Civil War Veterans In Fargo

GAR Monument, Island Park, Fargo.

GAR Civil War Veterans Monument in Riverside Park, Fargo, ND.

Though North Dakota was not a state when the Civil War took place, its history was shaped by the contribution of hundreds of Union Civil War veterans.[1]  Though much research needs to be done to fill out the story,[2] some basic conclusions are in order.  First, Civil War veterans came to Fargo in significant numbers in the decades after the war, just as they did to many other Midwestern and western communities during this period.  These men were the quintessential “Yankees,” men who were often the first to settle with their families in the new towns and surrounding countryside, many of them arriving with the railroad.  Frequently in setting up farms they benefitted from not only the Homestead Act, but also their ability to claim additional land based on their status as veterans.  As Caroll Engelhardt notes, Civil War veterans often emerged as community leaders, including Fargo mayors “Colonel” Wilbur F. Ball, who had served in the Ohio Cavalry, and J.A. Johnson, who served in both the Confederate and Union armies.[3]

Many veterans joined the principal Union Civil War veterans’ organization of the time, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The John F. Reynolds Post No. 44 was organized on February 22, 1884, with local veteran Lafayette Hadley playing a major role.  Renumbered Post No. 5 with North Dakota statehood in 1889, it was named for Major John F. Reynolds, who died in action while commanding First Corps of the Army of the Potomac on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.  The post grew from its initial 64 charter members to a peak of 287 members before it began a long decline before the death of its last member, Colonel John W. Carroll, on March 3, 1942.[4]

During its lifetime, like other GAR posts, members participated in state and national encampments.[5]  They played a significant role in Decoration Day, an early version of Veterans’ or Memorial Day, in which wreaths were laid at the graves of military veterans, as well as other patriotic celebrations.[6]  The men also participated in military parades and ceremonies, notably in the send-off and reception of members of Co. B of the First North Dakota Infantry during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (1898-1899).[7]

One lasting accomplishment of the post was the creation of the GAR Monument in Island Park, Fargo, in 1916.  Constructed with funds raised by North Dakota Governor Louis B. Hanna and the Reynolds post, it was dedicated on Decoration Day 1916, and bears the inscription:

“To the Dead a Tribute, To the Living a Memory, To Posterity an Inspiration.”[8]

-Chris Hummel, Digital History 2013



[1] I am leaving aside the issue of the battles against the Sioux (Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota) which took place during and after the Civil War.  There were recruits from Dakota Territory that took part in Indian War and Civil War battles as well, but they were relatively few in number and their stories have been tracked elsewhere in the historical literature. We don’t have a sense at this point of how many Confederate veterans came to the Fargo area, aside from Mayor Johnson (see below).

[2] Much of the background information from this entry come from the “Finding Aid to the Grand Army of the Republic, John F. Reynolds Post No. 5 Records,” at the Institute for Regional Studies & University Archives, North Dakota State University Libraries, at  (last accessed 12/19/13).  At the time of writing (December 2013), the archives were in the process of being moved to a new location and were therefore temporarily inaccessible for researchers.  When the archives are re-opened, this would be the obvious place for a researcher on Civil War veterans in the region to begin.  The collections contain data about membership, meetings, and even burial plots lists for local veterans.

[3] Caroll Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), Kindle Edition, locations 3243-3272.

[4] Information from the “Finding Aid to the Grand Army of the Republic, John F. Reynolds Post No. 5 Records” cited above (note [2]).

[5] For a brief account of the G.A.R. state encampment at Hillboro, ND, in 1896, see Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, June 4-5, 1896.

[6] Engelhardt notes that the GAR hosted their own Fourth of July picnics in Fargo’s early years (Location 1602) as well as providing Memorial or Decoration Day services (Location 2338).  The Decoration Day service for 1899, which included remembrance for the First North Dakota Infantry, then fighting in the Philippines, is covered in “Decoration Day,” Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, May 30, 1899.

[7] For the reception of Company B after the Spanish-American War/Philippine-American war and the GAR role in it, see “Home at Last!” Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, October 2, 1899.

