Commercial sidewalks on Front Street (Main st.), 1880

Commercial Sidewalks on Front Street (Main), 1880
North Dakota University Archives, Digital ID: rs000975

Sidewalks were one of the important issues at the top of the “to-do” list that the Fargo City Council had to stay on top of. Wet weather and sticky North Dakota clay played an important role in the urgency of addressing this issue. Most sidewalks were six feet wide, but streets like Broadway, Northern Pacific Avenue, as well as other streets with heavy foot traffic were equipped with ten-foot sidewalks.[1] In 1875 the first sidewalk was built of two-foot wide planks along Front Street from blocks one to six. It was not until 1883 that Fargo saw a boom in sidewalk construction.[2] The council dealt with many complaints concerning sidewalks over the years

Residential sidewalk

Residential sidewalk at 221 13th Street South (University Drive South) during 1897 flood. North Dakota State University, Digital ID: fpl00036

ranging from unfinished sections and poorly constructed walks, to the takeover of weeds. After the 1893 fire, the city council had been somewhat empowered to find a permanent solution to their sidewalk troubles. Even though the first contract was awarded for noncombustible sidewalks in the same year of the fire, most sidewalks were still constructed of wood. It would not be until the start of the twentieth-century when the citizens of Fargo would have cement under their feet. [3]

[1] Carroll Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead ( Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 261
[2] “Sidewalks,” Finding Aid, Fargo, N.D. Council Meeting Minutes, 1875-1910, IRS-NDSU.
[3] Carroll Engelhardt, 261.

Henry and Mary Hector

Henry and Mary Hector

Henry and Mary Hector sitting on the porch of their home which is known as the first permanent structure in Fargo. Cass County Historical Society, 2007-028-022

In 1878, Henry Hector, just 17 years old, arrived in the Fargo-Moorhead area at the request of his brother Martin and started a grocery business.[1] He lost his store to a fire in 1882, but successfully rebuilt and continued his business.  He served as the president of the Continental Hose Company and represented the Second Ward on the city council. Henry married the sister of his brother’s wife, Mary Paulson. Henry died in 1940 at the age of 79. Today the house is known as the Hector House.[2]

[1] Susie Yakowicz, “Martin Hector: A Pioneer to Remember,” The Fargo Forum, April 30, 2000.

S.G. Roberts Home, 1115 8th St. S.

S.G. Roberts Home, at its pre-1920 location of 202 Roberts St. Courtesy of NDSU Archives, Photo 2007.0078.

The S.G. Roberts house, which was built in 1880, was originally located on Roberts Street between Second and Third Avenues. In the Summer of 1920, the home was relocated to its present location on South Eight Street. The story of how and why it was moved is relayed to us in a 1966 letter from Gilbert Haggart, who lived in the house for many years. “In 1920, street cars past the house (were) continuously pounding and rattling. The property was wanted to be occupied by business. An architect named Andrew O’Shea came and said the government wanted a building about 60 feet by 90 feet and would take a lease.”  A new post office was to be built where the Roberts home was standing and the house had to be moved. “They got two men from Minneapolis whose business was moving houses. They cut the house into two pieces and moved them separately and put them back together.” [1]

Gilbert Haggart also recalled sentimental bits of household information from the home’s early days. “We did not have an electric washing machine until 1920. (Previous to that) the laundry, both washing and ironing, was done in what was the big kitchen room. I can still see Mrs. Roberts or a maid working the plunger with the clothes in a wooden wash tub.” He also discusses the early ice industry in Fargo. “ Our neighbor, Joe Ames…went into the ice business in the days when the ice we used in our boxes was cut in the winter time in first in the Red River, then later in Detroit Lakes. It was shipped by the Northern Pacific in cold winter time and, when it reached Fargo, was packed in sawdust. I remember the days when Joe’s father ran the Fargo/Detroit Ice Company. He had four large covered wagons, each pulled by a large pair of horses who had to have their shoes reset about every month.” [2]

Gilbert Haggart’s letter also provides much information about the home’s utility features before it was moved in 1920. “At the time, the house had no concrete foundation or floor. Where the garage is, is where the wood shed used to be. The extreme west held the privy. There was a narrow walk from the east door all the way to the privy. They did not have to walk through snow and storm to reach it. That was luxury.” The collection of potable rain water was an important concern to these early Fargoans. He even seems to be trying to explain an unusual natural filtration system. “It did have a large brick circular cistern for catching rain water. The ever-present troughs and downspouts were used to carry water from the roof. In those days, the heavy dust and bird manure was not drained off on the lawn when the rain started to pour down. As soon as it was cleaned that way, it could be turned into the cistern and made into nice clean, soft water. We even drank it.” [3]

