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Burgers, Brats and Backhoes

Lori Tabor and U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp wear bright smiles at Dunn County's very first open house, celebrating county road workers, their tools of the trade, and the Dunn County community. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)1 / 2
Grant Bird lives out every boy's dream of driving a giant machine as he took in the sights of the Dunn County Open House, which celebrated county and community on Thursday. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)2 / 2

KILLDEER—The sizzle of burgers mingled with the honk of truck horns, providing the backdrop to the Dunn County Road Day Open House Thursday, which showcased Dunn County's road equipment, its county workers and the skills they employ to keep Dunn County's roadways safe and smooth.

"This is the first open house for the county," said Dale Heglund, a director for the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, a division of North Dakota State University.

"They want to show the public what they got. How many miles of road they are maintaining and how many employees, what kind of equipment and to thank the public for trusting in them, the taxpayer dollars, to buy this equipment and maintain their roads."

Dunn County has 1,200 miles of roadway, with 1,147 miles of gravel and 53 miles of pavement. There are 27 bridges in the county and to maintain all of that there are 43 road employees.

"It's the (Dunn County Highway) Superintendent Mike (Zimmerman) saying thank you to his employees, because you have high-quality employees here doing a stellar job maintaining the road network," Heglund added.

"We wanted to inform the public, show them what we have, show them what our guys have accomplished," Zimmerman said. "We were gonna have simulators here...for the public to sit down and run, because people don't understand how difficult it is to run these pieces of equipment."

The rodeo itself was a timed event, pitting skilled and unskilled operators against one another, with competitors using backhoes to delicately lift basketballs and deposit them into receptacles. Basically, it's a slam dunk competition but with road equipment.

"If you get the ball into the basket you get so many points, if you knock a cone over or knock a ball off we deduct points," Zimmerman said. Competitors were also judged on how closely they adhered to safety rules as well, such as ensuring the equipment is turned off before they exit.

Dunn County had the state's county employee of the year, Lori Tabor, which was a factor in deciding to hold this open house. Tabor is the office coordinator with the Dunn County Road Department, a new position that she's helped develop.

"It's just a nice environment," Tabor said about her experiences working for the county. "I've been in environments where you are stressed and there's pressure...and I do work better with a little bit of stress and pressure, but...there's just so many things I can do...the benefits are great...I'm not bored, I like the environment and I like working with the guys."

Heglund was almost as excited by the event as the gaggle of children in attendance were. Youngsters of all ages scrambled atop trucks, tractors, gravel haulers, bulldozers and motor graders, honking horns and playing with the machinery.

"The road day is also a workforce development project, hidden in the bottom," Heglund said. "In Dunn County, any of our rural counties, what's the best feeder program to get future employees? If this group (of kids) are living on a farm just a couple miles away and all of the family can't be sustained on that farm, they may have to leave or go out of state. They may not think there's a good job in the area...until they get exposed to this. They get to see they are on state-of-the-art equipment...they could be running this, living at home, be a part of the farm. We want to feed this from within."

The event drew in a pretty sizable crowd, and even Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, came by to visit and take in the sights, sounds and sumptuous burgers.

"It's a community celebration," said Heitkamp, "I doubt there's anyone anywhere in town except right here. It's a great opportunity to say thank you to the road crew and for the road crew to say thank you back."

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