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.

“An Ordinance Relating to Lighting”

On April 26, 1901 the Supreme Court of the state of North Dakota, in the case of Robert against Fargo Gas & Electric Co and the city of Fargo, ruled that the contract between the city of Fargo and Fargo Gas & Electric Co was void.  This ruling was made by the Supreme Court for reasons that the city charter states that the city cannot make a contract for more than a year.[1]   The contract between Fargo Gas & Electric Co and the city of Fargo was originally created back in 1895.   The terms of the contract was about the construction and management of the city’s new arc lighting street lamps. So by the court ruling the street lights of Fargo were not being powered or managed. In order to solve this problem the City Commissioners Board of Fargo held a special meeting to discuss a plan of action.

A photograph postcard is of Broadway in 1908, looking north from Front Street (Main Avenue).

A photograph postcard is of Broadway in 1908, looking north from Front Street (Main Avenue).

The special meeting was held on April 29, 1901 starting at 5:00 p.m.  During this meeting a committee was created and an ordinance titled “A Ordinance Relating to Lighting”. This meeting was also considered to be the first reading of said ordinance. The second reading of “A Ordinance Relating to Lighting” was on May 6, 1901, and the ordinance was passed.  Bids for the new contract would be decided on a later date.[2]

On May 9, 1901 the City Commissioners Board held bids for the new contract.  This new contract would not only contain the construction and management of street lights, it would also contain the adding of lights to public buildings.  The first to bid for this new contract was the Fargo-Edison Company.  Their bid was for “an all night schedule and a moonlight schedule.”  In addition they would install improved enclosed arc lights that burned 500 watts per hour and have the candle power of 2,000.   The cost to the city of Fargo was $7.45 for each per months for the 66 street lights that were already constructed.  For public buildings, the cost was $.08 per 1,000 watts and would be measured by meters that Fargo Edison Co would install. The term would end August 31, 1901.  The second bid was from the Fargo Gas & Electric Co.   Their bid was for maintaining the street lights currently installed at a cost of $10 per month.  In addition they would install incandescent lamps for the public buildings at $.05 per 1,000 watts.  The bid provided an option to the city of Fargo if it preferred gas lights, Fargo Gas & Electric would install Welsbach Burners and the cost of gas would be at $1.60 per thousand cubic feet.  The commissioner unanimously decided to accept the bid of the Fargo-Edison Co.  The matter of lighting public buildings was referred to the committee on lights. The Fargo-Edison Co. went to work installing the new lights.[3][4]  On May 15, 1901, Mr. Hughes the manger of the Fargo-Edison Co. told the Fargo Forum “that if nothing unforeseen occurs he will have all the lights burning by Saturday night June 15.”[5]

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[1] Fargo Forum, (Fargo, ND) April 26, 1901.

[2] Fargo Forum, (Fargo, ND) April 29, 1901.

[3] Fargo Board of city commissioners, (Fargo, ND) May 9, 1901.

[4] Fargo Forum, (Fargo, ND) May 10, 1901.

[5] Fargo Forum, (Fargo, ND), May 15, 1901.

Charles and Matilda Roberts

Charles A. and Matilda Roberts. Photos as ran in Fargo Forum, June 1934. Used for educational purposes.

Charles A. Roberts was a man who burned with the spirit of adventure. His family owned a meat market in Minneapolis, but butchering was not enough to satisfy Roberts. According to his obituary in the Fargo Forum, “Few men have crowded into one short lifetime more wide-flung activities, more romantic adventure, and more constructive effort than his venturesome pioneer spirit impelled him to undertake.” [1] Roberts was one of the first four men to cross the Red River and establish landholdings there in 1871. [2]  Mrs. Roberts soon joined him on the prairie, living in a tent and giving birth to their second child, Lee, the first white baby to be born in Fargo city limits. [3] Mr. Roberts soon became very prosperous, building Fargo’s first roller mill and a brick yard, which stood west of the site of present-day Fargo South High School. Roberts was also contracted to build and manage the Sanborn to Cooperstown (both in North Dakota) branch of the Northern Pacific Railroad. It was through his association with the railroad that Roberts befriended General Custer, who was stationed at Fort Lincoln, North Dakota. [4] Roberts was also one of the first men to set foot in the Black Hills during that region’s gold rush in 1877. He was also on one of the early expeditions to the Klondike gold rush in 1897.