[8] Information on the monument from “GAR monument, Island Park, Fargo, N.D.” entry at the Photo Gallery of the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies at (last accessed 12/19/13) and the “Look Around Downtown—Fargo Heritage Discovery Walk,” Spring 2007, page 31, “Stop 1: Civil War Soldier Statue—Island Park,” page 31 (accessed on 12/19/13 in pdf form at

Company B: Fargo in the Spanish-American War (1898-99)

Spanish-American War monument in Kindred Cemetery, near Fargo.

Close-up view of the Spanish-American War Monument in the cemetery at Kindred, ND. It commemorates the loss of Ole Lykken, who served with Co.K of the 1st ND and died from disease near Manila, Philippines, November, 1898. (Photo by Chris Hummel, 2013)

“Captain Keye… asked all who were willing to volunteer their services… to step two paces to the front.  Every man of the fifty-four stepped up at once.”[1]

Thus did the local Fargo paper describe the response of Fargo’s National Guard company, Company B, to President McKinley’s call for volunteers to serve in the Spanish-American War.  Those men who were accepted for service by the U.S. Government would go on to form the core of what became Company B of the First North Dakota Volunteer Infantry.  What they could not know at the time was that this was the beginning of an eighteen month journey from peace to war and back again, and a fight mainly against revolutionaries in the Philippines who sought their country’s independence, rather than one to liberate the peoples of the Spanish Empire.

Fargo experienced the same surge of patriotic enthusiasm as the rest of the country with the declaration of war with Spain in April of 1898.  It was in this context, with troops moving through the railroad town on their way to all the points of the compass, and patriotic meetings taking place throughout the city, that Captain Keye’s men had offered their services.[2] While other Fargoans would see service alongside men from throughout the region and the nation in the U.S. Navy, the volunteer cavalry (some of them serving under Teddy Roosevelt), and both state and regular army units, Company B of the First North Dakota Volunteer Infantry was unique in being made up exclusively of Fargo men.[3]

Within weeks, by early May of 1898, Company B, its original members supplemented with new recruits drawn from the Fargo area, including cadets from the Agricultural College (later NDSU), was encamped in tents in what was dubbed “Camp Briggs” in Fargo’s Huntington’s Addition (probably near the Great Northern Depot).  Here they were united with other members of the First North Dakota Infantry, assembled from across the state, as well as various volunteer cavalry detachments.[4]  After a few weeks of drill and camp life for those who passed the physical examinations, Co. B, along with the other units from across North Dakota (including companies A-I of the First North Dakota), departed Fargo from the Great Northern Depot on May 26, 1898, amidst tears and cheers from local citizens.  Thus began a long journey toward their ultimate destination—the Philippine Islands.[5]

The First North Dakota participated in the attack on the Spanish in Manila in August of 1898.  Though one man of Grafton Company C was killed and one of Bismarck Company A was wounded, no casualties were reported from Company B at that point. The war seemed to be wrapping up and the men expected to return to Fargo sometime after the final peace treaty, during the winter of 1898-1899.[6]  While peace was concluded between the United States and Spain in February 1899, the provision that Spain would sell the Philippines to America over the strenuous objections of a long-established and increasingly militarily-successful native independence movement under Emilio Aguinaldo assured that the North Dakotans would not be coming home as soon as they had hoped.[7]

Just two days before the signing of the final peace treaty with Spain, on February 4th, 1899, Aguinaldo’s troops attacked the American forces.  The First North Dakota was caught up in the first phase of the struggle, fought as a conventional battle between the two armies (after November 1899, the Filipinos switched to guerrilla warfare).[8]  Like many other American troops stationed near Manila, the First North Dakota appears to have been engaged with the Filipinos almost from the beginning. They were singled out for praise in official reports for their “eager and spirited” February 5th attack on enemy rifle pits after a tough march through the jungle.[9]  In the words of the official report, later printed in the Fargo Forum, “Major Frank White, with a battalion of the First North Dakota volunteers, left their trenches and made a gallant and effective charge on the insurgents concealed in the thickets in front of his position,” an attack that involved Co.’s B, D, G, and H.[10]  By June 1899, the First North Dakota was fighting alongside army regulars to capture the peninsula of Morong, forcing the Filipino army into the hills.[11]

