Hanks, North Dakota

Hanks, North Dakota lies in Williams County at the far northwest part of the state, south of Divide county.

Hanks, North Dakota

Hanks was founded in 1916 along a Great Northern Railway branch line that ran from Stanley to Grenora. The name honors W.F. Hanks, a banker from Powers Lake. Hanks disincorporated in 1992.  According to a 2008 report, Hanks had only one inhabitant. The town was included in the National Geographic article The Emptied Prairie, published in January 2008.

Hanks, ND Coop Country News December 18, 1978
You see Hanks coming around the curve on North Dakota’s highway 50. White frame buildings, for the most part, that look like they dropped from the sky a long time ago. They sit sunken and tilted in random scatter across a hillside. Your first glance tells you this isn’t a town anymore.
It’s lonesome, these empty buildings in what was once a town. Compared to Hanks, northwestern North Dakota’s miles of rolling prairie seem cheery and purposeful – the prairie still belongs.
Eventually, it seems certain, the prairie will swallow these relics of a town and resume its rightful place.
But one time, Hanks had the prairie tamed. It was a coal-mining town, big enough to have two banks. The school, built in 1924, closed in 1968.
Despite appearances, Hanks is not a ghost town. Nine people, four families, live here. Their mail carries the address of another town; as far as the postal service is concerned, Hanks doesn’t exist.
On a day late this fall you could hear hammering. Men were out in the cold wind replacing the school roof. New in May, it blew off in September. Hanks natives are a persistent sort.
“I graduated from high school in this building,” said Avis Kohlman as she unlocked the school door for a couple of visitors. In 1969 the school became the home of the Pioneer Trails Historical Society. Avis is treasurer for the society and lives just across from the old school.
The museum is no tourist trap. It’s the storehouse of memories from 16 area townships, like a grandfather’s basement on a huge scale. Its eclectic collection ranges from a homesteader’s shack to a dress owned by a Hanks resident in the early ‘60s.
There’s a loving order to the museum – each artifact has a typewritten card recounting the item’s history – that is missing in the town as a whole. On one overgrown street is a church with no steeple. It has become a granary.
“They tore down that beautiful steeple because they were going to tear the building down,” said Avis. “Every lot in this town is bought, but they don’t clean them up. I wish they’d tear down all those old buildings.”
But if they don’t, the prairie will in time.
Paul Dienhart

The following anecdotes were collected from Muriel. 

In 1927, Ole O. Stenoien and wife, Bura Dell, decided to leave their home near Osakis, Minnesota to find their fortune in the rolling prairies of neighbor state North Dakota. There were three Stenoien children at the time: Jerald age seven, Muriel age five and Iola age one. They temporarily settled in the town of Hanks. Here, the two oldest children attended school. Ole worked as a mechanic in a local garage and also helped out on the nearby farm of Dave Hought. During their stay in Hanks, a son, Douglas, was born.

Muriel recalls tagging along with her Dad. “Why, Doug’s delivery was paid for by Dad’s poker winnings. I remember he had a hole in one pocket. During the course of the game, he would drop coins into his pants pocket; they would slip through the hole into his boot. When he had accumulated enough, he would head home. He played in a saloon, just like you’d picture in the old west. Some of those games got pretty rough.”

Just after the turn of the century, Ole’s brothers, Svend and Peder, homesteaded a quarter section of land in Fertile Valley Township in Divide County. The claim was ultimately proved by Ole’s father. As this place was then unoccupied, Ole decided that country living would be best for his family, especially with sons who could eventually help him to farm the land. The family mansion, a shack, consisted of a kitchen and two rooms. The kids all slept together in a single bed, sideways, in order to fit them all in. Neighbors were friendly, farming was excellent and the family continued to grow. During the next five years two more children arrived; Camilla and Bennett. The closest neighbors were the Brakken and Schneider families on the one side, and the Ole Gillan and Sinness families on the other. Most of these families were relatives of the Stenoiens. Additional neighbors included Pete Peterson, the Dordahls, Olsons, Christiansons, Haugs and Ellevolds.

While living on the farm, the kids attended the nearby rural schoolhouse which was a mile away. On bitterly cold winter days, Ole would cover Jerald and Muriel with a blanket and walk them to school. Often they were the only ones who showed up. Muriel recalls several teachers; Alice Nelson, Mathilde Larson and Sylvia Houg. The kids were good in school; Muriel was promoted several times, graduating as a senior at the age of fifteen.

Iola was Pappa’s ‘Lite Engel,’ norwegian for Little Angel. There is a common perception amongst older Stenoien siblings that she was a mite spoiled. One summer, Ole purchased a box of apples, which was kept in a cubbyhole for safe keeping. Muriel, well-schooled in her spelling, slyly asked her Ma for an A-P-P-L-E. Iola immediately responded, “Me want P-P-L apple too, MA!”

One evening, Muriel found herself alone in the kitchen. Bura and Jerald had gone out to do the chores. Muriel, seven, saw something on the one-legged dining table that she wanted. She climbed up, tipped the table over and in the process broke all of the supper dishes into pieces. There were shards everywhere. Her Ma, surveying the wreckage, calmly said, “Pick up the dishes and put them in the trash and show your Dad when he gets home.” Muriel trembled in anticipation of her punishment. When Ole did arrive, he must have decided that the wait was punishment enough, Muriel received a simple scolding.

