What can’t be replaced: Diversion threatens family’s long lineage in Hickson

HICKSON, N.D. – Lillian Johnson’s home here offers a window into the family’s roots spanning three centuries along the Red River.

Those roots, like those of other families in this town 15 miles south of Fargo, would be washed away if the proposed Red River diversion is ever built.

The origin of Johnson’s 105-year-old house is reflected in its vintage wallpaper, exposed hot-water heaters and rich woodwork lining every door and window.

There are also old photographs, heirlooms and family relics that showcase the Johnsons’ history – first on the homestead and then, for the last 60 years or so, in the white house on Third Street.

But it’s the people and their memories that have made Hickson a lasting home for the Johnsons.

Gathered around their antique dining room table one recent afternoon, members of the family recalled with joy the countless holidays, reunions and vacations spent at the family nest.

Lillian Johnson, 88, center, holds an ice skate that was made by her husband’s grandfather, a homesteader in Hickson. She sits in the family home that was built by then-banker TT Kinneberg with her closest relatives behind her. They are, from left, nephew Curtis Rehder, 66, niece Diane Johnson, 73, daughter Debbie (Johnson) Fowler, 59, and nephew Ross Rehder, 69. All are unhappy that the home would be lost to a Red River diversion project. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor.

Johnson’s nephew, Ross Rehder, remembered summers with his grandfather catching catfish and frogs in the Red River.

“It was things you don’t ever replace in your childhood,” said Rehder, now 69, of Comstock, Minn.

But with the diversion project looming in the coming years, the family worries about how many more memories they’ll still be able to have there.

“They want to uproot the roots,” said Johnson’s daughter, Debbie Fowler, 59, who now lives in nearby Walcott. “It’s that heritage they want to get rid of.”

The planned diversion around Fargo includes a temporary water storage area south of the city – in actuality, a dam that will displace residents in Hickson, Oxbow and the Bakke subdivision and potentially affect hundreds of others living as far south as Richland and Wilkin counties.

Diversion Authority officials are pursuing solutions they hope will prevent full buyouts of the three towns and minimize other upstream impacts.

But for now, affected residents, like the Johnsons, can only plan for the worst-case scenario: A future where their heritage will drown at the expense of flood protection for the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.

Founding father

Jorgan Johannesen emigrated from Norway in 1870 and homesteaded along the Red River near Hickson, N.D. He met and married a local girl, Elen Arent, in 1876 and the couple had four children, from left: Randine, John, Johanna and Emilia, shown here in an 1882 family photograph. John's daughter-in-law, Lillian Johnson, still lives in the family home in Hickson. Special To The Forum.

In 1870, Jorgan Jacob Johannesen left Norway and immigrated to America. He trekked to the Dakota Territory with only a few belongings, a wagon, a cow and two oxen, named Pope and Spot.

Johannesen crossed the Red River at Fort Abercrombie and traveled north, homesteading near Hickson 13 years before the town was founded.

Johannesen married his neighbor’s daughter, Elen Arent, a match that sparked more than four generations of lineage in Hickson.

Although the homestead is now long gone, the site still unites the 12 living great-grandchildren of Jorgan and Elen.

“All of us cousins have made a lot of pilgrimages there in the last few years,” said Lillian’s niece Diane Johnson, 73.

Jorgan Johannesen, his wife Elen and the couple's four children are shown in this undated late-1800s photograph in front of the Johnson family's original homestead by the Red River near Hickson, N.D. Johannesen emigrated from Norway in 1870. His granddaughter-in-law, Lillian Johnson, still lives in the family's modern home in Hickson. Special To The Forum.

Of the 12 cousins, only three live in immediate proximity to Hickson.

Fowler lives in Walcott, Rehder farms in Comstock, Minn., and his brother, Curtis Rehder, 66, operates a business in neighboring Barnesville.

Diane Johnson recently moved back to the region, settling in Fergus Falls, Minn., after a lifetime in California.

“I was the only one of the (original) 15 cousins who didn’t really grow up here, and I longed for it all my life,” she said. “I just wanted to be a part of it and be a part of the homestead.”

The rest of the cousins now live across the country: Five in Arizona and one each in Montana, Washington and Texas.

Facing change

At 88, Lillian Johnson – Johannesen’s granddaughter-in-law – is the family’s matriarch.

After marrying Earl Johnson, she moved out to Hickson from Fargo in 1948 and has lived in the family home ever since.

“I like it out here,” she said. “I’ve got my own well, it’s 20 minutes to Fargo, and I’m pretty independent, so why would I want to move to town?”

Lillian Johnson’s children feel similar adoration for the family home.

Her youngest son, Kevin, 56, has his eyes set on moving home from Arizona and eventually inheriting the Hickson house.

“He says, ‘Mom, if they’re going to flood it, how can I move home?’” Lillian Johnson said. “We’re going to fight it.”

Like the majority of other residents in these parts, the Johnson family is angered and worried about the uncertainty of the diversion project.

They understand the need for flood protection in Fargo-Moorhead, but not at their expense.

“You have to accept change – if it makes sense,” Lillian Johnson said. “I don’t accept change for change’s sake.”

Her daughter, Debbie, agrees, wondering why government officials want to spend nearly $2 billion on a project that might help Fargo but won’t make the city immune from a flooding disaster.

“It’s such an expensive project, and there’s so many unknowns,” Fowler said. “If we have to sacrifice, fine, we’ll get over it. … But you want it to be worth it.”

Un-resting place

While the family can move and take their tangible memories with them, some of their heritage simply can’t be relocated, at least not without traumatic disruption.

Four generations of Johnsons are buried in local cemeteries in and around Hickson.

The sites are among about a dozen cemeteries south of Fargo-Moorhead that will be affected by the extra water associated with the diversion’s storage area.

Engineers are working to determine how best to salvage and preserve the sites, saying a total relocation of the cemeteries would be a last resort.

But there’s no guarantee of the cemeteries’ fate.

Hemnes Cemetery – the resting place of Jorgen and Elen Johannesen and other early settlers – could see as much as three feet of extra water because of the diversion, according to the Army Corps of Engineers’ estimates.

In talking with her cousins about their concerns, Diane Johnson learned heartbreaking news: Four cemeteries – not three – housing Johnson ancestors stand to be inundated by the project.

The fourth cemetery Johnson had thought would be safe – the North Pleasant cemetery in Hickson – is the resting place of her father.

“I just got goose-bumps,” Diane said, crestfallen and throwing up her arms in disgust. “Now, I’m really upset. … I’m on a new level of irritation.”

Future unknowns

As the Johnsons and other local families deal with the emotional turmoil of planning for the proposed diversion, the possibility remains that the project might not even happen.

Despite government leaders’ best efforts to continue advancing the project, numerous obstacles could very well delay or halt it indefinitely: a lack of funding, congressional red tape, environmental concerns, lawsuits from passionate opponents and more.

That uncertainty leaves Lillian Johnson and her neighbors in limbo, unsure of how to plan for the future. Relatively simple decisions, like whether to spend $3,000 to have her home’s exterior painted, are now complicated choices for Lillian.

“I like to keep things up, but this could go on for five, 10 years” Johnson said. “What do I do?”

“It’s heartbreaking,” she added. “All my life, I said if I could ever live long enough so that I didn’t have any bills and I had enough money to bury me so I wouldn’t be a burden on my children – I’d be happy.”

“Well, when you reach that point in life, and then they want to take it all away from you, it just doesn’t seem right.”