The Why and How of Cathay, North Dakota

Cathay, North Dakota

Near the center of the state, in Wells County, about fifteen miles northwest of Carrington, Cathay stands as a great example of a shrinking North Dakota railroad community in the heart of farming country. It was founded in 1892 and the first post office went up the following year, to serve the Soo Line railroad. At one time, there were 255 residents here, but in the 2000 Census, the number was 56. Ten years later, the 2010 tally was 43.

Some might argue it was after the closing of the school when things started to look a little bleak in Cathay. Some might say, “No, it was the post office,” and still others would insist there was some other tipping point, but in reality the railroad was responsible for the fate of many small towns like this, and as went the railroad, so went the town.

Cathay, North Dakota

Regardless of the why, we’re always interested in the how. How does it look now? How many people are there? How do we get there? So we visited in July of 2017 and found an interesting photographic landscape for those interested in the empty and abandoned.

Cathay, North Dakota

The James River Gun Club and the abandoned Post Office stand next to each other on 3rd Avenue, just across the street from Cathay’s City Hall.

Cathay, North Dakota

When we first decided to visit Cathay, it was because we wanted to see this former public school in person.

Cathay, North Dakota

The former main entrance of Cathay’s public school is particularly beautiful in design and construction, and the juxtaposition of the architectural elegance with the unkempt overgrowth suggests a school in some dystopian vision of the future.

Cathay, North Dakota

Above and below: one of two vacant churches we saw in Cathay. This one looks like it might have been converted into a dwelling at some point in the recent past.

Cathay, North Dakota
Cathay, North Dakota

Above and below: The second of two vacant churches we saw in Cathay, with the bell tower removed some time ago.

Cathay, North Dakota
Cathay, North Dakota

We visited Cathay on a trip which also took us to Chaseley, just a short drive away, and we’ve also photographed a few other places in the area over the years, like Hamberg, and Bremen.

Cathay, North Dakota

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

45 Comments on “The Why and How of Cathay, North Dakota

  1. I went to school there until it closed. I was in the second grade. I was baptized and attended church in the Methodist Church (the one without a bell tower) and I attended Sunday School and Bible School in the Baptist Church (the one with the steeple). Both sets if my grandparents attended church in the Methodist Church and my parents were married there. Both my parents graduated from Cathay school.
    There used to be a grocery store/cafe up the street from the post office. When it closed the local coffee meeting place became th wed elevator until it burned.
    So many memories.

    • I remember the guys hanging out at the elevator gossiping and drinking coffee in the 80s.

    • I use to drive through Cathay quite often and I remember the little building downtown, but I don’t think I ever noticed the school!
      I know a current resident of Cathay who is particular about things like keeping the grass mowed and the weeds down. If it’s your town, no matter how small, you can do your share to keep it up, I guess.
      I should ask him about the future of the school…

  2. Sweet! I haven’t been to Cathay in over a decade, but when I saw this title, the first thing I thought of were the windows above the school entrance. Those diamond-shaped panes struck me because of my East-coast origins. Diamond shaped panes always meant wealth.

    I’m thrilled to see that they’re still there. When I looked back at my old (film) photos, I’m shocked that I never captured those windows. So, thank you for capturing them!

  3. What a beautiful town and there must have been such pride in it’s day.
    I am from the east coast and that is the first thing I thought of when I saw the school. I wonder what it is like inside?
    And I see they still fly the flag at city hall. And the lawns are all cut!!
    I find myself always wanting more information….
    Tami & Jason thank you for sharing your memories.

  4. My Grandma loved across from from the Baptist church and was the school cook for many years. I have one of the pots she used and use it myself still. Had many cousin’s in the area and would spend summers with my Grandma Laura Martin. She would give me money to go to Elsie’s grocery store and buy is an ice cream sandwich. My cousin Lori and I rode horse all thru town and would go to Elsie’s for a Strawberry Sunrise pop. We lived in Cathay for awhile as my Mother bought a house there at an auction.

    • Your Grandma lived across from the Methodist church not the Baptist church.

      • I remember your gramma as she dished up our lunch everyday at school! I would help wash dishes – those gals had some fun and what a great experience it was to hang out with them after lunch.

