Prostitution in Fargo: An Overview

An photograph of the Crystal palace taken in 1917.

One of the best known “Houses of Ill Fame,” Malvina Massey’s Crystal Palace was only one of a half dozen or so brothels in Fargo at any given time in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Prostitution is known as the world’s oldest profession.  It should be no surprise then, that it was one of the earliest to arrive in Fargo, following the railroad into the city in its earliest years.   Rather than provide a thorough analysis of prostitution in Fargo or focus on one particular figure, what follows is a brief outline of the rise and fall of prostitution in Fargo in the late 1800s and early 1900s, designed to provide some basic context for understanding where it fits in with the city’s basic story.[1]

From the beginning, prostitution had important links to the regional and local economy. The railroad brought madams and prostitutes to the city, as well as many of their customers.  According to historian Caroll Engelhardt, traveling salesmen, but especially migrating farm workers who came to the Red River Valley during the wheat planting and harvest seasons, provided the bread and butter for Fargo area prostitutes.[2]  Prostitution tended to rise and fall with the agricultural cycle, as did the other vices to which it was so often linked, drinking and gambling.

As Engelhardt related in a recent interview and in his book, prostitution in Fargo featured a three-tiered system.  At the bottom were street-walkers who plied their trade without a permanent home base, followed by those operating independently and individually with their own “cribs.” At the top were women working for employers, mostly female madams, in recognized “houses of ill fame.”[3]  While Malvina Massey’s Crystal Palace was one of the best known establishments, more than half a dozen “houses of ill repute” were typically in operation in Fargo’s red light district, “The Hollow,” during this time period.

Prostitution was illegal under both state and local laws, but the way those laws were (or were not) enforced depended on the views of the community, especially of those who held power in the city.  Attitudes toward prostitution varied from complete opposition among church leaders and moral reformers, or “purists” to use Engelhardt’s term, to qualified acceptance and toleration from city business and government leaders, the “regulators,” who saw the trade as a necessary evil.  Over time, efforts were made to confine prostitution to the established brothels in the Hollow and to make sin “pay its way” through a series of regular fines that weeded out those independent contractors unable to pay them, and really amounted to an unofficial licensing system.  The city’s bottom line benefited from the growing fines and a portion of the money was used to police the Hollow and the city in general.  As Engelhardt describes it, this approach showed that city leaders and law enforcement saw the institution as catering to an important economic sector and chose “prosperity” over “purity” in the waning decades of the 19th century.[4]

The mixed opinions of the community toward prostitution also come through in newspaper accounts from the era.  On the one hand, brief reports from the court room and crime blotter sometimes adopt a winking or comic tone in referring to local madams and “soiled doves” (prostitutes).  To pick only one example from the dozens of articles found by student and academic researchers in recent years, a May 13, 1898, article in the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican under the heading, “Police Court,” follows the exploits of two local women.  “Meal Ticket” (Mary Guthrie) and “Crazy Annie” (Emma Anderson) were both arrested for plying their trade but were able to escape from the police station—the implication being they had help in doing so.  On the other hand, as Engelhardt notes, particularly tragic stories of young women in the profession suffering violence or maltreatment often brought a sympathetic response from the local press.[5]

While local newspapers sometimes took a somewhat detached or questioning tone, they generally supported the critiques and campaigns of the “purists” against prostitution in their city.  In general, these took place periodically, primarily in the off-season, when they would have less of an economic impact, since most of the potential customers (and some of the prostitutes, likely) were not in Fargo.  They typically waxed and waned with little long term impact.

With the beginning of the Progressive Era in the first decades of the 20th Century, local reformers, civic organizations, church groups and leaders, and most importantly, local politicians came together and began to act with greater urgency and effect.  Mirroring national trends, they focused their attention on reforming a collection of vices, including prostitution, with the anti-liquor effort at the core.  The links they saw between drinking and prostitution reflected reality as well as their moral concerns.  Prohibition had been state law in North Dakota since the early days of statehood and it was violation of this law in her establishment that eventually sent Malvina Massey to the state penitentiary.[6]  By 1916, aided by the county option law that finally outlawed liquor across the river in Moorhead, Minnesota in 1915, Fargo’s red light district was finally eliminated.[7]

In the end, of course, just as with drinking, eliminating prostitution was not as easy as changing a few laws.  Prohibition was defeated when people refused to obey the law.  Prostitution remains illegal, but continues to exist.  While no one can question the damage prostitution often causes to the people involved, it remains an open question whether a system that recognizes but regulates this vice is more realistic than one that forces it underground. What is clear is that with the end of business in the Hollow, an interesting, if morally-conflicted period in Fargo’s history came to an end.