The men of the First North Dakota were soon suffering more casualties, from disease, tropical conditions, and battle wounds, losing Sergeant Whitaker (Co. A) to dysentery with Corporal Byron of Co. D paralyzed by a gunshot wound to the spine.  Their regimental nurse, Miss Penney, was praised for her care for both men—and would be singled out more than once in future reports for similar devotion.[12]  A May 6, 1899, letter from Sergeant Edwards (probably the Corporal W.R. Edwards who shipped out with the Company in 1898 and was later promoted), revealed the situation in the Manila hospital where he was being treated for dysentery.  He describes his own state as hungry (he was receiving little food to reduce the impact of his dysentery) and nervous and observes that the men were coming in 10-20 at a time exhausted from the extreme heat and being driven hard by their commanders.  He also writes of Co. B’s Fred Hansche, shot through the right lung, and his long, painful journey to the hospital. Attitudes had also hardened toward the Filipinos, whom he refers to by the (apparently) racist nickname, the “Goo-Goos,” and he relays a story of the men being given permission to fire upon them if they refused to stop insulting the U.S. troops.[13]  Still, amidst what appears to have been worsening conditions and tensions, the North Dakotans continued to earn high praise for their behavior on campaign and in combat.[14]

More welcome than any praise, however, was word that the men would soon be returning home.  On July 5th, 1899, American commander in the Philippines General Otis cabled the War Department that within four days the North Dakotans would board the U.S. Grant alongside troops from Idaho and Wyoming for the journey home.  The news brought an enthusiastic response from the North Dakota home-front, with the Fargo Forum estimating the boys would return by early September.  Suggestions for a grand homecoming were immediately made.[15]  Planning began soon after, with representatives from across the state gathering in Fargo to prepare for the event.[16]


To the right, through the NDSU main gate can be seen some of the 23 evergreen trees planted by North Dakota Agricultural College President Worst to commemorate the 23 students who enlisted in the Spanish American War.  (Photo by Chris Hummel, 2013)


Like the war itself, however, the voyage home proved longer, more complex, and more difficult than had been previously imagined.  July was over before the men would embark on the Grant.  There followed a long delay while the ship was held up in Japan for various reasons, with the men’s experiences detailed in passages from Sergeant “Billy” Edward’s diary, portions of which were published in the Fargo Forum.  They contain stories of the weeks the men spent visiting Japanese cities and tourist sites, including mention of a baseball game against a team from Yokohama (the Americans lost), more praise for the unit’s nurse, Miss Penney, and notes on the wounded.  A number of wounded men, including Joe Wurcer of Co. B, were aboard, and a soldier from Co. K had died on the trip.  The men finally left Japan for San Francisco on August 14th, though two men from Co. B apparently failed to make it back to the ship on time, making them technically deserters[17] (though they were probably only guilty of enjoying Japan a bit too much).

Preparations to receive the men at home reflected these delays and new information coming into Fargo.  When it became clear that the unit would be mustered out when it arrived in San Francisco—and therefore that the U.S. Government would not be paying for the North Dakotans’ train tickets home—citizens from throughout the state began to donate to a fund to pay the troops’ way home (though a few men planned to stay on to enjoy California for a while).  Such campaigns were carried out successfully in each community that sent a unit to the Philippines.  In Fargo itself, supporters received badges reading, “I Say Co. B Rides Free. What Say Ye?”[18]

