Rediscovering the town of Huff, N.D.

The dance hall of Huff, built by the WPA. Dustin White photo

Dustin White

As the railroad pushed further into North Dakota, with it reaching Edwinton, what would later be called Bismarck, in 1873, excitement was building in the state. With General Alfred Sully having established Fort Rice just about a decade earlier in 1864, the area south of what would be Mandan was beginning to bustle. 

With the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway to the banks of the Missouri, a new fort, Fort Abraham Lincoln, would also be built in 1872. Soon, Fort Rice would no longer be needed, and in 1878, the same year that Fort Yates would be founded, it would be demilitarized. In its place, a new town would spring up. 

Taking the name of the previous fort, Fort Rice would soon see an increasing number of settlers coming to the area. One of those individuals was a man by the name of John Huff. 

Arriving in Fort Rice in 1888, Huff had filed a claim for a 160 acres of land eight miles north of the town, with the want to homestead that area.

Unlike many other settlers though, Huff’s primary interest wasn’t in farming. Instead, seeing what seemed to be a great opportunity, Huff had learned that the Northern Pacific was planning on building a branch line to Fort Rice. 

It wouldn’t be for another two decades that the branch would begin to materialize. Facing both financial problems, as well as set backs in laying track, the progress of the Northern Pacific was often hampered. 

For Huff, the postponements would get the better of him. Having built a saloon on his land, he held out hope, but would pass away before it came to realization. 

Building of a town
Pushing south, under Edward Fogerty, the branch line would begin to form in 1910. Soon, the line would move to the area where Huff had lived, 19 miles southeast of Mandan. The stop that would be created there would be called the 19th siding. 

With more individuals settling in the area, a post office was established the next year, on May 12, 1911. Emmeth Dobson would be installed as the Postmaster there, and he would name the place Huff, in honor of the early homesteader. 

The town would take off. A large railroad depot was built, and with the town growing rapidly, a school house was also established. 

As immigrants continued to pour into the area, Huff would experience a short golden age. Soon buildings were sprouting from the prairie. Huff was no longer just a railroad town. 

Serving the community, two elevators, two stores, two cafes, a church, hardware store, lumberyard and blacksmith were constructed. By 1915, when Huff was at its height, the area seemed to be promising. However, the town would never reach a population greater than 60. 

Slowly, those who had helped build up the town began passing away, or moving from the area, closing up shop as they did. 

In 1920, a landmark of the area would see its final patrons. Built by George Markham in 1902, the first store and cafe would close their doors when Markham moved away. Others would follow. 

Remaining a town
With drought and a depression striking not just North Dakota, but the entire country, many were forced to give up their homesteads and find work elsewhere. 

For many, that came in the form of the Works Progress Administration. The area would see some much needed improvements, as well as other areas being preserved for history.

While the WPA was busy helping preserve the Huff Indian Historical Site, workers were also building roads and ditches. It was also at this time that the town of Huff would get a welcomed addition; a new dance hall. 

This hall would also serve an important purpose in the coming years. In 1940, St. Martin’s Catholic church was struck by lighting, causing it to burn down. Over the next seven years, the hall would become a place of worship for those who suddenly found themselves without a spiritual home. 

As often was the case though, the town came together, gathering field stones, and in 1947, the newly built church opened its doors. It was the church on the hill. Yet, for those in Huff, it was much more. 

With the Rev. Lotter as priest, the church grounds soon began to bloom. Grottos and birdbaths were added. With Lotter being a lover of animals, soon Huff residents would find that they had quite a Zoo for themselves. 

Beginning of the decline
Decline continued to follow Huff though. While the WPA found locals work, it also helped spell the doom. With roads beginning to link Huff with Mandan, and the automobile rising in popularity, area residents found themselves shopping in Mandan much more frequently. 

Shop owners in Huff eventually had to close their doors, seeing that business was moving elsewhere. 

By the 1960s, the decline had really set in. On April 30, 1960, the post office at Huff would become a rural branch of Mandan. Six years later, in October of 1966, the last train would pass through town. What had once allowed the town to feel a boom was now gone. 

The decline would also eventually find the school in Huff having to close up as well. By 1976, children from Huff were being bused from their town, north to Mandan. 

Finally, on Dec. 28, 1985, the post office in Huff also saw its doors being closed. 

What seemed as a final blow didn’t knock out the town though. The town continued to survive.