933 when the upkeep of the large and aging building become prohibitive. At some point soon thereafter, the building must have been razed. The 1934 USGS map still shows the building (to the east of the larger and labeled “Junior High Sch.”), but the data for that map is probably from earlier in the decade.

Bill Caraher on Twitter  The missing link came in a 1934 USGS map It shows the school as a little block with a flag This sug 2020 05 28 07 45 44

Today, this stretch of Belmont, however, appears to be just typical pre-war Grand Forks houses. There’s no obvious sign of a large building here, but there are a few subtle hints preserve the history of this property. First and most obviously, 12th Avenue S is a very strange street. It is part alley and part road that sort of lurches its way between Belmont, Chestnut, Walnut, and Cottonwood.

12th Ave S  Google Maps 2020 05 28 07 48 36

Secondly, the alleyway that runs between Belmont Road and Chestnut Street does not continue all they way through to 13th Avenue S. While this isn’t entirely unprecedented in Grand Forks (see, for example, Independence Avenue between Belmont and Reeves; see below), it’s a bit odd and usually suggests some kind of zoning or platting irregularity. The houses on 

SB 1916 01

Third, a keen observer might notice that the houses on the lower end of the 1200 block are different from the homes on the upper end of Belmont. Closer to 13th Avenue, you’ll recognize an American Four-Square (1216) and a pair of Gable Front style homes (1220 and 1224) which were common to the first decades of the 20th century. Closer to 12th Avenue S, there are a series of homes showing some influence of the “Cape Cod” style (usually called “Plain Residential” in local architectural history-speak) which are pretty rare in Grand Forks prior to the 1930s. Indeed, the houses at 1202, 1206, 1210, and 1212 date to 1937-1939. The last three houses on the block date to the 1917 and 1907. Oddly, the conventional American Four-Square at 1216 Belmont does not appear in the 2004 National Register Nomination for the Near South Side Neighborhood. The four-square is listed as having been built in 1913, but oddly enough it doesn’t appear on the 1916 Sanborn Map that shows Aaker’s Business College. 


And, finally, looking at a map of subdivisions in the city, I noticed that the a 227,500 square foot area (or about 5 acres) labeled as Lutheran Bible School Addition. Today this addition consists of 26 houses built between 1913 (that’s the mysterious house 1216), 1918 (this is 1124 (probably 1328 in the original numbering of the streets; oddly this house does not appear in the 1920 census) Belmont and the rest build after 1928 when I suspect the Lutherans sold off part of the property for development. 

So, there you go. The mystery of the missing building is solved as yet another chapter is “why Bill doesn’t get more work done each day.”

Mediocre Map Monday: Census Data, Sanborn Maps, and Modern Grand Forks

This weekend, I started to play around with the 1920 census data from Grand Forks. My project started with a pretty simply question.

Where did the immigrants live in our city one hundred years ago? This question was prompted by David Pettegrew’s and Kostis Kourelis’s work on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster respectively. I got curious about the 16 or so Greeks in Grand Forks in the early 20th century and this led me down the rabbit hole of the 1920s census.

The first step was to assemble the transcribed census data for Grand Forks into a spread sheet, which turned out to be not very hard (via Ancestry.com), but a bit tedious. The census was conducted according to the 7 wards of the city each of which had particular geographic boundaries. 

The fun began when I started to try to associate the census data with particular addresses. Fortunately the Library of Congress has digitized Sanborn Maps for the city of Grand Forks from 1916. These are close enough to the city plan of 1920 to be very useful. I also have the contemporary address and parcel data from the city of Grand Forks to use as a kind of base map. This approach produced three exciting challenges.

First, in 1921, Grand Forks shifted its street addresses to better align with a change in street names that occurred in the early 20th century. As a result, contemporary addresses do not correspond to the addresses from the 1920 census. For the nearly 13,000 census records, I have around 2800 addresses. 

Second, the names of streets have changed since 1920. The renaming of Grand Forks streets was an ongoing project and some street names from 1920 no longer appear in 2020 maps. This is further compounded by the sloppy handwriting of the census takers which made it difficult to determine the street name recorded on the form. There were also some small shifts in addresses between the 1916 Sanborn Maps and the 1920 census which required a certain amount of “best fit” fiddling.

