Tourism Drive : N. Dakota: Taking Chill Off Image

Times Staff Writer

Perhaps, the director of tourism here suggests slyly, North Dakota should begin advertising Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park as the perfect vacation spot for Minnesotans.

After all, to get to Yellowstone, vacationers from northern Minnesota have to spend seven hours in North Dakota, crossing 353 miles of the highway flanked by motels, diners and gas stations.

“You have to stop somewhere,” says Jim Fuglie, the state tourism director.

Fork in the Road

He says he is joking, but Fuglie is going to LaCrosse, Wis., to see a fork in the road. That’s where Yellowstone-bound motorists must decide to take either Interstate 94 through North Dakota or Interstate 90 through rival South Dakota.


Says Fuglie, “Maybe some billboards would look good there. . . . “

Fuglie’s job--luring people here and turning them from drive-through vacationers into North Dakota tourists--is not the envy of Madison Avenue. It takes resourcefulness, a keen eye and a sense of humor to sell tourism in a state where winter temperatures sink to 40 degrees below zero and the scenery ranges from pleasantly dull to excruciatingly monotonous.

North Dakotans prefer to think that their “thorough” winters “keep the riffraff out.” As for the landscape, they say it is an acquired taste.

‘Just Pretty Pictures’

“Let’s face it: A New Hampshire vacation--what do they have? Just pretty pictures,” said Mylo Candee, the Bismarck ad executive who has the state tourism department account.

Tourism ranks as the third-largest industry in North Dakota, a state of 680,000 people and four times that many cattle. Tough times in agriculture and mining make tourism especially important these days, but the state has a tradition of creative boosterism.

Renegade promoters in recent years have twice tried to convince the state to secede from the Union, suggesting that it be annexed by Canada so Canadians would go “south” to North Dakota for the winter. Similarly unsuccessful was an effort to take the chill off the state’s image by dropping the “North” and calling it, simply, “Dakota.”

A few months ago, billboards across the state began carrying messages such as these: “Stay in North Dakota: Custer Was Healthy When He Left.” “Stay in North Dakota: Minnesota Is Closed This Week.” “Welcome to North Dakota: Open Year-Round.”


The billboards were Lloyd Omdahl’s idea. Omdahl, director of the Bureau of Governmental Affairs at the University of North Dakota, wanted to showcase North Dakota’s sense of humor and kid its border states. A billboard firm offered to donate the space and Fuglie selected the slogans.

Among the suggested slogans that were not adopted: “If you think this is boring, wait till you get to Montana,” “If you don’t have enough gas money to get out of North Dakota, consider yourself one of us,” and “Isn’t that new yellow line the most scenic one yet?”

Montana has vowed to retaliate next summer. The billboard its tourism department envisions says: “North Dakota Border 10 Miles Ahead. Dead End.” The friendly Montana-North Dakota war dates at least to the day Gen. George Custer left his fort near Bismarck to fight some Indians in Montana--at the Little Big Horn River.

North Dakota seems to have always had an image problem. Montanans tell North Dakota jokes. (Sample: You know you’re in North Dakota when you see vacationers wearing thermal bikinis.) And a park ranger at the Badlands, in western North Dakota, says one of the most-asked questions he hears is: Where are the faces?

S. Dakota Rivalry

Mt. Rushmore, people seem to forget, is in South Dakota.

North Dakota has tried to fight back. One of Fuglie’s predecessors once posted a sign in South Dakota showing the likeness of President Theodore Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore saying: “I’d rather be in North Dakota.”

“The fact is that Teddy belongs up here,” said Candee, the ad executive. North Dakota does have the national park named for Roosevelt, who once said: “I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”


North Dakotans frequently describe their state as “America’s best-kept secret.” From one end to the other it has a small-town feel, the cost of living is pleasantly low and crime is almost nonexistent. A visitor is 10 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in Des Moines, Iowa, than anywhere in North Dakota.

The state does harbor a bit of sin--legalized blackjack. The friendly $2-limit game played here bears little resemblance to the high-pressure version in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. North Dakota dealers have been heard to apologize for a bettor’s streak of bad luck.

Convention Trade

Blackjack appeals to the convention trade. An assortment of groups, from junior high school principals to sunflower producers to toastmasters to Rainbow Girls, have chosen North Dakota to host future national or international meetings.

“Where else can you take 5,000 girls, aged 12 to 20, and know they’ll be safe?” asked Bonnie Elefson, a Rainbow Girls leader. “I’ve chaperoned teen-age girls all over the world and I’d much rather take them to North Dakota than a Dallas or a Los Angeles.”

