They come from big country. Pictures in their minds are filled with vast plains, waist-deep snow, wheat as far as eyes can see, and the rugged spires of the Badlands.
“It’s the opposite of the landscape here. Some people are not impressed with it,” said Carol Schmidt, organizer of the Dakota Picnic.
The annual event drew 41 people to Stanwood’s Church Creek Park on Saturday. Anyone from North Dakota or South Dakota was welcome, and also those with Dakota connections.
“I think the draw for most people from the Dakotas is the people,” said Schmidt, 75, who lives near Stanwood. “They treasure friendships, and they hang on to them.”
The picnic — next year will be its 25th anniversary — is a chance to greet people bonded by memories and histories. They may be strangers, Schmidt said, “but they have that background.”
Schmidt, who moved here in 1957, lived in Vale, a town in South Dakota’s Butte County, near the Wyoming and Montana borders.
“If my kids weren’t all here, I would move back,” said Schmidt, who has worked 40 years for the Stanwood-Camano News.
Marlene McSherry came from Lake Stevens to the picnic. “It’s like looking back at good times,” said McSherry, who grew up in Leeds, N.D. In small-town North Dakota, she said, “you are really part of a community.”
Since its start, the potluck has been a group effort. It was organized by Vivian Weisser, who lives at the Warm Beach Retirement Community. After many years, Schmidt said, Weisser passed the torch to LeRoy Werre of Arlington. He led the picnic several years before Schmidt took over.
Other helpers are Al and Eleanor Minne of Concrete — always first to arrive and set up tables — and Joanne Wallowine, who “does it all with a hearty laugh and that North Dakota humor,” Schmidt said.
The get-together was officially a North Dakota picnic for years, although Schmidt said she “snuck in” as a South Dakotan. Several years ago, the group voted to invite South Dakotans too, and change the name to Dakota Picnic.
“People from small communities tend to be open, friendly and conversational,” said Werre, 70, who grew up on a farm near Bowman, N.D. He now lives in the Arlington area. In July, he was back in his native state to see his sisters.
Werre settled in the Seattle area in 1964 after serving in the military, deciding against the toil of a North Dakota farm. His family grew wheat, corn and hay, milked seven cows, and had Hereford cattle on range land.
“There was a lot of below-zero weather,” said Werre, who remembers his father shooting livestock after the animals’ legs froze. “We’d have snow 10 to 15 feet high in the yard,” said Werre, adding that “it’s a joke” when snow closes schools here.
Some picnic goers share ancestry as well as geography. A century ago, Norwegians and other Scandinavian immigrants came to the Dakotas to get land through the Homestead Act. German and Russian farmers also migrated to North Dakota.
Some kept moving west to Washington. “One family would move out here, and others would come and see how wonderful and mild the weather is. They were drawn by a climate like their native Norway,” Schmidt said.
At the picnics, awards are handed out. One year there was a quiz game, “North and South Dakota Feud,” Schmidt said. “South Dakota won by two points.”
Arvid Kraft, 84, traveled farthest to attend Saturday’s picnic. He lives in Burbank, near Pasco. “I’m from Oakes, North Dakota,” said Kraft, whose boyhood memories include hunting pheasant and trapping muskrats.
Kraft didn’t mind those North Dakota winters “as long as we had heat in the house.” He does remember his mother’s worries about running out of flour when snow closed the roads.
McSherry said a North Dakota winter “made you completely aware of spring. When they talk about spring fever, you literally felt it there.”
Like Werre, Kraft recently returned from a North Dakota family reunion. “I go back every other year,” he said. Not in the winter, though. There’s good reason so many Dakotans settled here.
“You don’t have to shovel the rain,” Schmidt said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.