Defining a place isn’t always easy—trying to pin down what it is that makes somewhere truly special or historically significant or important by some other frame of reference. It is best to start with the basics and decide what terms provide definition and distinction. In other words: nouns. A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. In the most basic sense, find your nouns and you discover the building blocks that can help bring significance to abstract concepts.
In 2020, Souris Basin Planning Council (SBPC) set out to find a Community Champion. The Margo J. Helgerson Community Champion would exemplify character, leadership, and responsibility and demonstrate a dedicated and continuous drive to improve the vibrancy and future of their community. How do you find someone with the capacity to do so much? And where? Let’s break it down. We’ll start with our nouns.
The Things We Hold Dear
In a room resonating with sound, delicate wind chimes; classical music crackling through a speaker; children enjoying recess across the street; and the occasional interruption of a grandfather clock clearing its throat, it was easy for the cat to sneak up on us.
“That’s Annie. We recently found out she is a rare breed,” Dale Niewoehner said as the cat padded silently across the plush carpet to join the conversation at the table, weaving through ornate chair legs and antique furniture. The bell tower in the parking lot of the Niewoehner Funeral Home provided some indication (15 bells of various sizes and tones adorn the 30 foot tower), that the interior of the building would also be an homage to accumulation. “I’ve collected since I was a boy,” Dale said, “all of this is saving something, saving history.” Located in downtown Rugby, Dale recalled the history of the building: its origins as a creamery and ice cream shop, followed by its resurrection as a shoe repair shop, before the final reincarnation in 1971 as a funeral home.
As Dale discusses Rugby’s history, and his history as a public figure in town, there’s a cadence to his speech that mirrors a ticking clock somewhere in the room. Dale, like his cat, is also a rare breed. Having served Rugby as mayor as well as playing active roles on the Park Commission, City Council, numerous service clubs and community advocacy groups, he’s collected years of experience. He was awarded Souris Basin Planning Council’s Basil O’Connell Leadership Award in 2010. It was Dale who nominated the 2020 Margo J. Helgerson Community Champion Award winner, having known the award’s namesake, Margo, from their time serving on the SBPC board together.
“Margo would have been greatly honored by this award. She would say ‘Oh, you don’t have to do that.’”
Dale’s office reflects his many interests and past roles. He points out the lamps and desk from the Pierce County Courthouse and light fixtures or woodwork that originated from other historic locations. He doesn’t mention where the stuffed bear, standing in the corner with paws raised, came from. The Amtrak paraphernalia lining the walls harkens back to his campaign to get the railroad service to make Rugby’s historic depot a stop on their route. “I rattled the cage,” he notes, “We’re not a large city, but we still do things here. We’re still important."
For Dale, Rugby is a place as relevant as any major city, and full of rich history that should be preserved, a sentiment he shares with his nominee, Rob St. Michel. Dale gestures towards another corner, “Rob found that chair in the basement of an old building. It was in terrible condition. But I could see the future in it."
"It’s like that with buildings for Rob. He can see the future in them and he puts his heart and soul into these projects. He’s generous, terribly generous. He’s forthright and he cares. That’s why I thought Margo would be pleased to have someone like Rob get this award.”
He continues, listing off buildings in the surrounding blocks that Rob has saved. Some that Dale has assisted in restoring (“The joke always is, ‘Are you sure the power is off?’”) and those that Rob has taken on by himself for health and safety concerns.
As is typical with any conversation between a couple North Dakotans, the discussion often turns to directions. Dale orientates his stories with various items on the wall, signifying a place in history or mentions different intersections where we can find the buildings restored by Rob. His interest in geographic understanding, on railways and nearby historic buildings, serves to preserve a community that, in a very literal sense, centers his world.
A Place on the Map
North Dakota’s distinguishing feature is an abundance of horizon. Thus, the vertical obelisk declaring Rugby, North Dakota as the Geographical Center of North America makes a considerable statement. Whether this declaration of absolute coordinates is mathematically accurate makes no difference. Rugby is effectively in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everywhere as far as the continent is concerned.
