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David's Travelogue: Fargo, North Dakota

We've come to North Dakota to meet people who actually like their banker! What do they have in common? Bremer Bank.

Bremer Bank was started by Otto Bremer, a German immigrant providing satchels of cash to keep small banks from failing in the Great Depression. It has grown into an operation with over a hundred branches stretching across a wide swath of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. It's a fascinating outfit. Bremer is a for-profit bank, like Bank of America or Wells Fargo, or so many other name brand banks. It has ATMs, tellers that will deposit your paycheck and officers that will consider you for a loan. But that is where the similarity with so many other banks ends.

Bremer is 92 percent owned by a non-profit charity -- The Otto Bremer Foundation. The other eight percent is owned by Bremer bank employees themselves. Of every $100 Bremer makes in profit, about $60 goes to the bank's operations, which includes paying what have been described as decent salaries and benefits. The remaining $40 of profit goes to the Foundation, which makes philanthropic grants to help the communities it serves.

Bremer seems to have weathered the banking crisis very well; this might be partly due to the loyalty we find amongst its customers, a level of loyalty that seems unusual for a bank. It's sort of like what Apple computer users often have for the mother ship in Cupertino, California. Unusual.

A monument to fossil fuel

In Casselton, North Dakota, on day two of our shoot, outside the Country Kitchen restaurant where we eat breakfast, we stumble upon an artifact that speaks clearly to the purpose of our trip.

"I get a sleeper car for the four hour run, which is a pretty romantic way to travel for anyone who has seen myriad of 1940s films."

It's not the St. Louis Arch or even the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, but it's a monument of sorts. Once upon a time before the interstate highway came through, Casselton was a key stop on the busy secondary road. People used to stop in Casselton to fill their gas tank. Automobiles back in the day tended to eat oil more than new cars do today, and folks tended to add a quart of oil with just about every fill up. Some creative person has collected these old quart oil cans, silvery now having been stripped of their oil company labels, and made a kind of Trajan's column (with a hint of Leaning Tower of Pisa). Call it a monument to America's fossil fuel-driven economy. It looks a little rickety, this tower of oil cans in Casselton. Maybe it's a sign that the fossil fuel days for the economy are numbered?

From Fargo to the Minnesota state fair

We discover that there is a passenger train service from Fargo to St. Paul, the next stop on our journey. Amtrak no less. The catch is this: there is but one eastbound passenger train a day, scheduled to stop in Fargo at 2:13 am. The train is coming from across the continent in Washington state and arrives about an hour late. Still I get a sleeper car for the four hour run, which is a pretty romantic way to travel for anyone who has seen myriad of 1940s films. Plus, in the morning, there is table service in the dining car where I meet some good people bound for Chicago.

The following day we arrive at the Minnesota State Fair. Why? Because I want to see my face sculpted in butter (a tradition at the fair)? No, the object of investigation, Bremer Bank, has a full on bricks-and-mortar bank within the fairgrounds, the only one of its kind. The fair is famous not so much for the bank but for the availability of just about everything "on a stick." Fried just about everything on a stick is available and fairgoers seem to like it that way. I could not help but notice a diner within the fair with a sign boasting that it served "NOTHING on a stick." When I walked by, the place was completely empty.

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Word was coming in that the crowds were the largest ever for an opening day at the state fair. I figured that was a sign of vitality if not economic exuberance. Still some veteran fair-goers saw it differently. Their theory is that fair attendance is inversely proportional to the state of the economy. Here's the logic: When the economy is strong, people take vacations to fancier, further-away places. If the economy is slack, the idea is that Minnesotans get their end of summer fun closer to home by driving to the fair. Looking down from the big Ferris wheel at the center of the midway, it strikes me that if we could poll the crowd below, economic output might have been only modest, but the happiness index would have to be running high.

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An oil can monument to America's fossil fuel-driven economy in Casselton, North Dakota.
An oil can monument to America's fossil fuel-driven economy in Casselton, North Dakota.