The Bugger Came In Third

I told Tom I do not have a polka-dot dress. He assured me I did not need one. What did we see before we even left the parking lot? A tall, amply built woman sashaying to the entry gate, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a black & white polka-dot dress.

Ah, well, no matter. Attending Cromwell’s Christmas at the Races is much like going to a Renaissance Fair…thousands of people preening in parade, with eating and drinking and being seen the order of the day. It is a festival. It is a race. It is prom night without a chaperon.


Barefoot mum sets the brakes on her baby's carriage.

Barefoot mum getting ready to set the brake on her baby’s carriage.


Poised and posed while on the phone.

Poised and posed while on the phone.



Decision making.

Quite studious.


While I sport tennis shoes with socks and arch-support inserts, the gals wear every kind of wedge, platform, toe-biting high-heeled shoe one might imagine, and some that only a devil could devise.



It was all about the hats and shoes today, and a bit about the horses.


The girls are beautiful, strutting across the grassy knolls and flats, eyes bright, lips shiny and red, dresses flowing, hats slightly askew and precarious but pinned and unmoving–or, no hats at all.


Holding hands, having fun, anticipating a great day at the races.

Holding hands, having fun, anticipating a great day at the races.


The gents, many in suits, vests, and dress pants, stand at the ready to be of any service.

The gents, many in silk vests and dress pants, stand at the ready to be of any service.


We had no idea that the horse races might coincide with our stay in Cromwell, but Christmas at the Races is a big event. Thousands of people come from miles around, hotels fill to the brink, and dresses of every variety flow and lift in the gentle breeze. Had the races been yesterday, the costuming would have been a disaster with rain falling and winds gusting. Today the winds are mild, the sky is clear, and a faint but heady aroma of coconut oil mingles with the scents of cotton candy and crispy-fried treats on sticks.


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It was a hard decision, but we opted for the Turkish treats: lamb wrap, which we carried off to share in the shade.

It is a hard decision, but we opt for a Turkish treat: a tasty lamb wrap that we carry off to share in the shade.


This chap went for the whitebait fritter sandwich. Whitebait: whitish fish, smaller than your pinkie, a local delicacy.

This chap goes for the whitebait-fritter sandwich. Whitebait: a pale white-ish fish, smaller than your pinkie, that is a favorite local delicacy.


Warming up before the race.

Warming up before the race.


Powerful and ready, some of them kicking and stomping with anticipation, the horses were eager to enter the racing stalls.

Powerful and ready, some of them kicking and stomping with anticipation, the horses are eager to enter the racing stalls.


AND . . . they're off!

AND . . . they’re off! (No, they didn’t really say that.)


Rounding the final corner.

Rounding the final corner.


The tickets tell the tale.

The tickets tell the tale.



This intense fellow, shouting "C'mon Eleven, Run fer it!" settles back in his chair after the race, lamenting, "Ahh, the bugger came in third!"

This intense fellow, shouting “C’mon 11, run fer it!” settles back in his chair after the race, lamenting, “Ahhagh, the bugger came in third!”



(The Bugger)


As the hours pass and we watch the third race of five, we decide to amble on out to the parking lot. We have seen the pretty side of the day.

At this hour, the beauty and excitement falter. The girls begin to wobble on their heels or to take them off entirely.


Beverage lines grow too long, overheard conversations are lousy with four-letter words, and queues at the toilet positively wriggle with urgency. (We avert our eyes from the unfortunate fellow who relieves himself, leaning against the backside of an occupied porta-potty, alongside the roadway where we walk.)

Two more races to go, but we head for the finish line.



Back at our motel, off our feet and settled at our picnic table, we slice cheeses and dine on crackers while we marvel at the day, the dresses, the hats couture, the drinking, and the horses that flew past.

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“The Case for Bad Coffee,” by Keith Pandolfi

This morning, as I made my way to the kitchen for coffee, thumbing through my Facebook and yawning big, my friend Cindy Adams linked me to the essay, “The Case for Bad Coffee,” by Keith Pandolfi. This piece is a rich and sensual drift in nostalgia, steeped in story and grounded in real-time.

