Iconic Nora Store faces different Christmas amid multiple challenges

Nov. 21, 2020

The sign outside Nora reads “population five.”

But that’s only if the kids are home for a visit.

Otherwise, the tiny Union County community is home to two people, one of the last old country stores around and countless Christmas memories.

That’s mostly thanks to one of those two residents, Mike Pedersen, whose life brought him to the 10-acre Nora corner in the 1970s, through a series of events he now considers nothing less than divine intervention.

Pedersen grew up on a northwest Iowa farm and moved to California where, as he describes it, his family was “hard up, and we moved a lot.”

Missing the farm, he came back to help his grandparents during summers in high school. When he decided to make the move permanent as a young adult, some friends said Pedersen could stay at their grandfather’s old store, which had been closed since 1962.

“And he took me to Nora,” Pedersen said. “It was a mile and a half down the road from where I’d stayed all summer. He told me, ‘You’ve got to pay your own light bill and your own gas bill, and I’m not going to fix anything up.’ And I moved in there.”

He never left, purchasing 3 acres that included his current house.

“It’s been one man’s effort to keep Nora on the map.”

And that brings him to Christmas, the only time when most South Dakotans have ever or would ever visit Nora.

Because for a handful of days in December – for three decades – the old country store has come alive.

It started in 1989, after Pedersen – who had some intermittent piano lessons as a kid but is mostly self-taught – was gifted a disassembled pipe organ. It, like the store itself, dated back to 1907. Coincidence? Not in Pedersen’s world.

“I started to play that organ, and it was a like a chorus of angels singing to me,” he said of playing “Jesus Loves Me.”

“I thought, what a gift … what am I going to do with this? I don’t have a family. How am I going to share this? And I thought maybe people would want to come at Christmastime and sing Christmas carols. God’s given me a tremendous blessing, and I want to share it.”

He put an ad in the paper for his singalong. Christmas hasn’t been the same since. With Pedersen at the pipe organ or the player piano, crowds come from miles away to fill the Nora Store with life. They sit or stand shoulder-to-shoulder, sing carols and take in the memorabilia as they seem to take a step back in time.

“This is my 31st year,” Pedersen said. “Last year, we figured we had more than 3,000 people come.”

But, of course, that was before 2020. Before the pandemic. Before social distancing. Before singing carried risks. Even a town of two isn’t isolated from all that.

“I gave it a lot of thought and prayer,” he said. “But no. I can’t do open houses this year. Last year, it was out the front door, packed through the kitchen and out the back. That’s impossible to do now.”

He’s taking reservations for small, private groups, mostly families. He has six so far, “but the word’s not out.” You can call or text him at 605-659-1071 to reserve a date.

Or you can do this.

On Friday, Nov. 27, Laurel Ridge Barn, which opened earlier this year at 47677 Slip Up Creek Road, will host a one-night Nora-style open house. It runs from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Come and go as you’d like, and bring your own mask.

The barn is more than 12,000 square feet, plus a loft, providing more space to spread out and allowing owners Tyler and Christi Childress to support their friend.

This year has brought challenges for nearly everyone, and Pedersen is no exception.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer more than a year ago, he went through six weeks of proton beam radiation at the Mayo Clinic. It’s under control, but doctors are watching it, he said.

“I feel awesome,” he said. “I’m so thankful for every day that God gives me. I have an attitude of gratitude; it’s how I’ve tried to live my life.”

His job is painting houses, and that proved tough this year too. People were reluctant for inside work because of the pandemic; “the weather was extremely challenging” for outdoor work. His other job “has never made me a lot of money, but it’s changed a lot of people’s lives,” he added. He mentors 20 men, many with troubled pasts.

He tries to save up about $5,000 each year from painting so he can take a month off and put on the Nora Christmas, where he never charges admission and likes to serve treats.

But he figures it will take at least 10 times that to keep the store going for good.

“It needs work,” he said. “The foundation is starting to go, and that’s a lot of money, and the siding needs to be replaced, and the big beam that holds the porch up is starting to collapse.”

The blessings keep coming, though. He’s connected with a nearby family who has offered to help with construction. A chance meeting with a floor refinisher on his way home from cancer treatment led him to someone who can help with that as funding allows.

And the Childress family, who will give up a Friday night at their event venue when they could have made $5,000, aren’t charging anything for the open house this week.

“We love Mike and his mission,” Tyler Childress said. “I have personally known Mike for more than six years, and he has become close in his walk with Jesus. I finally went to Nora Store last year for the first time, and my wife and children had an amazing time.”

Like Nora Christmas, this event is free and open to the public. To learn more and register, click here.

But the hope is for donations toward Pedersen and his one-man mission to keep Christmas in a country store alive.

He plans to continue the tradition “as long as I’m alive,” he said. “We’re losing a sense of community. It is such a blessing for me to see people come in and max that place out. Everybody felt like they were somebody. I could barely get to the organ. That’s my motto in life. I treat everybody like they’re somebody.”

He estimates it will cost $50,000 to fully renovate the store, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I’ll never see that,” he said. “The largest donation I’ve ever got was $1,000. But my thing is the store. There aren’t many of these country stores left, and they used to be everywhere.”

Money never was the bottom line here. The one-man show whose favorite carol is “Joy to the World” is just glad he’ll still be singing this year.

And on Friday, “I’m going to make noise,” he said.

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Iconic Nora Store faces different Christmas amid multiple challenges

Every year, crowds fill this historic country store at Christmas. The owner thought it would be impossible to celebrate this year. But he was wrong.

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