Written by Jim Lindberg
For North Dakota preservationists, the years from 1995 to 2010 will henceforth be known as "the Dale Bentley Era." That era ended on March 29th, when Dale passed away at age 41, after a lengthy illness. Last week, I joined other preservationists, friends and family members at the historic Fargo Theater in downtown Fargo, North Dakota to celebrate Dale's life and his contributions to historic preservation.
It was my pleasure to work with Dale throughout much of his preservation career. His impact on the historic preservation movement in North Dakota was deep and far-reaching. It began when he arrived in the tiny town of Buffalo (pop. 204), put a down payment on the old "banker's house" (a huge Victorian with a wraparound porch) and promptly began talking about a crazy idea: preserving the town.
Along with some of his young friends, he rescued the old stone Episcopal Church from near ruin and turned it into a community museum. Then they fixed up the Rectory next door to create the town's first public library (which included a large collection of architecture and historic preservation books, sent by former Preservation magazine writer Allan Freeman) and started restoring the empty 1916 High School across the street. In 1999, the Old Stone Church restoration received a National Preservation Honor Award, the first ever given to a North Dakota project.
Through his work on the Old Stone Church, Dale got involved with the statewide preservation group, Preservation North Dakota (PND). Soon he was on the PND board and eventually was elected President. Along with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the National Trust and others, he helped carry out an all-volunteer historic resources survey of every church in the state. It was the largest volunteer survey ever completed in the nation, documenting more than 2,000 churches in all of North Dakota's 53 counties.
Using the survey results as baseline data, Dale worked with the National Trust to include "the Prairie Churches of North Dakota" on the 2001 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This listing (another first for the state) brought tremendous media interest to the plight of North Dakota's rural churches. Dale was an ideal spokesperson for the importance of these churches and PND's efforts to save them. He was quoted in articles in the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, St. Paul Pioneer Press, House Beautiful, Travel + Leisure, and, on July 7, 2002, the front page of the Sunday New York Times.
This coverage helped attract funding to implement PND's Prairie Churches of North Dakota project. With the help of National Trust advisors Rosemarie Myrdal and Barbara Lang, PND received the first Save America's Treasures grant given to a North Dakota project. And when the J.M. Kaplan Fund of New York City stepped in and awarded a grant to match the National Trust's Statewide Partners Initiative challenge grant, PND was able to hire their first Executive Director. It was Dale Bentley.
Dale loved his job as PND's Executive Director. He traveled to every corner of the state, meeting with community members and inspiring them to believe that they were, in fact, not crazy to think about preserving their heritage. Dale's travel style was always "off-the-beaten path." He sought out and documented the quirky, authentic and beautiful, from "the world's tallest tin can pile" in Casselton to a lonely church on a hill near Tonset, where you could see all the way to Canada. Dale wore out a series of vehicles, tires, cell phones and digital cameras as he made his way from country churches to small towns. His photographs were included in the "Prairie Churches" exhibit, which opened at the North Dakota Heritage Center in 2003. With Dale's help, more than 30 local preservation organizations were formed across the state.
The Prairie Churches of North Dakota project is the most important legacy of the Dale Bentley Era. But Dale's last project was perhaps even more important to him personally: restoring the Hutmacher Farmstead in remote western North Dakota. The Hutmacher Farmstead was built in the 1920s by Germans from Russia, using the only materials at hand: sandstone, prairie earth, cottonwood branches and thatch. By the 1960s, the site was abandoned. For decades the Hutmacher was one of those places that everyone agreed, "somebody" should preserve. Finally, that somebody arrived, when Dale, PND board members, students and volunteers began an effort to restore the surviving structures.
Dale envisioned the Hutmacher as a place for "voluntourism," where travelers could immerse themselves in North Dakota history by helping to preserve it. Although Dale passed away before the Hutmacher restoration could be completed, his vision continues to inspire others. At the Hutmacher site and along country roads and small town Main Streets throughout North Dakota, the legacy of the Dale Bentley Era lives on.
Jim Lindberg is the director of preservation initiatives in the Mountains/Plains Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.