This physical centrality coincides with Rugby’s unique history as a place where many influences meet. Founded in 1886 as one of the Great Northern Railway’s many North Dakota locations named for English places (hoping this would please stockholders abroad), Germanic and Scandinavian farmers were the primary settlers in the early 1800s. In the late 1800s, Syrian immigrants began arriving in Pierce County. A Lebanese Christian church, most likely the only such denomination in North Dakota, once stood in Rugby. The Prairie Village Museum is the field trip destination for many schools in the region, showcasing a collection that contains historical ephemera of all sorts, from an entire log cabin to Native American artifacts, and a twentieth century iron lung.
Rugby is home to just under 3,000 residents, most of whom are employed in agriculture, manufacturing, medical, or education sectors. Rugby plays host to the Pierce County Fair, community parades, and craft fairs, rounding out the image of an idyllic small town. Small, but not sleepy. At the center of the continent, enthusiasm for public participation is constant.
For the People and By the People
“Sometimes it feels like a Hallmark movie. I’ll be dressing the windows and people will walk by and wave and I feel known and it’s charming,” Ashley Berg remarks, aware of the warm local-shop spirit of her business. Ashley is known, by virtue of her continuous involvement including the Rugby Chamber of Commerce and as a board member of SBPC. And of course, by running Main Street Boutique, a shop providing stylish clothing, local goods, and a large selection of wines. She’s had the store for three years, after buying the building from Rob.
“He put in the start work. He completely gutted the building. It’s great for a new business owner to come in with that part completed. He didn’t overcharge for it either,” she laughs. “The history of these buildings intrigues me.” She points out the original exposed brick that contrasts the sleek, modern windowpanes at the front of the store. Ashley grew up in Rugby, moved away for a while, then made her way back home.
“Honestly, just remembering downtown Rugby as a kid drew me in. There were always events and people gathering. I have so many fond memories.”
Ashley notes how Rugby is attracting younger families, thanks to the community’s quality education, affordable housing, and opportunity to gain close-knit connections that can be harder to find in larger cities.
Rob was a friend of Ashley’s family long before he sold her the building for her boutique, and his get-it-done spirit seems to have influenced her own sense of derring-do.
“[Rob] doesn’t wait for somebody to do something, he jumps in and goes for it…I kept saying, ‘We need more entrepreneurs. We need to grow downtown.’ Finally, I realized one day that meant I could do it.”
Ashley’s homegrown knowledge of her community gives her an insider’s perspective of what her customers are looking for—the racks of clothing fit a wider range of sizes, and the wines fit an equally expansive range of tastes. She loves the idea of providing exactly what her customers are looking for, but also creating opportunities for exploration. “As a fellow business owner, Rob is welcome to the idea of having others come to him to ask for recommendations for advertising. We can bounce ideas off one another.”
It’s not just willingness that makes Rob an excellent entrepreneurial backboard for new ideas. The proximity helps. Rob’s primary business, St. Michel Furniture, is located right across the street from Main Street Boutique. Speakers affixed to the exterior of his building fill the intersection with 70s music. While walking from Ashley’s store to Rob’s, Supertramp is crooning a winsome tune for the whole block to soak in: I’ll give a little bit/I’ll give a little bit of my life for you/Now’s the time we need to share/ So find yourself, we’re on our way back home.
Laboring Under the Idea
Settling in to talk with Rob left us spoiled for choice. An advantage of conducting an interview on the sales floor of a furniture store is the abundance of seating options. Rob opts for a midsize sofa within eyesight of the store doors and gives a polite nod to customers as they enter the store.
As expected, Rob St. Michel seems a little uncomfortable being congratulated and hailed as a Community Champion – extremely grateful – but unmistakably Midwestern humility is preventing him from fully embracing the title. He begins by giving credit to the man who first provided him the opportunity to manage and buy the store about a decade ago. “Somebody’s always got to give you a chance,” Rob says. Rob began his career working in radio in Bottineau where he developed many community connections, including the local furniture store owner. Rob managed Bottineau’s furniture store before the owner offered it to Rob to take on. Rob now owns the Bottineau location alongside his furniture stores in Rugby; Devils Lake; and Bemidji, Minnesota. Rather than dwelling on the contents of his businesses, he’s most eager to discuss the structures that hold them. He notes that part of his Rugby location was built in the 1920s by a prominent family who ran a successful car dealership. “That dealership was an anchor for this town. I’m so grateful that they built it so well. It was one of the finest dealerships between Seattle and Minneapolis. I’m honored to own a piece of history.
