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'Family heartbreak': 122-year-old farmhouse must make way for Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project

Vicki, from left, Marty and Crystal Johnson stand Wednesday, Aug. 15, in front of their 1896 farmhouse south of Horace, N.D. The building is in the way of the Red River diversion project. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 2
An antique cream separator serves as a planter Wednesday, Aug. 15, in front of the Johnson home south of Horace, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

HORACE, N.D. — The farmhouse on the outskirts of Horace, about 15 miles southwest of Fargo, is where Marty Johnson was baptized and where he and his wife raised their two children.

It's also where Johnson's ancestors brought up their families, starting 122 years ago. Five generations in all have made the two-story house their home.

But history ends with that generation, it appears, as the farmstead sits squarely in the path of a large channel planned for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project.

"We figured we'd hand it down to someone else, but we don't know if that's possible now," Johnson said, as he sat this week in his kitchen with his wife Vicki and daughter Crystal.

The wait to find those answers wears on.

The $2.4 billion Red River diversion project, designed to protect the Fargo-Moorhead area from catastrophic flooding, has been on hold as officials work with Minnesota regulators on permitting issues.

Rocky Schneider, a Diversion Authority consultant, said the Johnson family isn't alone. "Marty is unfortunately in the same situation as dozens of property owners that are in limbo," Schneider said.

The Johnson farmhouse was built in 1896 after Marty's great grandfather and namesake, Martin Johnson, came here from Norway. He and those who followed farmed the surrounding 315 acres of land. Marty and his family now rent to another grower.

Still, he's tied to the house and land, which he owns with younger brothers Doug and Jeff.

"This is a point of family heartbreak for us," said Jeff Johnson, referring to the likelihood the farmhouse will be torn down, or relocated.

Susan Quinnell, an architectural historian at the State Historic Preservation Office, said the farmhouse at 7806 112th Ave. S., Horace, is considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. It's not clear, however, what that might mean for the future of the house.

'We're not bitter'

Marty Johnson, 60, and wife Vicki, 62, have known for about nine years, since early on in the diversion project, that the farmstead was inside the project's footprint.

A map showed the diversion channel going right through their yard.

"We're not bitter. It just is how it is," he said.

Schneider said about 700 homes have been purchased in the Fargo-Moorhead area to make way for flood protection. He said officials need to acquire fewer than 100 more homes impacted by the diversion itself or its staging areas in Cass and Richland counties of North Dakota and Clay and Wilkin counties of Minnesota.

Most homeowners have expressed interest in moving forward with some kind of buyout, he said.

Marty Johnson and daughter Crystal, 25, attend all of the diversion planning meetings they can. They believe if Diversion Authority members had taken a different approach with them and other landowners, the project might not have gotten hung up.

"I think they just thought they could ram this project down our throat and they would have it," Crystal Johnson said.

'It won't be the same'

The Johnson family believes Fargo needs more permanent flood protection, but not in the form of the diversion.

They suggest flood walls and clearing out the Red River channel, in addition to the dikes and other measures put in place in Fargo since the 2009 flood, when the river hit a record 40.84 feet.

"Flood protection is needed, but the sacrifice of progress is always history," Jeff Johnson said.

Some have suggested that Marty Johnson move the farmhouse to a rural plot elsewhere.

"It won't be the same. If I moved it, I won't see this," he said, referring to the view out his kitchen window.

Jeff Johnson wonders whether the house could be gifted to Cass County to be put on display somewhere.

The writing is on the wall, however, that its days are numbered.

"You just kind of roll with the punches and live with it," Marty Johnson said.