Bus, bikes, and bell. The school entrance is quiet minutes before students were released from the first day of school. 08/23/17
On Tuesday, August 15, 2017, Shannon Marie Leppert posted an alert on Facebook for Kulm, North Dakota, a town of 350 people, and the surrounding communities. She warned that her grandfather, Gordon Winrod, an anti-Semitic cult leader convicted of kidnapping several of his grandchildren, was resuming his former teachings in the old Kulm high school, which had been recently purchased by his daughter, Laura Leppert. The following day, Winrod walked out of the school and confirmed this to a reporter.
I live only a block away from the old school. A neighbor sent me Shannon Marie's post two days into an eight-day family road trip. My heart sank, and I felt sick to be so far when my community was beginning to process something so challenging.
The fact is, there are many difficult things from which rural America enjoys distance. At times this feels like a privilege, and we can sometimes forget that our country’s troubles are still our troubles in rural North Dakota. Today, Winrod and his followers are here, and the rubber has met the road. Suddenly, all the hateful rhetoric swirling around and dividing our country is not just coming through our television screens, it has come to our backyards.
It is right and good to be utterly intolerant of racial and ethnic prejudice and any hateful rhetoric, and I believe it will be the solidarity of a caring, inclusive community that ultimately overcomes exclusive and prejudicial ideology. The community of Kulm celebrated its 125th anniversary this year, which means our little town has been building the strength it will need to face a challenge like this for over a century. Times change, and the world looks different than it did 125 years ago, but the Kulm identity is rooted in something deeper.
But we cannot base all our hopes for an idyllic community on excluding what doesn’t fit in or doesn’t maintain peace. No matter the outcome for the old school, I believe we can and we must maintain our identity. Because the greatest tragedy is not that the Winrods are here, it is that Kulm would lose heart in the face of them. But I've said it before and I will say it again: never underestimate Kulm.
We CAN continue to be a model of the cooperative, caring, enthusiastic community we treasure and wish to see replicated in the world. We ARE strong enough to hold together and hold onto our identity.
I am grateful to Shannon Marie for alerting us to the reality in our midst. Since reading her post, I have cried, cursed, and prayed for the strength to meet the moment as Christ would. I'm not sure what that will look like yet, but I know Christ did not shut out the world or demonize it; he found a way to exist within and elevate it, always pointing to a better way. May we all seek wisdom on how to do the same.
*This post has been updated from its original version to add context for outside readers.
On February 9, 2017 the Titan Machinery employees in Kulm, ND received unexpected news: their store was closing its doors in only six short weeks. The shock rippled through the small town over the next 24 hours. Kulm Community Development Corporation immediately organized a community meeting to respond to Titan’s decision, and the response was clear: for the sake of our employees, our town, and your customers, don’t close.
Titan Machinery wasn’t just an international business in Kulm, North Dakota; it was part of the town’s heritage. George Gackle started Kulm’s original implement dealership only a year after Kulm was founded. The equipment was red from beginning to end: first McCormick, which later became International Harvester, and then Case IH in the 1980s. George sold the dealership to two of his sons in the mid-1920s, and it they named it Gackle Bros. The dealership stayed in the family and kept the name until 1999, when it was sold to David Meyer, who would co-found Titan Machinery three years later. At that time Kulm’s store was only the fourth Titan Machinery store in America. When it closed March 31, 2017, it was one of nearly 100 Titan Machinery dealerships worldwide and Kulm’s third-largest employer.
Case IH’s role in the history of Kulm and Kulm’s role in the history of Titan made losing the store feel even more devastating to the community, which galvanized a strong response and quickly resulted in high-level conversations. Titan welcomed the opportunity to speak with members of the Kulm area, and their meetings were positive and constructive. Despite initial progress, reopening began to look unlikely, so a few residents turned their attention to new possibilities.
Community resilience is part of Kulm’s identity. The town of 300 residents takes great pride in their resistance to the predictable script of a languishing rural town. When the grocery store hit hard times, a small group of residents took on its debt and ran it as a board. When a main street building fell into disrepair, a resident widow renovated it and brought in two businesses to rent the space. When a church dissolved, two brothers converted it into an apartment building. When the 100-year-old school building faced costly updates, the district passed a bond to build a new school by over 80% on the first ballot.
So, when Titan announced it was closing its doors, the community worked hard to save it. But when that seemed unlikely, they shook it off and went for the rebound.
Lowell and Neal Berntson, two brothers who farm in Kulm, began to ask themselves what could be done to keep the Kulm employees in town and to keep implement service close at hand. The Berntsons live on two farmsteads within a mile of town and adjacent to the highway, so they did some equipment rearranging and were able to free up a 70x90 building on Lowell’s property.
Having space for a shop was the first step, and the easiest part of the equation; what they couldn’t do without was the service of the former Titan team.