        • Lori: I was your bb coach in ’75-76′; you were a sophomore & a very good defensive player and rebounder!
          Remeber our record was 0-10 during the season but we won the Jr Varsity tournament @ the end of the year!
          I now am a Baptist pastor for over 40 years pastoring Dillon Baptist Church in Dillon, MT. I was converted to the Lord Jesus Christ by Larry Schagunn, a Gideon who had a dairy farm on the road to New Rockford; he still lives in the city. I certainly have repented of the awful life and bad example I was to you all. God gave me 6 children with (@ present) 25 grandchildren & 1 great grandchild. My dear wife Jane, whom I met 9 days after my conversion on 5/5/76, passed away 3 years ago. I have had a very good life as the Lord has been very gracious to me.

  5. I remember the basketball games played in the school, I was a cheer leader. Wonderful times with visions of the future, how quickly they are tarnished. We grew up in a care free time, how things have changed.

  6. I used to visit relatives there. They are buried in the cemetery in Cathay. I hope that is kept up.

    • The Lake View cemetery is kept up. Who were your relatives?

  7. In the 60’s we used to go rollerskating in the gym at Cathay. Any one else remember those good times? We came from New Rockford to skate at Cathay. We had skating in NR on Saturday night and Sunday night in Cathay.

    • I roller skated every Sunday night ( in a dress) as we had church at the Methodist church before skating. Went to Cathay school all 12 years and graduated in 1968. Love the memories but don’t miss the small town atmosphere.

    • Yes roller skating every Sunday night… aunt and uncle used to run it, Linda and Lawrence Anderson

  8. Beautiful photography again, guys! I have never been to Cathay, but will certainly keep it on my “check-out” list as I travel around the State. I look at that beautiful old school and am so saddened… think about all the past activities there, pride in the sports teams and all the good memories and relationships that came out of there. The great quality of education that all received. And now….nothing. Empty. Quiet. The building looks like it is in quite good shape yet and would, in a sense, be a piece of pride in the community. It doesn’t look like it would take a great deal of effort to clean up the overgrown vegetation around it….an idea before it gets totally out of hand. Maybe a ‘one day’ community project? Possibility a Cub or Boy Scout project? Possibly the same goal could be made for one or both of the churches. These buildings just look in too nice a shape yet to just ‘let them go’. I look at some of the other communities that are on this wonderful site and find that periodically that is exactly what is being done. Let’s hope for the best for Cathay!

  9. The school looks virtually identical to the elementary school that I attended before dad moved the family to the suburbs north of Boston in the mid 1970s. The schools that I attended afterwards were housed in far more modern buildings.

  10. i did a 4H presentation at the gym at the Cathay school when i was in the 4th or 5th grade close to 50 years ago…it was about a recent trip to the West Coast. i made posters and was so nervous, that i forgot to show them! that is one of my Cathay memories! My parents knew an older couple that were card playing buddies of theirs, Rose and Luke Bichler…as i recall, they lived just off the highway.

        • Hello! My name is Jovanka. I lived in the house between Edler & June Rost and their son Keith Rost. I have so many memories! Are you related?

  11. I always wondered why our mailing address was Cathay and not Bremen which we lived closer to. Any ideas??

  12. Wonderful pictures that sure bring back memories. I grew up on a farm just north of the town and did 12 years in that beautiful old school building. We were back last summer and took pictures, too….and were saddened to see how much all the important town buildings had deteriorated over the years. We also went to the Baptist Church (the first one in the photos) and I can remember my older brothers jumping over that spruce tree when it was about 4 feet tall. And yes, I remember skating in the school gym (lots of dust), getting ice cream sandwiches @ Hanson’s (and Broschat’s) grocery, and depositing allowances in the bank (the building labeled now as City Hall). A lot of good people went to that school and spread out all over the state and the country.
    And as ‘ghostly’ as it may appear now, it’s always fun to go back and dredge up the memories.