It is certain that few citizens were more revered in the early history of Fargo than Mrs. Matilda Roberts. For evidence of this, one need only look as far as the massive seven-part serial article written for the Fargo Forum in 1930 by Ida May Owen that chronicles Mrs. Roberts’ entire life history, as though her story was itself the story of Fargo. She is widely reported to be the first white woman in the Fargo area, and the first white woman to cook a meal in that community. Upon her death in 1934, the Forum’s front page featured a generous spread that referred to her as “Grandma” Roberts, that is, the grandmother of Fargo itself.  The anonymous Forum reporter stated in melodramatic fashion: “Grandma Roberts’ story is the folklore of Fargo. Incidents in her early experiences here – humorous, tragic, dramatic, courageous, shrewd — will be story material forever for those who write and tell tales of the days when Indians roamed at will … when women, then as now, followed their husbands with only the beacon light of love to guide them over uncharted trails.” [5]

Zach Jendro, Digital History 2012

[1] “Chas. A. Roberts, One of Northwest’s Early Pioneer Builders, Dies Suddenly,” Fargo Forum, 20 June, 1925.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5]  “Mrs. C. A. Roberts, ‘First Citizen’ of City Passes Away,” Fargo Forum, 27 June, 1934.


Roberts and Haggart Families

“Judge S.G. Roberts,” from “1900 Blue Book.”

The Roberts and Haggart families were twined together through marriage and business, and both clans featured prominently in the early history of Fargo. Brooks, Maine-native Samuel G. Roberts arrived in Cass County, North Dakota in January of 1872, making him one of the earliest settlers in the area. He had fought bravely in the Civil War in the Seventeenth Massachusetts Volunteers and the Ninth US Veteran Volunteers, known as Hancock’s Corps, rising to the rank of first lieutenant and was wounded three times. After his final discharge, he settled in Minneapolis, studied law, and became admitted to the bar in 1870. He then relocated to Fargo and acquired a quarter section of land, which is now the northwest corner of Broadway and N.P. Avenue. In 1872, Samuel married Jennie Baldwin, and the Roberts family settled their claim, building their Italianate –style home there in 1880. Roberts formed a legal partnership with S.G. Comstock, serving Moorhead, making the duo the first legal office in the area. [1] However, this partnership dissolved, and Roberts built a practice across the river in Fargo, a position he held until he moved to California in the 1910’s.

Gilbert Haggart, son of Fargo’s first sheriff and fire marshal, John E. Haggart, had married Ruth Roberts, daughter of S.G. Roberts, in 1900, and the two settled in the Roberts family home. In a 1966 letter to his daughter-in-law, Mrs. John Roberts Haggart, Gilbert recalls many fond memories of living in early Fargo. “You can well imagine how nice and clean everything was kept. Every family had a hired girl. Father always had a hired man to take care of his driving horses. While my mother raised nine of us children, she always had plenty of good reliable help.” [2] Gilbert seemed fond of his mother-in-law: “Ask (John Roberts Haggart) if he does remember his grandmother, Mrs. Jennie Roberts. She thought he was a fine boy. She said when he got to be ten years old, she was going to take him and they were going to take a trip around the world. I think it was cancer she died of. She never complained. While Mrs. Roberts was alive, we had no electricity. She had some lovely brass lighting fixtures containing kerosene lamps. Mrs. Roberts cleaned the glass globes and trimmed the wicks. Every morning. Said she never expected to have a girl do more than herself.” [3]

Zach Jendro, Digital History 2012

[1] Compendium of History and Biography of North Dakota. Chicago: Ogle and Company, 1900.
[2] G. Haggart (personal correspondence, 28 February, 1966)
[3] Ibid.