Finally, as residents of Grand Forks know, several neighborhoods and parts of downtown close to the Red River were lost in the 1997 flood. As a result, these no longer exist on the 2020 parcel maps. Less well known is that another neighborhood between 4th Avenue and the railroad tracks that was apparently removed in the 1970s in the name of urban renewal. This neighborhood was home to a large community of Jewish immigrants from Russia who lived around the Congregation of the Children of Israel Synagogue at 2nd and Girard and the Hebrew School on the next block to the west. 

Going through the data in this way has prompted a series of research questions that, if I were more motivated and better trained in US history I’d turn into a series of public blog posts or newspaper columns. 

First, from the perspective of heritage management, mapping the 1920s residential addresses against existing addresses allows us to get a sense for the state of preservation of residential districts in the city over the last 100 years. The 1920 census indicated not only whether the individuals were renters or owners, foreign or US born, but also their occupations. Combined this gives us a sense of the economic status of these individuals and allows us to consider what parts of the city are preserved and how this speaks to contemporary views toward preservation and heritage.

It’s hardly a stretch to hypothesize that neighborhood with more renters, more foreign born residents, and more wage laborers (as opposed to salaried employees) worked are less well preserved. This shapes how current residents of Grand Forks imagine their past and their present. 

Second, by mapping Grand Forks neighborhoods we can more easily visualize the  dynamic and diverse character of the city in 1920. More than 20% of the city was either aliens or naturalized citizens and while the group consisted of the predictable number of “Scandewegian” immigrants, it also featured Jews from Russia, Greeks, various British folks (Irish, Scots, Welsh), Japanese, Austrians, Belgians, Canadians, Hungarians, Poles, and even a few Luxemburgians!  For some perspective, in 2015 about 3.5% of Grand Forks were immigrants, but I’m not entirely sure how many of them are aliens versus naturalized citizens.

Third, the 1920 census listed individuals by profession allowing us to map the influence of various economic drivers in the community. Identifying, for example, where individuals associated with the railroad, the university, or other major occupations lived in town will give us a sense for the social landscape of the community. Of course, the census data is messy with the fields of “Industry” and “Occupation” not being rigorously separated. As a result, the over 3000 combinations of the two must be condensed into more rational categories, but this is a doable kind of sorting that would ideally produce some interesting results.

Finally, the fiddling that I’ll likely do with the census data and the 1916 Sanborn Maps is just a start. Once I get some basic “data cleaning” done, I’ll make the datasets available for anyone. It’s easy enough to output georeferenced maps to Google Earth files to allow anyone to check out how Grand Forks of the 1920s differed from Grand Forks of today.


Settlement in Grand Forks 1945-1970: A Draft

Last week, I started to write a bit about changing patterns of urbanism and suburbanization in Grand Forks, North Dakota. This is part of a larger study of mid-century urbanism in Grand Forks that I’m working on with my wife, Susan Caraher. This summer, we’re preparing an inventory over 3,500 mid-century homes construction between 1945 and 1970. 

As part of that work, I’ve started to write some basic descriptions of the development of Grand Forks during the period. This is a pretty rough draft, but it’s starting to take some shape. Needless to say, I’ll be revising, filling in gaps, and tightening up the entire thing, but it’s a start:


Suburbanization is generally understood to be a trend that took place around the core of established cities. Spurred by improvements in transportation, the economic boost of the GI Bill and the post-war economy, and, in many cases, racial and ethnic fears, new rings of housing emerged around large and mid-sized cities across the US from the 1940s to the 1970s (Jackson 1985; Hayden 2003). The communities amplified new ideals of domesticity, intensified interwar consumer culture, refashioned longstanding religious landscapes, and shaped American political life. Modern suburbs both served as a backdrop for mid and late-20th culture and instilled values which would become distinct to characterization of the American way of life. The apartment dwelling Honeymooners (1955-1956), with Ralph Cramden’s persistent threats of domestic violence, gave way to rationalized domesticity of the Brady Brunch (1969-1974). The popular music of the ”garage band” came to challenge the urban sounds of the jazz club, urban concert hall, and Maxwell Street busker. The New Topographics (1975) challenged the views of the American frontier pioneered by Ansel Adams by replacing scenic vistas with the orderly sprawl of suburban homes and the Crabgrass Frontier of Kenneth T. Jackson (1985).

