The men were hanging out at the Tastee Freez, eating sandwiches and drinking coffee when the call came: There was a hole in the dike.
They ran to fight the Red River on Friday, in what was America’s last stand against the floodwaters moving toward Canada.
The fight in this 200-year-old former fur-trading town, North Dakota’s oldest community, began with a sort of posse formed by Tom Burke and several dozen friends.
Burke, who owns a saloon, and about six other men decided not to evacuate with the other 700 residents Monday as the Red River headed their way.
“We just said we weren’t going to give up, and we got a group together and started things rolling,” the 55-year-old Burke said as he helped create a 15-foot-thick pile of sandbags to shore up the hole in the dike.
He said they all had the feeling that if they left their town, they would lose it. He and his friends began working 19-hour days to bolster the dike, building a long wooden trough that could be filled with sandbags.
There aren’t a whole lot of structures in Pembina, but they are cherished. Like the one-room schoolhouse that is the oldest in the state.
“We do have pride, a lot of it, in history. It’s the backbone of our community,” said Mayor Hetty Walker, who was sent a congratulatory letter earlier this year from President Clinton in honor of the town’s bicentennial.
As of Friday afternoon, Pembina was an island, dry inside the earthen dike that has long encircled it, recently reinforced after the river rolled over Grand Forks and other communities to the south.
The fight in Pembina, whose early residents were mostly of French and Chippewa heritage, felled one man. Mitchell Misson’s leg was crushed as he got caught between the sandbags and a tractor bucket.
Both bones in his leg were broken, but his spirits were not.
“We just proved to people that we could fight and save the town,” he said from the hospital before being released.
A similar effort seemed to have helped the residents of Drayton, a neighboring town of about 1,000 people along the north-flowing Red.
With the Red River approaching, they bolstered their dike with a tall plywood structure they called “The Great Wall of Drayton.”