Discovering Dakota | Down in the valley

The following column was originally published in The Jamestown Sun on Aug. 25, 2008.

I felt a little ill while pulling into Valley City, N.D., on a recent Saturday.

I don’t know if it was caused by my lack of sleep or lousy diet, but I wasn’t at my best when I turned off Interstate 94 into this town of about 7,000 people.

Whatever it was, it made me think a stop at the Medicine Wheel was worth a try.

The wheel is an arrangement of stones that work as a calendar using the sun. It is located south of the main part of Valley City State University’s campus. It was put there in the early 1990s by VCSU Professor Joe Stickler and several of his students to emulate similar devices built by Native Americans.

I can only guess that those students really wanted some extra credit; some of those stones are huge. The wheel is 213 feet in circumference and doubles as a diagram of our solar system. The circle of red stones in the center form the Sun, and Mercury, Venus and Earth are all located on the wheel. The remaining “planets” sit at locations outside the wheel proportional to what they would be if the entire solar system were compressed to fit on a small piece of North Dakota prairie.

Mars is just outside the wheel, and Jupiter is next to the sign you pass when you first approach the wheel. Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are all along a path that leads to the Regional Technology Center parking lot, where Pluto, the heavenly body formerly known as a planet, sits one-third of a mile from the “sun.” The ring was built long before the International Astronomic Union’s controversial 2006 decision to demote Pluto from planet to planetoid, so don’t think that Stickler and his students made a mistake. And Pluto will always be a planet to me.

I found while walking the course that the three outermost stones had been damaged, with all or part of their shiny name tags broken off.

The path also goes by a good spot to look over many of Valley City’s sites, including the Hi-Line Bridge, a 3,860-foot-long century-old bridge that carries trains 162 feet above the Sheyenne River.

I walked back to the wheel and clambered to the top of a stone-covered pedestal that looks over it from the north. Satisfied with the view, I stepped down and walked out to the little red center of the Medicine Wheel because, like most people, I’ve always wanted to have myself a moment in the sun.

Satisfied with the wheel, I got back into my car and drove down into the center of Valley City to seek out a meal. This was when I realized that coming to Valley City was a mistake.

With most small towns, there are only a few restaurants to choose from. In Valley City, I found more options than I could count on one hand, and I wound up spending the better part of an hour driving back and forth, mostly on Main Street and Central Avenue, trying to decide on one.

It was during the first of these laps around Valley City that I discovered the marketing strategy of Northwestern Industries, a hunting-centered store on East Main that advertises itself with a doe decoy set out on the curb. Nothing says “Stop here!” like a deer that looks as if it’s about to cross the road.

It took me a while, but I was finally able to pick a place to dine at: Roby’s Family Restaurant. I was a little worried when I walked inside — something about the decor made it hard to feel at ease — but my hungry stomach refused to let me change my mind anymore. I sat down, ordered the “Fisherman’s Fillet,” and awaited my fate.

The menu said the meal would be a fish sandwich with coleslaw and “a ton of fries.” The pile of fried potato slivers that came on my platter were nowhere near what I would consider “a ton,” but they tasted good and I didn’t complain.

The fish was good, although a bit on the dry side, and the slaw was excellent. It was the perfect balance of dressing and shredded vegetables, and not soggy in the least.

After the meal, I set off on foot through one of the city’s neighborhoods and discovered the Valley City Skate Park, where young competitors in some event took to the obstacles without helmets, pads or shirts. It was as if they were hoping to discover first-hand the more abrasive qualities of concrete.

I crossed a nearby foot bridge across the Sheyenne River (there’s a reason they call it the “City of Bridges”) and wound up standing in the middle of VCSU campus just in time to hear the clock tower of McFarland Hall play the same tune I’ve heard from many similar collegiate buildings, the “Westminster Quarters,” to mark 3 p.m.

The campus itself was in rough shape as the lawn was all torn up to make room for some pipe being installed. I imagine it will look much better once the work is done.

I retraced my steps to Main Street and went over to have a look at some of downtown Valley City’s antique shops. Some of the best antique shopping I’ve ever seen can be found within a few blocks of the intersection of Central Avenue and Main Street.

No purchases this time, though. I just looked around to see if they had any interesting old typewriters or cameras.

Back outside, I made my way west to the Rosebud Visitor Center. I went in expecting to find a desk with someone there to do public relations for the city. Instead, I found several historical exhibits, including an elegant, restored railroad car for which the center is named, and the weekend hostess, Lila Bemis. Bemis told me the car was made in 1881 primarily for the transport of railroad dignitaries. She told me, after a little bit of prodding, that it was her favorite of the exhibits.

“Its history … A lot of my friends worked on that car,” she said.

The building was actually put up around it, she said, and you look in through the windows to see mannequins and artifacts from a century ago that show what it looked like inside originally. You just can’t go inside.

The caboose out in front of the center, however, was open to the public the day I visited. I walked in and climbed up a ladder to a seat that had a view of the surrounding area.

I climbed down, stepped outside and went south across Main Street again. I went halfway across the foot bridge into City Park and watched the Sheyenne for a bit. The wind made it look like it was moving a lot faster than it really was.

I checked the time and realized that I needed to leave soon to make an appointment back in Jamestown. It was time to go.

It will take a few more trips to Valley City, I decided, before I know enough about it. The place is just too big. For now, though, I’ll be sticking to the smaller towns.

(Logan C. Adams is the assistant editor of The Jamestown Sun. He operates the Suns news blog at and can be reached at 701-952-8451 or by e-mail at ladams@

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One Response to Discovering Dakota | Down in the valley

  1. Thanks a million. That has been cool reading