County’s smallest incorporated town changes, but evolves
Small towns dot the maps of most rural counties in North Dakota, and Pierce County has its share.
The smallest incorporated community in Pierce County is Wolford, a tiny spot northeast of Rugby, the county seat.
Getting there is easy enough: Wolford sits alongside ND-17, a well-maintained highway that skims the top of Pierce County just south of Rolette County.
As you turn east from ND-3 north onto Highway 17, drive 11 miles to the east, and after mile 10, follow the clich e advice associated with small towns: Don’t blink.
To the right of the highway, in front of a stand of evergreens, a small, unimposing road sign reads “Wolford,” welcoming sharp-eyed drivers to town. Just around a curve, a larger, light blue sign peeks above the ditch, advertising the Corregidor, a local restaurant and bar locals frequent. At this point, a curious thing may come to mind.
That Wolford sign a few yards back didn’t list a population.
There are certainly people living in Wolford, and the cluster of homes along gravel streets behind the Corregidor attest to that. Farther away from the highway, the Wolford School remains open, providing an education to kindergarten through 12th graders. According to www.niche.com, 43 students attend the school, with an impressive 5 to 1 student to teacher ratio.
However, some of those students come from outside of town. According to Pierce County Auditor Karin Fursather, Wolford’s population as of this year is 36.
Longtime resident and Mayor Jim Wolf agreed with that number. “I’d say about 36-40 (people live in Wolford), something like that,” he said.
Wolf, who manages Wolford’s Farmers Union Oil facility when he’s not attending to official city business, was asked how long he’s been the mayor.
“I don’t know for sure,” he answered, smiling. “It’s been 15 years, at least.”
Wolf serves in local government along with three city council members: Jody Slaubaugh, Jeff Walsh, and Doyle Beck. Deb Zavada serves as auditor.
A resident since 1976, Wolf described the appeal of his hometown: “It’s quiet. A nice place to live.”
Wolf said a few things have changed since he moved to Wolford more than 40 years ago mainly the population, which continues a slow but steady decline. “We’ve gotten people moving in; when I got here, (the population) was probably not much over 60, and it’s 36-40 now.”
Like many fading towns in rural North Dakota, Wolford was once a booming community, established when the railroad came to that part of the state.
Mayor Wolf pulled a page from a filing cabinet in the store’s office. “I found this in our city archives,” he said, gesturing to the file cabinet with the page.
“Wolford has been here since 1905,” Wolf said as he glanced at the page. “And Wolford was incorporated in 1906, because we had our 100 year Centennial in 2006,” he continued.
“Wolford was the youngest town in Pierce County at that time, 1906,” Wolf read. “It says, it was not yet 8 months old, but a thriving village. ‘The population of 125 had four grain elevators, two banks, two lumber yards, two livery barns, an implement dealer, two hardware stores, two blacksmith shops, two general stores, a meat market, a drug store, a billiard hall, a hotel, a bakery, a newspaper, and a ‘number of residents,'” he added, quoting the page.
“This was typed up from North Dakota Magazine, August 1906, pages 34-35,” Wolf said.
“Then, it says, ‘The Great Northern Railroad established a mixed passenger and freight service on the branch line one train each way, daily. This continued on through September 16 of that year, when a regular passenger train was put on, giving the town 4 trains daily.'”
“It also says, ‘It was homesteaded in 1896 by John Turner, who moved to St. Paul MN, and who sold it in the spring of 1905 to the Dakota Development Company. This company platted the town, and the first sale took place on June 23, 1905, in York.'”
Archived issues of The Pierce County Tribune chronicled visits to Minot and Devils Lake by Great Northern Railway officials, and their decision to build an extension line from York to Dunseith in 1904-1905, which led to Wolford’s birth. Page 3 of the Saturday, June 17, 1905 Tribune carries an article about a “New town for Pierce County.”
The Tribune article details the “forty-two mile extension” of the Great Northern Railroad, which goes northwest from York.
“On this extension,” the article reads, “will be situated the town of Wolford, which has tributary to it a large territory in a rich farming community known as the ‘Ox Creek’ and ‘Island Lake’ district.”
Wolf noted a brief mention of Wolford in CityScan magazine, a publication by the North Dakota League of Cities. The publication’s August issue contains an excerpt on Wolford from North Dakota Place Names by Douglas A. Wick. Wick wrote the town was named either for a friend of a Great Northern official, or an official with the Dakota Development Company of Wilmar, MN.