After six weeks at sea and in port, the First North Dakota Regiment was finally mustered out of the federal service at San Francisco on September 25th, 1899.[19] Beginning apparently in San Francisco itself, where it was said “restaurants and cigar stores will not take their money” (they were being treated)[20], the First North Dakota seemed to receive a heroes’ welcome on its journey back, described as “one continuous ovation.”[21]  Stopping along the way to let out various companies, beginning with an enthusiastic 2 am, October 2nd, reception at Dickinson, the Jamestown, Devil’s Lake, Mandan, Valley City and other companies were delivered as the train traveled across the state.  Everywhere the reception was warm, but the estimated 10,000 people who greeted Company B (and I of Wapheton and C of Grafton who were traveling with them) mobbed the depot for a full hour before the balance of the First North Dakota arrived at Fargo at 8am.  Cannon salutes and a parade to the armory including bands and Civil War veterans of the G.A.R., as well as members of the local lodges, culminated in a massive meal served to the returning veterans and a series of brief, often emotional and patriotic speeches.[22]

The final act of the homecoming was a massive community barbecue and potluck held the next day in Island Park with an estimated attendance of 15,000.  A few speeches were given and music was provided by the First North Dakota Infantry band, but a major attraction was the huge amounts of food, “stacks of meat—beef, pork and lamb… hundreds of loaves of bread, thousands of doughtnuts… a stack of pies… all the good things to eat that could be desired.”[23]  Of course, the real draw was the return of Fargo’s native sons and the chance to welcome them back to the community.

What thoughts the men of Company B had about their service experience, which had so quickly turned from the defeat of what many Americans saw as a corrupt and oppressive Spanish empire to a fight against would-be Filipino independence fighters, is perhaps to be revealed by later research. While other men served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War from the Fargo area both before and after Company B, perhaps the chairman of the welcome committee, North Dakota Agricultural College President Worst, whose own son Clayton, served as first sergeant of Cavalry Troop G [24], said it best for all of them in his welcome home speech at the reunion barbeque:

“(Y)ou patriotically enlisted… you never questioned an order for duty… It was not a question of our soldiers—as to what were causes—they were soldiers—they obeyed orders and come home to us.”[25]

-Chris Hummel, Digital History 2013.  (Additional research provided by Dustin Olson)


[1] “Co. B Stand Together,” Fargo Forum and Daily Republican, April 22, 1898.  (This newspaper will be hereafter referred to as FFDR).  Later articles, many of them cited below, make clear that not every man of the 54 was accepted for overseas service. Some failed the medical examination while others stayed home to care for their families—it seems sometimes against the soldier’s own wishes.  It is likely these men were a bit older than the average volunteer for the war, given that a number them appear to have been National Guard members for several years. Still, they provided the core for Company B of the First North Dakota Volunteer Infantry, a unit exclusively made up of Fargo area recruits.

[2] See “Troops Galore” and “A Mass Meeting,” FFDR, April 22, 1898.

[3] On the cavalry company offered by Wheatland, ND, for service under Roosevelt, see “Wheatland Cavalry Company,” FFDR, April 26, 1898.  Articles in the FFDR provide a wealth of information on Fargo during the Spanish-American War, only a small portion of which could be examined in the course of our research and included in this brief entry. There is much that remains to be uncovered and written about by later historians both in local newspapers and archival collections.  If nothing else, this brief discussion will hopefully generate interest in doing further research.

[4] See “The Soldier Boys,” FFDR, May 5, 1898; “Saturday Night,” FFDR, May 7, 1898; “The White City,” FFDR, May 8, 1898.  These and other articles detail visitors to the camp, gifts and tributes given to the soldiers by local citizens, groups, and businesses, and personal details about some of the soldiers and their officers.  Other units of the First North Dakota were also recruited or nationalized from the National Guard on a local basis by company. Thus Co. A was from Bismarck; Co. C, Grafton; Co. D, Devil’s Lake; Co. G, Valley City; Co. H, Jamestown; Co. I, Wapheton; Co. K, Dickinson; etc.

[5] For the departure, see “Getting Ready,” FFDR, May 26, 1898 and especially “Tears Were Shed,” FFDR, May 26, 1898.  According to the Forum and Daily Republican, when the men first heard they were going to the Philippines they were “jubilant,” looking forward to “a magnificent ocean voyage” to “a country much healthier and prettier than Cuba” where they were “pretty sure to see some service” (“To the Philippines,” FFDR, May 13, 1898).  Whether they shared this rosy assessment of ocean travel after their difficult return trip and of the country after suffering from tropical diseases and guerrilla attacks there is a bit unlikely—but they certainly did see some military service. The FFDR continued to follow Co. B on the trip to San Francisco from where they shipped out and through letters throughout their deployment in the Philippines.