Zach Jendro, Digital History 2012

[1] G. Haggart (personal correspondence, 28, February 1966)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Shanty Claims

Image of a tar paper shack with people in front of it. There are four women, one is holding a pail, another is holding a broom. There are three men, one is crouched down with a small child, and another in seated in a buggy harnessed to a horse. There are six young children, one is seated in a chair, and three are holding onto puppies. Behind the buggy is a sod building.
[rs000832 – North Dakota State Univeristy Archives]

Shanties were the next standard of living for small-scale farmers in the Red River Valley area. Claim shanties were also a new trend in living structures because they were essentially mobile homes. Because of their mobility, settlers would be able to live for an extended period of time to claim land and move to claim more when they had reached the time limit.

Because the railroad reached the settlers on a frequent basic materials such as tar paper, and lumber arrived frequently. These materials were available to the settlers to build claim shanties. This was the beginning of frame shelter building, after sod homes,  in the rural Fargo area. Claim shanty farmers continuously populated the area between 1870-1885.[1]

Shanties were built directly on dirt ground with no foundation. “Shanty walls consisted of studs, horizontal boxing, and a layer of tarpaper held on with lath.”[2] Shanty shacks were a nicer seeming housing structure but were hardly a match for North Dakota weather. The shanties were difficult to keep warm in the winter and acted as hot boxes in the summer. [3]Tar paper was often used on shanty shacks or as temporary structures of their own. It was a waterproof tar/paper mixture that acted as a shelter sealant for shanty structures of simply temporary tar paper shacks. Once shanty farmers earned enough capital in the area they were about to begin constructing wood frame houses.

Jenna Clawson, Digital History

[1]  Dalrymple, John S. “Setting for Dalrymple’s Bonanza”, Oliver Dalrymple and His Bonanza 1984 , p. 129.

[2] Czajka, Christopher. “The Little Old Shanty on the Claim: Creating a Home on the Frontier” Public Prairie.

[3] Ibid.

Tent Cities

View of a tent city with wooden hotel building (Headquarters Hotel) in the background. A few men stand around the fronts of the tents to the left.
[shA3315 – North Dakota State University Archives]

Tent cities traveled with the railroad because they were easy to assemble and could be moved quickly as the railroad developed. They existed because of the construction of the railroad and the building of the city of Fargo. The men that stayed in these cities were accustomed to hard living conditions, as tents did not keep heat very well in the cold area of Fargo.

The men that resided in these tents were originally located in “Fargo on the Prairie” but were banned and moved to “Fargo in the Timber.” They were construction workers and survey crews who were banned from residing in the limits of “Fargo on the Prairie” for their recreational activity which included: liquor, prostitutes, and more.[1]

The tents that the men lived in were mostly made of canvas. This canvas was either packed solely for the tent or was thrown from a covered wagon and over tree boughs to create a temporary living structure. The tents were handy for construction workers because they were able to move at a moment’s notice, especially with the construction of the railroad.

– Jenna Clawson, Digital History, 2012

[1] Danbom, David B. and Claire Strom. Images of America Fargo North Dakota 1870-1900 , 2002, p 11.

Sod Homes

While large-scale farming was the major goal of the Northern Pacific Railroad and its successors, small scale-farming was in full swing. Immigrants and settlers from other parts of the Eastern United States moved westward to claim land along the Northern Pacific way. Many of the smaller farmers who came to the Red River Valley claimed land and built sod homes. Resources in the Red River Valley were sparse on the open frontier and sod was one of the only readily-available building resources for people, mostly immigrants, with limited income.