In any case, Wolf said with a smile, his surname has nothing to do with Wolford’s name.
City Auditor and fellow Wolford resident Deb Zavada said she shares Wolf’s love for the town. She and her husband Larry, both semi-retired, work in public schools in Rolette, where Deb is a counselor, and Wolford, where Larry serves as superintendent of Wolford School.
“I grew up seven miles outside of Wolford, raised on a farm northeast,” Zavada said of her home. “It’s by the Dale and Martha Hawk Antique Farm Machinery Museum.
“I went grades 1-12 at Wolford School; graduated from Wolford School, and ended up coming back and teaching there at Wolford School right after graduating from college. I taught there for probably 30 years. Now, I’m semi-retired, and just here in Rolette half-time as a school counselor,” she said.
“I think it’s a nice, quiet, peaceful town. I like it,” Zavada said of her hometown. “Everybody knows everybody else. I’ve met basically everybody that lives in town, and I just like the rural life. It’s peaceful.”
Do Zavada’s neighbors share her love for the town?
“I think so. I think neighbors and different people in town seem pretty content. We have some younger families in town, too. It’s not just retirement age.”
Zavada said she’s noticed Wolford has a unique appeal to retirees and others seeking an affordable second home away from city life.
“We have neighbors who live in Fargo, and they just come for weekends in the summer. That’s their “lake home,” just to get away from it all,” Zavada laughed.
“And we have had several houses in Wolford that duck hunters from out of state would use. They’d come there for one or two weeks, or maybe a month in October, and use the home to stay in. So, there are out of state hunters who own some houses in Wolford.”
Another part of Wolford’s small-town appeal is the Corregidor, a bar and grill famous for “tomahawk” rib eye steaks on Saturday nights.
Owner Nathan Johnson, who lives north of town in Rolette, said the bar’s present location, built in 1981, replaced another building that burned down. “The community actually built this bar,” Johnson said, emphasizing its importance to the town.
“It’s always been going good here. The bar’s been going strong,” Johnson said, and although he lives out of town, he said he likes Wolford. “(Wolford) is a good town, Johnson said. “Good community, good folks small town atmosphere, very personable. They’re down to earth.”
The relatively new Corregidor building stands as a reminder of Wolford’s changes over several decades. The railroad extension was abandoned years ago, and most businesses closed. Wolford School remained to serve the families still living in town, but its former white clapboard schoolhouse has moved to the Dale and Martha Hawk Antique Farm Machinery Museum, a 12-minute drive to the northeast. A brick building now holds the k-12 school in town.
The museum is also home to Wolford’s former Presbyterian Church, which now houses a clock collection. The former school building now holds a collection of household artifacts, creating its “Pioneer House of Yore.”
The museum began as a farm machinery and “junk” collection by area farmer Dale Hawk more than 40 years ago. Although some buildings on the site come from other towns (a small school building on the grounds comes from the extinct town of Nanson), much of the farm Dale and his wife, Martha owned remains intact.
Ruthie Helmuth, Secretary of the Dale and Martha Hawk Museum and Foundation, volunteers her time at the site during its open months, May-September.
“The original house they lived in is that little green house; the red barn is where they milked his cows, and he had his horses,” Helmuth said, pointing out various parts of the Hawk farmstead.
“They had a Wolford post office box, and they would drive into Wolford for their town business that they needed to attend to,” Helmuth noted.
The Wolford post office remains in service to this day, and farmers near the community still stop by to get their mail. They can get help at the window from 11 a.m. 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. – 12 p.m.
At the Farmer’s Union Oil store, Wolf still helps customers with their farm supply needs, and he predicts his quiet hometown will endure.
“I think (Wolford’s future’s) going to be people living here for a long time. As long as there’s someone to keep this council going, or even if they don’t (stay) an organized city, they still keep it going. People like living here.”
Zavada agreed with Wolf.
“I think (the population will remain steady),” Zavada said. “I think a lot of it depends on the school, and the longevity of the school, also. If the school ends up closing some year, I think that possibly could affect the population, but I don’t know.” Pausing, she added, “I shouldn’t say that, because most of the people that are (in Wolford) are pretty happy to be there.”
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