[6] “North Dakota Heroes,” FFDR, August 27, 1898.  Data on casualties from Co. B is scattered and spotty in the newspaper and the time we had for research did not allow a thorough and systematic study of the entire war period.  More research in official records, other archives, and the local newspapers would doubtless provide a fuller picture to later researchers.

[7] Much has been written about the Philippine Insurrection or the Philippine-American War and it is not our purpose to review it in detail here.  For a brief, solid discussion of the key points in the conflict, see the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website article, “Milestones: 1899-1913—The Philippine-American War,” at

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Dakotans Commended,” FFDR, June 22, 1899. The battle took place in February, but the report had not appeared until months later, shortly before it was published in the newspaper.  Judging from newspaper accounts, such praise of the unit was fairly common.

[10] “Major White Complimented,” FFDR, June 21, 1899.

[11] “Again on the Warpath,” FFDR, June 5, 1899.

[12] “Whitaker’s Death,” FFDR, June 5, 1899.

[13] “From the Hospital,” FFDR, June 9, 1899.

[14] “North Dakotans O.K.,” FFDR, June 22, 1899.

[15] “General Otis Cables Washington…,” FFDR, July 5th, 1899.  For an update, see “Will Sail Sunday,” FFDR, July 26, 1899.

[16] “The N.D. Boys,” FFDR, July 31, 1899 and “For the Soldiers,” FFDR, August 5, 1899.

[17] The diary appears in several separate installments, all entitled, “Sergt. Billy’s Diary,” in the FFDR on September 14, 15, and 16, 1899. There was apparently one on September 13th, but I somehow missed this one in my research.  This appears to be the same Sergeant Edwards whose letter was cited above (“From the Hospital,” FFDR, June 9, 1899).

[18] Ads for the campaign and a running tally of the donations received appeared daily in the FFDR.  See the September 15, 1899 paper for one example.

[19] “The End,” FFDR, September 25, 1899.

[20] “What Hansbrough Says,” FFDR, September 18, 1899.

[21] “Home at Last!” FFDR, October 2, 1899.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “The Barbecue,” FFDR, October 3, 1899.

[24] This is briefly mentioned in the second column of the article, “Getting Ready,” FFDR, May 24, 1898.

[25] “The Barbecue,” FFDR, October 3, 1899.

Fraternal Organizations in Fargo and Moorhead

Like much of the nation in 1900, Fargo and Moorhead were smattered with various fraternal orders. As of 1900, both cities combined listed fifty-one fraternal organizations.[1] The Masonic Order was perhaps the most popular order established because of its celebration of Victorian principles in the life of American men. A man’s membership in a Masonic order showed his commitment to masculinity and set him up for success in business. The Ancient Free and Accepted Masons were established in Fargo as the Fargo Shiloh Lodge No. 105 in 1872, along with the Moorhead Lodge No. 126 in 1876. The Masonic order rose above all orders as it provided a prime example for the organization of other orders such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Ancient Order of United Workmen, Grand Army of the Republic and the Knights of Pythias.[2] Such was the success of the Masonic order that wives of Masonic members formed their own auxiliary known as the Order of the Eastern Star. In 1893, Fargo saw its own Mecca Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star organized and Moorhead’s auxiliary was established ten years later. In order to house the new fraternal organizations sprouting in Fargo, the Masonic Scottish Rite Order built a new temple in 1900 that provided space not only for Masonic interests but also for organizations such as the El Zagal Shrine and the Order of the Eastern Star.[3]

Masonic Temple, Fargo, N.D. Taken in 196-? Built in 1899. North Dakota State University Libraries, Institute for Regional Studies, Digital ID rs010766.

Masonic Temple, Fargo, N.D. Taken in 196-? The Masonic Temple was built in 1899. North Dakota State University Libraries, Institute for Regional Studies, Digital ID rs010766.


