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Route 2 Elsewhere

By Staff | Sep 27, 2019

Sue Sitter/PCT Heart of America Librarian Vicky Hoffart (left) holds an advertisement for a writing contest, part of a documentary project titled "Route 2 Elsewhere".

For some Pierce County residents, US Highway 2 represents a route to an out-of-town job, or perhaps to the grain elevator; maybe it’s the road to take to a relative’s home.

To other travelers, both local and from far away, the road means much more. To one traveler from Michigan and two local residents, it means a movie.

Filmmaker Dirk Wierenga made a stop in Rugby earlier this week to collect stories from people living along the stretch of US-2 running through the town, and Darylanna Durkee of the Rugby Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors’ Bureau shared the news in a breathless-looking Facebook post: “Guess who just spent the morning filming for a documentary about life and opportunities along Hwy2?!?” Durkee asked, following her post with a line of upward-pointing thumb emojis. “This girl!!”

“Check out Route 2 Elsewhere on FB and follow Dirk as he makes his way east and west along Highway 2 for the next 9 months,” her post continues.

Wierenga visited the Heart of America Library Wednesday morning, both for a chat with Librarian Vicky Hoffart, and a chance to use the wi-fi. The Air B and B where he was staying in Towner didn’t have internet service, he explained.

Another part of his visit was a partnership, of sorts, with libraries along the stretch of highway his project highlights.

Wierenga explained his company, Principia Media, is “partnering with all the public libraries 96 of them and we’re doing a companion book. We’re urging people to come into the library or go to our Facebook page, which is Route 2 Elsewhere and there it has the rules but it’s a contest for writers. So, if you have something less than 1,000 words could be poetry, could be a story anything having to do with life, history, whatever, along (Route) 2 it’s a chance to get your work published. We’ll have it as a companion volume (for the documentary).”

Wierenga said Hoffart would have information on the writing contest available at the library. The project’s Route 2 Elsewhere Facebook page also has information available.

Although Wierenga lives in Grand Haven, Mich., he’s no stranger to Rugby.

“I love stopping here,” Wierenga noted. “The first time (Rugby) caught my attention was in the 1980s sometime, where I was taking the old Highway 2, before it was four lanes, and I was taking a picture of the monument, because that was the first thing to catch your attention.”

“I have a long history of driving US-2, for 30-plus years, because I’ve done a lot of projects,” he noted. “So, I’ve done books; I’ve just traveled it a lot, usually for professional reasons.”

Wierenga said he came up with an idea for his documentary in January.

“What I did was purposely picked a 1,000-mile stretch of US-2,” he explained.

“I picked it for a reason. One is that it involves four states, which makes it more of a national story. Because if it was just about North Dakota or just about the UP of Michigan, it would only be regional.”

“But,” Wierenga added, “more interesting is the fact that this entire stretch, which starts at Sault St Marie, Michigan, which is the beginning of the western part of US-2 to Williston, North Dakota which is 1,000 miles, is interesting, because it’s an area of booms and busts fur trapping, lumber, iron ore, copper, agriculture and now oil.”

Wierenga said his documentary would touch on the economic history of the area and the railroad that made settlement possible. Wierenga said a railroad established by James J. Hill which later became the Great Northern and even later, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), was “the only privately funded railroad in the history of the United States. And it was also the only highly successful railroad.”

“Rugby of course got its name from Rugby, England,” Wierenga added. “Well, it was named that way because James J. Hill would go over to England, and he would get investors there, because there weren’t any here. So, he’s the first one to sell naming rights. So, all these towns are literally named by him in exchange for money he was getting to build the railroad. It’s a highly interesting story.”

The stories the people along US-2 form the core of the film, however.

“My interest in it is not only telling the story about the booms and the busts, but also give hope for what’s next,” Wierenga said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is when you live it, if you’re in the middle of it, you don’t see the positive stuff that’s happening. “

Wierenga characterized many towns along the stretch of US-2 as run by “the old guard”: people on town and city councils who’ve developed skepticism at newer ideas after years of witnessing new developments and plans fail.

“At the same time, what we’re noticing on this route is that younger people are actually coming in. They’re showing up; typically not with fully developed families; they’re typically single. They are people who want to get away from the busy-ness of a city, and they really want to connect,” he said.

“Darylanna would be a perfect example of that. She literally came to this town, looked around and said, ‘I’ve fallen in love!’ And it shows.”

“And Stephanie (Steinke) from the museum she comes back to take care of an ailing father, but she immediately realizes that she can have some opportunities here that she couldn’t have if she were at a big museum.”

Wierenga had high praise for Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum.

“You’ve probably got the best museum along the whole stretch. It’s a tremendous museum.”

The stories of younger professionals who choose to make their homes in rural towns play a central role in the documentary, “because one of the issues that we have in the rural area is a lack of people in the 24-49 year old demographic, which has led to negative birth rates, and a lack of, what I would call ‘real jobs.'” Wierenga described these jobs as careers requiring skill, training and education.

“So, there’s always good parts of (their story). We’re featuring their story because it represents a younger generation coming in that are hopeful, have new ideas; that have things on their horizon that could be very interesting and they’re excited.”

More local stories featured include the Petrovic family and their Anamoose business Farmtastic Heritage Foods Hub.

Wierenga said he planned to be “embedded” at various points along the 1,000 mile route from September through June. “I need to show people what winter’s like; I need to show people what people go through in the spring,” he explained.

He hopes the film will not only tell stories of the people living near the rural stretch of US-2, but serve as an educational tool.

“Part of it is to teach people what rural is; part is to show urban people the fact of the matter is these are not ‘flyover states’,” Wierenga said. “These are where 90 plus percent of your food is coming from. It’s where 90 percent of your energy is coming from. This is not something to be taken lightly.”

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