The Biography of Alexander Stern

Alexander Stern

(June 7, 1857-1934)

Edwards Building photo

The Edward Building was the site of the Alex Stern & Company’s clothing store.

Alex Stern was born on June 7, 1857 in Giessen, Germany.  He immigrated to the United states in 1871.  Mr. Stern arrived in Fargo in 1882 and opened the city’s first clothing store.  He is the first know Jewish person to land in Fargo.  On July 5, 1885 he married Bertha.  They had three sons: William, Samuel, and Edward.

Mr. Stern was a very influential man during the founding of Fargo, both through the business world as well as politically.  He was influential in the opening of Alex Stern & Company in 1885. [1] He purchased Chapin Hall, the local opera house, in 1888,[2]  was the Vice President of the Fargo Packing Company, President of Fargo Plumbing, Director of Merchant’s State Bank, President of Fargo City Council, was on the Board of Directors for the Agriculture College and was the trustee of said college for four years.[3]

Here is a copy of his letter from the secretary of the State giving him the position of trustee of the Agriculture College.

Here is his letter asking for endorsement for President of the City Commission. He was the mayor of Fargo from 1917-1921.

For more information on Alex Stern’s life please go here.

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] Caron, John. “Fargo, N.D., History Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU.” Fargo, N.D., History         Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU. North Dakota State University, 2004. Web. 30    Oct.         2012. <>.


[2]  Caron, John. “Fargo, N.D., (First) Opera House” Fargo, N.D., History       Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU. North Dakota State University, 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.


[3] Caron, John. “Fargo, N.D., History Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU.” Fargo, N.D., History         Exhibition, Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU. North Dakota State University, 2004. Web. 30    Oct.         2012. <>.



Lena Bertha Kopelman

Lena Bertha Kopelman

April 29, 1869 – December 3, 1947


Lena Bertha Kopelman photo

“My mother… [was] a wig maker and maker of hair switches and other hair goods. [She] taught us all how to weave human hair and we became 

fairly adept at it, but we could never make our fingers fly like our mother did… Kopelman’s Beauty Shop was one of the very first beauty shops in Fargo…

Rose, Dorothy and I helped to make the shop a going business, all of us merely helping our mother who was quite a business woman.”

~ Jeanette Kopelman Saval, letter, 1977. [1]

            Mrs. Kopelman was the owner of Fargo’s first beauty salon.  She was a wig maker, widow, and mother of seven children.  One December 22, 1901 she became the president of Sister’s of Peace, which is a Jewish charity organization.[2]  As a devoted member of the Jewish community, she also had a business agreement with the Fargo Hebrew Congregation to run the mikvah in the basement of her store.  (A mikhav is a bath meant to purify women within the Jewish faith before a Sabbath or after menstruation.[3])  She would charge $1 and provide towels, water, and soap. (See agreement between Mrs. Kopelman and The Fargo Hebrew Congregation)[4]

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] Schloff, Linda Mack. And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest since 1855.  St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1996. Print.

[2] “American Jewish Year Book.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.  <>.

[3] Farlex, Inc. “Mikvah.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2012. <>.

[4] Schloff, Linda Mack. And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest since 1855.       St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1996. Print.

Kopelman Building photo

This is the outside of the Kopelman building. This building housed many different offices as well as the beauty salon run by Mrs. Lena Kopelman.


Inside of the Kopelman Store photo

This is a photo of the inside of the Kopelman store.

