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Dear West Acres, thanks for 50 years of memories so far

As Fargo-Moorhead’s biggest shopping mall turns 50, we look back at the ways West Acres helped shape generations of kids.

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"Meet you at the fountain!" Shoppers who had gone their separate ways might decide to meet up at the fountain in front of what was once Dayton's department store. The mall, pictured here in the 1970s, was a popular hangout spot for preteens and teens for decades.
Contributed / West Acres
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FARGO — Not long ago, I was driving with my daughters down Fargo’s 13th Avenue South toward West Acres. Today we know the road as one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares lined with retail stores, fast food restaurants and coffee shops. But, of course, it hasn’t always been that way.

I mentioned to my daughters, “I remember going to West Acres as a kid and this was a gravel road.” I had my eyes on the road, so I couldn’t tell if they were rolling their eyes. I was only talking about the 1970s, but to them it could very well have been the 1870s.

“Hey youngins, fetch me a sarsaparilla while I tell you about the summer of the grasshoppers.”

Anyway, my point was when West Acres was built on the outskirts of town in 1971-1972, all of us felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. Maybe because it kind of was.

Aerial photo taken during West Acres construction
This undated photo, taken during the mall's construction, highlights the distance between West Acres and the city of Fargo to the northeast. The mall was the largest private structure ever built in North Dakota.
Forum archives

One write-up from a 1975 book commemorating the Fargo-Moorhead Centennial described West Acres like this:

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“What was prairie chicken land a hundred years ago, and a wheat field as late as the early 1970s, was transformed into a beautiful and functional concrete shopping center by men, money, machines and materials with the result taking the name West Acres Regional Shopping Center.”

More history columns from Tracy Briggs
A couple weeks ago, columnist Tracy Briggs shared what some of us at The Forum remember as our first memories of a news event. Now it's your turn to share the stories that you'll never forget.

West Acres opens Aug. 2, 1972

Video courtesy: State Historical Society of North Dakota / WDAY film

At the time, the 16-acre mall was the largest shopping center in the 1,400-mile stretch between Minneapolis and Spokane, Wash. With its location near the intersection of Interstates 94 and 29, it triggered the immediate development of the adjacent area, creating thousands of new jobs.

But as kids, we certainly didn’t care about the grandeur of all of that. We only cared that we had found a place that would become an integral part of our young lives. The mall was the place where we got our first taste of adulthood amid the smells of cinnamon rolls and department store perfume samples.

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Shoppers walk through the central area of West Acres near the fountain in front of Dayton's department store in the late 1970s.
Contributed / North Dakota State University Archives

What could be more grown-up than having Mom drive the Buick up to the front entrance of the mall, to drop you off ALONE? Giving a 13-year-old the run of the mall was the real deal. With money in our teeny-tiny wallets inside our little macrame purses, the world was our oyster (until we'd have to use the payphone to let Mom know we were ready to be picked up).

Where would we spend what little money we had? Should I spend that 99 cents on the new Andy Gibb single at Musicland? Or maybe I need another pair of cheap earrings from Claire’s Boutique.

The mall was the place where we got our first taste of adulthood amid the smells of cinnamon rolls and department store perfume samples.

If I had saved enough money or Mom was feeling generous, I’d be able to buy some HASH jeans at Vanity. Of course, given that I was less than 90 pounds and 5 feet tall, the saleswoman was probably right to recommend I try Garanimals at Sears.

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Once we spent all the money we had, we’d probably try to snag a free cheese sample at Hickory Farms or chocolate from Fannie Farmer.

Video courtesy: State Historical Society of North Dakota / WDAY film

But for us, and I suspect for most kids, it wasn’t really even about buying a lot of stuff. It was just about being together, hanging out. We felt a sense of community and belonging (hard not to when you’re all dressed the same).

Tribes formed at the mall, whether they wore big hair and acid-washed jeans in the ‘80s or low-rise jeans and choker necklaces in 2000.

Fun fact: Did you remember bangs in the ‘80s were even named for the shopping mall?

Of course, it’s a little sad that malls aren’t quite what they used to be. It’s often easier and faster to shop online. However, with online shopping, you can’t stroll while nibbling on a huge, salty, soft pretzel, enjoy the smells of the seasonal lotions at the bath store or run into an old friend while watching school choirs sing Christmas carols.

Our cybershopping has made us forget it’s not just about the products, services and prices. Sometimes, shopping is about community.

Tribes formed at the mall, whether they wore big hair and acid-washed jeans in the ‘80s or low-rise jeans and choker necklaces in 2000.

Progress is great, and yes, the Amazon deliverer visits my house often. But I hope shopping malls can find a way to survive and thrive into the future.

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The gravel road leading to West Acres in 1972 might have given way to the multilane 13th Avenue of 2022, and some of the stores of our youth have come and gone. But the brick, mortar and memories are still there. And maybe we should be, too.

West Acres has been celebrating its 50th birthday all week. This Saturday, Aug. 6, caps off the festivities, with dougnut decorating and balloon artists near Center Court from 10 a.m. to noon. From 1-5 p.m., enjoy performances by Nicole Jasperse with sips from Drekker Brewing Co. and sweets from Paisley & Dash in Buffalo Court.

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Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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