Sunday, February 10, 2013

On the Road to Bathgate Act 1: "Fargo" the Movie

Bathgate, North Dakota
Bathgate North Dakota, population 43 according to the 2010 census, is located on the Tongue River, in the broad, fertile and frequently frigid Red River of the North valley, nestled in the extreme northeast corner of North Dakota, 5 miles south of the Canadian border.  Today, there are but two commercial establishments in town – Reiny’s Bar and Bethlehem Books (a Christian publishing house), plus a post office and a church or two. Nothing else except about twenty homes. Just after the turn of the 20th Century, when Bathgate was a thriving metropolis with a population of 641, the Great Northern railway ran through it.  Today the railroad right of way, angling northwest to southeast across town, is abandoned.  

Isaac J Foster Gravestone
L Elizabeth Foster Gravestone
My dad was born and raised on a family farm located on the 160-acre quarter section immediately north of town. The town of Bathgate itself is built along a bend of the Tongue River on a quarter section originally settled by my father’s grandfather, William Foster, an Irish immigrant by way of Canada, who homesteaded a claim in 1879 and sold his perfected claim to a developer in 1881. My grandparents, Isaac J Foster, who emigrated from Canada, and Laura Elizabeth Armstrong Foster, whose family moved north and west from Minnesota, farmed through most of their adult lives on various quarter sections throughout the township, and raised 11 offspring. They are interred in Bathgate Cemetery.

In spite of its disappearing population, Bathgate is a known place, not for the Fosters, but because of a flirtation with pop culture. 

If you have seen the classic movie "Fargo," I can guarantee that you have never looked at a wood chipper the same way again. "Fargo" revolves about Brainerd, Minnesota. The lead actress, Frances McDormand, plays a pregnant Brainerd police chief with an endearing singsong Northwood’s, Scandinavian influenced Minnesota accent, who tracks down a brainless and soulless killer.   She was named Best Actress for her performance. As the plot resolves, Ms. McDormand accosts and shoots the killer as he flees after being caught disposing the body of one of his victims -- through a wood chipper. 

Another iconic scene in the movie showed a roadside, woodcut statute of Paul Bunyan. The winter the movie was shot proved to be uncooperative. Early winter snowfalls were followed by thaws; January and February snow cover failed to make up the difference. In search of snowier backdrops, the production moved north, resulting on March 15, 1995 in the following AP story:

BATHGATE, ND (AP)  A statue of Paul Bunyan, along with a "Welcome to Brainerd, Home of Paul Bunyan" sign now stands tall on the prairie, along Pembina County Highway 1, four miles west of town.
The 25-foot statue was erected over the weekend for the filming of a police chase scene for the movie, "Fargo."
"You should have seen it right after they put it up," said Reinhold Henschel, who owns Reiny's Bar, one of a handful of businesses in the town of 75 people about 10 miles south of the Canadian border.
"It was foggy, and people couldn't see it until they got right up to it. Then, it says, 'Brainerd,' and they thought, 'What the hell?"
How Bathgate got involved in a movie called "Fargo" and with the legend of Paul Bunyan and Brainerd is simply a matter of weather. The film crew needs snow, and Bathgate has snow - at least for a few more days.

"We should have more of this kind of thing around here," said Emil Martineau. "It's something to talk about." You betcha.

Paul Bunyan Statue, Bathgate, ND

Put it all together. I’ve been to Fargo. It’s a very nice town with very nice people, as are the folks across the Red River in Minnesota. I've been to Brainerd -- a nice place too. I am of their stock. Yet there is a fatalism and darkness in “Fargo” that rings true. It fits. If you've never seen it, "Fargo" is a must.


  1. Very interesting information on your Foster family.

  2. Grady, I took a photo of that Paul Bunyan statue on one of our summer vacations, but I could never remember where it was. Mystery solved!

    1. Your photo is probably of the statue in Bemidji. The Bathgate statue was a prop that was warehoused after the movie was shot.

  3. I drive Pembina County 1 almost daily in the summer for my job. It's definitely not there anymore, but what a neat thing! I will remember this next summer as I cruise by!