Jasper B. Chapin

A very important figure in Fargo’s history is Mr. Jasper J. Chapin, who some call the “Father of Fargo”.  Chapin was born in a New York, where he worked on a farm in his town after he finished schooling.  In 1852 he left New York and headed out west to strike it rich in a mining town in California. He stayed in California for two and a half years, then moved back to New York. Unable to handle the quiet life of the farm, he was soon restless and moved back out west, this time to the Indian Territory. Here he ran a boarding house called The Levee. He resigned from The Levee in 1860. He had fairly solid support from the community and was mostly successful and profitable. From the Indian Territory, he followed the scent of gold he was tracking earlier and ended up in Montana, conveniently in the middle of the gold rush. There he mined and operated a new boarding house called “Chapin House”.  After spending some time in Montana he decided he need more excitement in his life and headed to Northern Pacific’s rail camp in Oak Lake, Minnesota. There he worked in a tent hotel and saloon business. He headed north with the railroad until he landed where he the Fargo-Moorhead site was thought to be located. The engineers of the Northern Pacific hid the true location of the Fargo-Moorhead site, knowing that if the location was known people would take the land before the railroad could obtain it and then sell it back with an enormous price mark-up. Therefore, Chapin really settled 3 miles north of Moorhead in Oakport, which was to be called “Bogusville”, a small homage to fake location given by the Northern Pacific. In Oakport, Chapin opened a tent hotel-saloon. It was a rough area. There were not many legitimate businesses, but a good amount of poker was played. After the town dried up there was an exodus to Moorhead, and Chapin was one of the first settlers, opening up his tent hotel and saloon. The streets of Moorhead were tough, full of outlaw men and “easy going” women. By renting out rooms and selling whiskey at the frontier price, he was able to make a decent profit.  He accepted the frontier life and the hardships that come with it. He was so profitable that there was a Chapin block in Moorhead.

His abililty to make such profit in the rough frontier led Chapin to be selected to run the Headquarters Hotel, built by Northern Pacific in Fargo in 1873. Northern Pacific built the hotel to house the engineers and officials of the east and west. It was also  to work as a depot for the railroad company. Fargo was just starting to grow at that point. It was becoming a home to a few shops, hostelries and saloons. The hotel was the center of the attention, simply because it was situated right off the tracks. It’s central location guaranteed that all of the new settlers would wander in. Chapin was a major supporter of growth in Fargo and was an outstanding citizen of the town. In a move to help raise money for a church to be built, he took out $50 in new half dollars from Mr. N.K. Hubbard, a banker in Moorhead. Chapin proceeded to hand out all of the half dollars to people of the town, saying to “those to whom he gave money to go to the meeting early, sit up in front and put the same on a large platter he would furnish for a subscription box.”(Johnson, April 28, 1950). After the meeting, the church was assured to be built, and the first church of the Fargo-Moorhead area, was on the corner of Ninth St. and First Ave. Chapin’s connection with the Headquarters Hotel ended in 1874, after it was burnt down in the fire. N.K Hubbard and his associate E.S. Tyler took the lease of the hotel management after Chapin, and the building was rebuilt in 60 days. Chapin acquired a good amount of farm land on the north side of Fargo. When the railroad went under, it significantly slowed progress in Fargo and brought about a depression. No one had the money to move out of the depressed area and so most lived off of each other and struggled to move forward. As the depression was happening, Chapin was farming several hundred acres of NO1 hard wheat and it was fairly profitable. So much so that the press started sharing his story of success. Chapin started working on a new hotel, one that was more oriented on social life, class, and elegance.  It was 75 foot by 40 foot structure that had billiards parlor, bar, private club rooms, and a restaurant. Many thought that it was the nicest place west of St. Paul. Chapin was a visionary and wanted to innovate Fargo. One way he saw to innovate Fargo, and make a decent profit, was that the meats and produce were in separate small stores that were scattered all over town. George Marelius  and Chapin, opened a supermarket on Broadway in 1879 and it was reported to be just like one in the city. One where you could find anything you wanted to eat, all in the same location. Around this time Chapin opened an opera house, which had the Luger family furniture store on the first floor and the opera house on the second.  Traveling musicians and thespians would come from all around to perform.  He continued to buy farm land in the area and have a pivotal role in the community. In 1880, he was persuaded to run for mayor. It took some persuading, but he finally accepted the advice and joined the race. Many of the candidates from the mayor race dropped from the running and Chapin won the vote against Burgar. During the race for mayor, he was building his prize Continental Hotel. The Continental hotel was his masterpiece, standing at three stories tall. It had every luxury that anyone could want and Chapin sold tickets to the grand opening.