Because the first settlers claimed the limited land by the river, the flood of settlers that came later were reliant on the prairie and used sod as their primary building material. Sod houses were built by plowing up segments of prairie held together by the system of roots from the prairie. The roots of grasses and other plants would hold the sod strips together. Through stacking and molding these strips, walls were built up to create a one roomed home. The walls of an average sod home would have been about five feet to seven feet tall. “The first block of sod was laid grass side down…Subsequent blocks were also laid grass side down and the grass acted as a sealant…to seal sod to sod.”[1] Generally, when people were building sod houses they would stick together beams and rails with mud, grass, bison hair, etc., and lay it across the roof before covering it in sod.[2] Many family members could live in one sod home that averaged 12×20 feet in size.[3] In order to expand a sod home after it has been built, lean-tos were often added as extra rooms.[4]

Railroad expansion in this era also meant that more materials arrived daily for settlers in the area. Sod homes were a stable enough structure for families to survive and it was a form of building that was familiar to immigrants and other settlers alike. People began to abandon sod homes, however, for structures such as a claim shanties or tar paper shacks.

– Jenna Clawson, Digital History, 2012

[1] Bachelor, Rosemary. E. “Sod Houses of Pioneers on the Prairie” Suite 101, American History, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Midwest Historical and Genealogical Register, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies (NDIRS), Vol. 24, No. 2, 1989.

[4] Bachelor, Rosemary. E. “Sod Houses of Pioneers on the Prairie” Suite 101, American History, 2009.

Charles A. Roberts Home, 611 8th St. S.

Charles A. Roberts Home, 611 8th St. S. Image appears in “Fargo’s Heritage” by Norene A. Roberts.

One of Fargo’s grandest old homes, the Charles Roberts House was built in 1884, anchoring the north end of the historic South Eighth Street district. It is an enormous dwelling: it features over 20 rooms and measures in at well over 7,000 square feet. It has a carriage house and a large, picturesque yard. According to architectural historian Ron Ramsey, the Roberts Home is a “truly exuberant piece of architecture, this house in High Victorian Style exhibits the use of spindles, brackets, spikey ornaments, decorative brickwork, high ceilings, and steep roofs.”[1]  Astonishingly, this home was designed not by an architect, but an untrained pioneer woman who also wore many other hats during her lifetime.  Her name was Matilda Roberts, widely regarded among locals of the time as the “most beloved women in Fargo.” [2]While her husband, Charles, was away on railroad business in 1883, Matilda Roberts decided to build a home that would demonstrate her family’s position on Fargo’s social ladder. She designed the house and superintended its construction. She and her boys installed lathing to all 20 rooms, their handiwork still buried under plaster and decades of paint. The brick of the home was taken from the Roberts family brickyard–in fact, it is the same brick that is used in Old Main at NDSU. On the main floor, Matilda designed four large rooms that could be opened into one large meeting area, the floors covered with thick Axminster carpets. The house was filled with mahogany furniture and featured eight fireplaces. According to the Fargo Forum, “The dining room was in polished golden oak. Willie’s room was in blue with a water lily motif… Lee’s red, Tan’s pink, and Matilda’s gray and rose… When Charlie came home, he was even more amazed than usual at his practical wife.” [3]

The 1890s were an exciting time in the Roberts household, for Matilda seemed determined to open her home to any and all social opportunities.  A large ballroom on the third floor was the scene of many parties. Often, Schirrman’s Orchestra would play from the balcony to gathered guests outdoors. The Roberts were generous to the students of the Agricultural College (now NDSU), for their “basement was fitted out as an amusement room, a clubhouse to the young men of the town. There was an $800 billiards table and everything else was on the same scale.” [4] Lawn parties were also very popular at the time. “Chinese lanterns strung from tree to tree, ices in a tent at a smilax trimmed table, an orchestra playing behind the shrubs. Eucre occupied the place that bridge now does and there was always a prize for high score and for lone hand. At one party, the guests had ten minutes to make a buttonhole; a gold thimble went to the best one, a silver to the worst.”  The Roberts were not involved in many social clubs.  However, Mrs. Roberts was instrumental in founding the Fargo YMCA and a ladies’ club called the Quiva Club, which met in her home. [5]

– Zach Jendro, Digital History, 2012

[1] Richardson, Jerry, and Kevin Carvell. “A Walking, Driving, and Horse and Buggy Tour of Historic Fargo” (brochure). Fargo: Fargo Heritage Society, 2011.

[2] “First Citizen of City Passes Early Today”, Fargo Forum, June 27, 1934.

[3] Owen, Ida Mae. “Roberts’ Fortunes at High Tide”, Fargo Forum, February 20, 1930.

[4] Owen, Ida Mae. “Fargo Rivals Reno in Early ’90s”, Fargo Forum, February 21, 1930.

[5] Ibid.

