New Salem is in many ways exemplary of North Dakota’s small town ideals. It has three bars, a grocery store, premium farmland, a 1986 9-man football championship and a communal spirit passed down for generations.
“It’s like Pleasantville,” said Bill Kramer, who owns The Field bar with his wife Jacey, describing a community just large enough to have amenities, but still small enough that everyone has to pitch in — sometimes working several jobs — to keep the place running.
The size of New Salem, home to some 1,000 people, has acquired a new kind of significance in the latest chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic in North Dakota: A 2019 census estimate puts the town at 989 residents, the same number of North Dakotans who have died with COVID-19 as of Friday, Dec. 4.
As the state approaches its 1,000th COVID-19 death, an immeasurable loss, one way to grasp the incomprehensible may be to picture North Dakota without New Salem. It’s like losing the cow town completely.
“It’s pretty devastating to everything. To even think that a town like that would be off the map with how many people have died in nine months is pretty disturbing,” Kramer said. “You can’t replace that generation of people — the experience, the knowledge.”
As in many North Dakota towns, life from the outside looks pretty close to normal in New Salem. The grind of grain elevators still lays the soundtrack for downtown streets. Right now, the telephone poles along Main Avenue are lit with electric snowflakes, and many of the nearby houses are rimmed in Christmas lights.
A closer look reveals the subtle differences. During Sunday Masses at St. Pius V Catholic Church, the nave is sparsely populated with parishioners sitting pews apart. School children sport colorful masks that sometimes slip beneath their noses as they run to the buses. The owner of the local grocery, Deb Tellmann, hasn’t seen her uncle since March even though he lives just a few blocks from her store, in the town nursing home.
The mayor, Lynette Fitterer, the first woman elected to that office in the town’s history (in a 2010 election that she recalled as “a frickin’ landslide”), said that, for the most part, New Salem has taken these adjustments in stride. In her day job, Fitterer is the retail manager at Dakota Frontier Cooperative, a fuel station and co-op on the road into town, and she said most people who stop into the store wear masks now. She’ll remind friends if they don’t.
Lynette Fitterer, mayor of New Salem, N.D., is the retail manager at Dakota Frontier Cooperative, a fuel station and co-op on the road into town. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Even though Fitterer has received her share of calls and complaints about pandemic precautions, she said folks have mostly managed to keep their heads on straight. “I really believe people in town here have just gone with it,” she said. “It is what it is.”
Still, New Salem has some stubborn ways. Fitterer said the hardest part of her decade as mayor has been getting people on board with needed changes. For her, that means things like repaving old roads, fixing water mains and bumping up the town sales tax. COVID-19 brought change of a different order.
“There was a time, probably two months ago, where I honestly considered doing a mask mandate in New Salem,” Fitterer said, recalling a stretch when a local outbreak forced high school classes to go virtual and when many of her friends tested positive. But she joked, “I don’t know — I think looking back now, I probably would have been crucified on Main Street.”
But masks have been slowly adopted over the last two months in New Salem, with the town gradually acknowledging the seriousness of the virus as family and neighbors got sick.
The town of New Salem, N.D., is seen Monday, Nov. 30, 30 miles west of Bismarck. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
High school students warm up for basketball practice Monday, Nov. 30, in New Salem, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
For some of the youngest residents in town, reality dawned almost with the flip of a switch.
In mid-October, the New Salem Holsteins football team (now 11-man) had to forfeit its last game of the season because of a virus outbreak that knocked out some of its star players. A win would have delivered them to the state playoffs. In-person high school classes went on hiatus the next week, and on the following Monday holdouts slowly donned masks, a response to what Superintendent Brian Christopherson described as positive peer pressure. “It was just like that,” he recounted. “Slow at first, but as the day went on, some of the popular kids had a mask on, and then some of the other kids. I had hundreds of masks to give out.”
At the same time, the handful of bars and restaurants in town have gotten quieter.