Towards the end of his life he was affected by the economic depression. After the loss of his wife, he slowly lost his property and investments to his creditors. Chapin went from a man that everyone looked too, to one they pitied. He was an old man and a new generation of entrepreneurs were on the move. Chapin’s luck was slowly running out, combined with the loss of his two sisters, he was hanging on by a thread. He later committed suicide in St. Paul and his body was sent up to his friend Alex Stern in Fargo.

Mathias Zastrow, Digital History 2012

Alexander Stern and the Rebuilding of Fargo

Stern ad November 9, 1892

Advertisement for one of Stern’s businesses.

In 2007, the Fargo Forum asked a five person panel of local historians to name the five most influential individuals in the history of Fargo-Moorhead. At the top of the list was Alexander Stern.[1]Originally from Germany, Stern moved to Fargo in 1881, and started his career in Fargo as a local retailer by opening a clothing store. In 1885, he moved this clothing store to the corner of Broadway and N. P. Avenue. He was noted as one of the foremost builders and boosters for the city in its early years.

Fargo Fire - Sterns Block

Image of the Stern Block following the Fargo fire.

His actions following the 1893 fire were instrumental in the rebuilding of the city. He assisted in the rebuilding of the Fargo opera house, and rebuilt the Stern Building. He operated his clothing retail business from its new brick location, and continued to involve himself in the real estate side of the city. He constructed the Edwards building, the Stern building, the Donaldson Hotel building, the Pioneer building, and the Kaufman building. He later established the Dakota Trust Company with his brother, Max Stern, and served as mayor of Fargo. Upon his death, Martin Hector noted of Alexander Stern, “Nothing ever jarred that confidence. Hard times and distressful conditions came to the community and to the nation, even the great disaster of the Fargo fire, but nothing could change his belief that there was a great future for the city.”[2]Upon his death, the governor of the state declared a 2-hour period of mourning for the entire state. In many ways, he grew with the city of Fargo and exemplified the city’s growing spirit.-Chad Halvorson, Digital History 2012

[1] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), August 12, 2007.

[2] Fargo Forum (Fargo, ND), June 5, 1934.


Chicago Dry Goods

Add in the Fargo Fourm November 9, 1892

There were many department stores in Fargo. One was the Chicago Dry Goods House department store at 618 Front Street.  It later changed its name to the deLendrecie’s. It was situated right in the heart of the city and the location helped to keep it profitable in the midst of the depression in the mid 1890s. That made the store a staple of Fargo until the fire in 1894. The fire led to an influx of architects, many of whom would be cooped up in tents or hotel rooms just about anywhere to get out of the rain and cold. They had big plans for the department store.  It was re-built in 1894, with two-floors, a basement, and a mezzanine.  The property was moved to Broadway and Seventh Street, so it was closer to the Headquarters Hotel, and would help bring in steady amounts of people and keep revenue high.- Mathias Zastrow, Digital History, 2012

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).

The Holes Family

Bernard and Marguerite Holes seated at piano in Holes home, circa 1900. Courtesy NDSU Archives, Photo 2093.4.3.

