Nanson: A North Dakota Ghost Town

Nanson, North Dakota

As we set out to photograph ghost towns in early May of 2012, we had Nanson in mind as our ultimate destination. We’ve known about Nanson for quite some time but somehow we just never managed to make it there — it was time.

After driving all day through an array of locations, we reached US Highway 2 and drove into Rugby for some lunch — huge double cheeseburgers at the Cornerstone Cafe (now closed). After lunch, we departed for Nanson.

As we headed north of Highway 2 we were struck by the wide open space and the brilliant blue sky. The green rolling hills brought to mind the opening sequence of ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ The trees got more sparse, and farmsteads flashed by less frequently. Sometimes it gets quiet in the car on drives like this. Conversation slows, and one of us turns down the radio in an almost involuntary reflex — unconscious appreciation for some rare silence in an increasingly noisy age. As we traveled further into the countryside, traffic diminished and Terry reminded me we’d entered waving country — when a rare truck passed, the driver lifted one hand and waved.

Just when we thought we’d driven through a time portal to the 1800’s, a wind farm appeared over the horizon and dozens of turbines with giant white blades spun lazily in the prairie wind. We traveled a few dozen miles and arrived at our turn — from a paved two lane highway to a hard-packed, chalky dirt road. We were only able to drive a few hundred feet before we were forced to get out and walk due to deep potholes with puddles at the bottom. We had arrived at Nanson.

Nanson, North Dakota

Today, only four homes and a few scattered garages and outbuildings remain of the town that was once Nanson. Incredibly, there was not a powerline or telephone pole to be seen. The only sign that people once inhabited the place was the crumbling remains of family homes, all arranged in a line on the west side of the road.

Nanson, North Dakota

The moment we stepped off the road, we discovered Nanson is inhabited — infested is more the word — the ticks were unbelievable. To capture the photos you see below, we accepted the price of having to pick ticks off ourselves all the way home and into the next day — and we did.

Nanson, North Dakota

Visitors to our website have commented on a store which operated in Nanson until the 1970’s… that store is no longer in Nanson. It has been moved to the Hawk Antique and Farm Machinery Museum near Wolford.

Nanson, North Dakota

It’s difficult to see but there are pieces of concrete everywhere beneath the grass and a concrete pad in the upper left of the photo above… the remains of a building which used to stand at the south end of town.

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson was featured in our coffee table book, Ghosts of North Dakota, Volume 1.

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

According to former residents of Nanson, there was a fire sparked in the prairie grass by a passing train (the tracks no longer go through here) that claimed Nanson’s first store, and a lot of the town. If anyone knows more about this fire, we’d love to hear it in the comments, or contact us.

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

This garage is all that remains of a home that once stood at the north end of Nanson.

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

Nanson, North Dakota

What was once a basement became a dumping spot for a time, the story told by the vintage glass bottles and cans which have been slowly but deliberately covered by falling leaves, season after season. Sometime in the future, the trash, and everything else, will disappear beneath the soil.

Nanson, North Dakota

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © Sonic Tremor Media

43 Comments on “Nanson: A North Dakota Ghost Town

  1. There used to be a general store in Nanson back in the 50’s and 60’s (and early 70’s?) where we (my sisters and I) would shop for items from the 30’s and 40’s. Fond memories of the dusty bargains….

    • The general store was moved to the hawk museum south of Nanson near wolford

    • Who used to own that general store? Was there last name Johnson?

      • Yes, the store was owned by Henry Johnson, my mother’s uncle. I remember meeting up with Henry at the store one afternoon in July of 1988. Browsing around the XXXL flannel shirts (in July) and other goods we noticed baseball cards…from 1984.

        As Jeff noted above, the store was moved out of Nanson in the early 1990s and Henry Johnson was the last resident of the town and left when the store did.

  2. The Cornerstone Cate is a great spot to have a meal. My father lives in Rugby I like to stop in there when I go to visit.
    Have you ever been to Sarles? It was a great little town to raise kids and just enjoy life. Some of the best times of my life are of there. Its still is.

    • use the search feature on the right side, Darla. You’ll be pleased to find some photos of the Sarles school in our Points of Interest category.

  3. What memories this article brings back. I lived in one of those houses in Nanson when I was nine years old and walked to the little white schoolhouse next door. A big event of the summer was walking to the depot to “meet” the train twice a day. Later we moved to Rugby and I graduated from high school there.

