For some, Ralph's closing still stings 10 years later
MOORHEAD — When rock star Jack White played the Fargo Theatre last month, he recalled playing "a few blocks away in Moorhead."
He didn't mention the venue by name, but those in the sold-out crowd old enough to know that White's former act, the White Stripes, played Ralph's Corner in 2000, whooped and cheered in approval.
Ralph's ran dry a decade ago when the city of Moorhead, eager to renovate the Fourth Street Block north of Main Avenue, pressured owner Don Wood to sell or face an eminent domain lawsuit.
Wood sold the buildings at 21 and 23 4th St. S. to the city for $250,000 and closed up the bar on May 22, 2005.
The redevelopment of that intersection went forward, delivering what city leaders at the time wanted—more living spaces and mixed-use spaces for businesses.
The transformation of the neighborhood still has those who called Ralph's home feeling left out and missing what was the oldest bar in Moorhead.
"It was a place you walked into and you were home. It was never long before someone you knew came in," Wood said.
Wood, his brother Bob and Carla Maher, who all worked at the bar and lived above it, met recently at the American Legion in Moorhead for dinner. All three still feel Moorhead officials pressured the bar to close and didn't do enough to help the business relocate.
"They didn't want us in business any more," Bob Wood said.
"People are still bitter about it. It's amazing how many people are still mad," Maher said. "I lived and worked in a really nice neighborhood that was busy all the time and people would go from one business to another. The city of Moorhead took that away. I hope they're happy."
J. Earl Miller, who worked at the bar for 10 years, the last seven as a manager, said he's "still a little pissed off."
"I have a hard time shopping in or visiting Moorhead," he said.
The redevelopment of Fourth Street and Main Avenue was sparked by construction of Veterans Memorial Bridge on Main Avenue. The project led to the buyout of a few buildings, including one to the west of Ralph's that blocked the view of the backs of the Fourth Street buildings.
Moorhead leaders were concerned that the view would not be the welcoming sign to Moorhead they wanted.
"What do you do when your back door becomes your front door?" then-City Manager Bruce Messelt said at the time, suggesting the city could use eminent domain to take the property.
Crown Trophy at the north end of the block was the first to sell to the city, followed by neighboring businesses Atomic Coffee, Rita's Moorhead Beauty School and Farmer's Insurance Group.
Don Wood was the last to hold out, hoping for city help with the $400,000 bill he figured a Ralph's renovation would cost.
Wood sold the property to the city on April 1, 2005, for $250,000. It had been assessed at $129,000. He leased it back from the city to keep it open, but in early May was told the city would terminate its lease later that month.
Wood lived above the bar for 48 years, dating back to when his parents, Ralph and Florence, took it over in 1957 and renamed it. Don took it over in 1977.
With the possible exception of prohibition, the main building that housed Ralph's Corner, 21 4th St. S., Moorhead, had been a bar going back to 1890.
Patrons, purpose varied
With a diverse crowd, Ralph's was different things to different people. To the blue-collar clientele in the afternoon and early evening, it was the spot for a quick but hearty meal—either a greasy burger basket, the homecooked special of the day or the semi-regular liver frys. College teachers sometimes used the bar as an alternative classroom, and students found it a cheap place to drink. For the LGBT community, it was a welcoming hangout, and for visual artists, it was another venue to display works. For years, Great Plains Software packed the bar for its holiday party, and Ralph's was regularly a spot for impromptu reunions.
Over its last 15 years, it developed a reputation as a stage for local bands to play and a place for touring groups to book, landing acts like the White Stripes, Everclear, Neko Case, Yo La Tengo and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as they were all taking off.
It was also a spot where you could run into a celebrity. After an injury to a band member forced Green Day to cancel their show at the Fargodome in 1998, singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt hung out at the bar. When home run king Roger Maris returned to his hometown, his childhood friend Bob Wood hosted the slugger and his old New York Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.
"Some of those characters that came in were something," Don Wood said recently, shaking his head. "Some of those bands I didn't care for."
Kevin Bartram, of Sterling Development Group, which developed the Ralph's block, doesn't get nostalgic over Ralph's.