– Chris Hummel, Digital History 2013


[1] Another reason this focus is not being taken here is that it has already been done very well elsewhere.  The best recent work on the history of Fargo and Moorhead is Caroll Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).  Chapter 6 focuses heavily on prostitution and other vices and is invaluable for anyone studying the issue. This has been recently supplemented by an interview conducted by Dr. Smith and David Flute of the 2013 Digital History Class with Dr. Engelhardt on 11/15/13.  A significant portion of this interview became part of the Malvina Massey documentary found elsewhere on this site, which does an effective job of dealing with the story of one of Fargo’s most notable (and notorious) madams.  This brief discussion relies heavily on information from these sources and other work of earlier researchers. Readers who wish to know more are directed to these sources.

[2] Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains (Kindle Edition), Location 2810.  Certainly permanent residents sometimes consorted with prostitutes and Engelhardt relates several stories of local scandals in which married men were outed for their illicit activities, sometimes in divorce proceedings (see chapter 6 of Gateway).

[3] Engelhardt, Gateway, Locations 2798-2802.

[4] For more on this, see Engelhardt, Gateway, Chapter 6.

[5] Engelhardt, Gateway, Locations 2854-2877.

[6] Engelhardt does an excellent job of telling Massey’s basic story near the end of chapter 6 of Gateway, Locations 2901-2919.  See also note at Location 4509.

[7] Engelhardt, Gateway, Location 2901.


In Fargo there were three attempts to organize the YMCA. It was finally established in 1886 during a meeting at Mrs. S.G. Roberts’ home. The YMCA boasted an impressive gymnasium and workout facilities, as well as the reading room furnished with a wide variety of materials. This new venue offered young men an opportunity similar to that offered by the fraternal lodges. It took the traditionally feminine moral values and gave them a masculine character that could be easily adopted.[1]

[1] Engelhardt, Carroll L, Gateway to the Northern Plains Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 179.

Vaudevillian Culture in Fargo

Vaudeville shows were a major form of entertainment in the early years of Fargo.  Records of these theaters are numerous, but  but due to the culturally tabooed art forms played in vaudeville theaters and their association with sinfulness, alcohol consumption, and sex these theaters were minimally mentioned in the press of early Fargo and are mostly noted on accounts of deaths, crime, disturbances, or imposed fees.[1]  The Argus refers to vaudevillian theaters as “dens of vice”[2] and the Coliseum itself was tied to a billiard hall and saloon, which did not improve its reputation.

The audience for vaudeville was predominantly adult males.  Any visitation of these theaters by women would be considered scandalous.[3]  Many reports of loud and rude audience behavior were reported in the Argus.  It mostly was said to come from the galley of the theater, the center seats closest to the stage.[4]

The performances in vaudeville theaters were varied and often spectacular.  They included acts such as boxing, contortionists, gymnasts, acrobats, club swinging, and knife juggling, instrumental soloists, orchestras, trapeze, tight ropes, loose ropes, right wire, character artists comedians, Scandinavian dialectician, fire eating, magicians, rifle marksmanship, female impersonation, and knife throwing.[5]

There was also a particularly interesting report in the Argus concerning a woman named Rosa Thu-Zett. The description of this act was as follows:

“Miss Rosa Thu-Zett holds cannon said to weigh 239 pounds, in her teeth, while she hangs suspended from a trapeze.  The cannon is discharged while she is in that position.  She is said to be the only woman in the world who has accomplished this feat.”[6]

One of these vaudevillian theaters was the Coliseum which opened in March of 1880.  On its opening night it featured acts such as operatic selections, Irish sketches (with the “burnt cork” blackface of the era), jigs, clogs, comic, sentimental songs, and ballads.  It was not certain when the theater itself closed down but it remained active for at least eight years.  Ballets, acrobatics, full-length dramas, plays, musicals, and burlesque were also featured in this theater.[7]

The vaudevillian theaters were monitored closely in early Fargo.  Each theater needed specific licenses for operation and liquor sales.  If not in compliance owners were arrested, such as W.M. Talbot of the Odeon Theater (located on Front Street) and B.P. Reynolds were arrested for failing to obtain licenses for their shows.[8]  The arrests occurred on the same day and showed a crackdown on the vaudevillian culture of Fargo.

