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I have been sharing some of our stops on our epic month-long roadtrip through 13 states and wanted to share one of our favorite places we stopped at for a few days. Chances are, very few people reading this blog will have heard of Gackle, North Dakota, and that’s kind of the point of why we loved it so much and why I’m sharing about it.
If you are just here for the food, you might want to check out my American Eats series where I cover some of the most popular foods and flavors of each state, one state at a time. But if you love travel, be sure to visit my Travel archives to see some of the other places we have been!
Summer Vacation in Small Town America
To me, Gackle is representative of hundreds and maybe thousands of small towns scattered around our country. These small towns used to be a bigger part of American life, but a lot has changed in the decades since these tiny towns were thriving, vibrant little communities and seeing that first hand was eye-opening for me.
For years now, we have been hearing about Gackle, North Dakota from our beekeeping friends, the Millers, who run Miller Honey Farms. They are fifth generation commercial beekeepers and while they live in California for part of each year, taking their bees around to help pollinate California’s almond orchards and other crops, during the summer they always load their bees onto large flatbed trucks and drive them across the country to North Dakota where it’s cooler. This is where the bees actually produce most of their honey and where it is harvested at a plant in the town of Gackle, which feels to us like it is precisely in the middle of nowhere.
Gackle isn’t on the way to anywhere or even nearby anything. The nearest city of any size is around an hour away, so grocery trips are carefully planned since it’s not like you can just run to the store if you need to grab something you forgot. Although there is the Co-op, which is a pretty decently stocked fill station with a tiny market that has the necessities.
Every year our friends tell us how much they love the place. We love to hear about their North Dakota adventures and have always wanted to go visit. This year, with my husband working remotely, summer swim team cancelled for our girls, and not much other traveling going on, we thought escaping to a tiny town of less than 300 way out in the country sounded like the ideal summer vacation. And it really was!
So these are some of our highlights of our small town experience from the perspective of big city kids to whom basically everything felt foreign and exotic. The pace is so much slower. The politics are completely different. And yes, even the food is not the same, with the local cuisine having been heavily influenced by Germans who immigrated by way of Russia first and having brought many of their sensibilities and tastes with them to the region.
Small town U.S.A. feels so different from the crowded Bay Area. It was actually incredibly broadening to experience that slice of life in America! By the time we left, my husband was legitimately brainstorming whether we could go back and stay for even longer next summer because we all enjoyed it so much.
What to do with a week in a small town
Our “big city” kids had an absolute blast riding their bikes all over town, swimming in the above-ground pool, and just enjoying the slow pace of small town life. We played pickleball every night, went out to see the bees with our friends, and enjoyed dinner at “The Freeze”, one of the only places in town to eat out (and only on certain days of the week).
It felt like coming up for air to be able to let our kids roam free. They reveled in the independence of being able to grab their helmets and bikes and just take off. Clara made friends with a girl in town her age and they would sit on the trampoline in her backyard and have conversations until one of the other kids was sent to fetch them home for dinner.
There was a vacation bible school held the week we were there and the girls joined in for the lessons and games of Red Rover and freeze tag, which they aren’t even allowed to play at school back at home.
Places around town
Our friend Ginny gave us a a bicycle tour of town one morning while the kids were occupied playing at the house. It felt like we were the kids straight out of the movie “The Sandlot” spending our summer break pedaling our bikes and exploring the town together. We hit up all the hotspots such as the fire station and attached library.
There is a fun “Gackle” sign made of painted tires on a small swell in the land as you enter the town.
The Freez isn’t open every day, but when it is, they have tasty food and chocolate dipped cones that were popular with the kids and adults!
We didn’t go into the post office while we were there, but it’s a cute little building on Main Street.
I had to stop and take pictures of these silos and cattails along the highway.
When in farm country, be sure to visit a farm!
The highlight for everybody was when we got to go out to a huge farm that is owned by a family that our friend Jason grew up with. He called them up and asked if he could bring his friends from California to see their farm and they pulled out their enormous tractors and let each of the kids (and grown-ups!) have turns driving them around a big fallow field (with their supervision from within the cab, of course).
These weren’t just “big” tractors. They were massive pieces of equipment that towered over us and had radio and air conditioning inside. The ride was surprisingly smooth and comfortable!
The big boys and Clara took turns driving the smaller Ranger around the field as well. It was the tiniest taste of life as a farm kid and more fun than a ride at Disneyland.
We were all grinning from ear-to-ear about the experience. It’s one that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.
Afterwards I looked up agri-tourism because we all enjoyed the experience so much that I wondered whether there are family run farms that let people come see what life is like for a modern American farmer. It is definitely a thing, and I found this article helpful for more locations for agri-tourism.
After our tractor driving experience, we enjoyed visiting with the family that owns the farm while the kids chased the barn cats around and swung on the tire swing. It was such a special experience and one that we hope our girls remember as they grow up!
