RUSO – There’s just something about small towns. You know, those little communities of 100 or so people where everybody knows everybody, promises are made and kept by a simple tip of a hat and friendliness shines. Places where sunsets are celebrated and quiet evenings are cherished daily.
In a state with many communities with populations of less than 20 residents, towns like Grano, Kief, Perth, Bergen, Loraine, Bantry and Ayr, the latter the one-time home of one of the niftiest names of any sports team in the state, the Ayr Rifles, there’s the tiniest town of them all – Ruso.
Population? Two in winter, four in summer. That’s makes Ruso the smallest incorporated town in all of North Dakota.
The City Council consists of the mayor and the secretary. No one else.
“We’ve got an election coming up pretty soon,” said Bruce Lorenz, mayor. “There isn’t much to it. I’m the only one that votes. When I come up for election I get one vote.”
Lorenz isn’t quite sure, but he estimates he has been mayor of Ruso for close to 30 years, maybe more. And, at 86 years of age, he isn’t sure about his political future either.
“It’s just something we gotta’ have to keep the city going,” said Lorenz. “People laugh at me when they find out I’m mayor.”
Ruso is home for Lorenz. His residence is No. 1 Flower Street. There is no No. 2. The former rural mail carrier moved to Ruso in 1956. He spends his winters in nearby Velva at the urging of his children. Come the first hint of spring he will head back to his beloved Ruso.
Lorenz’s return will swell the town’s population to three. It will balloon to four when Greg Schmaltz arrives. Schmaltz is putting the finishing touches on his home adjacent to the city’s abandoned Lutheran church.
“It’s quiet. I’m in the open and can see for miles three different ways,” remarked Schmaltz. “We’re a legit city.”
Ruso does boast two full-time residents. They have done extensive remodeling to what used to be the city’s bank and post office to transform it into a home. More recently another improvement was made to the city. A man from Bismarck who occasionally tows a camper to Ruso built a shed.
Louella Anderson of Velva was married in Ruso’s Lutheran church in 1954.
“I grew up and lived around there all my life. I’m 87 years old,” said Anderson. “My mother-in-law had a meat market in Ruso. That burned down in 1910. My mother worked at a grocery store there in the twenties.”
Ruso got off to a pretty good start. According to the North Dakota Place Names book, “The post office was established on December 1, 1906. The village incorporated in 1909 and by 1910 reported a population of 141 with a doctor, newspaper and many other luxuries often missing in new townsites.”
Those luxuries, recalled Lorenz, later included a repair shop where you could get just about anything fixed.
“We even had a fellow that built fishing boats for a couple of years, 14-foot fishing boats,” said Lorenz.
Anderson, who lived at nearby Strawberry Lake until she was nine years old, said the “luxuries” would have included a couple of grocery stores, places to leave horses while visiting Ruso and a city park. The “park” is now a slough, complete with cattails, snails, frogs and salamanders. However, says Anderson, back in the day the park had a very different look.
“In the thirties there wasn’t any rain and it was dry” remembered Anderson. “We used to play down there.”
“Isn’t that the truth?” added Lorenz. “It is a slough but it is still officially the city park. That’s what it officially says on the map of Ruso.”
When the lowland filled with water and froze over in wintertime, it was used as a skating rink. Those days are part of Ruso’s distant past, as abandoned as a few crumbling structures that remain at the townsite.
The Lutheran church closed for good in 1997. It never had running water. An outhouse out back served the congregation. Most recently the basement of the church was used to house chickens. That is, until a couple of pit bull-type dogs went on a spree and killed 80 of the birds. That incident led to a revitalization of city government and the passage of the city’s only known ordinance – no vicious dogs in the city.
As for the church, a cornerstone of many small communities in North Dakota, a final lutefisk dinner marked its farewell.
“That was about the last activity,” recalled Lorenz. “We had a snowstorm before the supper. What a mess. There was no water at the church. All I got done was hauling water in and carrying water out. We made it but that’s the last supper we had.”
Several people, many from out of state, own lots in Ruso and pay yearly taxes on the land. That revenue keeps the city’s two street lights operating and allows for sewage to be pumped and occasional garbage pick-up. Snow removal is too costly for the city budget. It generally remains the responsibility of Ruso’s remaining residents.
At Ruso’s center is a rock building that was originally a city jail. When the jail closed down it became a blacksmith shop. It sits empty today, its contents removed long ago.
“We have struggled to keep our little town going,” said Lorenz with a hint of sadness in his voice. “We had an elevator that was still taking some grain in 1956.”
Today small signs on N.D. Highway 41 still announce the turn into Ruso, a community with the strange honor of being the state’s smallest city.
“If I ever leave I’m sure that will be the end,” said Lorenz.