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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

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