A Foundation of Love: Moorhead’s Usher’s House

As familiar as one of the area's most popular nightspots is, its true story is one you might never have heard.

Aaron Duma strolls through the building, a year after closing it up as Usher’s House for the last time.

“I love the stone — I absolutely love the stone,” he said. “We did our share of flood fighting in this place. In ’09 we were sleeping here in shifts to keep the water out.”

Love’s a strong word to use about a pile of stone. But when it comes to this old building, it’s love that’s kept it going all these years.

Like the love it takes, for example, to sleep on a cold stone floor in March in Moorhead, night after night, fighting an historic flood.

“We’re going to open this up completely, all this will be gone and as you come into this space you’ll be able to see to the river,” Duma said, gesturing to the spectacular view beyond the building’s windows.

In his way is a twelve-inch thick wall separating it into two main spaces. Masons and structural engineers assure him they’ll be able to not only remove it, Duma said, but they can do so in a way that lets them reuse each stone as part of a new feature in the building.

Duma’s love story got started at the old stone building on the Moorhead side of the Red River more than a decade ago.

“And I love the story,” he says. “The hours and hours the men would put in to the stone, chiseling, to get them in the state they’re in.”

It’s a story architect Steve Martens knows well, having taught it to college students and other audiences here in the FM area many times throughout the years.

The retired NDSU architecture professor even had a class create an entire presentation on the old Usher’s site, researching the circumstances of how it came to be, and how it’s managed to still stay standing all these years.

“From our perspective it’s kind of a remarkable thing when you see a stone building that’s almost 75 years old that’s in such good condition,” said Martens.

Buildings all over Minnesota, North and South Dakota were built with a similar technique, but the Moorhead building is one of the most beautiful examples, said Martens.

First built as Moorhead’s American Legion building, it was one of the region’s many Works Project Administration buildings, the federal program made to put people back to work in the Great Depression.

The requirement was that the materials had to be the cheapest possible, and the feds would pay laborers to build the structure.

So its architects turned to field stone, in a win-win for farmers and laborers both.

“For farmers, those stones were just a real pain in the butt,” said Martens, explaining that each spring, the frost would push stones out of the fields, breaking the farmers’ plowing equipment. “In fact, I’m old enough that I remember having to pick rocks on the farm in Western North Dakota.”

Hauled in from Sabin, each stone took hours to carve. But it gave workers a way to earn wages at a time when jobs were hard to come by in Fargo-Moorhead, and it taught them a new skill too.

In a very real way, each stone in the building gave people in this town a way to feed their families.

It’s fed them, too, with a greater sense of shared community over the years.

“I’ve heard so many cool stories,” Duma said, “Like, [someone will tell me] I met my wife at a sock hop there, fifty years ago…. we’ve had folks that their grandmother was married here, their parents were married here. Then they were able to be married here.”

With history in his hands, Duma’s under pressure to get it right.

“I met my wife here, two days before we opened Usher’s place. She came in and asked if we were hiring. So yeah, ten years, two kids, three businesses and a dog later, and we are getting to kind of live out a dream of what we could do if we could get our hands on this space,” Duma said.

So when the old Usher’s House reopens this summer – this time under a new name, as a dedicated wedding and events center — it should have some good mojo for couples.

Since a marriage, like a building, is only as strong as what it can withstand.

“There’s something about this place,” said Duma.

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