Just off the gravel road where the town’s general store once stood, a narrow dirt trail is marked by a solitary street sign: Ken Roeder Drive. On summer evenings the dust rises as cars follow the tree-framed trail to a grassy clearing dominated by a manicured ball diamond surrounded by farmers’ fields.
Ken Roeder, 76, is always there. Roeder is the general manager and driving force that has kept softball alive for more than half a century in Holmes, N.D., a farming community—no longer found on the map—20 miles southwest of Grand Forks.
Until a few years ago, Roeder was still playing. Knee problems prevent him from running bases anymore, but he’s still an active part and honorary coach of the local teams. Fans fill the bleachers, and children play on the swings Roeder helped build. The smell of hot dogs wafts from the concession stand he manages and works in after games.
Without Roeder, softball would have died in Holmes years ago.
“Kenny is the reason there’s a ball diamond here and the reason we’re still playing,” says the Rev. Mark Ellingson, a member of the men’s team and pastor of the Holmes United Methodist Church, a quarter mile down the road.
Roeder, a retired dairy farmer, began playing on the ball field near Holmes when he was 5 years old. “We only lived a couple miles from here,” recalls Roeder, who retired as a player in 1992. “I liked the game right away. But after awhile, I got tired of playing in a cow pasture, and I thought we had enough interest to have a real ballpark.”
In the early 1950s, Roeder approached the landowner, the late Ralph Schroeder, and asked Schroeder to donate the pasture for a ball diamond. When Schroeder agreed, Roeder rallied other players to volunteer time and equipment to build a diamond.
Over the years, he raised money to buy lights for the field, mowed the grass, dragged the diamonds, got Coca-Cola to donate a scoreboard, enlisted help to build modern restrooms to replace the outhouse, and coached many of the teams.
“If you’re going to find something going on around here, it’s always been the diamond or the church,” says Bud Fitchner, a former player and longtime friend of Roeder’s. “That very first year when we put in the diamond, concession stand, and bleachers, the people started coming. That never changed. Now, concessions and our annual social are the ways we make money to pay for things we need.”
As the town’s population waned, the number of teams decreased. Still, Holmes maintained its reputation for good ballplayers and was frequently a contender at state tournaments. More than 90 trophies on display in the Methodist church chronicle the teams’ successes.
“A lot of the guys play because they want to play for Kenny,” Ellingson says. “Ken keeps this community close-knit, not just with his love of the game, but with his love of people and the way he reaches out to everyone around here. He’s a walking welcome wagon. He is the one person who keeps this diamond going.”
Player Brian Schneider and his family were newcomers still unpacking their belongings when Roeder showed up at their door. “Kenny pitched in and helped us. Then he invited us to play ball. This is where Kenny’s heart is. It’s a real ministry for him.”
Roeder, uncomfortable with praise and a man of few words, says it’s probably time to quit. But then he adds, “Of course, we have a good T-ball team coming up, and I’m hoping we’ll get a girls’ team going again. We kind of ran out of girls.”
In 1998, people in the Holmes area nominated Roeder for the North Dakota Softball Hall of Fame. While induction ceremonies are traditionally held during state softball tournaments, tradition was abandoned as hundreds gathered at the Holmes ballpark for Roeder’s induction ceremony.
“If you build it, they will come,” proclaimed the popular movie, Field of Dreams. Ken Roeder is proof of that.