The following column was originally published on Aug. 4 in The Jamestown Sun. In the original version, Emily Mclamb’s state of origin was mistakenly listed as South Carolina. It has been corrected in this version.
I was hungry when I pulled into New Rockford, N.D., on a warm July afternoon. There was a fair amount of road work on the way, and several miles of U.S. Highway 281 north of Carrington were just loose gravel.
There was a sign that pointed left and said the business district was that-a-way, so I turned off the highway and found my way downtown.
I parked when I saw the first restaurant that I knew would not be some cookie-cutter chain and went inside. To my disappointment, the man behind the bar at Buck-its Pub & Pizza said all he had were frozen pizzas until 5 p.m.
To his credit, he said I could find good food either at Nathan’s, which was back by the highway, or at the Rockford Cafe, which was a block away. The closer restaurant won.
I was embarrassed to find that I had driven right past the cafe when I was in my car. The sign with its name is smallÂ — only half the size of the attached Coca-Cola signÂ — and the building just didn’t scream “eat here.”
These observations, coupled with the distance from the highway, raised my expectations as I walked through the door. The food simply must be good for a small-town restaurant to stay in business this far from the highway.
The place was clean but dimly lit. I noticed dozens of pictures of New Rockford people and sights covering the walls. Off to one side were some shelves and a table covered in baked goods for sale.
I took a seat at the counter, from which I could see most of the kitchen, took my menu and ordered a pop to drink. That last part would prove to be a mistake.
I asked the waitress what was good. She said she liked everything (big surprise) but added that she really loved the patty melt. The fellow sitting two spots to my right said I should try the turkey vegetable soup, in which he was partaking at the time, but I thought it was too warm outside for soup.
Then I noticed an item called a “Canadian burger.” The cook explained the dish to me and I ordered it with some battered onion petals on the side.
Then the waiting began. I sipped my soda while I waited and looked around the room. Soon enough, the cook called out “Order up!” and my meal was ready.
A Canadian burger is made of the following, listed in order from bottom to top: bun, beef patty, cheese, ham slice, cheese, sauteed onions, bun. Out of habit, I added ketchup and mustard and dug in.
The combination worked together quite well, and the onion petals were fried to perfection.
The meal was a good one. It would have been better if not for the cafe’s overpriced drinks, but oh well.
I went back outside and found my way across the city’s Centennial Park and came to New Rockford’s famed Opera House and the attached coffee shop, the Latte Lobby. Inside I met Emily McLamb, herself a recent import to North Dakota who was in charge of the place.
McLamb, who moved here from North Carolina in December, said she has two jobs at The Opera House. The first is selling drinks in the daytime, and the second is performing in “Ring of Fire”five nights a week. The jobs are a package deal.
We started out talking about what sort of drinks the people of New Rockford prefer. She said hazelnut and Irish creme are popular, and the strawberry smoothies are also a hit. I ordered one of the latter, and I learned why they’re so well liked.
I asked her what the transition was like, moving from a southern state to North Dakota in December.
“Cold,” she said with a grin that was part grimace. “Cold as hell.”
In the musical, McLamb is one of several performers who sing many of the songs that made Johnny and June Carter Cash famous. Some songs are solos or duets and other numbers take more voices.
She listed a few of the tunes in her still-strong southern accent. “I Still Miss Someone.” “Jackson.” “Hey Porter.” To my disappointment, “One Piece At A Time” was not among them.
I thought about buying a ticket until McLamb answered the phone and told the caller that night’s showing was all sold out. Maybe another time, I told myself.
Also sitting in the shop was Steven May, a young man from South Africa who was in New Rockford working as a beekeeper while taking a break from college. He was barefoot and held a magazine with hands that had little red marks all over them.
I asked May if he got the marks from his job. No, he said, the marks had come from painting a truck the day before; he just hadn’t found the chance to wash them off.
May said it was a matter of weeks before he would return home to South Africa and continue his studies in accounting.
I left with my drink, which was too big to finish, and crossed the park again to check out Hagen’s SuperValu. I was relieved to find when I arrived that at least someone in New Rockford charges a fair price for cold soda. At the checkout line inside I met Diana Rue, who was at the register, and Lois Jacobson, who was checking out.
Jacobson told me she is proud of her town and felt that the residents do a good job of keeping their homes and property tidy.
“I think I found four places in town that I thought needed work,” she said.
I asked them what sights I should see before I was done. The musical was the first suggestion. The second came from Rue, who said I should go see Hanson’s Bar, which was across the street from The Opera House.
“Go in there and look at all the pictures,” she said.
I took her advice and found the bar.
Inside the bar I found walls covered in art. The side with the bar had all sorts of smaller artworks and memorabilia while the other walls literally were covered in paintings of Western and outdoor scenes.
Robbie Lies, the bartender, pulled some old newspaper clippings out from below the counter to explain the paintings’ origins. I learned that the big paintings literally on the walls were done by “Cowboy Joe” Breckenridge, an artist who was known for being able to produce beautiful work very quickly.
Lies said he’d done most of the paintings back around the late 1940s using a wide brush. One of the works was signed and dated 1947.
But that wasn’t the only historical treasure held in the bar. Lies took me back to two storage roomsÂ — he didn’t seem to worry about the patrons we left up frontÂ — that used to be a two-lane bowling alley.
“As you can see, I’m a collector,” Lies said as he guided me past all sorts of stuff he kept in the back rooms. Some of it was art, some of it was more practical and some of it I was afraid to ask about.
Deep in back he showed me the original pinsetters, ones that had been operated by someone pulling a handle to do all the work once upon a time. Lies said the building was put up in 1913 by a druggist, became a restaurant in the 1920s and then became a bar after Prohibition ended.
“They bowled until after the second world war, but I don’t know how long,” he said.
Back up front he showed me more of the art collection, including paintings that were hung from walls instead of being created on them (easier to move, Lies said). He hit a switch from back behind the bar and a small light came on overhead, illuminating a portrait of John Wayne that he said was drawn by a local artist.
“I suppose everything here has a story behind it,” Lies said.
I left the bar and started up my car. I drove back to the highway and went north again, just on a hunch. At the north end of town I found New Rockford’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was very impressive for a town its size. There’s a stone monument, an M-47 “Patton” tank and a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, all a stone’s throw from U.S. 281.
Both of the retired weapons were facing to the north. They looked as if they were standing guard against a potential Canadian invasion.
(Logan C. Adams is the assistant editor of The Jamestown Sun. He operates the Sun’s news blog at www.areavoices.com/adams and can be reached at 701-952-8451 or by e-mail at ladams@ jamestownsun.com)