    • Hi, Mike. My father was Rev. David Zimmerman, pastor of the Cathay Baptist Church from 1954-1960. We moved from CO to ND. Four boys & 2 girls in our family attended school in that beautiful building which was located just east of the parsonage, a large “American four-square” house in which we lived. This house is pictured, too, in sad condition. I remember it when it was beautiful and full of life with our large family. Some of us are planning a trip to ND this summer and intend to visit Cathay. Some good memories.

  13. Should have said that it was the building now marked as the Post Office is where the bank used to be, not the current City Hall. MDR

    • Remember the marble games during school recess or the slide, swings, teeter totters and merry-go-round out back? One of my vivid memories is Bill Ockert (sorry if I didn’t get your spelling right) creating an acetylene experiment and coaxed Karen Pepple (maiden name) to throw the switch. The resulting explosion knocked the clock off the wall and teachers came running into the room. Good times.

      • My brother Carey Bittner always talked about the marble games. My mother told me about how he cut the thumb out of a new pair of gloves so he could still shoot his marble in the cold.

  14. My grandfather John Berndt who immigrated from Odessa Russia in 1893 was one of the founders of the German Baptist church in Cathay. Jon served in the Russian army a short time in the 1880’s. The church was dedicated October 19, 1913 and closed June 4, 1995.
    My dad Alvin Berndt was born and grew up in Cathay. Carl Berndt his brother ran the blacksmith shop and lived there all his life, he was the father to my cousins Clinton, Arlene, and Arnold Berndt.

    • Carl was also janitor of the school for many years and also was the town Constable. I remember him as a giant of a man.

  15. My grandparents lived in Cathay, and I spent alot of time in this little town. My grandparents are Woodrow and Germaine Tesch. My parents are Jerome Sondag and Karla Tesch . I remember the grocery store when I was little. Great memories.

  16. I have a Cathay N Dak, metal coin bank from farmers state bank, and i was wondering if there was any history on it. Thanks Brian

  17. My grandfather (Henry Brokofsky) and grandmother (Catherine Brokofsky) were from Cathay. He had a hardware store and lost it during the depression. My dad (Duane) was born there and went to school until the age of 14, when he went to live with an older sister in Minneapolis. The idea behind that was to get a “better” education. I have his mug from the all school reunion, but don’t know the date. 1979?

  18. My husband and I drove to Cathay two weeks ago. My dad’s family is from there (last name “Edinger”). I wanted to see the town and find what graves I could. I found my great-grandparents (Frederick and Susana Edinger), in the Lake View Cemetery, and I believe I found my great-great-grandparents family plot in the German Baptist Cemetery, although I didn’t find the actual headstones. My great-grandfather was the youngest of all the children and named Emil. He must have moved away at some point as he is buried at Elbow Lake, Minnesota. I don’t know much about the family, but I believe they came from Odessa, Russia (correlates with Lonnie Berndt’s story), through Liverpool and Quebec. I have no idea what the family did for work or where they actually lived. If anyone can shed some light on this for me, I would be most appreciative. By the way, the photographs in this article are very well-done.

    • My great-grandparents were Susana and Frederick Edinger. My grand-mother was Lydia Edinger Bruns.

  19. My Aunt and Uncle lived on the edge of Cathay. Spent many times in that city. It was a great town back 60 years ago.

  20. I lived in Cathay form late 1963 to early 1964. My dad, Mike, ran the bar across from Elsie’s back then. Retzlaf Hardware was another business back then. Clay was who I hung out with back then. Laura Martin sure knew how to cook a great pork chop when I visited back in summer of 1973.

  21. I grew up in Cathay. Started school there in the 3rd grade and graduated in 1974. We lived in the house across from the school beside the Baptist church and then bought the old Hardy house.
    My Grandma Laura Martin was the school cook.
    My dad Leonard Martin ran the county blade for many years.
    Love the photos. Haven’t been there in a few years, but will have to make a trip soon.

  22. My Grandparents (Martin’s) and Aunt and Uncles (Belquist’s) are from this Town. My grandpa worked for the Soo Line. I visited often in the eighties and have fond, but distant memories of the school and the post office and the train bridge and fishing in the creek. My uncle had a farm on the edge of town, I remember feeding the cows. I miss that town. Amazing and sad all at the same time.

