When I was a little kid growing up in Hettinger, North Dakota, my seven favorite words from my Dad were “Anybody want to go for a ride?” That question came usually on a soft summer evening, and it meant we were all going to pile into the station wagon and Dad was just going to drive us around town, and probably on the loop road around Mirror Lake, a whole bunch of blonde heads hanging out the car windows.
See, in those days, “going for a ride” was a big deal. In Hettinger, we were able to, and expected to, walk or ride our bikes everywhere we went. The town was only ten blocks long, from north to South, and about 12 blocks wide, east to west. We walked to school. We walked to church. Even in winter. We rode our bikes to baseball practice or down to the lake to catch sunfish and bluegills. Heck, there were times when we kids went days, even weeks, without getting into the car.
My dad, the wisest man I ever knew, could just tell when us kids had been rambunctious all day long and my mom was at her wits end, needing a break from us. So however many of us there were at the time (there would eventually be seven of us) would jump in the station wagon and we’d just drive around town. And make one special stop: at the Knotty Pine Drive-In.
The Knotty Pine was like a small town Hollywood set for a movie about the 1950’s, complete with speakers on poles between the cars for ordering and car hops delivering trays to us, which propped against a half-open driver’s side window. It was open from about the time school got out in the Spring until it started again in the Fall, generally Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. (And yes, I am supporting the measure on the ballot here this fall to start school after Labor Day. They did it when I was a kid, and I turned out all right, I think.) If the weather stayed nice in the fall, I remember, the Knotty Pine would remain open into September, but you had to walk up to the window to order during the day, because all of the car hops had gone back to school. There were car hops only in the evenings and on weekends in September. And then a cold spell would hit, and the drive-in would close abruptly, with only a day or two notice.
My favorite treats on those summer nights with Dad were root beer in frosty mugs, chocolate milk shakes, or ice cream cones with cinnamon-sugar flakes somehow mixed right into the ice cream itself in a special machine inside the drive–in. We only got one thing, and it was hard to choose.
The drive-in was owned and run by a couple of what we considered middle aged “spinsters” named Evy and Julie, who lived together in a house on the east side of town all summer and mysteriously disappeared in the fall, to somewhere in the south, I think. We didn’t know it or even think it at the time (although I suspect our parents did) that they might have been a lesbian couple, and if they were, they were the first, and only, for a long, long time, lesbians I knew. All I knew was, they made life happy at that drive-in for hundreds of kids growing up in Hettinger (and hundreds of moms who shooshed the kids out of the house for a half hour or so in the evening after tending to them all day long). Most moms in Hettinger didn’t have jobs outside the home, and needed a break about 7 on a summer evening.
I was thinking about the Knotty Pine this week when I read of the problems some of the hospitality industry people here in Bismarck are having in trying to find help. Now there’s a problem caused by the oil boom we never counted on.
Just a few weeks ago, on one of those perfect summer evenings, about two hours after supper, Lillian and I decided we’d like a treat from Dairy Queen. I volunteered to go. We live about a 15 minute walk, or a 90-second drive, from the iconic home of the Buster Bar and Hot Fudge Sundaes at the corner of Broadway and Washington. It’s very convenient, but we don’t abuse the privilege more than four or five times a summer. That night was one of them. Lillian ordered a hot fudge sundae, I had my heart set on a Buster Bar, and I hopped in the car, and less than two minutes later I was staring at a sign that said “Closed. No Workforce.”
The sign on the service window said they were still open at their Highway 83 location. Too far. Lillian’s Hot Fudge Sundae would be mush by the time I got home from there. So I drove to the grocery store up the street and got a carton of chocolate gelato. Craving satisfied. But it was a sad night, knowing there would be no more evening walks or drives to the DQ. (I tried the Highway 83 store a week later—it had a sign that said “Closed for the season August 24.”)
The next night on TV there was a story about the DQ being closed, and also an interview with the owner of Bismarck’s famed Peacock Alley Restaurant. The oil boom has not been a good thing for him, he said. “Low unemployment is a good statistic for politicians to brag about, but it is not a good statistic for business people,” Dale Zimmerman told KX News. In spite of doubling wages over the past four years, Zimmerman has had to cut his hours of operation because he can’t find enough people to serve his customers. He doesn’t want anyone leaving there complaining about poor service. Better to restrict hours. He says he’d hire 20 more people if he could, right now. 20 jobs going wanting. At one restaurant. In Bismarck, North Dakota. Go figure.
This week, it got worse. Mandan’s Seven Seas Hotel and Conference Center owner, Shannon Gangl, announced he was closing the hotel’s restaurant, Montana Mike’s, due to lack of staff. Not cutting hours. Completely closing. That is a worst case scenario.