Miller Honey Farms
Speaking of farms, our friend Jason took us out to help add some hive boxes to some stacks that were filling up. I believe it’s called “supering” the hives. It’s always fun to get suited up and go out to see the bees! Jason has been sharing some videos on his YouTube channel, in case you are interested in learning more about beekeeping and what he does!
When I first got out and pulled my hood over, I noticed a loud buzzing that I was pretty sure was inside the suit with me. Sure enough, one of the bees had zipped right in as I was putting the suit on! I was lucky that I noticed it right away so I could let it out before I got stung!
Ginny was there with us and was so nice to take some pictures for us. And Jason educated us on the health of the different hives and pulled out some frames so we could see how the honey production was going. It’s always so amazing to see how many hundreds or even thousands of bees live in a hive and to know that the Millers have thousands of hives in different spots all over the area making honey from the sweet North Dakota nectar!
Later on we went back over to the plant with the kids and got a tour of their “Winter Palace” facility where the bees are stored when the weather gets cold before taking them back to California. The kids enjoyed playing in the big rigs and on the ATVs.
The future of small towns
We read up on the history of Gackle while we were there and learned that it’s population is less than half what it once was in it’s heyday when Gackle was a thriving hub surrounded by numerous small, family-owned farms. We even drove out to some of those farms and explored the ruins of barns and old farmhouses with rotting floors and collapsed rooms.
It hurts my heart to think of the ways a small town like Gackle has dwindled from the thriving little town it was decades ago when the population was twice what it is today. They used to have a small bowling alley, movie theater, grocery store, and swimming pool.
Each of those attractions have closed over the years, and we were actually there when the movie theater marquee was being removed prior to the building being demolished.
We knew that the theater was coming down that week, so we were sure to go over and take pictures before the sign was removed. Our friend Ginny and I actually ended up meeting the man whose family has owned the theater for years and he explained that the cost to switch to digital a few years back was just too great and the theater had been shuttered ever since then.
But we got to go inside and explore the crumbling theater before the building came down. It was eerie seeing the rows of seating and going up into the projection booth. The whole place felt like a movie theater sized time capsule.
Somehow though, I left feeling encouraged for places like Gackle. We were surprised at how much we enjoyed the small town life. There actually seemed to be quite a number of young families in the town who are raising up new generations who might not need to go live in big cities just to work remotely. And with the way the world is these days, I know we definitely have had conversations about what it would be like to live somewhere like Gackle, North Dakota and make our lives there.
I think the winters would do us in and I’m not sure I could handle being that far from a larger town with a grocery store and a Target, but I was surprised at how seriously I found myself considering how a small town lifestyle would fit for our family.
Day Trip to Jamestown
Speaking of that larger town, we spent the better part of one of our days in North Dakota driving over to Jamestown, which is where our friends go for groceries and other necessities. Since the salons hadn’t been open in California for months by this point, Paul’s hair was extremely shaggy so he and the girls all got much-needed haircuts.
Then we hit up the Dakota Store where I hit the jackpot when Paul found a shelf of old, used recipe books. They were the spiral bound collection type that were made in past decades by ladies’ church groups and each book is absolutely filled with treasures that I plan to use for my American Eats series! They weren’t all from North Dakota, so I have some from congregations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Iowa as well! Seriously they were the best souvenir of the trip.
Afterwards we went over to Frontier Village to see the “World’s Largest Buffalo”. This was a super touristy stop, but fun to see the different buildings of an old-west village and learn a little more about bandits and train robbers, see the old post office, and lock the kids up in the jail.
The Honey Hub
Gackle is actually along one of the most popular routes for people who are biking across the country. Our beekeeping friend, Jason, is also into cycling so for years now he has made a space available on the back of their house called the “Honey Hub” for cyclists to stop and spend the night. He said that most of those cross-country bikers are so used to just throwing out a sleeping bag on the ground, so to have the chance to throw their sleeping bag on a mattress and have a place to shower is a big deal.
It was fun to see a solo biker ride up one afternoon while we were sitting outside and talk with her for a minute about her journey and biking experiences.
And that was pretty much our week in Gackle! It was full of unusual surprises and an absolutely delightful place to visit. Everyone we met was super friendly and nice to talk to. We were so grateful to our friends, the Millers, for inviting us to come out and stay with them.
Every night once we put the kids down for bed (or just to read in their beds), us grown-ups would sneak away for games of pickleball. It was one of our favorite parts of the trip and we all laughed so much while we played. Now Paul and I are trying to find a place to play pickleball out here so we can be better prepared for next time.
I know the chances that anyone reading this post will end up visiting Gackle are slim, but if you do, there is one apartment that you can stay at that is up on AirBnB. It was a great place to spent part of our summer vacation!
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