Small cities like Grand Forks experienced suburbanization as well, but in a slightly different form than more established cities with dense urban cores, and recent scholarship has sought to survey and understand the range of different responses to the proliferation of the post-war suburban ideal (McManus and Ethington 2007, 318). In many areas, the ideal post-war suburb conformed to certain elements of “Garden City” planning with access to green spaces, gently curving streets and limited access in accordance with a series of influential FHA standards published between 1936 and 1941 (Ames and McClelland 2002). In smaller cities like Grand Forks, earlier standards for urban expansion held greater sway owing as much to the limited resources on the part of developers and the community, the smaller size of subdivisions, and even the absence of topographic features that encouraged development designed to accentuate the landscapes. As a result, the plan of Grand Forks’ expansion, particularly to the south of the city showed greater affinities to the style developed by J.C. Nichols for the Country Club District in Kansas City (Ames and McClelland 2002, 37) where city blocks with occasional curving roads formed the basic unit of development. This innovation, most visible south of 15 avenue in Grand Forks, followed the arguments proposed by urban planners such as Clarence Perry in the 1920s and 1930s. Perry’s “neighborhood unit plan” with its emphasis on hierarchically organized roads and arterial routes assigned to the perimeters of neighborhoods, the central place of the school and the peripheral location of shopping and commercial spaces, and reserving space for parks and open spaces had significant influence in practice throughout the development of Grand Forks (Perry 1929). These and similar ways of reimagining the organization of the neighborhood had a profound influence on the shape of the new suburb and an emerging post-war ideal. The relationship between the physical structure and the mid-century community appears most famously William H. Whyte in his widely read, The Organization Man (1956), attempted to show how attention the arrangement of suburban developments shaped social relationships between neighbors. More recently, works like D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoire (1996) have explored the intermingling of personal narrative, economic motivations, and spiritual experiences in the space of post-war suburban landscapes. In contrast to the self-contained, expansive, and carefully planned suburban spaces considered by Whyte and Waldie, the post-war expansion of Grand Forks remains a hybrid of new suburban influences and established urban patterns. The curved streets with idyllic names remain backed by alleyways even as urban planners during the interwar period recommended against them for aesthetic, cost, and functional reasons.

More broadly, the expansion of the city from 1945-1970 largely followed the existing urban grid and extended along established arteries. Only after the 1970s did development prompt the addition of new arterial roads in the city with the 32nd Avenue and Columbia Road becoming major thoroughfares in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Development of any scale south of 32nd Avenue commences only in the early 21st century.

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The 1940s

The earliest post-war housing was largely infilling in established residential areas.

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The Riverside neighborhood expanded to the north with the Baukol’s Subdivision which saw construction as early as 1946. Several of these homes (301 Park Ave. (32GF3427) and 302 Park Ave (32GF3428) are listed as a contributing property to the Riverside Historic neighborhood as are two nearby homes on 3rd Street which is part of the Skidmore Addition (1705 (32GF3295) and 1715 (32GF1396); a modified bungalow and a plain residential home respectively). The homes of the Baukol subdivision show considerably continuity with development in this area in 1920s. The founding of Riverside Park in the early 20th century undoubted drew early residents to this neighborhood as the construction of the Riverside Pool by WPA in 1941 attracted families in the post-war period.


A similar form of development which largely followed interwar patterns of urban expansion also occurred between downtown and the University of North Dakota especially along 1st and 2nd avenue in the Decotah Place and Budge and Eshelman’s 3rd Addition subdivisions.