Dairy Queen closed for the season before summer’s end. Seven Seas restaurant closed permanently. Two Bismarck-Mandan institutions. Long before there was Peacock Alley, or Pirogue, or Kobe, years before Taco John and Arby’s, there were the Seven Seas and Dairy Queen. Two or three generations of Bismarck kids made that kitty-corner trip across Washington from the Elks Pool on a hot summer day before their bike ride home. And for my generation, the Seven Seas Dining Room and the Gourmet House were the top two fine dining restaurants in the two cities. Bob and Eileen Clifford closed the Gourmet House twenty years ago now, and Barry and Esther Davis sold the Seven Seas not long after, with the new owners renting out the dining room and kitchen space to a chain which served pretty good food.
For my friends and I who came here in the 1970’s, young and poor, the Seven Seas was our place to splurge, for the famous Seven Seas South American Steak, on anniversaries and New Year’s Eve, and a regular place to just go and have a drink and order garlic toast and the best liver pate’ in America and listen to Barry play the piano on a Saturday night. Now, there’s no food at the Seven Seas. Unthinkable. (Although you can still buy Essie’s famous South American sauce at the grocery store—good for you, Esther.)
I sent the story from the local paper to Esther this week (Barry’s been gone a few years now) and she responded “I cannot believe this! How very sad, as we all spent so many fun times with guests who were friends or soon became friends. With the hotel you would think they would have to have food. What awful changes in N.D.” Esther’s two sons, who grew up working behind the scenes at the Seven Seas, chimed in with their disappointment as well.
That’s the downside of the oil boom. More jobs than people, in spite of the huge influx of new residents. The employment crunch has hit here later than most places in the Oil Patch, but for those of us who live in the state capital, the downside of the boom has hit home.
To be sure, there are upsides to the boom here. We went from having no Japanese restaurants in town to three, which is a treat, because we had the least diverse restaurant choices of any major city in the Midwest just a couple years ago. The service is good there, because they have all brought their own staff to town with them. Not only can we get good Japanese food now, but we can hear the workers conversing in languages we don’t understand. My guess is if they couldn’t do that, the restaurants wouldn’t be here.
North Dakota’s top tourist destination, Medora, has hired foreign workers for years, college-age kids who are here on temporary visas. Without them, Medora wouldn’t be open at all. Last winter, in fact, what is arguably the state’s best restaurant, Theodore’s in the Rough Riders Hotel, was closed for six months because of a lack of help. We’ll see if it is open this winter. I hope so, I love going there in the winter.
So, to all my friends with whom I spent many an evening at the Seven Seas, raise your glasses in a toast to days gone by. To anybody who wants a Buster Bar from the Bismarck DQ, (and it was the only place I know of where you could get a shrimpburger, too) sorry, you’ll have to wait to see what happens next spring. Two fine institutions, victims of too much success. It’s a brave new world in North Dakota. Get used to it.
A note to all my readers: My blog is hosted by the Forum Communications Company and appears on the website of their North Dakota newspapers in Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown and Dickinson. I appreciate their willingness to do that. Sometimes the readers of my blog make a comment on the end of one of my articles. In order to try to keep these comments clean, the Forum does not let them show up until I have approved them. Ever since I started writing this blog, each time someone made a comment on one of my posts, it triggered a switch at Forum headquarters somewhere, and that switch sent me an e-mail telling me there was a comment waiting for me to approve. So I’d rush right in there and approve it, acknowledging to my readers/commenters that I had seen their comment.
For a couple of months now, I haven’t been getting any comments. I never gave it much thought until today, when I was wandering around in the bowels of the Forum blogosphere, and found a whole string of unapproved comments. Damn, those Forum people, I thought to myself, they were supposed to be notifying me when I got comments. So I quickly began approving them, and posting them to the appropriate blog article. Took most of my morning. Still cussing. Then I got to the bottom and found a comment from my site administrator asking me for my new e-mail address. Duh, of course, when I got hacked so many times I closed my e-mail account, and neglected to tell the guy at the Forum. So of course, all those e-mails that said “There is a new comment on your post waiting to be approved . . .” were just going into cyberspace somewhere, without me knowing about it.
Well, damn. I apologize to all of you who were good enough to post a comment to my blog and then wondered why it did not show up. Some important people, including Earl Pomeroy, and some good friends of mine, have been silently calling me an a-hole for ignoring their comments. The good news is, I finally gave my guy at the Forum my new e-mail address so he (his computer, actually) can let me know when you comment on my blog. Sorry. Old dog. New tricks.