"Everybody has their own memories of Ralph's and Kirby's," he says. "Ralph's Corner was in tough shape when we got there, so we fixed it up a little bit."
That northwest side of Fourth Street is now called Riverside Market, with the nine condominiums to the west called Riverside Lofts.
Sterling also developed the Fourth Street Lofts, across the street to the east of Riverside, into 17 apartments and three commercial spots on the main level. Similarly, Sterling made over the southwest corner of Main Avenue and Fourth Street. Where Kirby's was once "the corner that rocked, the Italian restaurant Rustica has opened and the block now features 112 residential spaces.
The ground floor of Riverside Market on Fourth Street features Spectrum Marketing and an energy drink provider called Fit Republic. The spot on the corner of Fourth Street and Main Avenue where Ralph's had been, stands empty. The space has gone through three tenants since the building opened in 2008—Soulista, a pilates and yoga studio, Pyromaniacs smoke shop and Just Grains gluten-free bakery.
Bartram said the turnover in that spot stands out as all of the other storefronts in Riverside Market have been rented out, but adds there are inquiries on the space. He said that spot just needs the right business, which he thinks could either be a retailer or an office.
Even with that spot standing empty, Scott Hutchins, planning and neighborhood service director for Moorhead, said the redevelopment was progress for the city.
"The property following development has been a success," he said.
Bartram said the value of the Riverside property is around $2.5 million.
Hutchins said the redevelopment of all three corners is "approaching" $20 million.
"What needed to happen happened, and we had the opportunity because of the bridge going in," said Lauri Winterfeldt, a Moorhead City Council member from 2002-2009.
Moorhead's leadership has completely changed over the last decade. All but one of the seats on the City Council have turned over, then-mayor Mark Voxland has left office and former City Manager Bruce Messelt has left town.
In 2005, Del Rae Williams was just another Moorhead resident with an eye on the redevelopment plan. She didn't visit Ralph's, but was an Atomic Coffee regular and a friend of Rita Dickelman of Rita's Moorhead Beauty College.
Now Moorhead's mayor, she calls the redevelopment "a partial success."
"I think it can be more of a success. I think we're moving that way," she said.
Williams said the city needed some residential properties in downtown.
"If you want a robust downtown, you need a mix of living spaces and shops," she said.
Still, she thinks the city could have done more to help out the businesses on Fourth Street, like Ralph's, that wanted to stay. She would have liked to see about a community block development grant to help those businesses "spruce up the back," a reference to Messelt's concern about the city's appearance to visitors driving across the Main Avenue bridge.
"In some ways, it's a vision of what we thought we wanted," Winterfeldt said. "It's probably a smaller vision, but ultimately I'm still hopeful it will grow."
Williams said losing Ralph's particularly hurt because after Kirby's closed, it was the only spot for touring bands at the time, making it a draw for the community.
"Would I like another Ralph's? Sure," she said. "It was popular. You can see why people got so upset about it."
A 'revered' place
Those who did frequent the bar say it would be hard to start "another Ralph's."
"I think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime place," said Chris Hennen, a promoter who booked shows there. "I think it would be hard to duplicate. It would have to spring up on its own."
Hennen now books at the Aquarium above Dempsey's in downtown Fargo, a place, coincidentally, that Don Wood said he was looking at buying to move Ralph's.
Hennen has booked a show marking the 10th anniversary of Ralph's closing for July 25. The loud lineup features former Fargo-Moorhead punk and noise rock bands godheadSilo, Hammerhead, 7'O Clock Sucker, Seawhores and Dag Island Lewds with Minneapolis DJ Har Mar Superstar playing between sets.
"(Ralph's) was pretty revered," Hennen said, reflecting on calls he would get from around the country looking to book the back room.
"We could have a show any night of the week and it was successful. We had a built-in crowd," he said. "Places like that, that young people are going to, you should prop up. They shut it down and they paid for it for years. Crowds came to downtown Fargo... Moorhead now is starting to get it. It proves what we were saying all along. You don't want to lose a place like that. You miss it, but there's nothing you can do to change it."