South of town likewise saw infilling particularly to the west of Cherry Street and south of 10th Avenue North. The growth of this area contributed to the construction of Lewis and Clarke Elementary School in 1953 and sometime in the late 1950s, Calvary Luthern Church at the intersection of Cherry and 15th avenue. One of the most significant subdivision of the 1940s in this area and Letnes Subdivision is interesting for the shape of the evocatively named “Sunset Drive” which curves to the north and divides leaving a small, leaf-shaped island of grass in the middle fo the two roads. Curiously this area of the city lacked alleyways suggesting that the neighborhood followed more progressive design standards that were not seen in Grand Forks until the 1960s.


The 1950s

Throughout the 1950s, Grand Forks continues to expand to the west and south.

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To the west, housing continued to fill in the neighborhoods between the university and downtown, with the much of the neighborhoods between Washington Street and the University, south of Gateway Drive (US Route 2) being filled in by mid 1950s. This prompted the construction first, in 1949, of West Elementary and then in the mid-1950s Valley Junior High. The neighborhoods in this area, the Swangler, Westacott, Westwood, University Place, and three Kelsey Subdivisons surrounding University Park, largely follow the urban grid and lack curved roads or other features associated with suburban trends elsewhere in the city. They also maintained the presence of north-south running alley ways.


A similar tendency to follow the urban grid occurred in the earliest subdivisions established to the west of Washington Street and south of Demers. The names of several of the subdivisions in this area, however, evoke bucolic images of suburban idyl and the concept of the Garden City: Westward Acres and the Garden Home Addition. These developments extend along the developing commercial corridor of Washington Street which experienced the construction of several retail establishments, restaurants, and businesses including the towns first shopping centers. These new commercial building were set back from Washington Street and were fronted by large parking lots designed to accommodate customers who used the new arterial roads of Washington Street and Demers to move from their homes to work, shopping, school, and other activities throughout the city.

South of 15th Avenue several new subdivisions appeared which continued to follow the urban grid of Grand Forks, but incorporate curving streets continuing a trend initiated by the Letnes Subdivision in the 1940s. Chestnut Street swoops south of 15th and provides access to a group of homes set into the center of the block. The contemporary Robertson Subdivision developed throughout the mid-1950s features a gently curving road and a cul-de-sac, which emerged as perhaps the quintessential form of suburban planning. The sinuous shape of Campbell Drive that connects Cherry Street and Chestnut between the 17th and Park Avenue in the Hvidston Subdivision even allowed for three, open, fanshaped lots on the outside of a curve that served as a baseball field for nearly a decade before being filled in with homes in the mid-1960s.


To the west of Cherry, the urban grid remained largely intact and the area developed with slightly smaller homes and smaller lots through the 1950s. East of Cherry, few new homes stood south of 24th by 1959. In contrast, Belmont Avenue with its larger lots and homes was nearly all developed up until 32nd Avenue. Most of the development north of 24th avenue in the 1950s continued to feature alleys even when developers incorporated more curved roads into the suburban plan.

The 1960s

The 1960s witnessed more adventurous development.

1960s Year Built

Olson’s subdivision east of Belmont featured large lots set along curving roads that suggested the shape of the Red River. Park land near the river offered opportunities for recreation and mitigated, to some extent, the risk of flooding which after the 1997 flood required the installation of the flood wall and the removal of some homes.


To the east of Belmont the White Clover subdivision and Sunset Acres Subdivisions with curving roads that complicated the urban grid with bucolically named roads like Olive and Clover Drive. On 32nd Avenue between Cherry St. and Washington, Schroeder Junior High opened in 1961 in anticipation of Grand Forks’ southern growth and, next door, Kelly Elementary opened in 1966 to serve these communities. On the northeastern corner of the block, the new building of the local Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints opened its doors in 1966. Unlike Schroeder, designed by Wells Denbrook, this modern church followed the Adams 1 (AD 61-577) plan developed my the central Mormon Church committee which was thoroughly modern in form and could be easily expanded to accommodate a growing congregation.

