The Grand Forks Herald
September 28, 1998

Community of the Week: Nekoma, N.D.

The area's massive concrete "prairie pyramid" military radar site has become well-known around the world. It stands like a Mayan temple on the flat North Dakota landscape.

  • Location: Nekoma, N.D., is 100 miles northwest of Grand Forks. Take U.S. Highway 2 to Lakota, N.D., and then take North Dakota Highway 1 north to Nekoma. The town is served by the Northern Plains Railroad.

  • Why Nekoma has been in the news lately: The "prairie pyramid," the MSR (Missile Site Radar) at Nekoma, sits inactive. Area groups are hoping the military site will reopen someday.

  • Name: Nekoma is a Chippewa word meaning "I promise to do something." The town almost ended up being named "Polar" after a post office was moved to that site in 1905 from an original site one mile northeast of Nekoma. The community didn't officially become Nekoma until March 2, 1906.

  • What some Nekoma residents say about their community:

    -- Margaret Heck, a lifelong resident and the widow of Raymond Heck, who served as mayor for about six years and who died in early August: "It's really a nice little town to live in. Everyone helps everyone else. My husband enjoyed being mayor."

    -- Clint Esckilsen, who served with the military in Nekoma and who has retired in the community with his wife, Joyce: "I can't say enough about the people of the community and North Dakota, particularly the values that they hold. I like living here."

    -- Bill Verwey, who served as Nekoma mayor for 20 years and who has operated the Nekoma Bar for a quarter of a century: "I really like the people. We really have some wonderful people in this small community. I can't say enough good about them."

  • History: Nekoma was originally a Soo Line town site, founded in 1905 in Nekoma Township, Cavalier County. A string of northeastern North Dakota communities was founded when the railroad built its Wheat Line from Thief River Falls west into North Dakota in the early 1900s.

    At Fordville, N.D., the line branched into two, with one heading up toward Lankin, Adams and Fairdale, serving Nekoma. That line eventually ended at Kenmare, N.D, where it joined the Portal, N.D., main line. The southern route passed through Devils Lake.

    The Soo Line since has been merged into the Canadian Pacific Railway, which owned a majority of the former line's stock. It has stripped away many of the branch lines, such as the Wheat Line, which are operated by short-line carriers such as the Devils Lake-based Northern Plains.

    Nekoma was officially incorporated in 1906. It reached a population of 191 in 1930, and swelled when it was chosen as America's only Safeguard ABM and Missile Site Radar in the 1960s. The military installation is just northeast of the community.

    A busier time

    During the military period, Margaret Heck remembers, there were seven or eight businesses on main street, and several mobile home parks, a school and other facilities aimed at military personnel.

    Former Mayor Bill Verwey, originally from Inkster, N.D., who served as mayor during the missile period, said the population reached about 350 before the shutdown.

    "The missile people just began leaving soon after 1976, and businesses began closing. Soon, there weren't enough students to even keep the school open," Verwey said.

    Today, the town's bar is quiet in comparison to the military period. Most people stop by for a beer or two after work or on the weekend. Bud Light is the beer of choice while Canadian whiskey is the preferred liquor with Nekoma patrons.

    Brenda Leonard manages the city-owned Nekoma Cafe. Other than having some part-time help in the busy summer season, she does everything -- cooking, waiting on tables, washing dishes and keeping the books.

    The cafe, which was built in 1987, is open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays, serving primarily the noon meal. Daily specials include roast pork, mashed potatoes and gravy, and lasagna. For dessert, there might be cherry cheesecake, brownies or apple cake. Leonard has 10 entrees that are rotated. The special is priced at $5, with the beverage extra. The restaurant also offers grill service.

    Meat and potatoes

    "If the special is meat and potatoes, they (the customers) like it," Leonard said. "Everything is made from scratch."

    The cafe business is seasonal, with summer and fall the being the busiest, and winter the slowest period.

    Betty Gronhovd has been Nekoma postmaster for 20 years and worked as a postal clerk earlier. The post office, which has 60 rented mail boxes, was built in 1989.

    The mail arrives about 8 a.m., and Gronhovd has it sorted and in the individual boxes within half an hour. Many come in for their mail about that time. There's time to visit as patrons come and go.

    While the mobile home parks are now empty, Heck said some good legacies remain from the military period. They include water and sewer service within the community as well as asphalt streets.

    The former Nekoma school -- a new facility built by the government for a large student population -- closed in 1980 as enrollment tumbled. Students now attend classes in either Langdon or Edmore, N.D. The school, which had been empty, was acquired by Debora and Todd Gette, who have converted it into Todd's Store, which handles hardware, furniture, appliances and tools. It opened last February in the school's former cafeteria.

    With the death of Heck, the City Council appointed David Moen as mayor. Magaret Heck said that while her husband would look after city business almost single-handedly, his duties are now shared among council and city officers.

    Clinton Esckilsen, who served at the Nekoma military site, said he arrived in about 1973 as construction neared completion and the radar base became operational. It closed in 1977. Under the SALT treaty signed between the United States and the former Soviet Union, only two Safeguard sites were allowed -- at Nekoma and Washington, D.C. The Washington facility was never constructed.

    Esckilsen said Nekoma was chosen because it could guard the Minuteman missiles then deployed. Now those missiles have been removed. The federal government has mothballed military site buildings and services in case it should ever reactivate the site.

  • Economy: Agriculture has been primary in Nekoma's economy since its founding. Military spending was important when the MSR was operated.

    Mike Leonard, manager of the Nekoma Farmers Co-op Elevator Co., said the company, which has about 150 shareholders, has been a bulwark in the community for nearly 80 years. The elevator buys and handles small grains and specialty crops and handles farm fertilizer, including custom application, and chemicals. Leonard has served as manager for a year, moving to Nekoma from Larimore, N.D. The elevator, the main business in town, employs five.

    Leonard said the principal crops are hard red spring and durum wheat, barley, canola, sunflowers (both oil and confectionery) and flax. There also are some beef-cow calf herds.

    Leonard said that, because of poor prices, most of the grain in bins. Farmers are storing under the government program, so there is little movement at the elevator.

  • Population: The population according to the 1990 census is 63. Unofficial estimates put the population at about 80. Nekoma is unusual in that its population was relatively small years ago, then it grew dramatically before the military left in the 1970s. The population mix is primarily Scandinavian and German.

  • Notables: The massive concrete pyramid has become well-known around the world. It stands like a Mayan temple on the flat North Dakota prairie. The photo has been published in magazines and newspapers around the world.

    Tourists travel to the community just to see it. It will be around for awhile, as its walls consist of 7 feet of poured, steel-reinforced concrete. Much of the structure is underground.


  • Nekoma has an all-volunteer rural fire department and a military steel building has been moved to provide shelter for equipment.

  • Nekoma has an active Booster Club, with both members from the community and rural area participating. Events include a turkey dinner, harvest breakfasts and a Christmas celebration.

  • Attractions: Nekoma boasts a community park that has basketball and volleyball courts, picnic facilities, including a pavilion, and children's playground equipment.

  • Churches: There are three -- Presbyterian, Lutheran and St. Edward's Catholic.

    -- Compiled by Darrel Koehler, Herald staff writer, and based on interviews with Nekoma residents. A reference used is "North Dakota Place Names" by Douglas Wick.