KRAGNES TOWNSHIP, Minn.—Shane Friesz left North Dakota in his 20s to "go be gay" somewhere more progressive.
The native of New Salem, N.D., is back now and recently opened a gay bar—the only one of its kind near Fargo-Moorhead in several years.
Friesz and his partner, Shawn Weber, opened The Sanctuary Bar & Bistro on Saturday, Dec. 16, drawing patrons to check out how the couple converted a small-town watering hole into a gay bar.
But first, patrons had to make a drive through the country to get there. It's well outside of town, located at 9816 21st St. N. just off U.S. Highway 75 in Kragnes Township north of Moorhead. According to the latest U.S. Census data, the population of Kragnes Township, Minn. is 222.
Friesz said he and Weber knew it would take a lot of work when they first saw the former Kragnes Inn bar in February. The decor was old, it lacked a proper kitchen and everything needed updates, especially its well system and interior finishes.
"We both have really good decorating skills, as you can tell," he said, gesturing to the bar area that's been repainted and freshened. "We kind of looked at each other and said, 'I think we can make this work.' "
Even in its rough condition, Friesz said they could see potential for a welcoming rural bar that treats patrons like they were visiting a friend's house. In some ways, that's exactly what they're doing—Friesz and Weber live in the house that's connected to the business.
Place for all
Fargo resident Wendy Jacobson stopped by Saturday night with a friend. She's been to gay bars before, including the former I-Beam nightclub in Moorhead that closed at the end of 2011. Since that closure, the closest gay bars to Fargo-Moorhead were in Winnipeg, Minnesota's Twin Cities, Sioux Falls, S.D., and the Duluth, Minn., area, all well over 100 miles away.
Jacobson, who identifies as lesbian, said the new bar could be a welcoming gathering space, even if it's much smaller than other gay bars she's visited.
"It's nice to be around people that are like you," she said.
But she said its rural setting was "concerning," especially when patrons have to drive so far to get drinks there.
Its rural location was mentioned by everyone interviewed by The Forum, including Josh Barduson, a Moorhead resident and gay man who described it as "out of the way," even if he liked the neighborhood bar vibe.
"It's smaller, but it feels like a lot more atmosphere here that brings people together," he said.
Samantha Maddock said the bar was "small, but nice" and seemed "very welcoming." She wasn't sure how often she'll come back, and said it will depend on the events that are held here.
She said it's good to have a gay bar, even if she's found bars in Fargo-Moorhead where lesbians like her can feel accepted and safe.
"It's nice to have another option," she said.
Moorhead resident Luke Leeby said the bar was nicer than expected, especially based on its modest exterior. He's not gay and considers himself to be an ally.
Leeby's friend, John Utke, said the drive was "kind of far," but he liked the vibe. The gay man said he likes drinks at gay bars, which are known for serving stronger beverages than the average tavern, as well as the feeling of acceptance these businesses provide.
"It's about just being comfortable," he said.
Other than the owners, Kyle Anderson probably had the best idea of what all was done to renovate the bar because he helped the owners work on it.
Anderson, director of the Hot Mess Harlots group who performs under the stage name Tequila Mockingbird, said the drag troupe considers the bar its home. They'll perform there for the first time Jan. 20 during The Sanctuary's grand opening celebration, and plan to hold two drag shows there each month.
"I feel like it's going to be very close-knit out here," he said.
The Sanctuary is known as a gay bar, but Friesz said he wants the business to offer something to everyone, whether they're gay or straight. It's open 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, and he expects local residents will stop by in the afternoons to get lunch from a kitchen that can serve up paninis, pizzas, appetizers and more.
Friesz thinks the crowd will shift throughout the night from older patrons to a younger group, and he'll turn the music louder and clear tables to make room for a dancefloor as the night goes on.
He said he wanted to keep the place "classy," which is why its gay bar decor isn't overdone. There's a large rainbow flag on one wall, and TVs above the bar played drag queen comedy "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" on Saturday night, but most of it would work as a contemporary small-town bar.
Friesz said he wants everyone to be accepted, whether it's a local looking for a quick bite or an up-and-coming drag queen who needs a safe place.
He admitted he's not entirely sure what the business will "morph" into. His goal is to respond to the needs and desires of the different patrons it will serve.
But he said it's important that the bar can serve as a sanctuary for all.
"We want you to have fun and be comfortable and have a place to come and hang out," he said.
What: The Sanctuary Bar & Bistro
Where: 9816 21st St. N., Kragnes Township, Minn.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Sunday
Phone: (218) 303-8994