“Once they started moving tools and parts off site, we knew we were closing,” said Steve Herman, a former Titan employee, “but I wasn’t in a hurry to find another job.” Most of the Titan employees felts similar to Herman and decided not to rush into anything after Titan announced the closure.
“It was weird because we knew we had jobs, if we wanted to go to another store—Titan told us that,” said former Titan mechanic, Rodney Kinzler. “But you feel like ‘do I want to continue on?’ There’s a lot of uncertainty in the Titan world and the whole ag economy right now. The same thing could easily happen again.”
“Neal and I both decided we were not going to lose that service,” said Lowell. “That store had the best service team anywhere in the region. No one else was going to fill that void.” The brothers contacted Jordan Gackle and Andrew McDermid, both on the Board of the Kulm Community Development Corporation, to help develop a business strategy and make the initial contacts to get things off the ground.
The Berntsons knew they would not be able to run the business themselves—their day (and night) job would always be farming—so the most crucial first hire would be a strong General Manager. The group felt a good candidate could be Ben Pesek, a familiar face in the community, but not a resident. At the time, Pesek was a Snap-On Tools franchisee owner successfully covering Kulm and the surrounding areas.
“When I got the first call from Jordan I was excited,” said Pesek, “and after I spoke with Neal and Lowell, I was 100% all-in.” Pesek said the community support of Kulm has always been attractive to him. “When I asked Neal and Lowell what their motivation was for starting the business, they said ‘For Kulm’ and that’s what I wanted to hear.”
“Most of what we heard about Kulm Service was a lot of rumors,” recalls Herman. “We didn’t know anything really until our last week at Titan, and then everyone was talking and it all came together really fast.”
Titan closed its doors Friday, March 31, and Kulm Service Inc. opened for business Monday, April 10 with four of the 11 employees from Kulm Titan Machinery.
“Titan took a different path, and we appreciate what they offered Kulm for so long,” said Lowell. The Berntsons are now making plans to move Kulm Service to a new, permanent location at the juncture of highway 56 and 13, immediately north of Kulm.
Herman feels confident in his choice and the future of Kulm Service. “It’s a start up, so it’s exciting and it’s scary, but we’re already dealing with customers we never had at Titan, and we’re not tied to a publicly traded corporation. At this point, the chance of failure feels pretty low.”
“Challenges give us opportunities,” said Lowell, “but we never assumed we would have the opportunity to do this or that it would ever turn out this well.”
KCDC remains in conversation with Titan Machinery regarding their building in Kulm. “Titan has been openminded in all our conversations,” said Gackle. “They’ve made it clear that they would like the building to benefit Kulm somehow, not just end up as an empty lot on Main Street.”
This June, Kulm celebrates its 125th anniversary, and it will seem strange to celebrate without an implement dealership. The town looks different without rows of bright red combines, quadtracs, sprayers and planters stacked on the north end of Main Street. But, when we tell the story of what happened—how we spoke up for our neighbors losing their jobs, sought out the best solution for the community, and then cheered on those who found a way forward—it becomes clear that Kulm hasn’t changed at all.
Below is the official statement offered by the Kulm group following their meeting with Titan Machinery:
Kulm area representatives met with David Meyer, CEO and Chairman of Titan Machinery, and four Titan Machinery leaders last Thursday, March 2, in Kulm. Both groups were able to speak candidly and express their concerns regarding the proposed closure of Titan Machinery in Kulm, and they both expressed a desire for a continued positive relationship between Kulm and Titan Machinery. The Titan group said they would consider possible alternatives to a full closure of the Kulm location at an upcoming leadership meeting.
The group also discussed the future of the building, in the event that Titan Machinery proceeds with their original decision to close the Kulm store. Titan Machinery agreed that it was important to help ensure that the building remains a vital component of Kulm’s main street. The two groups plan to meet again following Titan Machinery’s upcoming leadership meeting. Both groups felt their conversation was constructive and positive, and they look forward to future dialogue.
This is great news! Thank you to everyone who wrote, called, and emailed! We are making fantastic progress. Let's keep up the energy in the conversation, because this is NOT OVER YET. Please make it a point to keep encouraging our local Titan employees, as we wait to hear what the future holds -- the stress of not knowing is especially difficult for them.
Thank you for being a community who cares and who stands up for itself! Keep it up!!
Last night the Jamestown Sun updated their article to include a statement from Titan Machinery. CEO David Meyer reached out to KCDC President Jordan Gackle yesterday to plan a meeting with a small group of representatives of the Kulm community and surrounding area. THIS MATTERS. We wanted a dialogue about the dealership, and now they have invited us to have a conversation.
It is even more important that we speak up NOW because 1) we have their attention, and 2) they need to know how many of us care!! They need to know this isn't something that just KCDC or a couple area farmers care about -- there are hundreds of people and several communities this will affect, and we want them to feel the full extent of the community support on this. Your voice makes a difference!!!