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To the west of Washington Street, the second level of development occurred south of west of 17th street and south of 11th avenue with the large Burke’s Home Addition anchored to the north by Ben Franklin Elementary which was opened in 1960 and Red River High School in 1967. The most significant mid-century addition to this area, however, was North Dakota’s first indoor shopping mall, South Forks Plaza (now Grand Cities Mall) in 1964. Designed by the firm of DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy, which also designed Ben Franklin Elementary, Holy Family Church and School (1961) just east of Washington, and Lewis and Clarke Elementary (1952/3) several blocks to the north, it included a K-Mart and a Sears store and a modular design that allowed the Kmart to open before the mall was even complete. To the west of the mall, the Valley Park subdivision, built slightly before the mall, consisted of two u-shaped roads, Willow and Dress, that were not through streets. The subdivision included walking paths connecting it to the mall and the burgeoning Washington Street commercial and retail corridor. The balance between the design which limited through traffic and the convenience of walking paths to retail shops embodied many of the key design elements of mid-century suburban design.


Mid Century Housing in Grand Forks

This month, I’m working to write up a very basic analysis of the expansion of housing in Grand Forks between 1945 and 1970. During this period the population of Grand Forks nearly doubled from around 20,000 residents in 1940 to almost 40,000 in 1970.

The reasons for this growth, in general, involve the movement of people from smaller rural towns to bigger population centers after the World War II which in many ways followed a pattern that had emerged in the interwar years. It accelerated in the post-war decades owing to the expansion of the University of North Dakota, the opening of Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1957, and the expansion of the regional medical center. The late 1950s saw the opening of Interstate 29 (originally Interstate 31 and before US Route 81) which ultimately connected Winnipeg to Fargo and then Kansas City, and this amplified the significance of Grand Forks as a regional transportation hub at the intersection of US Route 2 and the Meridian Highway (US Route 81) and both the Great Northern Railroads and a trunk of the Northern Pacific Railway. The confluence of these trends spurred a consolidation of schools, businesses, and government services in the city which led to a boom in new housing construction, building of new schools and churches, and, of course, the opening of new commercial establishments and the consolidation of 20th century consumer culture in Grand Forks.

The present study focuses on mid-century housing in Grand Forks, but it draws significantly upon a recently completed study of six mid-century modern schools by Susan Caraher, the Coordinator of the Grand Forks Historical Preservation Commission.  

This study will also produce a preliminary inventory of mid-century housing in Grand Forks constructed between 1945-1970. Following the “50 year rule” these houses are potentially eligible, by dint of their age, for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that any single home from this period would receive individual nomination to the Register. At the same time, preparing a preliminary inventory of these homes allows for a more sophisticated approach to managing and understanding the cultural resources in our community. 

At present, there remain over 4000 houses that built during those years. “Named architects” designed relatively few of these homes with the local firm of Wells and Denbrook being the most prominent among them. It seems reasonable to assume that DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy also designed homes for local residents.  

Most of the homes, however, followed a fairly limited number of plans and were single-storey ranch style homes (called “ramblers” in Grand Forks as many places in the Western US), split-level, or two-storey homes with pitched roofs.  Interspersed among these houses are a few “Desert Modern” houses with flat roofs, recessed entrances, large overhanging eaves, and open floor plans. Attention to natural light, through the use of horizontal banks of windows and corner windows characterized many of these plans as did prominent vertical, brick chimneys which served to balance the strong horizontal character of the roofline. While only a few homes in Grand Forks reflect “Desert Modernism” in anything approaching a pure form, many incorporate some designs elements into their plans and complement the architecture of the contemporary mid-century modern school buildings and contemporary church buildings which stand in the same neighborhoods.

While the ubiquitous character of mid-century modern design elements in Grand Forks stands as part of wider national trends, it also has strong regional roots. Over the course of the mid-20th century Minneapolis became an important center for mid-century modern design and Minnesota architects not only contributed to the architecture of Fargo and Grand Forks, such as Edward Sovik’s Calvary Lutheran Church, but also influenced the work of local architects and consumers who looked to Minneapolis as an inspiration for suburban life.

