Marilyn and I left the 24th session of the Dakotas Annual Conference at Bismarck, North Dakota, after it adjourned on Saturday, June 10, 2017, and we headed north to Minot. We drove along the Missouri River and noticed fields in need of rain. Our bishop had asked conference to hold western North Dakota in prayer for this reason.
After we checked into our motel on the south side of Minot and ate supper, we drove into the city, across the Souris River (called the “Mighty Mouse” by a member of our congregation in Minnesota who grew up in Bowbells), back downtown, and took a look at the railroad depot.
Sunday, we followed U. S. 2 east to Rugby and had the railroad in view much of the time. This railroad, originally the transcontinental Great Northern Railway organized by James J. Hill, brought settlers into northern North Dakota beginning in the late 1880’s. We spent the afternoon driving north from Rugby into the Turtle Mountains and stopped in at the International Peace Garden where cactus grows near palm trees, not far from native birch.
Back in Rugby, “the geographical center of North America,” we ordered supper off a menu that offered several German dishes. The waitress told us that she came from German background herself and that people of Norwegian descent also lived in the area. Marilyn decided to order a German dish, but, by the time it arrived, we had forgotten what it was. So, we asked the waitress to bring the menu back and let us find out how to spell what Marilyn was eating. (It was fleischkuechle, and it was delicious.)
Monday brought us to Devils Lake around noontime. We found most of the entrances to the United Methodist Church closed but went around back and knocked on the door because we saw a vehicle in the parking lot. A custodian supervising a young man let us in, and we visited with them. I said I wanted to see the building and the stained glass if that was alright. The custodian said it was, and the young man wanted to know where I’d come from. I told him I lived in Minnesota and by the time I got back home, I would have traveled over 1,000 miles. We started into the sanctuary, but I overheard the custodian checking in with the pastor on the phone to make sure it really was alright. He couldn’t remember my name. So, I went back and helped him out, and the pastor and I exchanged greetings via the custodian. I was glad to hear that she had the good sense to be taking a day off on the Monday after conference.
I had wanted to see Devils Lake UMC ever since I served as pastor of Wessington Springs UMC in South Dakota during the early 1980’s. There, during that congregation’s centennial year, I found early 20th century correspondence from the architect, Kirby Snyder, who listed on his letterhead several churches he had designed. Many of them were in Iowa, and we took the opportunity to see them when we traveled that way. But he also listed Devils Lake Methodist Episcopal Church, and I had never been that far north in North Dakota.
I expected to find and did find stunning stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The pews were arranged in a semi-circular way that focused on the pulpit and the preaching of the gospel. To the right and the left of the congregation, the two largest windows portrayed Christmas and Good Friday/Easter. I could see many differences between the buildings and the stained glass at Wessington Springs and Devils Lake. But the style and the purpose marked both as coming from First World War America, now a century gone.
This reminded me of an elderly member at the Wessington Springs congregation who, in younger years, had married into one of the oldest families in that community. When I first visited her, she told me that she had heard I could preach but that, when she came to church on Sundays, she could not hear a word I spoke because she was almost deaf. So, she said, her sermon came from looking at the stained glass windows and thinking on them.
Then Marilyn and I ate falafel salad at the Cenex on the way out of Devils Lake.
During the afternoon, as the railroad continued to parallel U. S. 2, we eased on to the bottom of Lake Agassiz. What happened next would have been an exercise in marine archaeology if the waters of Lake Agassiz had not receded quite a few thousands of years ago and left behind the rich soil and flat ground of the Red River Valley.
We got off U. S. 2 just south of Grand Forks Air Force Base and turned on to County Road 3 going south by a trailer park at Emerado. We continued for several miles into the country and passed beyond the township line.
We still could not find the cemetery I was looking for. I had read in the Methodist Pioneer the obituary of a young woman who died of diphtheria on August 18, 1888, “near Emerado” in Dakota Territory. I am planning to tell what is known of her story in a chapter on the Territorial period of our conference history to be posted later this summer. Finding her grave would confirm the newspaper’s obituary and make her life as real and personal as it probably could be at this distance in time.
So, without much prospect left, we turned around and drove back toward Emerado. Then, Marilyn spotted it just south of town in one of the isolated mini-forests that have splashed the Valley with green where farms and small towns sheltered themselves from the wind and the sky. Viewed from afar in the afternoon sun, the gravestones cast shadows that somehow made them just visible to us as we came from the south.
Turning west toward the edge of town, we soon parked in front of a sign that read, “Emerado Sunset Prairie Cemetery 1883.” We got out of our vehicle, walked to what seemed to be the oldest sections of the cemetery, and started looking at gravestones. But was this even the right cemetery? Not all rural cemeteries are known to the Internet or anybody except people who live near them.
In about ten minutes, we found a barely legible gravestone. “Dora Mellicent/ Dau. of/TF & Mary/Ward/Born/Oct. 22, 1870/Died/Aug. 18, 1888/[epitaph].”
I took this to be a match for the “Dora May Ward” whom the Methodist Pioneer described as dying of diphtheria on August 18, 1888, shortly before her 18th birthday “near Emerado.” She had sung as a soprano in worship, played the organ, and was advancing toward full membership in the Methodist Episcopal Church. She suffered for seven days as infection created a membrane in her throat and eventually prevented speech and breath. Before she could no longer speak, she told her father, “I am not afraid to die; I am going home to Jesus.”
I suppose that moments like the one when we found her gravestone—moments of discovery, moments of recognition—make the study of history as compelling and fascinating and moving as it can seem dry, tedious, and boring to those who learn it only from textbooks.
We traveled on from Emerado to Grand Forks, slipping up to Pembina County between thunderstorms the next day and leaving the state on Wednesday at Fargo where we entered it going to conference and where we had seen more magnificent stained glass at Fargo First UMC.
But I was still seeing the past illuminated in the afternoon sun at Emerado. I remembered that someone born in 1870 was born within a few years of my own grandparents. I was stopped in thought by trying to imagine all the things that never happened because someone had died young. I knew I would be hard-pressed to find a doctor or a nurse in all the 21st-century United States who had ever encountered diphtheria. But I also knew that thousands of cases of diphtheria still occur in other countries where many good things would surely happen if people did not die young.
Finally, I recalled that the Dakotas Annual Conference has no congregation in Emerado anymore. And yet, the simple words, “I am not afraid to die; I am going home to Jesus,” demonstrated that some of us had once been there and measured life with a different standard than longevity and material success.