Pandolfi took me on a magic carpet ride. I’m wondering if the author and I shared a grandpa, and I was transported instantly to an auto shop waiting room at one of a dozen locations where that acrid cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup held such strong appeal. I’ll add one more image that I miss dearly. My dad, who was up in the morning long before the rest of us, sitting at the dining room table in his robe and slippers, smoking cigarettes, sipping coffee, and reading Zane Grey westerns. If I surprised him by waking up early, he’d wink at me and say, let me just finish this chapter.

You might wonder about this musing in a travelogue, but read Pandolfi’s essay and see where he transports you.

“The Case for Bad Coffee”



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I told them that roof would fall down!


These prophetic words from Marv came true sometime this summer. Marv, cousin to the second-generation Hutmachers, remembers visiting Aunt Veronica and Uncle Frank’s house when he was a kid. He would not step inside the building, sure that the dirt roof would tumble down and crush them all. He was so certain, that he never took a meal inside; his mom or aunt or cousins would bring his plate outside.

Well, it took 50 years, but Marv’s prediction came true.

The fallen-in roof, located in the original kitchen section of the Hutmacher Farmhouse.


A missing section of roof, as visible from the northeast corner of the house.


You can only imagine our dismay to find the Hutmacher house in this condition. Since 2005 and 2006, Preservation North Dakota and hundreds of volunteers and NDSU service learning students have contributed sweat equity to rebuild, restore, and preserve the Hutmacher Farmstead. A Save America’s Treasures grant helped to fund the project, as did individual donations of money and materials. The property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, boasts the best and perhaps only extant collection of farm buildings built in the traditional ways brought to this country by the Germans from Russia.

The Hutmacher House, as it appeared in all its glory the last time we saw it in April.

It was a dreary, rainy day last Saturday as our volunteer crew drove onto the Hutmacher grounds. We’d received a call two days before, so we knew to dread what we might find, but we figured that the advance notice was better than driving up to the site unknowingly. The ugly scene confirmed our nightmarish imaginings.

Facing the newest kitchen area from the older, our vision transected by the failed ridgepole.


Sad view from the south side. The living room (original kitchen) window has popped out, rafters and ridgepole reach for the sky, while all the clay and sand roof has fallen to the ground.


The bedroom roof has tumbled in, even though before the storms, this was one of the best-roofed sections of the house.

While we can’t confirm the exact date and time of the damage, we know (and the sheriff’s deputy confirmed) that vandals were not involved. It was the weather that undid our labors. In a story picked up by the Associated Press, we learned that storms in early July “packed heavy rain and winds up to 80 mph, which damaged trees, houses, farm buildings, campers and power poles throughout the region… ‘It sounded like a north wind in the winter,’ rural Halliday resident Muffin McLoud told the Tribune. ‘It just howled…I’ve never heard anything like that in July.’”

For us, the worse damage came as three ridgepoles split and broke, two in the house—affecting a bedroom and the original kitchen—and one in the garage, which hasn’t fallen yet but surely will. The granary isn’t looking too good either, as it and the garage have developed a serious sway-back look to their once-gorgeous ridges.

Sample dangerous break. This cracked pole is in the garage, a purloin parallel to the ridgepole.

Our group of volunteers, joined by PND President Susan Quinnell and led by professors Tom Isern and Suzzanne Kelley, met in the granary while a cool wind and rain taunted us from outside, reminding us just how fragile a homestead on the plains can be. We discussed options and how we might proceed.

 Our decision?

What else could we do but pick up our shovels and rakes, flex our muscles, and dig in.

We worked all Saturday afternoon, watching the sky shift from gray to blue, a match to the shift in our spirits as we cleared away debris and even made a new discovery! Digging down to the wooden flooring, which we didn’t even know was beneath years of caked-on dirt all along, were telltale orange floorboards. We’d wondered why such a traditionally constructed building, with turquoise- and pink-painted walls, did not have typical orange flooring—but there it was, right beneath our feet all the time and invisible to us but for this otherwise calamitous event.