The first parcel of land that James Holes purchased in North Dakota was originally owned by Ole Hanson. This transaction between Hanson and Holes, dated July 26, 1871, at a cost of $76.60, was the first purchase of land of any kind in Cass County. [1] It was upon this wheat field that Holes built a farmhouse for his family, which at the time consisted of Holes and his mother.  Holes would eventually own 180 acres of land adjoining the limits of Fargo, as well as 1740 acres near Hunter, North Dakota.In 1887, he wed Rhonda Harrison and they had three children: James, Bernard, and Marguerite.  According to Lounsberry in North Dakota: History and People (1917),  Mrs. Holes was a “beautiful and intellectual lady who possessed exceptional talent as an artist, which fact demonstrated by the many attractive canvases painted by her which adorn the walls of the home.” [2] After Mrs. Holes’ death in 1908, the North Dakota: History and People reports that Marguerite took over the household duties for the home.  “She had the careful rearing of her mother. (She) has the mother’s artistic temperament as is shown by the exterior embellishments and the interior decorations of the home.” [3]

– Zach Jendro, Digital History, 2012

[1]Finkle. Marguerite. “James Holes.” WPA Historical Data Project, by Stella Halsten Hohncke.

[2]Lounsberry, Clement A. North Dakota; History and People; Outlines of American History. Vol. II. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Company, 1917.


George Nichols

George Nichols George Nichols was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1856. He moved to Marshal, Minnesota to work in a hotel, where he stayed until he moved to Fargo in 1878 and became a clerk at the Headquarters Hotel. Working behind the desk, he became popular with the people of Fargo and did his best to talk to every man who wandered into the hotel. After many years of working at the hotel, in 1885 he took the County Deputy Treasurer position. Nichols held the position for two terms, the maximum that a person can hold the position. This was proof of how very popular he was among the people of the city. This led him to be nominated for State Treasurer and the Fargo community was extremely excited and highly supportive of his election.

– Mathias Zastrow, Digital History, 2012

James Holes

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

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

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

– Zach Jendro, Digital History, 2012


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


Rebuilding a City: A New Approach

Ruins of Citizen National Bank looking northeast from N.P. Avenue after the Fargo, N.D. fire of 1893

The ruins of the Citizen’s National Bank building stnd prominently in the photo while smoke is visible rising from the ruins of the city. People are visible walking around on the streets. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs007171]

As the ruins of the city smoldered and with distinguishing resolve, Alexander Stern, along with others, hauled lumber onto the scorched earth and began rebuilding immediately to get the businesses up and running with minimal delay.  Within the succeeding year, Stern’s group managed to reestablish 246 buildings at the cost of $968,000 and encourage ongoing reconstruction throughout the devastated districts.  In fact, the Magill and Co. building was the first to boast an indoor elevator after 1893.  By Christmas of 1897, citizens now claimed that “Fargo is substantially built of brick and stone, most of the buildings being two stories bright and new, with paved streets make it an exceedingly handsome and clean city.”[1]  Although the fire undoubtedly cost the city and its citizens millions in financial and emotional devastation, it caused a revision of architectural approaches for a renewed business district that not only helped Fargo overcome the initial and immense losses, but also created a stronger and more capable structure for a lasting city refusing to fade into obscurity.

In fact, Alexander Stern became Vice President of the Fargo Packing and Cold Storage Company with the organization and opening of a new building on April 1, 1896.  With a new brick warehouse, the Fargo Packing and Cold Storage Co. processed over 20,000 cattle, 50,000 hogs and 25,000 sheep purchased from farmers across the state.  As a result, Stern and his business partners gave a home market to the ranchers of North Dakota of at least ten percent higher rate for their livestock than could be obtained by shipping East and also saving on delays, spoilage, shrinkage, and commissions to boot.  At the time, the Fargo Packing and Cold Storage Co.’s sale department covered all of North Dakota, Northern Minnesota, and Eastern Montana.  Proprietors even stated that, “the goods turned out are equal to the products of any of the large packing houses in Eastern cities.”[2]

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012

[1] “Fargo Souvenir,” folder 1, box 2, Fargo, North Dakota Historical Collection, IRS-NDSU.

[2] “Fargo Souvenir,” folder 1, box 2, Fargo, North Dakota Historical Collection, IRS-NDSU.