It’s summertime, and one of my favorite back road rides in North Dakota is on North Dakota Highway 34, east of Napoleon. I’m not saying Interstate Highway 94 is boring, but there’s something charming about the back roads that give the traveler a truer picture of the region. If I were a motorcyclist, I think it would be a lovely stopping point if I were heading to the Sturgis Rally, or some such place. Turns out, it also works for 2002 Toyota Prius with 240,000 miles on it.
One of my favorite things about Highway 34 it is the vision of John “Custer” Grenz’ collection of threshing machines, east of Napoleon. A billboard labels it the Dinosaurs on the Prairie collection.
A string of about 20 machines drapes up one of the hills on the north side of the road. It’s one of dozens of private museums that are available to passers-through in the Dakotas and Minnesota. One can only ponder how long they’ll keep alive nostalgia for the region’s remarkable agriculture history.
I never met Grenz, but I wish I had. According to his online obituary, Grenz died Aug. 3, 2000 at Wishek at age 83. He was born at Artas, S.D., on May 29, 1917, and had moved to Napoleon at age 9. He graduated from Valley City Teachers College in 1941 and married Irene Wittmier, a native of Streeter, N.D., on July 26, 1942.
The couple moved to Streeter (one of my favorite small towns) and then back to Napoleon, where they farmed 15 miles east of Napoleon using horses. In 1954, they moved to town and bought the Hank Brown Restaurant and renamed it Irene’s Café. (Irene had worked there when she completed her education in country school at age 15.)
The Grenzes became known as a “sidewalk farmers,” and Grenz farmed until he retired at age 65. Grenz was Napoleon High School Alumni of the year in 1996. He wrote articles for the Napoleon Homestead. “He was an avid antique collector over the years attending most auctions in the tri-state area,” his obituary says. “He had a special interest in threshing machines and his collection graced the hills three miles east of Napoleon for many years.” They were featured in the March 1986 issue of National Geographic Magazine, among other things. At his death, he still owned the first tractor that he’d ever purchased – a 1943 John Deere “B.”
Irene suffered a stroke in 2003 and had moved to Bismarck Edgewood Vista and then back to Napoleon Care Center in November 2012. She died Jan. 22, 2013, at age 89.