The welcome wagon of a small town

Small towns are quaint and enjoy a slower pace of life but are they welcoming? Nine years ago, my husband, son and I moved from the south suburbia area of Fargo to Wishek, a small North Dakota town 97 miles from a Target or Starbuck’s. Wishek was my husband’s hometown and people stopped to welcome him home.The welcome wagon of a small townI’m a lifelong North Dakotan but was living 160 miles from my home. In the grocery store, most people pointed and said, “That’s Nathan Pinke’s wife.” That was my cue to walk up to them and introduce myself.

I can count on one hand the number of people who stopped to welcome me. Florence brought banana bread, and we made the connection she was my grandma’s little sorority sister and a bridesmaid in my grandparent’s 1951 wedding.Welcome WagonThe world became smaller that day. Mary Ann stopped by on her bike to tell me elementary aged boys were waiting at the park to meet our son and play with him. She sent him on his way to the park, “turn left and drive straight for a few blocks.” I swallowed hard as he never rode his bike alone in Fargo. At the same time, I felt encouraged he could meet new friends.Welcome Wagon of a small townThe next day, Kay stopped by with cookies from the church’s outreach committee, the Wishek welcome wagon, to welcome us. I distinctly remember their words and welcome.

Then there was Wilma—my most memorable “welcome” moment. It was late July and I was pregnant. We sat with my in-laws near the front of the church with what felt like spotlights on us. There was no air conditioning and I was uncomfortable morning, noon and night. The ladies ahead of us were talking back and forth to one another during the prelude. I could hear them but they would slip into what sounded like German to me. I said to my husband, “Is that German they are speaking?” He smiled and said, “Yes.”  

The ladies heard my comment and turned around to greet me. “Velcome to Vishek” they said. Then who I came to know as Wilma looked me right in the eye and said, “Do you speak a little Cherman?” My sarcastic self smiled and said, “Jeg snakker litt Norsk,” giving a nod to my Norwegian heritage and the two semesters of Norwegian I took at the University of North Dakota. My husband gave me a nudge in the ribs and tried to cover for me. “She speaks a little Norwegian,” he said.

Wilma’s eyebrows raised and with a tight smile she said, “Vell, if you want to live in Vishek, you had better learn to speak Cherman!”

Wilma’s welcome was right. While I haven’t learned to speak German, I have learned the culture. Adapting to the people around you is important. I haven’t forgotten my roots, but I’ve learned I’ll be better off in my small town if I can speak a little broken German. It makes me a legit local. It’s a rite of passage, a way of welcoming you into their circle.

My husband is now a second-generation business owner in Wishek and can identify every item in our lumberyard in German, thanks to older generations taking the time to teach him as a child.Small town exampleI want our kids to know the traditions and learn about my husband’s ancestors and the life they forged for us. Wishek is a slice of the North Dakota prairie where the German-Russian culture remains strong across generations. While I didn’t know it at the time, Wilma’s words were welcoming. From then on, Wilma always greeted me with a smile and a story.

I give a nod to Wishek anywhere I travel and enjoy sharing Wishek sausage and locally made kuchen, a German Russian custard and dough delicacy. It’s my way of welcoming anyone and sharing just a little about my small-town life.

Can you make your community more welcoming with a smile, by sharing a story or paying a visit? It doesn’t have to have cultural meaning. A simple introduction and hello, whether you’re a lifelong resident or not is welcoming to a new face.

(Originally published for my weekly Agweek column.)


  1. Mike vanGorkom says:

    I will still never forget when we moved to Wishek. We had been here for a couple months and I was approached by Wilbert Rath and was told that Misty and I were invited to a pizza and pool party at the Lariat Lounge on Friday evening to get to know everyone. We didn’t know what to expect being new to town and since we were in our late 20’s, why would a bunch of 70 somethings want to hang out with us. We figured since they were nice enough to invite us up, the least we could do is accept the invitation and try to find things in common to talk about. When we walked in there was the Wilmar Meidinger’s, Wilbert Rath’s, Walter Melhoff’s, Wilbert Meidinger’s, and Harley Schnabel’s. We sat down and introduced ourselves and instantly felt like we had known everyone all of our lives. We proceeded to order a few pizza’s and the men enjoyed a very intense game of pool while the women sat around the table and laughed like there was no tomorrow. That memory will be with me until the day I die. I think everyone has a lot to learn about that generation and how they are willing to make time for anyone in the community. As time has passed I have watched some of them pass away but the memories they gave me will last forever.

  2. Great article. Though you are right to ask “Are all small towns welcoming?” That answer is no.
    My self and others have been let know in no uncertain terms, that while we may have married ‘one of them’ , we will never ever hope to gain any kind of acceptance. Connie was told that she could live here a hundred years and she’d still never be welcome. I have been asked out right if something happened to my hubby, I would sell everything and leave, right? I over heard the ‘welcoming’ committee when asked if they delivered a welcome basket to the new people in town say “Why should we waste our time. They’re not going to want to stay anyway”
    We quasi- citizens have long since learned that what applies to everyone else is not for us and to forget volunteering because we’re shot down at every turn.
    Which is interesting, because all these groups need volunteers, but they cancel events rather than let us play the reindeer games.
    Let me say, that I have tried and tried again to fit in, be a part etc. I too have learned a smidge of Ukrainian, and am nice to people. After 10 years I have decided to heck-o with them. I simply don’t care any more and I refuse to waste time trying to cultivate friendships within hubby’s ‘community’. I can name at least 20 other people in our area that moved in because of work or spouses that can’t even get spoken to when checking out at the market. And they wonder why we move away? My friend Connie forced her hubby to move to another town on threat of divorce. It shouldn’t have to be like that. We should want to feel at least remotely welcome.
    In spite of it, I love my farm. The sweeping vistas and the idea that maybe somehow, someway things may change. Maybe not for me, but maybe by the time our kids are old enough to want to come home.
    That’s probably why I still jump up and shout from the roof tops the small town possibilities.

    I love your articles. You always get right to the heart of it. Always eloquently. And I thank you for it.

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