Orange wood flooring peeks through the swept-away dirt.

Interior wall with sample paint colors from over the years.

We returned on Sunday to see how much more clean-up we might accomplish, when unexpected guests arrived. Marv and his sister and various spouses and kids had gotten the bug to come out today and see the old place. What a joyful walk on the grounds it was to hear stories from this family, their recollections of having come out years ago to partake of Veronica’s chicken noodle soup and borscht, to walk the hills and help retrieve the cows at the end of day, to note the shady spot at the west end of the house where Uncle Frank and Alex would rest in the after-lunch shade, and to see Marv shake his head at the tumbled down roofs and walls and exclaim, “I told them that roof would fall down.”


 Yes, the roof fell down. We will build it up again.

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Date Night: Page, North Dakota

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It’s Saturday night in Page, and folks are lined up in the streets–because that’s how they park here–ready to take in a show.

No curbside parking here. Everyone lines up right down the middle of the street.


We’ve been planning all week to get back to Page, where we know that every Saturday night the Page Cafe is serving all-you-can-eat bbq ribs (just $10.95). And they mean it, too, although my first serving really was all I could eat. The cafe is open every day until 8pm, with a different dinner special every day–Sunday is Seafood Night–but only the Saturday special is all you can eat.

Page Cafe


Tom decided he needed a second serving of fall-off-the-bone meaty ribs. (And as I write, I’m kind of wishing I’d gone back for seconds, too!)


As we moved our forks from ribs to pecan pie and lemon cheesecake, I overheard the woman in the next booth ask a fellow if he was “doing the projection thing tonight?” He replied with a yes, and she said she was looking forward to it, but she “might miss that intermission in the middle.” Just about a month ago, the Page theater made the shift from reel-to-reel film to digital movie viewing. Not a small enterprise for a small town to undertake, but necessary as the film industry moved to digital distribution, final by the end of this year. See “Small-town movie theaters threatened by shift to digital cinema” for the gory details.

Page has an active Community Club, which results in the community cafe and the community theater, entities maintained by the community for the pleasure of the community and for wanderers like us.


Page Theater. Doors are open, popcorn’s popping, and the Community Club volunteers (and their kids) are ready for customers.


Gone are the days of old when a certificate like this, displayed in the Page Theater projection room, demonstrated that the holder had some pretty specific skills.

Motion Picture Machine Operator’s License, issued by The State Board of Electricians to Lloyd E. Kelly, 1941.


Now, empty reels are used for decoration.

Lobby seats at the Page Theater


And the projection room looks a lot different without reel-to-reel equipment.



But the view of the projection light from a theater seat still looks the same.



And the interior of the theater looks much as I expect it always has, although the seats are “new” (brought in from OMWICK Theater of Valley City).


View from the back of the Page Theater. To my right, there is also a “crying room,” or wait, isn’t that the “make-out room”? Altogether, the theater seats close to 200 people with plenty of legroom between the rows.


We watched Man of Steel—a modern take on Superman in this wonderful, old theater. The Page Theater shows movies Saturday and Sunday nights.

Tickets are a bargain ($6.50) and the concessions are a steal ($3 for popcorn and a bottle of soda), but the best part is meeting the Community Club folks (and their kids). The ticket booth was “manned” by a mom and her son, who later appeared behind the concession counter, learning to make change (which is fast becoming a lost art!) with his dad. Date Night in Page turned out to be a great deal, and we even received a “thanks for coming to Page!” farewell as we departed from the theater into the night for a pleasant ride home.

To get from Fargo to Page, head west on I-94 and take the Buffalo exit, which puts you onto Hwy 38. It’s just about 17 miles north from the exit to Page.

Here are some more pics from Page, taken by Tom Isern: Center for Heritage Renewal on flickr





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