  4. Thank you for your website. My mother was from ND and I truly enjoy learning about all the old towns. Thanks

  5. I remember going there as a little kid with my family to visit relatives that ran the general store. My mother if I remember correctly had a farm there. I have a great memory of that visit and watching the train go by past the store. Also, tons of photos.
    Robert Braaten-Grant.

  6. Explored the townsite and buildings in summer of 2010 with my wife on the way to my high school class 10 year reunion in Minot. Lots of ticks for us too, but not so many that we picked them off all day long.

  7. upon looking at the photos it makes a person very sad,, All those homes belonged to someone, and there is history there, but now almost forgotten, as so many other little towns were, because everyone was lured to the big city.. Forgetting how peaceful, and serene life was out on the prairie,. Many say it was so lonely, and hard to make a living,, but even today it can be that, if we dont stop to count our blessings. Ticks,, yes, those little creatures are all over, so do a tick check no matter where you walk,, they are bad news…

  8. Great job on your site! It looks like you’ve put a lot of work into this.
    Lots of history, useful information and many good images.

  9. Great story. I love reading about these old towns so close to where I live. I live a few miles from Nanson. Anyway, have you ever checked out Thorn? Like Nanson, it was once a town of a few people. There used to be a general store there & a few houses. My dad & uncle talk about it a lot. I love the random conversations they have about the “olden days” and as I pass these once bubbling towns, I always get lost in my mind wondering what life was like back then. I love history.

  10. Wow! Great memories! We used to go there with our Dad and get school clothes. He used to like to “tip a few” with the man who ran the store – Henry, we think and Adolph, who ran the bar. I think he lived in the house or had the bar right next to the store – it seemed we could “leap” from one to the other they were so close together!!

  11. I remember some of the best fireworks I have seen in life was in Nanson on the fourth of July? I remember shopping in that general store for penny candy. Mom always claimed they had the best deli bologna!

  12. yes nanson was the place wed take our cream down there and henry johnson would take the cream cans in back n weigh them and empty the cans and mom would buy our shoes clothes n food still have money leftover wow will never see those days again ever..miss nanson lots…marcie graber laporte

  13. I live a few miles from there and have never actually went and saw it for myself–going ot have to this weekend! I love old buildings!! 🙂

  14. WOW!!! Talk about memories! My cousin( 2nd or 3rd? ) Henry Johnson ran the store, It was a treasure shop! I loved it!….I spent many days there when I was 5 , 1975. We lived outside of Rolette for about 6 months , but being from California , couldn’t hang with the cold..COLD weather 😉 My family , the Johnson’s settled that town. A friend just sent me these pictures and the article. So interesting and strange to see

  15. WOW! What a blast from the past! My grandfather, Linus Johnson, built the 1st store there in Nanson ( which burned to the ground with half the town when a spark from the train set the dry grass on fire-so the story went) My mother, Sonja, grew up there and went to the school that was there. When I was back there in the 70’s- Henry (my 2nd cousin) had the store and I actually got to work for him. That store was unbelievable! And I remember the hot-dog links in the meat case and the cream station in the back behind the postoffice mail slots….the old gas pumps in front and the out-house in back. Good times! Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

  16. Anyone who can tell my about the name of this town, was it named after the Norwegian “Fridtjof Nansen” ?? Who run the post Office? Could it be “Olaf H. Johnson” ???? Where in Norway did he came from ??

  17. My mom was born and lived in Eckman until her teen years. Then the family moved to Bottineau. The only thing I could find of Eckman was a sign post. It would be wonderful to see some photos from there.
    No matter how long I live in Georgia, North Dakota will always be home.

  18. I love your posts! While the photos do make me a little sad, the mystery and intrigue of these places trump the sadness. Both my parents are from ND, and though I was born there, moved when I was not yet 2 years old. We’d go there often on family trips and the abandoned buildings would fascinate me, especially the schools. Thank you so much for the childhood memories!

  19. I loved reading about your visit to Nanson! I grew up in Rolette but often visited Nanson with my father and other members of my family. I would also buy my hunting license from Henry at the store! Good memories –where have the years gone?? Thanks for the memories!

  20. I grew up in Rolette and remember going to Nanson. Last time I drove through Rolette, I told my kids about Nanson. Definitely brings back some memories.