Much of the pressure being exerted upon vaudevillian theaters in the mid-1880s was due to a community dilemma which occurred after vaudevillian actors employed at the Star Theater passed out tickets to school children.  The community was enraged, writing scathing complaints to the Argus, most of which demanded all vaudevillian theaters be closed.  There was a fine given to the Star Theater, license prices for all theaters were raised, and an additional fee given to the mayor was also tacked onto monthly expense.  Later, all were ordered to close at midnight rather than 2 a.m.  Many of the theaters folded in the following years as a result of this as well as the economic effects of prohibition.

The actors of the vaudevillian theaters were usually given short contracts before moving onto the next job.  It was a rough life with early rehearsals and late nights six days per week.  However, the early economy of Fargo had a significant tie to vaudeville theaters.  Aside from alcohol sales. the theaters employed 458 people alone between 1880 and 188.

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[2] Fargo Daily Argus 6 December 1884:  Print.

[3] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[4] Fargo Daily Argus June 14 1881.

[5] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[6] Fargo Daily Argus 22 May 1884: Print

[7] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota Territory from 1880-1888. Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

[8] Fargo Daily Argus August 1884: Print

Fargo’s First Theater

The first theater in Fargo was built by John Erickson in 1880.  In 1888 the theater was purchased by Alexander Stern and was located on the second story of the Stern Building.  It burned down in the fire of 1893 but was undoubtedly a rich source of culture for Fargo.

The theater featured actors of which many went on to become prominent in their time such as the famous 19th century Italian actor Salvini who played in “Don Caesar de Bazan” on January 4, 1893.  Other featured performers included the famed Jim Crowe actress Clara Morris, Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde, and other renowned actors such as Joseph Jefferson, Marie Wainwright, William Collier, Frank Daniels, Stuard Robson, Blanche Walsh, Chauncey Olcott, John Drew, Melbourne MacDoweell, Herbert Kelcey, including “Don Caesar de Bazan” which was one of the last that the theater ever featured, running through January of 1893.[1] Popular theater productions of the time included “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as well as Shakespearean Plays.[2]

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Masonic Library Staff. Fargo Masonic Files. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

[2] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota Territory from 1880-1888. Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

The Fargo Opera House

The Fargo Opera House was a source of pride and a symbol of prestige for the town’s early residents.  In contrast to vaudeville theaters, the Opera House was acceptable for all ages and genders in the community to attend openly.  The building stood on the corner of Broadway and N.P. avenues. It was originally called Chapin Hall and housed the Luger Furniture Company on the first floor.  Initially Chapin Hall was open to many events and ceremonies as well as performances by traveling musicians and thespians that began to visit Fargo in the late 1870s as transportation became readily available.  However, performance space was non-existent prior to 1879, and afterwards a lack of seating and appropriate stage space was a looming issue.[1]

Motions were first proposed to renovate Chapin Hall into the Fargo Opera House in a city council meeting in 1881; J.J. Guhey was given a wage of $25 per month to oversee operations in its constructions and renovations.[2]  After the grand opening in 1882 complaints were resounding through the community and feeding the need for constant renovation.  One common lament was the stage size. An article in the Fargo Argus called it a “mere toy of a stage”.[3]  These views may have led to the Opera House’s closing in late 1888 for renovations in which the interior was completely remodeled as well as the scenery.[4]  These renovations were ongoing  until the original Fargo Opera House burned down in 1893.  Construction of a new opera house began in 1894.[5]