James Holes House, 1230 5th St. N.

James Holes home, circa 1915. Courtesy NDSU Archives, Photo 2093.40.26.

The James Holes House is built in a style that was popular in the 1870’s called Italianate, which drew inspiration from late-16th century Italian architecture. The October 11, 1879 Fargo Times had a detailed write-up about the home, as its grandeur surely was a novelty to the some of the rough-hewn settlers of the prairie.  “One of the handsomest and most conveniently arranged residences in Dakota Territory. The building is of brick, laid in double walls, with a three inch air space in between, making the wall 15 inches thick. A beautiful continued rail platform staircase at the end of the spacious hall connects the upper and lower floors. The cellar is an immense affair… containing over 2,300 square feet of space. A 200 barrel cistern in the bottom of the cellar affords an abundant supply of filtered water for the house. The whole affair was superintended by John Pray, formerly of Ogdensburgh, New York, who has had 28 years’ experience in the building of first class residences.” [1] Someone asked Holes why he built such a big house, and he explained, “to catch lots of rain water.”[2]Following the death of James Holes, Sr., in 1916, his children, James Jr., and Marguerite, took over the family business concerns. Marguerite married Charles Finkle, and the farmhouse became the Holes-Finkle House, as it was known for many years in the community. As Fargo grew, Broadway was rerouted, changing the address to its present designation, the 1200 Block of 5th Street.  The house remained in family hands for over one hundred years.  It now stands oddly recessed from the street, remaining proudly among the newer, more modest single-level dwellings of its residential North Fargo neighborhood.

– Zach Jendro, Digital History, 2012

[1] “A Model Residence.” The Fargo Times, October 11, 1879.

[2] Johnson, Roy P. “Pokin’ Around in Your Home Town”, Fargo Forum, February 4, 1964.

James Holes

Lithographic engraving of James Holes (1845-1916), circa 1900. Courtesy NDSU Archives, Photo 2093.2.6.

The James Holes house is one of the oldest buildings in Fargo to be standing in its original location. Built in 1879, the home attracted considerable attention due to its size and quality of construction. At the time it was built, the house was approximately one mile north of town.  The 1880 City Directory lists the address as “Broadway. North of city limits.” It was surrounded by a healthy wheat field, dotted with barns and sheds.  The owner, James Holes, combined hard work with luck and business intuition to build a farming empire in the area. This fine home stands as a testament to its original owner, as well as the staying power of the community it is a part of, for the home is now completely swallowed in a sea of homes, nowhere near a barn or a stalk of wheat.

James Holes was born in Warren, Pennsylvania on January 29, 1845. His parents immigrated to the United States from Derbyshire, England in 1832. After the death of his father when James was 15, he followed the advice that Horace Greeley gave to plucky young boys at the time: “Go West, young man.” He took his inheritance and settled in St. Cloud, Minnesota.  Holes first came to North Dakota driving a covered wagon for the government in 1868 or 1869. His route was St. Cloud to Fort Abercrombie, the former being the end of the Northern Pacific Railroad at the time. He returned in 1871 as a land agent for the Puget Sound Company, to build and run a supply store in the area that would become Fargo.  Legend has it he was greeted by the sound of a man playing violin and a woman dancing outside a tent. They turned out to be Captain and Mrs. George Egbert. The Captain would become Fargo’s first mayor. Holes became a very influential land owner and citizen of Fargo.

– Zach Jendro, Digital History, 2012


JamesHolesAudio Click the icon above to hear a reading of James Holes’ memories of arriving in Fargo in May of 1871.


Hector House

Hector House

Hector House Cass County Historical Society, 2007-028-009

Two men, Andrew Henry Moore and George Mann, decided to take a chance in Dakota Territory in 1869. They left from Waupum, Wisconsin, and arrived in the Red River Valley the same year. Upon their arrival, all that stood in what would be known as Fargo was a small city of tents occupied by Northern Pacific Railroad personnel and a few soldiers. Fortunately, Mann had experience in carpentry work and it is assumed that he brought some of his own tools.  Moore and Mann immediately began building what is arguably the settlement’s  first permanent structure, which was located in present day Island Park. During this time the land had not yet been surveyed, so Moore and Mann established “squatter’s rights,” meaning that they had to settle (build, farm, etc.) the land until they could file a claim of ownership.

-Robert Kurtz, Digital History 2012