Like other examples of mid-century architecture in the US, mid-century homes in Grand Forks took advantage of new materials and techniques. For example, the use of asbestos siding shingles in a wide range of colors became an almost defining characteristic of the post-war suburb prior to asbestos being identified as a cause of cancer in the 1970s. Manufacturing techniques and capacities developed through wartime aircraft production led to the widespread adoption of aluminum windows which by the later 20th century became less popular do to maintenance challenges and poor insulation factors. The use of synthetic material such as formica and vinyl in counters and flooring gave homes a distinctly modern touch. From the mid-1950s, wall-to-wall carpeting in synthetic fibers allowed aspiring new homeowners a chance to enjoy carpeted floors which have before mid-century been the reserve of more affluent residents. The growing use of refabricated architectural elements in both housing and commercial construction brought assembly-line industrial production to home building and accelerated the rate at which homes could be built and sold. The introduction of new materials and design influences transformed the character of communities such as Grand Forks on a large scale. At the same time, as Steven Martens has shown in his context study of the Wells Denbrook firm, many of the innovative materials that gave mid-century homes a feeling of futuristic luxury presented significant maintenance challenges. Moreover, the material and designs associated with mid-century modern architecture became associated with the use of technology to replace craft, dehumanizing aspects of ready-made institutional practices, the dangers of industrial manufacturing, and disposable amenities. As a result and, to some extent, by design, institutions often deigned mid-century modern architecture as obsolete as it was unappealing. By Martens’ estimate fewer than 50 examples of architecture “that can be shown to meaningfully reflect and closely follow the design principles of twentieth century Modernism with distinction.” This has not only impoverished the architectural record of the state, but also undermined the architecture and historical context for mid-century housing.

Grand Forks, however, remains distinct in that many examples of mid-century modern architecture continue to stand amid mid-century neighborhoods preserving an impression of 1960s life in town. 

The Shores of Lake Agassiz

Each spring a version of Lake Agassiz re-appears on the Northern Plains. Lake Agassiz was a large glacial lake that once occupied most of the Red River valley and extended north of Lake Winnipeg. Some have associated the discharge of water from Lake Agassiz around 13,000 years ago with the rapid cooling of the Younger Dryas. Another substantial discharge around 8000 years ago likely resulted in a measurable change in global sea levels and has been associated with the 8.2 kiloyear climate event. This event occurred with the infusion of fresh water into the Arctic which disrupted the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean leading to climate change in Europe. This change, around 6400 BCE may have contributed to the end of the Neolithic in the Near East and Southeastern Europe. Some have linked the change in climate during this period to the Biblical floods. 


In short, Lake Agassiz was kind of a big deal. 

Today, the Red River of the North follows the border between North Dakota and Minnesota and separates the cities of Fargo, North Dakota from Moorhead, Minnesota ad the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota from East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The Red River caused the flood of 1897 and the more famous flood of 1997. While our town is now protected by imposing flood walls, it remains a dramatic event when the river floods.

As the waters retreat from the swollen Red River, I like to walk along the shores of the temporary lake and look at the things the current has left behind. The “wrack” lines created by the retreating waters create interesting patterns across the landscape.

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Last year, I became interested in the trash carried by the river and left behind by its retreating waters. I did a little informal survey of the trash that I found in the wrack zone. It yielded dog poop bags, golf course pencils, sections of PVC pipes, aluminum cans, and the ubiquitous extruded polystyrene. I reported it here. This work not only got me thinking of Matthew Edgeworth’s work on rivers (here, here, here, here), but also Þóra Pétursdóttir 2017 article in Archaeological Dialogues, “Climate change? Archaeology and Anthropocene” (24, 175-205) and the recent volume, Rivers of the Anthropocene, edited by Jason M. Kelly, Philip Scarpino, Helen Berry, James Syvitski, Michel Meybeck.

If I had all the time and energy in the world, I’d organize a little research project that walks the wrack zone of the retreating Red River in our local park and documents the trash present there. The challenge with this kind of research is that it involves not only trash, which is kind of gross, but also the vagaries of the Red River floods (as well as access to the retreating waters which is not practically problematic, but often involves a kind of legal grey area because many of the parks are closed during the floods and their aftermaths). These are not insurmountable problems, of course, and maybe even now as the flood of 2020 is receding, I could do another informal survey (complementing the one that I conducted last year).