A.S. Capehart was one of the early managers of the Fargo Opera House. He was popular within the town due to his thoughtfulness and taste in running the establishment.  According to the Fargo Argus he scraped the mud off the walls of the theater[6] and provided safe transportation for patrons.[7]   He was responsible for contracting its performances as well.  One of the main performing companies in Fargo was the Hess Company out of Minneapolis, which was secured by Capehart.  The Hess Company is mentioned favorably in the Argus for its performance of “Martha”.[8]

Performances included not just traditional opera, but also operettas, burlettas, grand operas, light operas, and comic operas.  Popular performances included “The Mikado” by Gilbert and Sullivan, “Il Trovatore” by Verdi, “The Mascotte” by Edmond Audran,  and “The Magic Slipper” by Rossini. [9]

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[2] Fargo City Records 1881

[3] Daily Argus, November 8, 1880

[4] Sunday Argus, November 4, 1888

[5] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[6] Fargo Daily Argus 15 March 1883: Print

[7] Fargo Daily Argus 10 August 1881: Print.

[8] Fargo Daily Argus 23 May 1883

[9] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

Jasper B. Chapin

Among the prominent names of Fargo’s early history is that of Jasper B Chapin, a hotel tycoon who contributed to a large portion of its building, economic development, religion, and the arts. Chapin was a native of New York and found his way westward into California as a result of the Gold Rush of 1855 which fueled settlement and economic development in US territories.  There Chapin began as a miner, eventually branching his capital outwards into freighting and hotel keeping.  He was known to have lived and opened businesses in Leavenworth, KS, Denver, CO, and Utah.   He then followed another Gold Rush into Montana, made his way to Ohio, and then to Brainerd, MN where he met John E. Haggart who was a freighter and a horse dealer offering his services to the North Pacific, and from there following the development of the railroad to Fargo, ND.

Chapin quickly established his success in Fargo, opening a tent hotel-saloon on August 5, 1871.  By 1873 he was hired by the Northern Pacific to take over operation of the Headquarters Hotel.  In 1879 Chapin opened a market in on Fargo’s East Side, which was reported to have covered areas lying between N.P. Avenue and First avenue North and was also the owner of a large hotel.  He also served on the Fargo city council as street commissioner, was an alderman, and also a mason.  He was a wealthy man, demonstrated by his funding of large building projects and his offer to purchase a large portion of Fargo north of the railroad for a sum of 33,000 up front in 1879.  He was rumored to have earned $500,000 per year.

Chapin was influential on the arts and entertainment industries of Fargo.  He was known to have a love of music and provided the Orchestra for the Independence Day Dance in 1873.   In 1879 Chapin Hall was built on the corner of the intersection of Broadway and N.P. Avenue.   It was one of the earliest Public Halls of Fargo housing a variety of events including those involving arts and entertainment. This hall became the site of performances of famous traveling musicians and actors.  It also housed Luger’s Furniture Company on the lower floor.  In 1882 the hall was renovated to become Fargo’s first Opera House and Chapin contributed $160,000 towards renovations up until its destruction in the fire of 1893.

The life of Jasper Chapin was lauded in Fargo but was full of scandal.  He was known to be a gambler, rumored to have dipped into state treasury, and although he generously donated to church charities he was reported as seldom if ever present in religious ceremonies.  After his wife, Julia Chapin, died as an invalid in 1884 he reportedly sank into a deep depression, lost his fortune to creditors, and his remaining assets to the fire of 1893, before ultimately ended his own life in Minneapolis at the age of 72.[1]

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Masonic Library Staff. Fargo Masonic Files. Fargo: North Dakota institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

The “Boom” Through The Eyes Of Cooley

“The Land of Milk and Honey”

Fargo is a city in southeastern North Dakota, along the Red River which creates a natural border between North Dakota and neighboring Minnesota. It is currently the largest city in North Dakota, both in population and in area. Its twin city is Moorhead, Minnesota, which is just on the other side of the Red River. It is located in a major post glacial terrain feature called the Red River Valley. The river itself runs from Mud Lake on the South Dakota-Minnesota line and drains into Lake Winnipeg in Canada.

