HORACE, N.D. — The farm founded by Hendrik and Bertha Clemenson has survived a barrage of blizzards, floods, crop failures, the occasional grasshopper plague and countless other challenges.
Established in 1871, the farm has been in the family for four generations. Many members of the Clemenson clan are buried in the family cemetery, a well-tended plot on the farm’s highest ground.
Three family members who were military veterans dating back to the First World War are buried in the cemetery. Every Memorial Day an honor guard from the Horace chapter of the American Legion presides over a graveside ceremony, including presentation of colors, a rifle salute and a bugler sounding the mournful notes of taps.
But the 150-year-old pioneer farm’s days in its present form are numbered.
The path for a 30-mile diversion channel that will form an integral part of the $2.75-billion flood-control project will cross their farm — and the initial route threatened the family cemetery.
Marie Clemenson Smith, the farm’s current owner, met with representatives of the Metro Diversion Authority and delivered a firm message: “I will fight you on that tooth and nail. That cemetery is very, very important to me.”
Starting when she was a girl, playing while her parents tended the lawn, Smith has gone to the cemetery for peace and solitude. “The cemetery to me is just like a resting place,” she told The Forum.
The family cemetery won’t be disturbed — the diversion route will pass about a half mile to the west — but the farm that Smith’s Norwegian immigrant great-grandparents homesteaded will be diminished and profoundly altered.
The family had to sell the south 80 acres of the original 160-acre homestead to allow the diversion channel to cross as it diverts half of a flooding Red River’s flows, bypassing Fargo-Moorhead and emptying back into the river near Georgetown, Minn.
The Clemenson-Smith farm is one of hundreds of landowners that are needed for the massive flood-control project, which also involves a 22-mile embankment with three control structures to regulate the water released downstream during extreme floods estimated to occur about once every 20 years.
The family’s deep connection and long ties to the land make it hard to see half of it lost to the diversion. The place has great sentimental value. It also has historical significance, Smith said.
“This was the first farm that was established in the area,” she said. “It was established before Horace became a little village.”
Hendrik Clemenson, in fact, was a member of a three-member committee that named Horace, after Horace Greeley, a newspaper editor who famously said, "Go west, young man. Go west."
Claiming the land
Hendrik Clemenson and his two oldest sons walked from Faribault, Minn., where the family first settled after emigrating from Norway, into Dakota Territory.
They set out on their journey in April, hacking their way through brush, and arrived at a location in what today is Cass County near the Sheyenne River in May — an arduous walk that today takes a car less than 4 ½ hours to traverse the 285 highway miles.
The Northern Pacific Railroad hadn’t yet crossed the Red River. Construction would start a few months after Clemenson established a squatter’s claim on the land, which a Cass County pioneer history established Oct. 12, 1871, as the date the Clemenson farm was founded.
Clemenson was a shoemaker, a trade he learned in Norway and practiced before he made his way to his farm. Smith inherited some of the forms he used to make shoes.
“Of course, everybody from Norway wanted to be a farmer,” Smith said. Usually, the farm went to the oldest son, so younger siblings were most likely to want to immigrate to the United States, where land was available.
Clemenson and his teenage sons quickly went to work building a log cabin, rolling and carrying the logs from the wooded riverbank to the farmstead a quarter of a mile away.
Bertha Clemenson and the younger children — the Clemensons would have 10 children — joined Hendrik and the oldest brothers within a matter of months.
After two years, in 1873, Hendrik Clemenson filed to homestead 160 acres. Later that year, tragedy befell the family. Their eldest daughter, Martha, “ran off” and married a French fur trader, who plied the Red River on a steamboat, a life that seemed exciting.
She died at age 17 during childbirth. Martha Clemenson St. Pierre became the first to be buried in the family plot.
The pioneering Clemensons had some frontier neighbors: a family of Native Americans, who Smith believes likely were Dakota or Yankton Sioux, lived by the woods near the river.
The families got along. At one point, the mother of the Indian family came to Bertha and asked if she could have her black dress, apparently so she could have something suitable to wear when going to town.
Bertha wasn’t eager to part with her “Sunday best” dress — but, presumably through sign language — negotiated a swap, the dress for one of the family’s two milk cows.
“She evidently thought getting a cow was more important than going to church on Sunday,” Smith said, noting there wasn’t yet a church in the area. Now the Clemensons had fresh milk, cheese and butter.
Another of the early graves in the cemetery is for a farmhand from the area named Whiskey Anderson, whom no church cemetery would accept because he was an alcoholic. “That’s how it was in those days,” Smith said.
Many of the early graves belong to children who died from infectious diseases, including diphtheria and whooping cough.
Smith’s grandmother Augusta Sophia Clemenson was a midwife who helped deliver neighbors’ babies and tended to sick children. “A couple of times she brought that disease home and lost her children,” Smith said. “Of course, she wasn’t going to turn them down. That had to be really hard to live with. She had a tough life.”
The Indian family that once lived near Hendrik and Bertha also lost two children who were buried just outside the family plot.
In fact, the county road that runs past the Clemenson-Smith farm jogs around the cemetery in order to avoid the Indian children’s gravesites — a battle Smith fought decades ago that turned out to be a precursor to the one to detour the diversion.
Losing the 'original farm'
Smith and her young family moved away from the family farm in the 1960s, when her husband’s cattle-buying job took them to Towner, N.D.
Long retired, she returned in 2018 and now lives in the home her father, Adolph Clemenson, built in 1961, when he and her mother moved out of their home to make room for the Smiths.
“There just was this great pull from the area,” she said, explaining her compulsion to move back to the family farm, surrounded by relatives who live on nearby farms. “This is where our foundation was.”
The Metro Diversion Authority has secured rights to all of the land it needs along the diversion channel’s path, 8,000 to 9,000 acres, said Eric Dodds, a consultant who is working on land acquisition for the project.
In a few cases that are headed to court in eminent domain proceedings, officials have secured a “right to construct,” and can deposit money for the land pending the outcome of the case to enable construction to proceed.
Another 3,000 acres will be needed for the project’s earthen embankment, and easements will be required for a 12,000-acre area upstream from the embankment where water will be temporarily stored when the diversion operates.
Officials have budgeted about $500 million to buy land and easements and to cover associated expenses for the diversion.
Altogether, about 1,500 parcels of land will be needed, affecting about 600 landowners. “Every one of those property owners has a unique story,” Dodds said.
Many are farmers like the Clemenson-Smith family who have been on the land for generations. In other cases, real estate developers have bought land with plans to build housing subdivisions.
“The property owners definitely are being asked to make sacrifices,” Dodds said. “It does require land and unfortunately people have to be asked to sacrifice for that.”
Smith decided there was no point in going to court. She reached a settlement to sell half her farm, and was able to spare the cemetery and nearby land, including two homes the family built.
She’s mulling the possibility of expanding the farm home her carpenter father built, but she also has her eye on a home in south Fargo. If she stays, “I’ll be able to look out my window and see this mound of dirt” — the diversion channel embankment, which will be built a quarter of a mile to the west.
The remaining half of the farm will be farmed by a neighbor who has been working the land for years. But, once the diversion channel cuts through, it will look very different than when Hendrik Clemenson first put foot on the soil.
“The original farm,” Smith said, “will no longer be the original farm.”