Discovering Dakota: Big dreams in Wimbledon

This column was originally published in The Jamestown Sun on Monday, Aug. 24, 2009.

Yes, Wimbledon, N.D., has a tennis court.

Wimbledon also has a football field, basketball court and baseball diamonds, all on the north end of this town of about 200 people. But it’s the tennis courts that have the most fame, as this town shares its name with the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament. A group in North Dakota’s Wimbledon even sells T-shirts to visitors that say something to the effect of “I’ve played tennis at Wimbledon.”

I parked my car next to St. Boniface Catholic Church on a recent Friday afternoon, just south of Wimbledon’s cluster of ball fields and game courts. It was very warm and humid outside as I strolled through the town, which is about 20 miles north by northeast of Jamestown.

I walked south along a curved street into the heart of town, past the co-op and into Wimbledon Community Grocery. Tucked in the back of the store was the Wimbledon Community Cafe.
The cozy cafe had a few groups of customers there for lunch. I took a table in the corner by the kitchen and waited briefly before my waitress came by. She recommended the hamburgers, telling me they’re made from scratch, bun and all. I took her advice and ordered a bacon cheeseburger.

Moments later, I could hear the sound and smell the rich aroma of searing meat coming from the kitchen, which could be seen from the dining room through big, open windows.

My order came soon, and the burger was brilliant. It was a wonderful mix of salty and savory, with the beef and bacon working together in the best of ways. It was also very wet from the combined juices of the meat, ketchup, onions and pickles. I needed a fair number of napkins to keep my whiskers from turning into a sopping mess.

I later found out my waitress was the store’s manager, Jessica Clemens. She told me the store and cafe, which opened in April 2008, are doing well.

“Even in the winter we average at least 25 to 30 meals a day,” Clemens said.

I went to take a few photos of the cafe when my camera started producing an error message that made me very nervous. As I sat down to take it apart and try to fix the problem, Mary Engel noticed me.

Engel, of Rogers, N.D., is a teacher at the local school, Barnes County North Wimbledon Campus, and said her yearbook students use a similar model.

We talked a bit as she ate her “messy” California burger and I tinkered with my difficult gadget. She said the cafe always has great service and a few of her former students are among the staff.

I paid my tab and went outside to find the Wimbledon Community Museum a block to the northwest. The doors were locked, but a sign on the door listed several people to contact for admission. It said to inquire at any local business for help finding one of them.

The closest business was the local Bank Forward branch, where the lobby contained several bookshelves that function as Wimbledon’s public library. The shelves held a variety of volumes, from an Agatha Christie mystery to a science fiction novel by L. Ron Hubbard.

Renee Christ, assistant cashier, told me they got the shelves about a year ago and that her coworker Deb Lampert brought in a bunch of her own books to form a seed collection.

“We just brought our own … and it just grew from there until we had an overflow,” Christ said
I wasn’t able to get into the museum, but I was able to get a look at a famed singer’s former home, which was less than two blocks away. There, Mary Orn was able to teach me a thing or two about Peggy Lee.
Lee, born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, lived in the town’s Midland Continental Railroad Depot for about three years while her father, Marvin Egstrom, was the station agent. She graduated from Wimbledon High School in 1937 and left the town soon after to start a career in music that led to several Grammy awards and a nomination for an Academy Award.

Orn, treasurer of the Midland Continental Railroad Depot Restoration Committee, told me the railroad was created in a bold plan to connect Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico with a single transcontinental railroad that went all the way from north to south — the first of its kind. The railroad itself wound up stretching far short of the goal, making it only from Frazier, less than a mile from Wimbledon, to Edgeley, N.D.

Lee lived with her father and, in Orn’s words, her “wicked stepmother” in the depot building until she was 17. She even filled in for her father from time to time when he could not perform his duties.

Orn told me that her own great aunt, Peggy Rose, who now lives in Valley City, N.D., once double dated with the girl who would one day be famous for her version of the song “Fever,” — Peggy Lee had to sneak out through one of the depot’s windows to go out on the date.

The depot itself isn’t open to the public yet. It’s in the middle of a restoration process that will turn it into the Midland Continental Interpretive Center. The walls have been stripped to the frames and a new foundation will be poured for the building, which will also feature a fair bit of Lee memorabilia.

The project is also being sponsored by the Wimbledon Community Museum Inc.

Orn said she is continuing the work her mother, Myrna Bultema, did toward turning the depot into an interpretive center. She said her mother left $20,000 in seed money for the effort — funds that have borne fruit.

The committee has already secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and is raising some matching funds. The effort has also had some special private donations, including one anonymous donor who is providing three of Lee’s dresses, one of her hats and one of her paintings.

But before those items can be displayed, there is work to be done to get the building ready in accordance with the rules imposed on it for being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means it must be restored as closely as possible to its original form. For about the next year or so the depot will be a work in progress, and Orn fretted about how nothing looked nearly as good as it will in the future.

“When you take a picture, I think ‘Agh!’” she told me.

(Logan C. Adams is the assistant editor of The Jamestown Sun. He blogs at www.areavoices.com/ adams and can be reached at 701-952-8451 or by e-mail at ladams@jamestownsun.com)

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