The Rise of Fargo

A train approaching Fargo, North Dakota in the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

A train approaching Fargo, North Dakota in the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

Fargo was founded as a railroad and commercial hub in 1870. It became a very commercially successful city during the time of what was called “The Boom.” Several large capital investors, particularly railroad companies and financial institutions, were drawn to Fargo as it held opportunity for business further westward. It was considered by some (arguably) the “Gateway to the Northern Plains”, and for some years grew to dominate its area along the railroad. Investors mainly from the Midwest, greatly influenced the rise and facilitated this “Boom”. Men such as James J. Hill and Jasper Chapin were drawn into investing in Fargo for its opportunities at enhancing business. This culture did not go without its share of resistance. Like many people during this portion of the Industrial Revolution (also known colloquially as the ‘Gilded Age’), people often found aspects of business culture to be less than virtuous or helpful. They saw a stark contrast to the larger economic “boom,” and saw that ordinary people labored for it, but often did not share in it. Nationally, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, and Jacob Riis were very prominent names in the voices of dissent. Mark Twain in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner wrote the Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), a novel that focuses on a family from rural Tennessee, (as well as various other characters), and the profit and corruption of their time. In 1890, Jacob Riis revealed the deplorable living conditions in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (also known as “Hell’s Kitchen”) neighborhood. Later than the scope of this project, Upton Sinclair published his famous 1906 novel, The Jungle about the dangers of unfettered capitalism, and less than complementary treatment of immigrants. This ended up changing public policy, and prompted the passing of Safe Food and Drug Act. Others wrote less famous, but equally culturally significant literature. One such author was from Fargo, and she wrote the story of Fargo’s “boom.

Ellen Cooley’s “Boom”Cover of The Boom of a Western City by Ellen Cooley

Ellen Cooley was the wife of a local Episcopal minister, and author of the book, Boom of a Western City. It takes place in Fargo in late 1878, and follows a family from Vermont, to Fargo and back on the railroad.

Synopsis Part One: A Step in the Scale of Gradation

The story starts out in Blankridge, Vermont, with the Bullard family. The father of the family, Jonathan Bullard, is anxious to go out west to “a land which ‘floweth with milk and honey.’”  His daughter Almira is equally enthusiastic, but his wife is a little more ambivalent about it, as is Almira’s love interest Alonzo Peters. Almira attempts to reassure the family of their need to move with a Biblical reference. Although not particularly sold on the idea, they eventually agree to go. By the advice of Mr. Mateson a declared “ne’er-do-well”, local newspapers publish letters sent from Mrs. Mateson from Fargo which portrayed Fargo as an “Eldorado” of sorts. This draws Jonathan ever closer to Fargo and its perceived opportunities. Almira was drawn in as well by the style, and “push” that made her all the more excited. When Jonathan’s mother and wife relented, it was announced they would sell the estate and move. Alonzo is struck sick, as he is deeply in love with Almira. He intends to buy the estate, and tell Almira of his love, but is interrupted by a family gathering, with the “fashionable dressmaker” Patience Armstrong. She seems to take interest in him, but he is oblivious to it. He can’t get Almira off his mind.

He finally gets around to telling Almira his feelings, but is rejected by her intense enthusiasm for going “out west.” He later speaks with Jonathan about buying his estate, which Jonathan is more than happy to sell, even offering him a discount. As the Bullards board the train for Fargo, Dakota, Almira tells of her love for Alonzo and insists they will see each other again.

Synopsis Part Two: The Fullness of Life

Cooley then shifts to a more sarcastic, satirical style. She begins to use language of the day to describe the railroad workers as her description of their ability to “endure the rigors of the climate” and the “demands of a new country.” She describes their “push”, or tirelessness of their desire to strike it rich, and their “elastic consciences,” willing to do anything to get what they want. The constant competitiveness was even reflected in the train’s crew, in a race against another train out of Manitoba. She shows how “reckless” the railroads are with a story about how two trains were barely saved from a head-on collision by a quick switchman who switched the east-bound train to another track in the knick of time

A train with a large scoop used to push snow off of the track during its winter operation. Photo circa, the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

Train outfitted for the cold and snowy winters of the northern plains. Ca. the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

