American Pie

PRIOR TO WORLD WAR I, LITTLE Havana, N.Dak., was the hub of a thriving farm community, when 25 businesses lined its rustic streets and 500 people—most of them descendants of Scandinavian settlers—called Havana their home. Gradually, after the war, though, more and more farmers sold out to neighbors, reducing local job opportunities and forcing young people to move to Fargo, 80 miles away, and farther, for employment. These days, Havana’s population is down to just 100; its one-block Main Street features a bar, a single grocery store, a post office and a grain elevator, and the last local school shut down 13 years ago.

What, then, keeps this hardscrabble community—a Lake Wobegon-style speck islanded by windswept fields—from simply dropping off the face of the earth? Murdean Gulsvig’s sage-scented sausage, that’s what. That and his wife Doris’s barbecued ribs and Mary Ann Fliehs’s and Marie Uneerbert’s beef Stroganoff. Dished up with side orders and desserts and sold as the $4.50 lunch special at a cafe called the Farmers Inn—the only eating establishment for 10 miles in any direction—the traditional farm fare is a draw for families, retirees, combine crews and anyone else who strays off State Highway 32.

As it happens, the no-frills, 50-seat inn, a squat metal building with a cheery vinyl-chair and ruffled-curtain decor, is a symbol of Havana’s flinty refusal to die. Owned by the town and staffed by its citizens, the 13-year-old restaurant, open six days a week, is a bustling oasis amid endless crop land—an unofficial town hall where everyone can, and does, mind the store. At 12:30 on a sunny fall day there’s hardly a seat to be had. Customers sometimes table-hop and help themselves to coffee while waiting for neighbor Donna Arneson, 48, to take their orders. “The Inn kind of holds the community together,” explains Harvey Peterson, 71, a retired farmer who has lived his entire life in Havana. “And there’s a helluva lot of gossiping going on.”

In a nation learning to embrace parts of its rural past, the Farmers Inn also has brought a measure of attention to isolated Havana. Gourmet magazine has lauded the Inn’s rhubarb crunch; NBC Nightly News did a segment on the town’s communal effort, and guidebooks, including Eat Your Way Across the USA, have marked the Inn as a must-stop. “It’s one of a kind,” says Michael Stern, author with his wife, Jane, of both Eat Your Way and the regional restaurant guide Road Food. “If anybody is looking for the real America, I can’t think of a better place to find it. Were they not so gosh-darn hospitable, somebody might feel they are intruding on a family reunion.”

Indeed, nearly everyone in Havana over the age of 14 has cooked or waited tables at the Inn since 1984, when the crumbling Havana Cafe that had served the town’s dwindling population since 1913 closed its doors. Sorely missing their meeting place, townspeople began gathering around the coffeepot at the local gas station. Brainstorming began, and days later members of the local Community Club voted to revive the abandoned restaurant and run it themselves. The town set up a board to manage the place, recruited neighbors to help staff it and took over the decaying building. When the enterprise caught on, they used first-year profits to build sturdier quarters. “It really took off,” says board member Peterson. “I don’t know why. I think the main thing is it’s a lot of food—cheap.”

These days, most of what the cafe clears—about $1,500 a year—goes to civic improvements. The Inn has bought swings for the town park, renovated its baseball diamond and funded fire department operations. Neighbors in need can receive assistance, too. In 1986 $1,000 went to high school teacher Roger Thorfinnson, 71, after his house burned down, and a few years later, the Inn held a fund-raising brunch for the family of a cancer patient. “The community,” says volunteer cook Gulsvig, 74, “is like one big happy family.”

A retired farmer, Gulsvig, with his wife, also a volunteer, dishes up breakfast and lunch up to 11 days a month, with three others handling stovetop duty the rest of the time. Yet as the town’s population continues to age, the couple wonder where the next generation of cooks—and customers—will come from. Though the Farmers Inn pays cooks $30 for a 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. shift (the two waitresses get $10 and tips), the younger townsfolk would hardly call that a living wage. Of the Gulsvig’s five boys and one girl, only their youngest, Paul, 32, and oldest, Gary, 49, still live in town and help at the cafe. “We’ve got to stop soon,” says Doris, 73. “But I’d miss being in there.”

So would the rest of Havana. As the afternoon sun streams through the homemade curtains, Pat Enderson, 63, a farm wife who cooks twice a week, watches her neighbors breaking bread together and tries not to think about the melancholy alternative. “If we ever lose the cafe, our little town will disappear,” she says. “As long as we have it, I feel like we have something.”



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