Nelson County North Dakota
Canola Field in Blossom

Windmill in Michigan Township   Nelson County is a rural, sparsely populated area in the northeastern part of North Dakota. The population today is just a little under 4,000 people. However in the 1950's more than 10,000 people lived here. Since then there has been a steady loss of population and this has accelerated in more recent years. On a visit I made to the county in the summer of 2007, there were many changes that were evident. I had not lived here since the early 1960's and had visited the area briefly only twice in the past twenty-five years.
   The most striking change in the countryside has to be the large number of farmsteads that have disappeared. The farms are much larger now and the open spaces between the farms is greater. Some shelterbelts have also been removed and the overall impression one gets now is an openness that might resemble what the area was like before the white settlers arrived. The windmill in the accompanying photo is symbolic of what has taken place. It is almost the only surviving structure on what once was a thriving farm in South Michigan Township.
  Agriculture is, and since the county was settled in the 1880's, always has been the only major industry here. For the first sixty or so years after the first settlers arrived the mixed farming practices of small grains, and livestock for meat and dairy prevailed. Canola field in Michigan TownshipBy the mid twentieth century most farms were concentrating on just the raising of small grains such as barley, durum wheat, hard spring wheat and flax. In recent years the mix of crops has again changed. Now in addition to the previously mentioned small grains, one sees the yellow blooming canola fields, sun flowers, corn and soybeans. Interestingly the newer crops are not so much for food production as they are for ethanol based fuels.
   There is an air of prosperity in the farms that are left. For the most part the farm buildings are modern, neat and well kept up. The crops in early July appear lush and bountiful.
   The plight of the towns here is a rather mixed bag. Several have almost completely disappeared, but the others appear to be hanging on and are adapting rather well. All of the towns here had, and continue to have, economies that are almost totally dependant on the agricultural community. As the people disappeared from the farms, there was a corresponding drop in business and population in the towns. The residential neighborhoods all appear prosperous and neat. The business districts haven't fared as well, but people's attitudes are upbeat and friendly.
   With such a sparsely populated region as this, and with population still declining, one would not expect to see a strong preservationist movement. However, the Stump Lake Pioneer Village is one of the best examples I have ever seen of rural history preservation and restoration. It's remarkable that it could arise from such a small population base.