Low crime rates and cheap steaks, however, are not always enough to bring cross-country travelers to North Dakota--and then steer them off the highway.

Each summer, hundreds of thousands of cars bearing out-of-state license plates pass through the state. With no forests or mountains to distract them, the motorists are a captive audience for the gas stations, restaurants, souvenir shops and man-made “attractions” that beckon.


Towns Are Scarce

Crossing North Dakota can be tedious. Towns are scarce and so are billboards. Most rental cars here, understandably, come with cruise control.

When a North Dakota advertisement showing drivers on a curving road was test-marketed a few years ago, one man said the ad did not work. “I’ve been to North Dakota,” he said, “and I don’t remember there being a curve in the road.”

Motorists crossing North Dakota tend to be a hardy lot. A survey last year found that the travelers, on average, were in the midst of a 22-day, 4,000-mile road trip. Many were headed to or from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Glacier National Park in Montana or the Pacific Northwest.

“They want to get on to their vacations, and our job is to get them to slow down a little bit and enjoy it,” Candee said.

Some of the state’s “attractions,” though, barely qualify as distractions. A billboard on Interstate 94 west of Bismarck advertises the “world’s largest Holstein cow,” a symbol of the area’s dairy interests. You can spot the concrete Holstein, grazing on a knoll, from more than a mile away.

World’s Largest Turtle

North Dakota also has the world’s largest badger, the world’s largest buffalo and the world’s largest turtle. Each was locally produced--by human hands--and is near restaurants and service stations.


The town of Rugby, on U.S. Highway 2 in north-central North Dakota, advertises itself as the “geographical center of North America,” which means that it is farther from an ocean than any other city on the continent.

A 21-foot cairn, erected during the Depression, announces this distinction at the busiest intersection in the county, a few steps from the Conoco gas pumps and the Corner Stone Cafe. However, the exact site of the geographical center of North America remains the subject of debate in Pierce County. The U.S. Geological Survey located it in the county but has declined over the years to be more precise.

During its 50 years, hundreds of thousands of tourists have paused to look at the stone monument. Lately, however, with the slump in agriculture and the departure of several businesses, Rugby has been thinking of turning the 4,000 cars that pass the monument on an average summer day into an economic boon for the community of 3,300.

Some city boosters have drawn up a proposal to build a 16-story triangular monument straddling the highway. The $1.5-million structure would contain a restaurant, an observation deck and a large, rotating globe.

‘Only Natural Resource’

“Our distinction as the geographic center is the only natural resource we have,” said Larry Stammen, who is the full-time director of a group formed to get the project rolling.

Not everyone in Rugby thinks the monument is a good idea. The fact is, a lot of North Dakotans find the whole idea of increasing tourism in the state an unseemly enterprise.


Stammen faced down the naysayers recently by pointing out that other small communities in the state were turning to tourism as a way to boost their sagging local economies. In a letter to the local paper, he argued that Rugby should take advantage of its location. “People’s fascination with standing in the exact spot of something historic (or otherwise designated) can be capitalized upon,” he wrote.

North Dakota does offer tourists more than concrete cows and geographic oddities. A tourism survey last year indicated that more than half of the vacationers traveling through North Dakota took an unplanned side trip to see something they had discovered after coming into the state.

One of the more popular tourist stops is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, an eerie, scarred land of small, flat-topped mountains supporting life for a few hardy bushes. It is often called the Badlands.

‘Surprised’ at Scenery

“It’s not one of the better-known parks. Tourists are surprised that the scenery is so spectacular,” said Jock Whitworth, a district naturalist with the U.S. Park Service.

In a way, today’s cross-country motorists are following in a great tradition of North Dakota explorers. Among the earliest tourists here were Lewis and Clark (Fuglie is thinking of a new slogan: Lewis and Clark liked North Dakota so much they stayed the winter.)

Some tourists are drawn to North Dakota by its colorful history; Lewis and Clark, Roosevelt, Custer and Sitting Bull all figured prominently. “You can actually reach out and touch the heritage here,” Fuglie said.


North Dakota’s 100th birthday will be in 1989 and state officials already are pondering various schemes to draw attention to the state.

The most ambitious proposal thus far was to form a human chain across the state. Someone figured it would take more than half the state’s population.

Fuglie has mixed feelings about it. It would be a logistical nightmare, he points out, but also a “spectacular media event.”

It would also be yet another attraction to lure the passing motorist off the road.