At this point, unaware of the dangers that preceded them, and excited to reach the city of Fargo, Almira and Jonathan discuss the speed at which they are moving. When they get off the train, they are hurried, their hotel (the Headquarters) is full, so they get on another stagecoach which is also hurried. The theme of their entire experience is constant haste and competition. Even the coach driver is racing other coaches to their destination, the Continental hotel. The Continental is crammed with guests who are once again competing for the best rooms. Competitiveness is the basic attitude expressed, and even at this early state, it is beginning to overwhelm their quieter, slower sensibilities. The Bullards go for a walk down Broadway on an extremely cold day. Along the way they run into, once again, the intense competition of the local shop owners who run out to try to sell them stuff. Almira experiences frostbite which frightens her parents, but is reassured by a passerby that frostbite is quite normal. The man happened to be Mr. Smith, a local businessman who claimed to have legal rights to the title “Esq.” and dealt in real estate. He offers Almira a date to the theater, which embellished its advertisement as being very high quality and exotic, but turned out to be a bit below its advertised quality, which didn’t seem to bother her.As time goes on the cramped living space, life without a permanent place begins to break the lovely image that Almira had of Fargo, and proves Mrs. Bullard’s suspicions. Almira wanted to “experience pioneer life” and Mrs. Bullard was tired of “living out of a trunk”, and complained about how expensive everything was. Mr. Bullard continues to be optimistic, looking forward to doing business in Fargo. Mrs. Bullard’s fears are relieved when Jonathan begins business as a real estate agent and turns out very good profits. However the nature of business was “rushing” and “allowed Mr. Bullard hardly enough time to eat or sleep”. They were all busy and trying to save money to move into better living conditions (as the Time Block residence they were living in was less than desirable). This begins to wear further on the family, who are all so tired of constant motion, the smell of their residence, and the like that even Almira begins to lose heart. They take the next opportunity to move.  Meanwhile, Mr. Bullard is becoming increasingly successful in business. They find themselves deep into Fargo life, throwing parties and joining local organizations. Even Mr. Bullard, who was too busy to do anything but work, paid to be part of various groups. Expensive dinners and parties were becoming a daily occurrence, and it also became common for Mrs. Bullard to state that she was,“all worn out,” in reference to constant competition. The life of Fargo in 1878 was apparently very busy. For the Bullard family, it was largely tiring. This part of the book describes not only Fargo culture, but a brief description of the public transportation system. Privately owned horse-drawn carriages were a rarity, but Fargo had an extensive livery system, with publically run carriages which were used extensively. They were also very competitive, always striving to be faster, more punctual, and first to the best parking spots.

A livery stable. A place where the carriages would store thier wagons and their horses. Photo taken sometime in the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

Livery stables were used extensively in early Fargo’s extensive public transportation system. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

At this point, Almira’s and her mother’s enthusiasm is all but totally worn out. Mrs. Bullard is in a constant state of attending and entertaining at tea parties, and Almira is repeatedly turning down marriage proposals. Almira finally admits at this point that; “I love Vermont.” One offered to do everything she asked, another threatened to kill himself, and yet another threatened to kill her. Mr. Bullard meanwhile, exhausted and overwhelmed, is slowly slipping into increasingly risky investments. His business partner named Mr. Hicks is one of the “restless characters.” He proposes over-the-top (and expensive) advertising campaign that worry Jonathan, who has seen business ideas go under due to reckless over-investment. These events are a foreshadowing. Mr. Bullard takes up the offer for the “great sale” and ordering exotic animals (a bear and a monkey) and hires a team of mules with a sleigh and a band. On the night of the sale, there is a huge rush of eager customers ferried in by railroad from Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Bismarck, Valley City, Jamestown, and Casselton. This shows the extent of the railroad in 1878, but also points out that Mr. Hicks and Mr. Bullard actually used their own finances to bring people in for the sale. After the large (and highly competitive rush) Mr. Bullard finds he has actually lost over $300 since he moved to Fargo, and in anger, disappointment and defeat, decides to move. This sentiment is promptly shared by his wife and daughter, despite his apprehension that they would not agree very easily. He thought that they actually enjoyed living in Fargo. The next day they excitedly board a train and leave. Almira notices that the crowd getting off was very large, and concludes that they’ll be forgotten about. Mr. Bullard points out that the constant bustling and competition will help them forget even faster. They leave not one penny richer than they arrived.

