When Kristen Daum, the Fargo Forum reporter, came to Aunt Lil’s in Hickson, North Dakota last week, we didn’t know what to expect. My cousins – Debbie, Ross and Curt were there, along with Aunt Lil. Kristen had surprised us by asking if she might come and interview our family for a story about the personal side of the diversion project – that massive 2 billion dollar idea to flood out communities in order to save land in Fargo/Moorhead. We accepted. She spent almost two hours sitting around Aunt Lil’s dining table, letting us share our thoughts and concerns. And when she left she said that the plan was to gather as much personal information from families as possible in the next few months and then write a feature story for the Fargo Forum. Good. A new direction. Far more than we had hoped.
But then she called back and said her editors would like to run just our story on Sunday. Wow. Even better.
Sunday brought not just a story, but a FRONT PAGE FEATURE. A BIG FEATURE.
The Fargo newspaper has spent untold months and lots of ink covering all the facts of this project. They have focused on the political grappling, the innumerable meetings, the hows, whys, and wherefores. On top of the usual reportage, they have even chimed in with their own editorial take which consisted of something like – “Whatever your position. Never mind. It’s going to happen!”
Consequently, it was something of a surprise to have the Forum decide to focus upon the personal family story and give us such a prominent feature. And, more importantly, to commit to other local narratives in the future. This Johnson story, after all, sprang from my father’s heritage on the North Dakota banks of the Red River Valley. Just across the dividing line, on the Minnesota side, sits the log cabin where my Grandma Marie first lived and the cemeteries holding her parents, Jens and Kirsten Jonson and her husband, Grandpa Johan with the peonies upon the grave. So many stories to tell.
We’re hoping that our little pebble will bring about lots of big ripples.
Thanks to Kristen Daum, reporter for the Fargo Forum. Her reportage from March 11, 2012 follows:
“RED RIVER DIVERSION THREATENS FAMILY’S LONG LINEAGE IN HICKSON. Lillian Johnson’s home here offers a window into the family’s roots spanning three centuries along the Red River: Those roots, like those of other families in this town 15 miles south of Fargo, would be washed away if the proposed Red River diversion is ever built.
The origin of Johnson’s 105-year-old house is reflected in it’s vintage wallpaper; exposed hot-water heaters and rich woodwork lining every door and window. There are old photographs, heirlooms and family relics that showcase the Johnson’s history – first on the homestead and then, for the past 60 years or so, in the white house on Third Street. But it’s the people and their memories that have made Hickson a lasting home for the Johnsons.
Gathered around their antique dining room table one recent afternoon, members of the family recalled with joy the countless holidays, reunions and vacations spent at the family nest. Johnson’s nephew, Ross Rehder, remembered summers with his grandfather catching catfish and frogs in the Red River. “It was things you don’t ever replace in your childhood, “ said Rehder; now 69, of Comstock, Minn.
But with the diversion project looming in the coming years, the family worries about how many more memories they’ll still be able to have there. “They want to uproot the roots,” said Johnson’s daughter. Debbie Fowler, 59, who now lives in nearby Walcott. “It’s that heritage they want to get rid of.”
The planned diversion around Fargo includes a temporary water storage area south of the city – in actuality, a dam that will displace residents in Hickson, Oxbow and the Bakke subdivision and potentially hundreds of others living as for south as Richland and Wilkin counties. Diversion Authority officials are pursuing solutions they hope will prevent full buyouts of the three towns and minimize other upstream impacts. But for now, affected residents, like the Johnsons, can only plan for the worst-case scenario: A future where their heritage will drown at the expense of flood protection for the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.
In 1870 Jorgan Jacob Johannesen left Norway and immigrated to the Dakota Territory with only a few belongings, a wagon, a cow and two oxen, named Pope and Spot. Johannesen married his neighbor’s daughter, Elen Arent, a match that sparked more than four generations of lineage in Hickson. Although the homestead is now long gone, the site still unites the 12 living great-grandchildren of Jorgan and Elen.
“All of us cousins have made a lot of pilgrimages there in the last few years,” said Lillian’s niece, Diane Johnson, 73. “I was the only one of the (original) 15 cousins who didn’t really grow up here, and I longed for it all my life,” she said. “I just wanted to be a part of it and be a part of the homestead.”
At 88, Lillian Johnson – Johannesen’s granddaughter-in-law – is the family’s matriarch. After marrying Earl Johnson, she moved out to Hickson from Fargo in 1948 and has lived in the family home ever since. “I like it out here,” she said. “I’ve got my own well, it’s 20 minutes to Fargo, and I’m pretty independent, so why would I want to move to town?” Her youngest son, Kevin, 56, has his eyes set on moving home from Arizona and eventually inheriting the Hickson house. “He says, ‘Mom, if they’re going to flood it, how can I move home?’” Lillian Johnson said. “We’re going to fight it.”
Like the majority of other residents in these parts, the Johnson family is angered and worried about the uncertainty of the diversion project. They understand the need for flood protection in Fargo-Moorhead, but not at their expense. “You have to accept change – if it makes sense,” Lillian Johnson said. “I don’t accept change for change’s sake.” Her daughter, Debbie, agrees, wondering why government officials want to spend nearly $2 billion on a project that might help Fargo but won’t make the city immune from a flooding disaster. “It’s such an expensive project, and there’s so many unknowns,” Fowler said. “If we have to sacrifice, fine, we’ll get over it …But you want it to be worth it.”
While the family can move and take their memories with them, some of their heritage simply can’t be relocated, at least not without traumatic disruption. Four generations of Johnson’s are buried in local cemeteries in and around Hickson. The sites are among about a dozen cemeteries south of Fargo-Moorhead that will be affected by the extra water associated with the diversion’s storage area. Hemnes Cemetery – the resting place of Jorgan and Elen Johannesen and other early settlers – could see as much as three feet of extra water, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. In talking with her cousins about their concerns, Diane Johnson learned heartbreaking news – four cemeteries – not three – housing Johnson ancestors stand to be inundated by the project. The fourth cemetery Johnson thought would be safe – the North Pleasant cemetery in Hickson – is the resting place of her father. “I just got goosebumps,” Diane said, crestfallen and throwing up her arms in disgust. “Now, I’m really upset …I’m on a new level of irritation.”
As the Johnsons and other local families deal with the emotional turmoil of planning for the proposed diversion, the possibility remains that the project might not even happen. Despite government leader’s best efforts to continue advancing the project, numerous obstacles could very well delay or halt it indefinitely: a lack of funding, congressional red tape, environmental concerns, lawsuits from passionate opponents and more.
That uncertainty leaves Lillian Johnson and her neighbors in limbo, unsure of how to plan for the future. Relatively simple decisions, like whether to spend $3000 to have her home’s exterior painted, are now complicated choices for Lillian. “I like to keep things up, but this could go on for five, 10 years” Johnson said. “What do I do?” “It’s heartbreaking,” she added. “All my life, I said if I could ever live long enough so that I didn’t have any bills and I had enough money to bury me so I wouldn’t be a burden on my children – I’d be happy. Well, when you reach that point in life, and then they want to take it all away from you, it just doesn’t seem right.”