The Field — so named years ago, according to its owners, so that farmers could always say that they were “in the field” — has been a vital watering hole in New Salem for generations. A favorite spot of nearby farmers, its barstools have their own place in the area’s long history of big money land deals. “There’s been millions of dollars of business done on napkins in that place,” Kramer said.
In the pandemic, The Field has lost this central position. A bar that the Kramers said used to regularly pack in more than 100 people at a time, even drawing patrons from the nursing home on some pre-pandemic days, now sees about 30 different faces on a good day.
Employees of the Elm Crest Rehabilitation Center gather at the main entrance Monday, Nov. 30, in New Salem, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Bill Kramer, who owns The Field bar with his wife Jacey in New Salem, N.D., talks Monday, Nov. 30, about how his business has struggled during the pandemic. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
But even with pandemic anxiety on the rise in New Salem, many residents snubbed warnings for months. The Kramers said some of their patrons can be especially stubborn, so much so that it’s difficult to pin down just how widespread COVID-19 has been in the surrounding community because so many people don’t want to admit that they came down with the virus.
“You’re not getting those farmers and ranchers and those old cowboys to go in. They’re sitting at home with their cold,” Jacey Kramer said.
“I know hundreds of people that definitely had it, and they refused to go get it tested,” Bill Kramer added. He suggested that some New Salem farmers seemed readier to contend with death than check themselves into a hospital. “I’ve heard about them going and just keep combining when they couldn’t breathe, and they just went right through it.”
Main Avenue is seen Monday, Nov. 30, in New Salem, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
For June Doll, the pandemic has upended life, despite the care she and her family took to follow precautions.
A lifelong New Salemite, June recalled that her friends set her up on a blind date in 1963, just before her freshman year of high school. She and her date, a senior named Ron Doll, soon fell in love. Four years later, after June graduated, the two got married and bought a dairy farm south of town, where they lived and worked for more than 50 years.
When COVID-19 hit the Doll family in October, June, Ron and their son all got sick. Ron, who already had a depleted immune system, got it worst of all, coming down with the virus a few weeks before his 74th birthday. The family rushed him 30 miles east to Bismarck, where he was airlifted to a Fargo hospital the same day.
June, her son and two daughters couldn’t visit Ron and had to talk to him through FaceTime. “He didn’t know that he was in Fargo,” June said. In the weeks after Ron’s airlift, he was unconscious almost the entire time. “The virus just took over his lungs and pretty much destroyed him,” she said.
After three weeks, doctors told June that she would have to make a decision about keeping her husband alive. She and her children drove to Fargo and stayed overnight in a motel, prepared to take Ron off his ventilator the next day. “We thought we knew what we were doing that day,” June said. “But I couldn’t do it when we got there.”
The Dolls had their priest, the Rev. John Guthrie, administer a final prayer service, bringing him in over a video call from New Salem. June and her son, who had already gotten COVID-19, were in the hospital room with Ron. Her two daughters said goodbye through the window.
“It’s not something that I want anybody else to go through,” June said. “It’s pretty heartbreaking to make those decisions about someone else’s life.”
Rev. John Guthrie of St. Pius V Catholic Church in New Salem, N.D., said the COVID-19 pandemic is proof of the ties between this “small community out in central North Dakota” and the rest of the world. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
For Guthrie, who ministers at St. Pius, the alienation of the pandemic and losses like the Dolls’ make him question why this is happening, and how it could all figure into God’s plans.
But for all of the sickness and doubt, he said he hopes for a different New Salem when the pandemic is over. Everyone is eager to get back to their old lives, he said, but “maybe ‘get back’ is not the right word.”
COVID-19, Guthrie explained, is tragic proof of the ties between this “small community out in central North Dakota” and the rest of the world. He said he hopes that, if any good comes out of the virus, it will be to prompt reflection on the responsibilities owed between neighbors, communities and countries.
“This is a call to something much deeper than where we’ve been,” he said, a challenge posed to his neighbors as much as to himself. “Am I willing to change? Am I willing to grow?”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.