Although the Masonic order was highly sought after it did not offer one benefit that other organizations such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Ancient Order of United Workmen did. These orders offered insurance to their members that was more affordable than commercially sold insurance. With these benefits at the forefront, the Order of the Odd Fellows was established in Fargo in 1874 and Moorhead in 1879. The other insurance offering order, the Ancient Order of United Workmen, permanently established itself in Fargo in 1889 and later in Moorhead as of 1890.[4]

Another fraternal order, the Grand Army of the Republic, organized itself around veterans. It provided veterans with food, cash, and even railroad transportation. This organization developed as the John F. Reynolds Post No. 44 of Fargo in 1884. The women’s auxiliary, Woman’s Relief Corps, aided the men’s order by providing assistance and refreshments at the orders’ banquets. Both the men’s and women’s organizations also provided the community of Fargo with an annual Decoration Day observance every May 30th in which veterans were celebrated through community programs and decoration of veteran graves at local cemeteries.[5]

Not only did fraternal organizations offer the citizens of Fargo and Moorhead physical benefits such as insurance and memorial services, but it also provided citizens an outlet for communal gatherings in a growing and changing society.

Amber N. Lien, Digital History 2013

[1] Carroll Engelhardt, Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pp. 182.

[4] Ibid., pp. 184.

[5] Ibid., pp. 185.


North Dakota Children’s Home Society

childrens home

North Dakota Children’s Home Society
804 10th Street South, Fargo

In the late 1800’s, it was the practice of the New York Children’s Aid Society to round up homeless children from the streets, and send them west on the train to be distributed to farmers. Sometimes the children ended up in good homes, in other cases they were chosen just for their ability to serve as free labor. Children’s Home Societies were created in towns along the railroad to protect the “orphan train” children from abuse and neglect and provide them with good homes.

The North Dakota Children’s Home Society was organized as a branch of the Minnesota Society by Rev. E.P. Savage, and the first Superintendent, Rev. C.J. McConnehey, arrived in Fargo in November 1891. His mandate was to “act as friend and protector to homeless, neglected and destitute children—both children arriving on the orphan trains and those from across the state of North Dakota whose families could no longer care for them.

As the only project of its kind in the Dakota territory, the original North Dakota Children’s Home Society focused on the maintenance of an active and flourishing orphanage and through the provision of foster care and adoption.¹  In 1895, Rev. McConnehey resigned his position in order to move further into the new frontier and establish the Montana Children’s Home and Aid Society. In 1897, under the new leadership of Baptist Minister B.H. Brasted, the society was officially incorporated as the North Dakota Children’s Home Society, and eventually a permanent “temporary home” was built at 804 10th Street in Fargo.

Frank Hall

Frank “Daddy” Hall

The arrival of a new Children’s Home superintendent in 1902, Frank “Daddy” Hall, initiated a period of great energy, growth, and change. According to the Grand Forks “Evening Times,” by 1907, the society had “received and provided for 740 children from all sections of the state.”²

As superintendent, Hall participated in the first White House Conference for Dependent Children in 1909, fought vigorously for the Mother’s Pension Law in 1915, and in 1923 was a member of North Dakota’s Children’s Code Commission. Through these events and other activities, Hall influenced significant legislation for the protection of children. Frank Hall led the Society for 24 years, before ill health resulted in his resignation from the position.³  The society continued its work as an orphanage and in 1957, having outgrown its facilities, moved to a new building at 1721 South University Drive, Fargo. At the same time the name was changed to Children’s Village. Due to rapid changes in our society and a decreasing need for orphanages, the board of directors voted to terminate the institutional child care program (orphanage) in 1968.  In 1972, the name of the organization was again changed–to The Village Family Service Center–the name it still goes by today.

¹“A Legacy of Love,” publication of The Village Family Service Center, Fargo, N.D., December, 1990.
²”Evening Times,” Grand Forks, N.D., August 1, 1907.
³”A Legacy of Love,” publication of The Village Family Service Center, Fargo, N.D., December, 1990.

-Tammy Noteboom, Digital History 2013


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.

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).