This reverence for the past is the first way in which Rob showcases his ability to see the world in a bigger scope.
“I can’t stand to see a building deteriorate. I always think there’s something that can be done about it. Buildings are a big part of the history of a town…Too often in these small towns, people get a hold of these old buildings and use them for storage and let them sit empty.”
He recounts the instances in which he found a structure was too far gone to be salvaged. These stories are framed with genuine disappointment; buildings are as much a part of a community as the people who live there. To lose them, is to lose a personality or a landmark. Rob isn’t an archeologist, but preservation does rank high on his list of priorities.
“I’m going to work harder than anyone who works for me. I try to show them that I won’t ask them to do anything I won’t or haven’t done…I like the physical aspect of work,” he says, echoing Dale’s stories about Rob’s work ethic and moments when Rob refused to accept help when conditions were dangerous. “My expertise is in gutting the building.” He doesn’t see himself as an architect, or interior designer, just a go-getter. Partnering with people like Ashley, who are willing to see a project to fulfillment is ideal.
Rob and Ashley seem driven by the same DIY impulsivity. Whether that’s joining a community organization, starting a business, or in Rob’s case, adopting abandoned buildings.
“I don’t think I had a great plan going into these projects. They just kind of happened. You look at a building and think ‘Somebody needs to do something with that.’ And then eventually you talk yourself into it. That someone is you.”
Rob is eager to provide a complete tour of the St. Michel Furniture building, from the surprisingly spacious depths and up onto the roof. We start walking down a steep concrete slope which leads to cavernous rooms where the original dealership stored their vehicles. On the descent Rob points out the landmarks of a place that’s been inhabited by many forms of commerce and generations of people: the thickness of the wall from layers of paint, original doors, cracks and imperfections. One of the underground rooms houses massive cubes of cardboard Rob compacts himself. The monolithic bales are shipped to Minnesota to be recycled. Other side rooms serve as storage for items left by past inhabitants, rusted tin ceiling tiles piled in great convoluted sheets, solid wood desks, obsolete machinery. Rob notes that his grandson loves to ride his bike down the ramp and around the concrete bay. We re-emerge to street level and continue upwards. The upper floor contains several apartments and is where Rob’s own home is located. A door leads to the roof where we look out to the nearby structures visible above the treetops. These are some of Rugby’s most notable and historically significant landmarks: the grain elevator, the Mission-style Catholic Church built in the 1920s, the dome of the Pierce County Courthouse – built in 1910 and influenced by Renaissance architecture. Rob points out Ashley’s store and Dale’s funeral home. There are several other buildings he’s had a hand either remodeling or selling. “I’ve had a few successes along Main Street, here.”
Perhaps it’s this literal birds-eye view of his home, or it’s his passion for the historical that informs his legacy-minded perspective.
“In towns this size with [restoring] buildings, you’re never going to make a lot of money. That’s not the point. The point is to have a business inside with the lights burning, and create another reason to come to Rugby and shop. Downtowns are going to make a comeback. There are some younger people in the community now who want to create more business. We need to offer a way they can have a business that’s viable and vibrant and making in on Main.”
He notes that economic hardship is a very real issue in small towns. “When you lose a business it’s a blow to the community. Anytime you lose jobs or employees, it’s tough on a community. But they can come back.” Resilience comes in many forms. It helps rural towns compete as bustling destinations for commerce and families and opportunity. It helps patch a crumbling wall. Rob is thankful for the strong foundations that support the buildings and the people of Rugby.
Ideas are the hardest to pin down. We need people and places and things to helps us define who we are and our place in the world. Ideas provide us with our individual meaning within a greater context. Rob works with ideas all the time. Good and bad ideas, linear and intuitive ideas, complex ideas. But it’s how Rob transforms those ideas into tangible results that makes him a Community Champion. “There’s always something. It starts eating at you. You can try not to think about it, but the next thing you know, you’re making an offer on a building.” Whatever eats at Rob next, may he always be hungry.
City of Rugby website. www.cityofrugbynd.com
"Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History.” Sherman, William C. and Playford V. Thorson, editors.
The North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University. 1988.
Rugby Chamber of Commerce website. www.rugbynorthdakota.com
Rugby Job Development Authority website. www.rugbyjda.com