The Stenoien family owned a horse buggy, more of a frame actually, which was steered with the feet. Muriel was out with Beatrice Brakken (Uncle Pete Brakken’s daughter). Beatrice was afraid to cross the bridge over the Little Missouri, so Muriel volunteered to do the honors. She lost control of the buggy, drove off the road, down the hill and through a barbed wire fence. The girls had the good sense to lay back flat on the buggy and thus avoided potentially serious injury. Muriel recalls that Beatrice was not allowed to play with her for some time after that.

Ole purchased a propeller generator, which was mounted on the roof of the house. This provided electricity for overhead lighting. During high winds, it was necessary to tie it down. One day, a storm was building. Ole was gone, and Muriel knew that the winds might damage the prop. She tossed a lasso about the prop… breaking it in the process. When her Dad came home and saw what had happened, he quickly spanked her. He clearly feared for her safety… she could have just as easily been yanked into the swiftly rotating propeller blades.

It is important to remember, that despite what we as children were told, our parents and grandparents were just as misbehaved as we were. Here are two short examples. One day, Jerald and Muriel were given the responsibility of turning the butter churn. It was a fine day, and they were in a hurry to finish in order to play ball. They took turns rotating the churn as quickly as possible. Suddenly, the churn flew off its moorings, ending up on the floor in pieces. Another day, the kids were playing with a separator (used to separate the cream from the milk). Muriel would spin it as rapidly as she could, while Jerald would stop it. All of a sudden, Jerald took off howling, with Muriel chasing him close behind. Lo and behold, he had clipped off the tip of his finger!

Then, during the year 1933, hard luck came to the Dakota prairies in the form of grasshopper plagues, army worm infestation and finally, the severe drought. Cattle had to be sold for lack of feed. Ole sold all of his herd except for one gentle cow named Silver. Ground up Russian thistles (tumbleweed) was Silver’s main source of feed. In return, she furnished the milk which became the Stenoien family’s main staple. She never complained, even though she was milked three times a day.

Lignite coal mines were, and still are, one of North Dakota’s sources of revenue. The Stenoien family burned coal, but for a quicker, hotter fire, gathered what could be called another of North Dakota’s resources, namely buffalo chips. Harvesting this crop was the childrens’ chore. A rope tied to a washtub made a good conveyor.

During these depression years, Ole was willing to try anything to make enough money to support his family. He worked for awhile at a sodium lake where sodium was piled, dried and shipped out for processing. The family moved from the original homestead, living for a time between the Sonnenberg family and the Witsoe schoolhouse, then finally moving to a farm north of the school. While there, Ole tried farming on a larger scale. During this time, another baby, Noel, was born.

The Stenoien men were long famous for rough-housing and Indian wrestling. It was in Hanks that Ole and his cousin, Pete Brakken were wrestling. Both of the men were large and strong, and there were no holds barred. In the course of the contest, Pete kicked Ole in the chest. A can of Prince Albert tobacco was in his pocket, and this resulted in not only broken ribs, but a punctured lung.

While feelings of optimism and cloudy skies kept the Stenoien family and others around, the rains never came, and hopes gradually lowered. Ole, as a result of his injuries and reactivation of his tuberculosis, was finally forced to pack his family and a few possessions into his Ford and return to Minnesota.

South Dakota Historical Society Archives – devastated field near Pierre, SD from August 1, 1933.

Dakota Life: The Grasshopper and the Plow

Lance Nixon

Cap Journal 9/3/2015

It’s one of the things the late Henry Hewlett couldn’t forget about growing up in the Great Depression in the town of Canning, South Dakota – not just dust and drought, but grasshoppers.

Grasshoppers filled the air like winged weather and clattered like living hailstones against every surface. It made for the kind of incident from the first half of the 1930s that Hewlett remembered vividly when he visited with the Capital Journal at the start of 2015.

“It’s kind of uphill for the train coming up into Canning. There were so many grasshoppers on the track that the engine spun out and couldn’t pull the train,” he recalled. “So they unhooked two cars and come in and got them ahead of the engine. They would crush the grasshoppers ahead of the engine so it could pull the train.”

The grasshoppers would eat anything – not only the gardens, but also the varnish off the handles of the garden tools.

“If you’d leave a shovel or fork sticking up in the yard, next morning the handle would be rough. They’d eat all of it. Man, they were bad,” Hewlett said. “We used to use them for bait to try to catch fish.”

But the young anglers didn’t stand a chance, as Hewlett recalled. The surface of the water was already covered with grasshoppers, so the fish wouldn’t bite.

“They were yellow – some of them pretty-good sized. There was a couple different varieties, I think. But there was billions of them. What you’d spray would kill off a lot of them, but it was so dry that they multiplied.”

The entomologists’ view

Entomologists agree that conditions were ideal for grasshoppers – at least in the early years of that dry decade. Retired U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Bruce Helbig of Pierre said Dr. Robert E. Pfadt, an authority on grasshoppers in the western United States, found that particularly true in the Dakotas.

“The book, ‘Western Grasshoppers’ by Dr. Pfadt references how favorable weather conditions in both eastern North Dakota and eastern South Dakota combined to produce one of the worst outbreaks of the two-striped grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), and the differential grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) in agricultural history,” Helbig told the Capital Journal in an email. “Dr. Pfadt states: ‘Populations increased slowly for three years, 1928 to 1930. Both species reached phenomenal numbers in 1931 and 1932. They devastated fields of alfalfa, small grains, corn, vegetables, and a variety of fruit and shelterbelt trees.’”


Melanoplus Bivvitattus