The Hilton — Old Goose Hunting Shack in North Dakota

March 24, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

I  suppose that most towns in the popular hunting areas of North Dakota have one. I am referring to a hunting shack that sits vacant the whole year accept for a few weeks during hunting season. This is a story about one of those places that we called the Hilton. The Hilton was the highfalutin name applied to a hunting shack in Churchs Ferry owned by a hunting team out of Grand Forks. It was the most god-awful place I have ever seen. But, the sign above the garage did say, “The Hilton.”

My first exposure to the Hilton was in 1976. Russ Fortner and I had survived car trouble on our way from Grand Forks and rolled into the Hilton’s grass covered driveway sometime after midnight. Our friend in Grand Forks had given us directions to get there and told us how to get in. We pulled open the unlocked outside door and passed through the littered entryway and into the kitchen. We pushed the ancient light button and the kitchen light came on. It was a single bulb that hung from a 12-inch cord in the ceiling. At least the old place still had electricity.

The kitchen was not in too bad a condition yet. But, nothing worked. There was no water and the stove was out-of-order. There were torn shades half covering the windows. The sink was full of dirt and dirty dishes that someone had used untold years ago. There was still a table with a metal border and three chairs with red padded seats. A few pieces of ceiling plaster lay on the floor. The vacant places where the plaster once formed the ceiling had other cracked pieces that looked like they could fall at any time.

The dark living room was to the right of the kitchen. Its sparse furnishings included one bunk bed and mattresses and a couch. The parlor beyond the living room had another bunk bed as did the one tiny bedroom beyond the parlor. In the middle of the floor between the parlor and living room was an old oil burning space heater. There was one floor lamp without a shade in the corner. The floor was real spongy.

It was cold that night in mid-October when we checked into the Hilton. Unfortunately, the heat had not been turned on in anticipation of our late arrival. We fiddled with the shut off valve and listened for the dripping oil falling into the combustion chamber. Nothing. We went outside and found the fuel oil tank and turned the valve. Sure enough, the fuel line started to drip. We put a match to a piece of Kleenex and threw it into the stove. Magically, it lit. It wasn’t long before the chill was off in the sleeping area.

Soon, we were in our sleeping bags and dreaming of tomorrow’s snow geese. The dreams were broken as the Empire Builder blew past the Hilton at about 2:00 a.m. We sat straight up in bed. The house was only about 75’ from the tracks. The rumble and vibration of the train made it seem as though it was coming right through the front porch. If there had ever been a derailment, we would have been toast. One or two freight trains later in the night were equally loud and broke our sleep again.

Five-thirty came pretty early. Our little alarm clock went off. Nature was calling too. The Hilton’s plumbing was state of the art – for 1915. The crapper was out back. It was cold on the way out and back and the wind whistled through the door as one took care of their business. One could get an idea of what the weather conditions would likely be for hunting in the morning just by going to the bathroom. During the day, the feint light in the shack revealed that the Olson boys had penciled out their day’s bird harvest on the wall of the Hilton during one hunting day in the unknown past. Let’s see. There were two gulls, eight peep birds, five black birds, two ducks and a goose.


There were several other nights in the Hilton in the 1970s. The old house got worse every year. More plaster on the floor and in the sink greeted us on each stay. The middle of the floor continued to sag more until it separated from the wall. At first, there was a six-inch gap. Over the years, it widened. One could hear the mice scurrying around in the undefined depths of the basement. We just hoped that some morning we did not wake up in the basement with the mice. The floor was so bad that we couldn’t even walk to the back parlor anymore. The place needed to be condemned. But, it lived on as a hunting shack in the fall and a beer drinking retreat for the local kids during the “off-season.” Occasionally, they joined us for a few brews during our stays at the Hilton.
I have learned that these kinds of hunting properties are the scourge of many a small town in North Dakota. Somebody from a long ways away buys them and lets them deteriorate. Maybe a local kid is hired to cut the grass once a month in exchange for beer drinking privileges. That was the fate of the Hilton. As the young guys who owned the Hilton lost an interest in chasing snow geese, they also lost interest in the Hilton. Even then, the snow geese were starting to move west in their fall migration.

My last stay at the Hilton was in 1982. My brother-in-law, Don Carlson, and I got permission to stay there and planned to hunt for a week starting October 12th. We experienced our first snowfall of the season on our way out to the shack on a Sunday. It was darned cold. Even though the Hilton was a wreck, it would at least be fairly warm and dry after we fired up the heater. Or, so we thought! When we got to the Hilton, we found that the door was locked. We had to crawl through the front porch window and across that badly sagging floor. There was virtually no ceiling left in the kitchen. The valve to the heater was opened and we threw in a small piece of burning Kleenex. We tried another match or two and listened for the oil to drip. There was no response. We figured that the valve was turned off at the outside tank. As we went outside and rounded the corner of the house we discovered that the fuel tank had tipped over and that the fuel line had been crimped. Apparently, the heavy rains of that summer and early fall had softened the ground so much that the tank toppled over. Now what? Push the tank back up? No, too heavy. We only had two choices. Either we would try to find a motel room in Devils Lake or we would “tough it out” with no heat. Devils Lake was too far from where we wanted to hunt and it was unlikely that there would be rooms anyway. So, we decided to make do.

That afternoon, we went out scouting and did a little hunting. It rained. It was a very cold rain. We got soaked. Without any heat, we would have to sit at Pat’s Place for a long time to dry out. The Hilton did have a great location. We only had to walk across the railroad tracks to get to the local tavern. It took about four beers to get dried out enough so that we could go back to the Hilton and crawl in our sleeping bags. We spent four cold nights in the Hilton that year. That was the last time. The next year, our friend in Cando moved back from a job in Hallock, Minnesota. Ever since, we have had the good fortune to be able to stay with him. It’s always warm and dry there.

Years later, I spied the old Hilton sign hanging above a building on a farm place on the east side of Lake Irvine. It looked like the farm resident had picked the sign from the Hilton and relocated it. Maybe, he had been a member of the volunteer fire department that burned down the Hilton as a training exercise for the fire fighters. The town had finally had enough of the Hilton and reduced it to ashes.

No, hunting is not like the good old days anymore. I do miss the snow geese that used to be around in far greater numbers. But, I sure sleep better in a nice place these days. It has no glamorous name like the Hilton. We just call it Mike’s Place.


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