  23. I’m from McHenry. We played basketball against Cathay in that building the 60’s. I quit basketball after grade school, but Cathay was a particularly great rival for highschool basketball in ’67. ’68 and ’69. Jerry Sondag (mentioned above by his son) was the Coach for Cathay and also instituted a cross country running program for conditioning, which McHenry coach Jim Hann copied. Cathay basketball players had great endurance. Jim wanted that for McHenry, too. Kent Tesch was the star in my time, and there was a Seibel, other names I can’t remember now. Cathay was a run-and-gun team — good passers and shooters, very successfully wearing out a lot of teams from bigger schools. My best friend was Miles Pound and his mother, Betty, taught at Cathay for a while. While she taught there Miles and his sister went to school there, though they lived just south of McHenry. Later, in fall of ’63 Betty came to McHenry to teach, and her kids came back to McHenry school. Betty’s daughter is married to my older brother now. McHenry has gone a similar route to Cathay for the same reasons, just as so many in North Dakota and other states in agricultural areas all over the nation have — the majority of the towns that were 300 or less in my highschool days. Many dissapeared and merged schools with us in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s. Even the next bigger layer of towns — population 1500 to 2500 — the county seats, like Carrington, New Rockford and Cooperstown are pretty much shadows of their former selves. They can support some stores, a little cafe/restaurant or two and small to medium-sized newer businesses. Most of the car dealerships have long since left. Retail brick and mortar in these towns is pretty dead — we all have the internet now — well most of us, it’s a problem on the farms, I hear. McHenry had a movie theater which was a distinction for a while, which packed the dirt streets with cars and kids for miles around on Saturday nights, but that petered out in the ’70’s or ’80’s. In it’s prime, McHenry had 9 grain elevators — only 4 in my time. Had one bar, one gas station 3 places to get groceries, 2 places to get lumber, 2 butcher shops and one cafe when I was there. All are gone but one bar now. I think it was population 1500 at one time — only about 150 to 200 in my day, and now down to 50 or 60, and still the second largest town in Foster County! I go to that entire area, including the Cathay area most years for hunting. I’m Tony Lowe. I graduated in 1969 from McHenry High. Thanks for the photos and the memories.

  24. My grandparents retired to Cathay after they quit farming. I visited them in Cathay twice. My grandfather was Christ Pepple and my grandmother was Sofia (Kandt) Pepple.

  25. My grandpa Harold Pepple was from Cathay. I think I’ve only been through Cathay twice and both times I was a little kid. I think I might have been there for the centennial in 1993; but it looks like it has become even more of a ghost town. It’s kinda sad, really. I look at that school and wonder if my grandpa went there as a boy. My grandpa passed away many years ago and the last few years of his life were taken from him due to an advanced form of Alzheimer’s. My main regret I have now mid-thirties is that I wished I would have paid attention more when I was there as a kid. We get so preoccupied with being young and foolish and we don’t realize how precious people are in our lives until they are gone. My grandparents were a precious commodity and I guess I never thought as a kid that they would pass away and with it all the memories of these buildings and this town. I wish we could’ve taken my grandpa back there before his Alzheimer’s got so bad.

  26. My dad was Joseph Jung and grew up on a farm near Cathy, also attended Cathy school. I visited grandparents as young child. Loved the farm!
    Am doing family research and wondering why grandparents who immigrated from Germany settled in Cathy.

  27. My great grandparents, Justin Balavitch (born 1875) Lithuania, and Johanna Czapite Balavitch (born 1886), Kaunas Lithuania, immigrated to Cathay ND were they settled as farmers. My grandfather, Anthony Balavitch was born in Cathay in 1910. Later his siblings, Joe (1911), Pete (1914), Adam (1915), Helen (1918) were born in Cathay. They moved in 1920 to Weare, Oceana County, Michigan and more siblings: Francis (1921), Paul (1925) and Julia (1929) all worked the Balavitch Farm.

  28. I used to visit relatives there – The Marchus’s. I remember the Bittner’s and Martins. So sad to see how it has gone to ruin. I understand the cemetery is kept up.

Leave a Reply