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Prominent Bismarck family keeps eye to future in decades of development

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Chad Wachter's great-great-grandfather had been a meat-cutter in Philadelphia as a teenager before he arrived in the frontier town of Bismarck in the 1880s.

Today the family is a foremost property and real estate developer in the capital city, with decades of commercial and recreational projects tied to the family name through land donated or sold at reduced cost: Bismarck Event Center, Kirkwood Mall, Pebble Creek Golf Course, Wachter Middle School, and Dorothy Moses and Solheim elementary schools, to name a few. 

"We’ve just always believed that you can’t just make money in a community," Wachter said. "You have to give back to your community, and that’s something, that’s what we preach about in our family, the importance of being good stewards in our community, which means that you have to give back. And not just money, but you have to donate your time, too."

The family's land developments began in earnest in 1970 with the mall, but the family's history is closely entwined with Bismarck since the city's early years.

Bismarck ancestor Gottlieb Charles Wachter established Wachter Dray and Transfer Co. in 1885 with a wagon and team of horses that grew to 50-60 teams, followed by a warehouse and storage, then coal- and ice-hauling operations.

The family entered farming and ranching in 1921, owning 28,800 acres north of Mandan across three counties until the 1980s. 

The Wachters hauled debris away from the site of the previous state Capitol, which burned in 1930.

At one point, the family had 18 companies employing hundreds of people, including Dakota Sand & Gravel, House of Bottles liquor stores, trailer courts, apartments, warehouses, hardware stores, clothing stores, an office tower, bank and other outfits, said Lance Wachter, Chad's father. 

"What I remember about it is I was involved in businesses in Bismarck, and I learned a lot from that," he said. "Just to try to read one of our financial statements was quite the chore."

The family farmed and ranched in what is now south Bismarck until the completion of the Garrison Dam in 1953 mitigated floods and made development a possibility, Lance said.

His father, Paul H. Wachter, led the development of Kirkwood Mall from 1967-70. The family also sold land for the Bismarck Civic Center, now the Event Center, at a reduced price.

"South Bismarck would not be what it is today if it wouldn’t be for the Event Center and for the Kirkwood Mall," Lance said.

Chad said, "I'm really proud of the mall and what it's become today."

Paul H. Wachter also was an inventor whose patents included a multipurpose spatula, exhaust pipes and a receptacle liner.

"He was a very visionary person," grandson Chad said.

These days, the Promontory Point and Silver Ranch housing developments in north Bismarck are major projects of the Wachter family. 

Promontory Point in northwest Bismarck began 15-20 years ago with land the Wachters bought from Bill Clairmont. They subdivided it and began installing sewer and water utilities.

Silver Ranch in northeast Bismarck broke ground in 2019 as a 30-year project for 4,500 homes, with a goal of building about 150 homes a year. 

The developments are where the city's growth is expected to be, Chad said.

"I really feel like the family has done a really good job at thinking generations ahead, and so that’s something I want to continue with my kids," he said. "And when you talk about the future of Bismarck, that’s definitely something that we’re talking about all the time."

One of his favorite acquisitions was the Big Boy restaurant in 2017 -- after joking with the owner as a teenager that he'd like to buy the Main Avenue mainstay someday.

"We didn't want to go and do anything major with it; wanted to preserve the history of it and the menu and the drinks and all that stuff," Chad said.

Twenty-four-year-old Derek Wachter has been shadowing his father and grandfather with "big shoes to fill." He has a degree in entrepreneurship from the University of North Dakota to apply to his family's business.

"From a very young age, going back to elementary school, I knew I wanted to step in one day and continue the family's legacy," he said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

"We’ve just always believed that you can’t just make money in a community," Wachter said. "You have to give back to your community, and that’s something, that’s what we preach about in our family, the importance of being good stewards in our community, which means that you have to give back. And not just money, but you have to donate your time, too."

-- Chad Wachter

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