Photo by Kim Jore/Riverzen Art Studio (You can purchase this water coloring of the Bison Turf online or at Riverzen’s studio, 315 Main Ave. Moorhead, Minn.)
This isn’t the obituary for the Bison Turf, it’s a “get well soon” note from tens of thousands of Bison fans that count the establishment as a home, a place to congregate, celebrate and commiserate life’s ups and downs over Turf mugs and Turf burgers throughout the years. It was with a heavy, depressed heart we watched as the surreal scene unfolded on our smartphones and computer screens on a late July afternoon, our Turf engulfed in the ugly crimson reds and oranges of spiraling flames. When the fire was extinguished, there the iconic North Dakota State landmark stood, an ashen, charred shell of its former self.
Condolences and “say it ain’t so” messages instantaneously flooded Facebook and Twitter in real-time while the fire raged on. I was working on a legal brief at the kitchen island, my phone recharging near the sink, and that familiar “ping” of a mass group text message sounded. Must be chatter of who’s doing what this weekend. Or so I thought. After several minutes, annoyed by the pings, I got up to silence my phone only to have the text notifications land like an uppercut. It was 2:46 p.m. Seven devastating words. “Holy $&%^ the Turf is on fire!” It’s a sentiment many shared. You don’t need Shakespearean prose or Twain’s pen when those seven simple words sum things up. Holy $&%^, the Turf was on fire.
How many couples have had wedding photos taken inside the Turf? A step further, how many couples met each other or went on their first, second or third date at the Turf with bachelor and bachelorette parties later to follow? Without exception, every bachelor party I’ve been to for friends with NDSU ties has marked the occasion with a stop at the Turf. How many generations of Bison fans gather at the Turf for graduation in May, for move-in weekend every August, before concerts at the Fargodome or for football weekends grandparents, parents and children alike–sharing memories and making new ones? Students and professors meet at the Turf for lunch and happy hour. We celebrate the beginning and end of semesters there. We raise glasses after big exams or class projects. We pre-and post game for Bison football games in its friendly confines. It’s not uncommon for a new graduate’s first set of dishes to include half a dozen or more Turf mugs accumulated through the years.
Walking through its doors made us feel at ease every time, an oasis in a turbulent world. A lot of things have changed over the years, but coming back to the Turf never did. The nostalgia inside its walls was our Fenway Park, our Wrigley Field. The bartenders and staff were masters of their craft and gave the Turf that feeling of familiarity and that feeling of home. My first trip to the Turf came in November 1990. I was eight years old. The Bison were playing Cal Poly at Dacotah Field in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals. Pa Swany brought my twin brother and myself there for lunch before the game. The Bison won 47-0. That year, NDSU won their eighth national championship. Exactly 25 years later, in December 2015, after NDSU beat Northern Iowa in the NCAA FCS quarterfinals on the way to our 13th national championship, my brother, parents and our friends, along with their parents, gathered at the Turf to celebrate an epic 23-13 win over the Panthers. We pushed several tables together in the front side of the bar and man alive, did we have a great time. It was a memorable night that we still talk about, celebrating a huge football win along with our parents, creating an unforgettable life moment thanks in large part to the Turf. I hope to celebrate these same big life moments with my kids when I become a parent, and I hope to celebrate them at the Turf.
If social media is an indicator, your memories are filled with similar scenes and stories from the Turf. As they say, if those walls could talk, the stories they could tell, the memories they could share. These are memories that neither time, nor any fire can destroy. The great Irish novelist and poet Oscar Wilde wrote, “Memory … is the diary that we all carry about with us.” There are certain elements, certain themes that bind generations of Bison fans to each other, creating a shared experience that solidifies our bond. There are certain parts of our own personal Bison stories that are the same. One of these was, and is, the Turf. To view the Turf as just a bar is myopic. To view the Turf as just a place to get drink or a burger loses sight of its significance.
For those of us that roamed North Dakota State’s classrooms, dormitories and buildings, the Turf was as big a part of our experience as Old Main, Dacotah Field, Fargodome, the Library or Stevens Auditorium (Gate City Bank Auditorium). It goes beyond the brick, wood and mortar of the building that housed the Turf. While that building may have gone up in flames on July 22, 2016, what happened inside that building over the decades lives on and will carry over into the next building to house the Turf.
The phoenix will rise from the ashes. Even as the fire burned on consuming the structure, the Turf’s owner, Pete Sabo, told reporters, “Absolutely. I’ll rebuild.” For thousands of Bison fans, we hope so.
Get well soon, Turf, we can’t wait to see you again. We have plenty of new memories to make and life events to celebrate within your walls. Everyone up, and raise your glasses to the Bison Turf, the march is on!