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The ultimate N.D. tour

Vernell and Louise Johnson aren't trying to save North Dakota. They just want people to remember it. After two years, 23,000 miles and a little help from their family, the Johnsons photographed every town and hundreds of other sites in the st...

Vernell and Louise Johnson aren't trying to save North Dakota. They just want people to remember it.

After two years, 23,000 miles and a little help from their family, the Johnsons photographed every town and hundreds of other sites in the state for "North Dakota: Every Town on the Map and MORE."

The hardcover coffee table book, released in October by Vintage Publications, is the couple's follow-up to "South Dakota: Every Town on the Map and MORE."

"The little towns are dying and you can't stop it," Vernell says. "All we've tried to do is capture some of the history of what happened."

A former auctioneer who performed more than 10,000 sales, Vernell has been photographing the vanishing rural landscape since the 1970s. Over the years he amassed hundreds of pictures of farms, churches, country schools and windmills.

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In the mid-1990s, Vernell told his wife that he'd like to try photographing every town in South Dakota. Louise was surprised but supportive.

"It sounded like a big undertaking," she says.

The two worked on the project for a year with no grand scheme in mind, until their daughters suggested that Vernell make a book of his work. That idea, and the fact that Vernell and Louise both had ancestors who settled the Dakota Territory, led to the first volume.

From there, the next step was obvious. The Johnsons, who live in Lyons, S.D., headed north for a few days at a time, crisscrossing North Dakota in no particular order to reach every town listed on the official state highway map. In conversations with people along the way, they learned about local points of interest and deserted communities that hadn't been on a map in decades.

While Vernell was busy with his Canon 35 mm camera, Louise researched every site, getting help from county courthouses, libraries and local people. The two visited more than 600 locations, driving every mile together in their Ford Explorer or Lincoln Continental, and didn't get one traffic violation or flat tire.

To complete their work, the Johnsons had help from their son-in-law, Dean Skadeland, who photographed 107 towns with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Glori.

In the 320-page book, towns are listed in alphabetical order, with at least one small black-and-white photo and a short historical paragraph for each one. The largest cities get their own page. The last 23 pages are devoted to the rural landscape, from vintage barns and mailboxes to highway scenery and parks.

The book concludes with a few dozen pictures of dilapidated buildings and machinery left on the prairie. Not much can be done about the receding frontier, Vernell says, except capture it on film before it's gone.

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"I wanted to preserve some of this," he says.

Now that they've covered the Dakotas, the Johnsons said their book series is finished. "Minnesota: Every Town on the Map and MORE" isn't happening.

"I'm glad we did it; I'm glad it's over," Louise says.

The Johnsons expect their North Dakota volume, which can be found in local book stores, to sell well. The couple has had requests from across the nation for their South Dakota book, which already has had five printings.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538

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