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Ralph's Corner: Last call for free lunch?

As tornado sirens blared Monday night, a small group of amateur weather watchers stood at the base of the new Main Avenue Bridge in Moorhead watching ominous cloud formations swirl above.

As tornado sirens blared Monday night, a small group of amateur weather watchers stood at the base of the new Main Avenue Bridge in Moorhead watching ominous cloud formations swirl above.

It wasn't the safest place to be when the weather alert was raised to code red. However, after the Ralph's Corner softball team suffered back-to-back drubbings, the cool gusting wind kept the bugs away as well as the smell of sweat from polyester uniforms.

Besides, it seemed only fitting to see if a lone funnel cloud could do what 10 of 12 softball teams had done and what the city of Moorhead hopes to do - take out Ralph's Corner.

Giving another shot at developing a vibrant downtown Moorhead, city officials want businesses on 4th Street to renovate the backsides of their stores or sell their spot to the city. Rather than pay for expensive aesthetic renovations, one of the five shops has agreed on a buyout, starting what some patrons fear is a chain reaction of closings.

The most vocal opposition comes from Ralph's Corner, where owner Don Woods estimates a makeover could be about $400,000. The building dates to 1882 when it opened as a wagon and carriage shop, then later a grocery store.


"What do you do when your back door becomes your front door?" Moorhead City Manager Bruce Messelt has asked. That would be a valid visual concern if the majority of new homes in the area didn't have a garage door for a front door.

If the back sides of these old buildings are so offensive, why not put up a nice shelter belt line of trees to block the view?

How about the city or state putting a billboard on the west side of the bar inviting people to Minnesota? Something like, "Welcome to Moorhead - conveniently located across the river from hip Fargo."

If not, maybe Ralph's could play up its free-flowing history. When North Dakota went dry in 1890, Moorhead bars flourished and The Gold Mine Jug House opened on the northwest corner of Main and 4th Street.

Ralph's could put up its own billboard, inviting folks in for $3 pitchers of beer on Saturdays with free hotdogs at noon or the free liver fry the last Saturday of every month, proving there really is such a thing as a free lunch. Nothing welcomes you in the front door like cheap beer and the aroma of liver and onions. It sure beats the hell out of the sugar beet stink.

Sure, Moorhead wants to make its latest attempt at a downtown appealing, but do they want to erase what's left of the town's identity as a Sin City on the Red River? It's widely believed that during Prohibition, bars like Ralph's subversively served booze.

Though the building is one of the oldest in town, there isn't much documented historical significance to Ralph's. No presidents or known dignitaries visited there, though one night before Christmas 1992, pianist/singer Joe "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" Jackson was spotted at the bar.

In the last decade Ralph's earned a name for bringing in an impressive stream of bands. For example, Everclear rocked the back room in 1994, one year before they scored a hit with "Santa Monica." I don't remember the show, but I've been told I enjoyed myself.


Ralph's has been home to plenty of characters. Behind the bar a "Wanted and Needed" poster still hangs for

Dylan Onefeather, who won 268 votes in 1986 for Cass County sheriff. Having pleaded guilty to possessing a half-ounce of marijuana four years earlier, the candidate ran on the slogan "Give the people what they want... One sheriff - Onefeather."

The new bridge has already been dubbed the Dylan Onefeather Memorial Bridge by regulars, some of whom never met the former bartender who died in 1987.

Redevelopment is fine if the location exists, but don't force out a business with more history and color than any franchise or office space that would move in.

If Moorhead officials strong-arm Ralph's to close, the foam of $3 pitchers and grease from the grill is on their hands. Those officials need only to look at downtown Fargo to see how much heck can be raised when a favorite grill is shut down.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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