Hidden History: how Baukol-Noonan became one of ND’s most influential lignite companies

State News

All week long, KX News is showcasing stories about North Dakota that you may have never heard about, or may want to become reacquainted with, in our special Hidden History series.

For this segment, we explore Baukol-Noonan Lignite Inc, a North Dakota company that started during the Great Depression yet carries on strong today.

Harris Baukol officially started Baukol-Noonan Lignite Inc in the town of Noonan in Divide County in 1930.

Lignite History expert and Lignite Energy Council Vice President of Communications, Steve Van Dyke, tells me many of the mineworkers were also farmers.

“A lot of the coal miners are farmers because they’re used to running big equipment,” said Van Dyke.

Baukol-Noonan was sending coal to family homes, state universities, hospitals, and even sugar beat refineries in the Red River Valley.

The original Noonan location also had an aggregate plant. Gearl Fenster started there in 1965.

“One of the things that I can remember at the point is riding the railroad cars loaded with aggregate down to the siding for them to pick it up to take it I imagine they ended up being in Mandan,” explained Fenster.

The entire operation needed big equipment. Former BNI worker Steve Hovey explains how a lot of the equipment was directly fueled by burning coal.

“They were huge, but it was all powered by steam. It has a big boiler in the back that made steam. They burnt coal,” said Hovey.

Hovey explains that embers would flow out of the top of the massive steam shovel’s stack.

“They’d use horses to move the track around but they could only let the horses work down their for a few days because they would get burns from the embers coming out of the stack, but they never changed the men out,” said Hovey.

Those days were indeed very different from now. But, on the flip side, the company was like a family.

In 1963, when Baukol-Noonan expanded operations to the nearby town of Larson in Burke County, management could not afford to finance the construction of the processing center, called the Tipple. So, the employees guaranteed the loan with fractions of their own paychecks.

“It kinda shows you the bond between the management of the company and the employees was they were willing to do it and they got paid back every penny and plus got some stock,” says Hovey.

Expansion continued as the company opened another new mine at Center, North Dakota in 1970.

“When Minnkota started up the Young Station and its two units, one started up earlier than the other, they were looking for a mining company, and they got in contact with Baukol-Noonan and the mine moved from up by the Crosby area to down by Center,” says Van Dyke.

The 1970’s realized efficiencies and lower costs would be gained by building bigger power stations. The innovation drove the rural electrification of transmission cooperatives like Minnkota.

Duane Bardin started in 1972 shortly after the center mine started. His dad, Hurley, worked at the original Noonan mine in the 1940s.

Duane Barden reflected, “My dad was in it and they worked three shifts on the draglines all the time, so I hardly ever seen him. He was either sleeping or working and I swore up down as I got out of high school I was never going to work in the coal mine. Well, I spent my life working in a coal mine and I’m sure glad I did.”

Barden joined the Center mine after serving in Vietnam.

“It was always changing, it was never the same, there was always one little thing that was different, and good people to work with,” explained Barden.

And, that North Dakota mentality carries today.

I went to BNI Energy‘s headquarters in Bismarck to speak with General Manager Mike Heger.

“We’re really proud. We are a native North Dakota company. We have never gone outside of the state. We are the only native North Dakota coal mining that is left. There were roughly around 300 back in the turn of the century and through the first half of the century. And, we still maintain that North Dakota work ethic. That North Dakota values. We like to consider ourselves a sophisticated mining company. A professional mining company, but we still do business just like the farmers and ranchers who were our first employees and founding members of the company,” explained Heger.

All of BNI’s coal goes to the Milton R. Young Power Station which is now a part of Project Tundra: an initiative to be the world’s largest carbon capture facility.

It shows that those who are successful today stand on the shoulders of giants from yesterday.

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