GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Dirk Wierenga is on a mission to document what rural America is all about, and to share that with the rest of the country in a documentary he’s titled “Route 2 Elsewhere.”
He’s planning to tell that story “through the lens of Highway 2,” he said.
For the past few months, the professional filmmaker from Grand Haven, Mich., has been traveling back and forth on U.S. Highway 2, from Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Shelby, Mont., in a quest to gather insights from people who live along this northern highway.
The lives of people who reside along this 1,000-mile portion of Highway 2 create a tapestry of “an amazing story of booms and busts,” he said.
His documentary is poised to to reveal why “some areas have recovered and some haven’t,” said Wierenga, citing, as an example, “the people in Ironwood, Mich., are still grieving the loss of the iron ore industry.”
When the documentary is completed in late 2020 or early 2021, he plans to pitch it to PBS, said Wierenga, who estimates that the finished piece will run one-and-a-half to two hours.
It will explore not only the challenges rural America faces but also the evidence of revitalization that give reason for optimism.
On Wednesday, Dec. 11, Wierenga sat down to video interview some members of the Greater Grand Forks Young Professional Association at Half Brothers Brewery in downtown Grand Forks.
“One of the things I’m focusing on in Grand Forks is the ability of Grand Forks to bring in younger people -- which is something that has been missing in rural America -- and also mentoring them,” he said.
He credits Blue Weber, executive director of the Downtown Development Association, for his positive leadership and influence on the group.
With a membership of more than 300, the Young Professionals group has become a means for residents to get involved in their community and work toward making it attractive to young people.
“Grand Forks has really taken it to the next level,” Wierenga said.
Wierenga also praised the city for its investment in infrastructure, which he described as “crazy good."
The misconceptions about rural America that urban dwellers harbor can be traced to national news outlets, Wierenga said.
“One of the problems with the national media is that they aren’t able to get in depth with people -- so they kind of bomb in and bomb out,” said Wierenga, pointing out that kind of treatment does little to paint an accurate or complete picture.
It also doesn’t explain who settled in this area more than a century ago or why.
Earlier this year, on his travels through North Dakota, Wierenga happened to pick up the book, “Selma,” written by Lela Peterson, of rural Reynolds, N.D., about her mother, a Swedish immigrant who settled with her family near Mohall, N.D.
Wierenga was deeply impressed by the story -- details about how immigrants overcame tremendous adversity and hardship -- and the quality of Peterson’s research.
Her research “spelled out how homesteading worked,” Wierenga said.
From Peterson, he gained a deeper understanding of how the U.S. government “colluded with the railroads and placed ads in the media in Europe” to encourage emigration to this country, he said. The ads promised that, in America, Europeans would “get rich beyond their wildest dreams.”
The ancestors of Peterson, author of three books about her own and her family’s history, were among those who believed those promises, she said. They intended only to stay a few years in North Dakota then return to Sweden, but that never happened.
She was interviewed by Wierenga on Wednesday at the East Grand Forks Campbell Library.
In her interview, she not only told of her family’s early experience in North Dakota but also the collapse of banks in the state and some of the reasons “why small towns are evaporating,” said Peterson, who described the unique characteristic of a small state “where you can go practically anywhere and you’ll find someone who knows someone you know.”
She also provided perspective on what gives smaller communities hope for the future, such as advances in technology that permit workers to live and work anywhere.
Thanks to high-speed internet, her nephew, a professional who lives in a remote family farmstead in north-central North Dakota, “once every six weeks flies to Colorado and back again” for his job, she said.
Wierenga is planning a couple more visits to North Dakota early next year to gather more interviews, he said.
Anyone who’s interested in where Wierenga is going along his route and his progress on the documentary is welcome to follow him on Facebook, he said.