  21. Wow! My sister posted this story and I was totally taken aback! I can’t remember many of the stories but I do remember my mom and Aunt (who to this day still lives in Rolette) telling us of stories from Nanson and taking us there when I was very young. Apparently Henry was my mother’s uncle…I believe. Possibly great uncle, I will need to contact my aunt. Anyhow I also remember how mom would talk about those great hotdog links there….lol. this is so neat. I still remember these old abandon buildings also haven’t changed much since about 15 years ago. To hear of all these Johnson’s also makes me realize I probably have much more extended family out there that I’ve never even heard of. Love the history and stories of everyone. This is so great.

  22. Pingback: The 10 Most Intriguing Abandoned North Dakota Places :

    • My Dad was born in Nanson back in 1919. I didn’t even know where it was. I know they moved to Perth and had lived in Lorraine before Nanson. you don’t have Lorraine on your list. I do wonder though if one of the houses in your pictures is the one my Dad was born in. I suppose that is a question I will never have answered because anyone who could tell me is with God. I am enjoying your website and very impressed by how easy it is to maneuver through it. Excellent work. I am loving this. I love old things anyway, towns, buildings, etc. thank you.

  23. Wow, it doesn’t take long for buildings and houses to dilapidate after people move out of them

  24. Wow. The History and the memories. I remember being in nanson when they moved the store to the Hawk Museum. I was with my Grandpa Albin Johnson, Henrys Brother. I was very young it being in the late 80s. The stories…the history. Henry was the heart of that town for many years. Living alone in the upstairs of his store for many years keeping the store alive. Henry moved to Rolette North Dakota after leaving nanson and died very shortly after. But the store still looks the same and I visit it every year at the Hawk Museum., along with the nanson school house. It makes me happy that all the stories and memories of this town live on with not only me..but many others as well.


  26. I love this my Dad is from Rolette and I remember us always taking a trip to Nanson. I loved it out there. i would like to here more and see more photos if I could? my Dads Name is Clayton Elmer Lunde we stayed at my grandma Lunde’s and Adar Lunde..I know my grandparents where from Norway.

    • Your grandparents from Norway? If you are talking about Clayton Elmer’s parents, Inga and Adel Lunde…Adel was born near Pelican Rapids, Otter Tail County, Minnesota. Adel was my grandfather’s first cousin. Adel’s father was born in Minnesota, too. Adel’s mother was born in Norway. So yes, they are of Norwegian descent.

  27. Living here in Kalifornia, where the locals think it’s “cold” when the thermometer hits 40 degrees, I sometimes will dial up NOAA and check the weather in Antler ND, where my mother was from. February 26th and it’s -2 degrees F, but that becomes -40 with wind chill. Now that is really COLD. ND has a stark beauty to it, but the weather is something else! No wonder the structures seem to vanish overnight – it truly is a land of extremes. And no wonder my parents left ND, and only went back to ‘visit’ in the summer…

  28. My ancestors lived in Acton ND. a small town east of Grafton. The last time I visited the site, there were two building standing, but not in any condition to enter. Most of the land is now farmed.

  29. I remember visiting Henry and Uncle Emil at the store.

  30. I so remember this wonderful “town” growing up. So many memories of uncle Henry . I worked for him when I was still in school during my summer vacation. Never a dull moment he would always come up with something. One day the store was “quiet” so we decided to make some butter. So we find a coffee can, add some fresh farm cream, a little salt and then Henry says ” let’s just put it on the paint shaker” and WaLaaaaa!!! We had butter in no time. That was just one of many many stories I could tell you about that wonderful man! He put up with a lot of nieces staying with him over the years..he would take us to twin lakes swimming , teach us how to drive a car, let us bake for his customers, paint his walls (any color we wanted). I better quit writing now or I will end up writing a book.

  31. Seems to me I heard tell the spelling was to be Nansen (with an e) after the Norwegian scientist-explorer (1861-1930). Often Post office names became slightly altered, so it is possible.

    Anyhow, my shirt-tail Sami cousin, Sam Balto, skied with Dr. Nansen across Greenland, in a then-unprededented exploration (about 1888)).

    There are on the high prairies many example of name of towns, now ghosts or on the way, bestowed in honor of famous people or places. Then, alas, the towns themselves never quite reached expectations.

  32. Great photographs – my family name is Nanson and my father came from Idaho, but I don’t know if there is any connection to this town.

  33. When I was in high scool at Wolford, which is not far from Nanson, my friends Doug and Mitch Guss and I would Be goose hunting near Nanson in the 60’s. We would always stop by the Hanson store to pick up treats and usually some shotgun shells. A great old store with just about anything you could want. Great memories. Another good friend of mine, Creighton Gustafson, grew up even closer to Nanson and has shared some great stories of his trips to the store.

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