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Northern Lights Tower attracts attention from visitors, volunteers

By Staff | Jul 2, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Surrounded by blooming flower beds, Rugby Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Laurie Odden stands in front of the Northern Lights Tower.

At a height of more than 88 feet, Rugby’s Northern Lights Tower dwarfs the area’s more established attractions.

Just west of the structure, Rugby’s famous Geographical Center of North America cairn invites tourists to stop and take photos at a spot equally far from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the North Pole and South America – give or take a few miles.

However, the metallic spires on the tower standing in front of Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum on U.S. Highway 2 attract attention on their own, often by tourists who seem curious and confused.

“A number of people have stopped here lately, and they think that’s the (Geographical Center) monument,” said Laurie Odden, executive director of the Rugby Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. ” That’s a common thing. They think that’s the monument. It’s something big standing on the highway, so how do they know?”

Unlike the stone cairn at the intersections of North Dakota Highway 3 and U.S. Highway 2, the Northern Lights Tower doesn’t mark anything.

“It’s a sculpture,” Odden said. “It’s supposed to represent the Northern Lights.”

The tower’s coat of metallic paint, now faded, serves to represent the light refractions of the Aurora Borealis during the day. At night, spotlights once shone on the structure, creating the effect of light beams reaching to the sky.

“And when they worked, (they had that effect),” Odden said. “The lights don’t work in there. That’s the trouble with it.”

Odden said the tower “always had its own committee, the Northern Lights Tower Committee, but that’s disbanded. Then, (community leaders) said, ‘The CVB should take care of that.’ So, that’s where we are. But of course, for a long time now there are no grants written to try to keep this up or anything.”

Odden said the committee handled grant writing, recruited volunteers and services for various maintenance tasks needed by the structure, which was built in 1996 and had its name registered with the State of North Dakota in 2003.

As time went on, some volunteers caring for the structure found other causes. A kiosk was added near the tower to provide information for self-guided tours of the Rugby area.

However, the tower’s paint continued to fade, and after the lighting system fell into disrepair, CVB staffers found problems that made electrical work more complicated.

“I hate to use the word ‘neglected,’ but in all honesty, it has been,” Odden said of the sculpture. “The upkeep hasn’t been done on it. The big issue right now with it is the electrical (system).”

“We could only tackle so many projects at a time,” Odden added. “(The electrical system) is not high on my priority list right now.”

However, she added, “It’s not that I don’t want to get it done.”

Odden said she’s focusing on more cost-effective work to improve the site.

“Right now, I want to get that area looking nice, and we’ve done a super great job with the volunteers that I’ve got working out there,” Odden explained. “The flowers are looking good, the flowerbeds are looking good, we’re killing some weeds. I feel like we’ve made a lot of leaps and bounds. But the expense of getting the rest of that taken care of right now was just like, that will take some grant writing to get that taken care of to find the money to do that.”

Odden detailed one particular problem with the sculpture’s lighting system. “From what I understand, the light bulbs that are in there aren’t made anymore. This was back eight years ago when Shelley Block was involved with the CVB – I remember her looking into the electrical work, and that’s not a cheap thing.”

Odden said newer technology may make lighting the tower more cost-effective.

“With LED and all this new stuff, is there not some new way to capture what that was meant to be?” she asked.

Odden said the CVB would welcome advice from volunteers who are experts with electricity.

“We need a couple of electricians to come out and take a look at it and tell us what needs to be done and what it needs, and then we need to know what our plan is and what kind of money we need to raise,” she said.

Odden estimated work to restore or improve the lighting system, along with raising the funds for the work would take time. “It’s not going to happen in months, a year, or maybe a couple of years,” she said.

In the meantime, Odden said she works on problems she can solve, enlisting the help of volunteers to keep the flower gardens near the tower well-groomed and the visitor kiosk spruced up.

“I’ve got an awesome volunteer who’s been with us for years, Diane Dufner,” Odden said. “She puts countless hours (into the work). She’s been my little recruiting bug this year, so she actually recruited my mother, Angie Busch.”

Odden added, ” We’ve got another volunteer, Ilene Moen, who’s started out there. She’s taking care of the kiosk and making sure that’s clean and well-stocked out there. I’m also keeping an eye on and watering the plants and keeping the picnic area clean along with doing office work here just to keep us looking good. I had DeDe Heidlebaugh come out here one evening to help us get rid of some of the weeds.”

Odden walked through the area facing the Northern Lights Tower, pausing near circles serving as gardens for lilies, tea roses and other flowers used to North Dakota winters.

“Trimming those bushes made a big difference,” Odden said of lilacs growing near the visitors’ kiosk. “We had Yolanda Schmidt from the (NDSU) Extension Office come down and look at some of those plants.”

Odden said the volunteer gardeners took Schmidt’s advice to trim back the lilacs and other bushes. “We said, ‘We’ll see what happens. If they die, we’ll just replace them,’ but honestly, all those we trimmed are coming back and looking really nice. We’re pretty excited about that.”

More volunteers are welcome in the flower gardens near the tower, Odden noted.

“If there’s anyone who loves the outdoors and loves to do that stuff, it doesn’t take a lot,” she said. “All the hard work is done, so all it takes is to maintain it. Then, in the fall, you need to cut (the growth) back so come spring, you don’t have quite as much work to do, trimming everything back.”

“I just want people to know this is out here and some of the people who volunteer to come out here say, ‘I didn’t even know this was out here,’ but it’s so beautiful and so quiet,” Odden said. ” I walk down there from my office. It’s a beautiful little place to be.”

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