Synopsis Part Three: Regression

It begins with a conversation between Jonnie and Grannie Bullard. They discuss how they miss the others, and Jonnie is left believing the reason they haven’t heard from them is because, “They’re awful busy. My! What a pile of money father must have made by this time!” Their rapid meeting was as jubilant as it was unexpected, with the normal greetings and embraces. Then various plot points are settled. Alonzo and Almira finally make plans for marriage (which angers and draws envy from the maid Pattie, who has a secret crush on Alonzo).

The story shifts to Mrs. Bullard talking with some church friends about their misadventures and seemingly sudden relationship between Alonzo and Almira. The somewhat self-righteous Mrs. Justin converses about the boundless excesses of western life. She states that it is a “field for a missionary” and is disgusted at the gaudy and overly lavish dress and conduct of common folk. When it is explained that in order to have enough moral influence to reach the people of Fargo she has to join into the lavish living and dress, Mrs. Justin rhetorically asks, “So the ministers’ wives didn’t stand for their own principles?” This puts strain on Mrs. Bullard as well, as she feels judged and almost ashamed at the somewhat less than friendly acceptance of their life in Fargo.

Almira’s friends are just as eager to hear her tell her stories about Fargo, bombarding her with questions and rumors about the “West”. The main discussion was on the shortage of women in Fargo, which seems to excite the young ladies. She makes mention of the “Episcopal minister’s wife” who tried to make a group of young people and found that there were about twice as many men as women. At this point the writer is also a character in the story, in an indirect way speaking of her own issues. Mr. Bullard is now working on settling the matter of his estate. Alonzo Peters in more than willing to relinquish the property and restore it in Jonathan’s name. However, he agreed to move in with his mother, to take care of her. She offers to have another house built, but he simply adds on to the original estate. Alonzo and Almira finally get married, and Mrs. Bullard is starting to miss Fargo a bit. She looks back on the splendor and lavish parties, the nice clothing and starts longing for it. She finally comes to terms with her feelings and lets them go, simply happy to live her dignified Vermont life. The story closes by discussing Almira’s happiness at marrying Alonzo and her having forgotten about the experience in Fargo as being little more than “an amusing dream.”

The Overall Significance

This novel expresses Cooley’s perception of Fargo, especially its culture, business practices, and life. It is a cautionary story, a coming-of-age story, and story of the dangers of excess and obsession. It openly satirizes Horacy Greeley’s “Go West, young man, go West!” She writes various people she knew into the story, changing their names and roles so as to not be accused as she put it “of personal allusion”. She describes in detail how business competition and lack of safety regulation of the railroad led to frequent near-misses as they would race back and forth, east to west. She describes the people of Fargo as being a bit shallow, and overly concerned with outward appearance. She even seems to indict herself as being like the rest, especially near the end with the discussion of ministers’ wives joining into the lavishness. She seems to be confessing her own perceived lack of modesty and moral courage. There is much symbolism as to the mood of Fargo at the time.  Words like “push” and “rush” are used repeatedly, often at turning points in the story. “Reckless” and “restless” are the main adjectives used to describe the people, particularly the men of Fargo. This adds a bit of a poetic tone as it uses the rhythm of these words to change directions and bring it full circle. Lastly at the top of every other page, she has the word “Disillusion” which is never fully explained. It does, however, set the tone. The entire book is an expression of her disillusionment with Fargo and a longing for moderation and quietness, that temporarily seems to be glossed over by the high-life. This seems to be of a similar attitude to the aforementioned Gilded Age, as the book somewhat humorously describes the ridiculousness of 19th century life, while also expressing a disillusionment about it. Her most direct appearance in the novel is only in reference to her being the wife a local Episcopal minister, and noting the discrepancy in the number of men and women, which leads to another point.

