ROSS - The first mosque constructed in North America was a half-basement structure on the North Dakota prairie, researchers say.
The mosque, built around 1929 to serve Lebanese Muslims near Ross, did not survive the toll of weather and neglect as the faithful moved on or assimilated into the Christian culture. Rodent and water damage led the cemetery committee to dismantle the building in the late 1970s.
All that remains are ground indentations that indicate where the walls once were.
Some would like to see the state put up a historical marker at the site.
"When the word gets out this was the first mosque, it will be shrine. It will be a holy spot for future generations," said D.J. Guerrero, co-author of a new book on Syrian-Lebanese immigrants.
Richard Omar of Stanley, whose parents were Muslims, said he believes the building eventually came to be beyond saving, but he supports the idea of a plaque at the site. Muslim have asked to see the site, he said. Various Muslim organizations recognize the mosque as the first of its kind.
Earlier mosques in America existed, but in converted buildings.
"North Dakota's claim to fame is that they have the first Muslim mosque in North America built from the ground up," Guerrero said.
The Ross settlers had planned to built an upper level to the half-basement building until the Depression years intervened. Muslims called the mosque the "Jima," a word for gathering. The non-Muslim neighbors called it the Mohammadan Church.
The building was about 30 feet by 40 feet. A single room was supplied with benches. There was an elegant floor rug in the middle of the room. A coal stove was on the north wall.
The northeastern corner of the room was set aside as the prayer room, but no walls separated that area. Congregation members faced east as they prayed. Services were on Fridays, in Arabic.
Hassin Abdallah of Stanley remembers a large gathering at the mosque in the late 1930s to pray for rain.
"I don't think anybody missed that," he said. "All the men stood and prayed and the women stood on the side."
To a lad, the praying seemed to go on a long time. But when they left, clouds were forming in the west.
"It rained so hard, we had an accident going home. We hit another car. It was a regular storm," Abdallah said.
In the earliest days, spiritual leaders called sheiks would come from Canada or Minneapolis for a couple of months, living with families, to teach and hold services. However, there was little religious instruction for the second generation.
Omar remembers his parents keeping the Muslim prayer customs themselves at home, although they occasionally sent him to the Lutheran Church. His father, Albert (Abdallah) Omar, had come to America after the turn of the century, later going back to Lebanon for a time before returning in 1946 with a wife, Reda.
Abdallah, born in 1925, said he grew up hearing the Quran read and explained at home and saying the Arabic table prayer. He taught the table prayer to his children. Now, his grandchildren are learning it.
Abdallah said he still tries to observe the Ramadan fast when his health permits because fasting is not only good for the body, but for him. It brings back fond memories.
Guerrero, the Rev. William Sherman and Paul Whitney have penned "Prairie Peddlers: Syrian-Lebanese in North Dakota," a history of the estimated 2,000 Arab immigrants who had a presence in most of North Dakota's 53 counties.
The book is expected to be released in mid-June by the University of Mary. It tells about the mosque and provides a county-by-county record of the early settlers and their pioneer lives.
"These people need to be identified and given their due," Guerrero said. "They have done well here. They were just remarkable people."
The book followed research by Sherman and Guerrero on ethnic life in North Dakota.
Guerrero, a retired Marine who served in Lebanon in 1958, met the Catholic priest after coming to Fargo to attend North Dakota State University in 1970. Their partnership produced "Plain Folks Ethnic Atlas," which only scratched the surface of Syrian-Lebanese influence in the state.
Whitney, a history instructor in Breckenridge, Minn., who has Lebanese ancestry, joined the partnership after coming to the other authors about 12 years ago for help with research.
The authors say they will receive no profit from "Prairie Peddlers." The University of Mary holds the copyright.
"We just do this because it benefits the state. It preserves the history," Guerrero said.
People of Syrian-Lebanese descent have held offices in North Dakota city, county and state government. One was on the Turtle Mountain Tribal Council. Records also show 63 North Dakotans of Syrian ancestry served in the military during World War I, including 56 who were born overseas. Figures for subsequent wars are harder to determine because of mixed parentage by then.
"They are so patriotic, it's unreal. You go into any of their homes, they all have American flags in them. They are all very loyal to this country," Guerrero said. "They are a unique group of people. North Dakota should be very happy to have them among them."
Nearly 400 descendants of two Lebanese families plan a gathering Aug. 8-9 in Williston to celebrate their North Dakota roots.
The reunion of the Abraham and Rebecca (Albert) Owan and Joseph and Minnie (Abdouch) Seeb families will include a workshop on dabke, an Arabian folk dance.
Vernon Owan of Williston recalls that his father, Charles, came to the United States with an uncle when he was only about 13, and peddled dry goods. Charles Owan married Rose Seeb in 1928, and they had six children.
Few of their descendants remain in the area.
"They were just hardworking, Christian Arabs from the Middle East who came over here and did good," Vernon Owan said.