ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Small North Dakota town tries to save community-owned restaurant that 'kinda holds the community together'

When a fire destroyed much of the dining area of the Ranch House in 2000, the community of Fullerton, North Dakota, took over the building to keep the restaurant running. But the restaurant is closing until new management can be found.

IMG_3014.JPG
A Ranch House customer carries a takeout meal to her car on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. The community-owned restaurant in Fullerton, North Dakota, was going to close Nov. 30, a least temporarily.
Jeff Beach / Agweek
We are part of The Trust Project.

FULLERTON, N.D. — Jerry Kelsh said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do for coffee on Dec. 1, the first day after the Ranch House was going to shut down.

“That’s a good question,” Kelsh said Tuesday, Nov. 29, the second to last day for the only restaurant in town to be open. “I’ve thought about setting up a pot at the house, letting people, few of the ones that want to come and gab for an hour, do it. If you want to bring a doughnut, great.”

There has been a regular morning coffee gathering at the Ranch House, which has been community owned for about 20 years.

IMG_3035.JPG
Larry Ulmer, left, and Jerry Kelsh, right, were eating lunch at the Ranch House in Fullerton, North Dakota, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. The Ranch House was in its final days of operation until a new manager could be found.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Sometimes its community members who make the coffee on Sunday mornings for the after-church crowd.

But it also serves lunch and dinner and is the only bar in the town of about 60 people. It’s an aging community, says Dean Simek, who he grew up in the bar when it was owned by his father.

ADVERTISEMENT

“One thing that’s really going to be missed is the senior meals,” Simek said. “There’s probably 20 people back there having senior meals.”

IMG_3040.JPG
Allan Glynn, center, walks through the dining area of the Ranch House in Fullerton, North Dakota, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. The town's only restaurant was scheduled to close at the end of the day on Nov. 30. Glynn is one of the board members of the community-owned restaurant.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

What became known as the Ranch House was later owned by Kelsh, who sold it to his son, Jack. But on Thanksgiving weekend in 2000, a fire destroyed the back dining area of the Ranch House.

It was after that that the townsfolk, including Simek and Kelsh, got together to create Ranch House Renewal Inc. Money, materials and labor were donated to get it back open as a community-owned restaurant and bar.

But the Ranch House was closing Nov. 30, 2022, something Kelsh says is only temporary until a new operator can be found.

IMG_3096.JPG
The patty melt was one of the items still on the menu in the waning days of the Ranch House in Fullerton, North Dakota
Jeff Beach / Agweek

“We’re going to do everything we can to get her going again,” said Kelsh, who remains chairman of the Ranch House Renewal Board.

The board has been in touch with a couple of interested parties and hope to soon hear proposals for its continued operation.

Simek has served on the Fullerton City Council and as mayor and is finishing up a stint on the Dickey County Commission.

“It kinda holds the community together,” Simek said of the Ranch House

ADVERTISEMENT

IMG_3062.JPG
A lunch menu for the Ranch House sits on table 1 in the Fullerton, North Dakota, restaurant.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Simek said the Ranch House will continue to get some community use in December.

“We’re going to have Tom and Jerry night on the 18th,” Simek said, referring to the traditional holiday cocktail. “It’s always been a big thing in Fullerton to make Tom and Jerrys.”

Simek has early memories of making Tom and Jerrys.

“I remember making Tom and Jerrys in the vault there, when I had to stand on a box to make them for my dad,” he said.

The vault he refers to is a back room that was a vault when the front part of the building was built in 1916 to be the Fullerton State Bank.

IMG_3085.JPG
The handles of the lock are still on the door to what used to be a vault when the Ranch House in Fullerton, North Dakota, was a bank, its original purpose.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

It first became a bar in 1937, according to the city of Fullerton website, and is the only bar left in town.

As a restaurant, the Ranch House became known for its ribs.

“People come a long ways to eat the Ranch House ribs,” Simek said.

ADVERTISEMENT

It still gets some visitors who have come a long way to Fullerton. A group of pheasant hunters was eating lunch at the bar, under the watchful eye of the mounted heads of a bison and a bull.

IMG_3094 (2).JPG
A group of hunters from Minnesota came to the Ranch House in Fullerton, North Dakota, to eat lunch on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Simek said the fall hunting season is a busy time of year. Some stay at the Carroll House, down the street. Built as a hotel in 1889, the Carroll House is on the National Register of Historic Places and still rents out rooms for visitors or for events such as weddings.

It has relied on the Ranch House to provide food for those events and for people staying at the Carroll House, the Ranch House is the only local option for food and drinks.

From Fullerton, the nearest towns are Oakes, Lamoure, Ellendale, Edgeley — all 15 to 20 miles away. The closest big town would be Aberdeen, South Dakota, about an hour to the south.

IMG_3092.JPG
Larry Ulmer, left, chats with Mona Kelsh and her husband, Jerry Kelsh, after lunch in the Ranch House in Fullerton, North Dakota, on Tuesday, Nov. 29.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Larry Ulmer, one of the regulars, said some folks drive from the neighboring towns, “just for the atmosphere.”

“It’s really a tough situation,” Ulmer said, with the rising cost of food and the scarcity of labor. “I wish I had an answer.”

Kelsh — who once farmed himself and served in the North Dakota Legislature — and Simek have seen the town’s population shrink as farms have gotten larger and families smaller.

“With a thriving farming economy, we still lose people,” Kelsh said. “Less to draw from than there used to be.”

IMG_3060.JPG
An employee works inside the kitchen of the Ranch House in Fullerton, North Dakota, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. The restaurant was known for its ribs.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

But Simek hopes the answer comes from a young couple willing to put in the work to revitalize the Ranch House and make it thrive again. He says it's very doable.

“No questions about that in my mind,” Simek said.

For anyone interested in operating the Ranch House, Kelsh can be reached at 701-375-7521.

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
What To Read Next
Commercial farmers in Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota start using drones for spraying, seeding.
Artificial intelligence can now act as an artist or a writer. Does that mean AI is ready to play doctor? Many institutions, including Mayo Clinic, believe that AI is ready to become a useful tool.
Kevin and Lynette Thompson brought TNT Simmental Ranch to life in 1985. Now, their daughter, Shanon Erbele, and her husband, Gabriel, are taking over the reins, and their sale is for Feb. 10.
Even if it's not a lucrative venture, the hobby of raising rabbits continues at this farm near Sebeka, Minnesota.