There is a bit of a feminist overtone as well, depicting the male characters as busy, “rushing” businessmen and the women as trophies just dragged along to be shown off and left to their own devices. The constant and persistent marriage proposals to Almira are depicted as representing a different kind of overpowering (and today, abusive) kind of man. One offers to give her everything and make her what can only be described as a trophy-wife. Another threatens to kill himself, in what is easily the most pathetic (and manipulative) way possible. Yet another threatens to kill her, flashing his bowie knife and revolver in a display that would warrant a restraining order in today’s world. It shows Mr. Bullard to be detached, disinterested, and unaware of his wife’s and daughter’s needs and desires. This does match up with other descriptions of men of the same time. For instance, Jasper Chapin has many of his exploits described and his wife is often left in peripheral roles. He was, much like many of the characters, “reckless.” His overindulgence and risky business practices led him to financial ruin, and his wife, who was in frail health, died. He later committed suicide, but not before cementing his legacy as the “Father of Fargo.” It’s people like him that Cooley answers, with their lack of moderation and self-respect, showing the antithesis to what was called “determination” at the time, as simple foolishness. The Boom of a Western City is the story of Fargo in its early days, and a window for us to see into them

– Lamar Murchison, Digital History, 2012


Engelhard C.L., Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead, University of Minnesota Press (2007).

Cooley E.H., The Boom of a Western City (1897), Lee and Shepard Publishers, Retreieved October 20, 2012, from,, (2012).

Twain M. and Warner C.D., The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), American Publishing Company, (2012).

Riis J.A., How The Other Half Lives, Charles Scribner’s Sons, (1890).

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.

Fargo’s Opera House in the Fargo Fire

Fargo Opera ad June 17,1893

Ad for the Fargo Opera the night of the fire. This show would not go on.

The first opera house of Fargo received little respect in its early years for either presentation or design. In November of 1890, Alex Stern and Harry O’Neill offered to build a new opera house for Fargo if the city would provide aid.[1] Stern repeated this offer as late as February of 1892, still hoping to provide a new opera house for the growing city.[2] A theater manager from Minneapolis, Charles A. Parker, acknowledged that Fargo had a good reputation for theatre, but such a reputation was significantly inhibited by the lack of a “handsome theatre.”[3] Plans for rebuilding were discussed, but were not fully implemented. The Fargo Forum on June 7, 1893 announced that there would be an Olde Folke Concerte at the opera house on June 9.[4] The events of June 7 would force that particular show to be postponed.The fire that swept through the city caused $2,000 worth of damage for the manager of the Fargo opera, Charley Gottschalk.[5] The downtown area of Fargo received far greater damage, but the opera house provides an invaluable opportunity to examine the rebuilding effort. As was typical for Fargo businesses following the fire, the opera house would only be out of operation for a short period. Before the end of June, Gottschalk announced his plans for a temporary opera house on Broadway between First and Second Avenue.[6] A crowded house showed up to watch Paige’s Players present Man and Master on July 3, 1893. Though it was obviously only a stopgap measure, the reviewer for the Fargo Forum still thought it was an improvement over the previous location.[7] Numerous productions were held in the temporary location, until winter came and the temporary location found itself redesigned as an ice rink for the winter. By September, Fargoans established plans to build a new opera house to replace the old one. Initially, the backers planned for it to be built on the Keeney block owned by Mr. N. Stanford and Alex Stern. Stanford had put forth the plan, but Alex Stern once again put himself forth as one of the primary advocates. Stanford requested that $5,000 be raised for him to build the opera house, and Stern quickly agreed to provide the first $100. The Fargo Board of Trade took up the plan, though the amount needed had been raised to $7,000. Stanford backed out of the plan, but was replaced by Mr. Hagaman. The overall price settled on was $7,500, and Walter Hancock acquired as the architect. The eventual site agreed upon by the Board of Trade was Second Avenue North, a block west of Broadway.[8] Construction began quickly on the new location, with Hancock taking the initiative. Alex Stern, one of the largest backers, attempted to view the construction of the opera house and was told to leave. Stern noted that this offended him, but he maintained his support for the opera house. By May of 1894, the new opera house opened up to notes of praise in the Fargo Forum. In regards to the lighting, the Forum noted that the new opera house was one of the best equipped in the United States.[9] As with many other businesses, the opera house had risen stronger than it was before.

– Chad Halvorson, Digital History, 2012

[1] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), November 14, 1890.

[2] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), February 16, 1892.

[3] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), May 28, 1892.

[4] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 7, 1893.

[5] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 8, 1893.

[6] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 19, 1893.

[7] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), July 5, 1893.

[8] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), October 14, 1893.

[9] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), May 14, 1894.