TUTTLE, N.D. — Burdell Johnson served on school boards overseeing Tuttle School for 41 years. When the school closed in 2007, and he knew what he didn’t want for the old school building.
“I didn’t want to see it turn into an eyesore,” he said.
The sixth generation of Johnson’s family is now living on the original family homestead where they have a diversified livestock and grain operation. But to keep new generations coming back, he knew the community would need to continue to be a community, even without the school functioning. And since the school building was still in good shape, that played into his ideas.
On Jan. 1, 2018, the building that formerly educated generations of students opened its doors as the Tuttle Rural Innovation Center.
The TRIC organizers have big dreams. They want the facility to house small businesses and spaces for local craftsmen and artists. They see it as an events center and a local food hub. And all of those things would create economic development not just for Tuttle, but also for the greater Kidder County area.
Through combinations of grant-writing, hard work and networking, TRIC has seen some of that come to fruition in its first three years of operation. After a step back during the pandemic, Johnson believes the future is bright for his town and TRIC.
“You always dream bigger than what happens,” he said.
A gathering place
Tuttle has a listed population of 58, though Johnson believes it’s considerably higher, especially when students come home from college.
In any case, though, fewer than 100 people live in and around the community near the intersection of Highway 36 and Highway 3 in central North Dakota. It’s a 60-mile drive to Bismarck, 73 miles to Jamestown, 48 miles to Harvey and 24 miles to Steele.
Johnson grew up there, as have generations of his family.
“The roots all come back here to this little community,” he said.
Johnson largely has been responsible for getting the ball rolling on TRIC, making calls, writing grants, keeping track of paperwork and at least once paying to keep the heat and lights on.
The project received Bush Foundation Community Innovation grants in 2017 and 2020, more than $400,000 in all. In 2019, the North Dakota Council on the Arts awarded TRIC a Special Projects grant to host a concert celebrating North Dakota musicians; the concert was postponed due to COVID-19 but has been rescheduled for June. In 2020, TRIC was awarded a Main Street Vibrancy Grant, which allowed for the creation of a community room and a quilt show.
Last month, TRIC was awarded $17,630 from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to plant a homestead berry garden and orchard. The berry garden and fruit trees will be planted this summer, with future programming developed to celebrate the region’s homesteading history, illustrate growing best practices, and provide educational opportunities for nutrition and value-added agriculture principles.
“We don’t just have a town here. We have a community,” Johnson said. “The rural people and the people who live in town are one.”
The community room on Jan. 30 was dedicated and christened the “Sidney Larson Community Room.”
Sidney Larson grew up north of Robinson, another small Kidder County community. He settled in Tuttle after quitting school early and spent a career working a variety of jobs — at the sanding station, on the railroad, at power plants, performing road construction and owning a bar in Tuttle for 21 years. He raised his kids there and has a reputation for getting things done.
If Johnson was the idea man for TRIC, Larson has become the one to go to when things need to get done. He helped ramrod crews working on the building and says he was “appointed” overseer of the building. He’s humble about his contributions to TRIC and around town, saying “somebody’s gotta do it.”
Larson is a proponent of the positive thinking behind TRIC. He’s realistic about the slim chances of getting a school back in town, but he thinks there’s a lot in the community for young families.
“I think it helps our whole community to look at this and think there’s something that could get going and help the community,” he said.
Lisa Goodman agrees. It was a couple years ago that she was invited to bring her then 3-year-old son to an open gym at TRIC. Relishing the opportunity to have a place to let her son run around, she started asking questions. That led her to getting more and more involved. She’s heading up the quilt show planned for June to correspond with Tuttle Days.
Goodman grew up in Wisconsin, around farms though not on one. She knew before she married her husband that he eventually wanted to farm his grandparents’ land near Tuttle. “Eventually” ended up being three months after their wedding. She’s found the community welcoming, and she sees TRIC as having big potential to bring people together.
“Being out on the farm, I don’t want to say it’s lonely, but you’re isolated in a way, so to have a community to bring you into, to be involved in . . . just having a community that you feel like you’re a part of is very important,” she said. “As a young mom, I have a 5-year-old son, I want to see something for him in the future. A gathering place. That’s really important for him in the future.”
Johnson said the plans for the reformation of the old school building didn’t really get off the ground until the community got Strengthen ND involved. Formed in 2015, Strengthen ND works to support nonprofits and rural communities.
Founder and executive director Megan Laudenschlager said she started Strengthen ND upon seeing the disparity between what nonprofits and communities in rural areas could get done versus the possibilities in larger population areas. In larger communities, more people and more resources mean ideas have more support. Strengthen ND, she said, acts as the “glue” to hold ideas together, the conduit to keep plans moving and a platform to stand on in rural areas.
Laudenschlager said there is a national trend toward people wanting to move to rural areas, and with high speed internet and other modern technologies, communities have the opportunity to invite in new businesses and new people.
For communities looking to do something like what Tuttle has done, she recommends people in the community talk to each other about their ideas and find a way to move forward on common ones that fit their culture and strengths. In Tuttle, they've focused on food, arts and entrepreneurship.
“Tiny towns or small towns can have really big dreams and they can move forward one step at a time to accomplish those dreams,” she said.
Laudenschlager said using available resources, whether it be Strengthen ND, U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, the Department of Commerce or others, can help provide a “web of support” for small communities.
Then communities also have to be ready to be welcoming to people coming into their town, whether to visit or to stay.
“They need to really talk about, how do we welcome and how do we engage and wrap around people who come to live in our town,” she said.
Also important for communities thinking of delving into economical and cultural development projects is recognizing that it isn’t straightforward work. In Tuttle, Laudenschlager said anyone following the project from the beginning would see that it looked like “multiple squiggly lines and circles, and it hasn’t been as simple as ‘connect the dots.’”
Planning for the future
Where does TRIC go from here? The people of Tuttle have some ideas. They’d like a couple more renters; right now their lone renter is FARRMS, or Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resource Management and Sustainability, a sustainable farming education group. FARRMS brings in people with its educational programs but also pays rent, which Johnson said is vital. Grant money can help with projects, “but it’s hard to get money for heat and lights,” he said.
Before COVID-19 hit, TRIC had begun holding events at a pretty good pace, Johnson said. That includes the first National Endowment for the Arts’ Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design creative placemaking workshop in November 2018; TRIC and Strengthen ND were selected out of a nationally competitive application process to host that one.
Though the pandemic has put some events and gatherings that had been planned at TRIC on hold, they have their sights set on the coming months. The concert funded by the North Dakota Council on the Arts grant, A Unique Evening of North Dakota Music, is planned for June and will feature individual and group performances by Keith Bear, The Larsen Brothers, John Lardinois, and Chuck Suchy.
Goodman, who does not quilt, is busy planning the quilt show for June. She expects the show could draw in people from a large area. TRIC will display quilts that show off the history of the area and its families and may also include a component about the ministry of quilting still alive in many churches. There are talks of future quilting classes, too.
Johnson sees TRIC as kind of a demonstration center for other rural communities. Tuttle, he said, can be a model for other places that want to try something similar. That way, other communities can learn from their successes and avoid their mistakes. There have been meetings with officials from other communities already, and he sees more of that in the future.
For Larson and Goodman, it’s a matter of getting more people involved. Larson wants to see more people show up for coffee in the mornings in the community room. Goodman wants to see more young families get involved.
All three see TRIC as a testimony to the community of Tuttle, which also features a community grocery store and bar.
“It’s the community that’s kept this going,” Johnson said. “I think we have a lot of future here if we can just keep things going.”