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.

Fargo’s Opera House in the Fargo Fire

Fargo Opera ad June 17,1893

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

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

– Chad Halvorson, Digital History, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins of the Fargo Fire

Fighting the Fire

Citizens of Fargo Fighting the Fire

The morning of June 7th did not presage any great change, save for a sultry wind blowing thirty miles per hour and a temperature that was to reach 88 degrees. At 2:15 on June 7th, the “fire laddies” were called to deal with a fire that seemed to have started behind Herzman’s Dry Goods store on 512 Front Street. The beginnings of the fire proved to be somewhat controversial. As a young man, John Hannaher was to bear witness to the events. According to his remembrance “the fire started back of the store next to the corner of Broadway and Main Avenue. The back of that, there is someone in back of the Herzman store to burn some rubbish, it caught onto the store and then it spread.”[1] In his own remembrances, John’s brother Thomas was to repeat this information on the start of the fire. The owner of Herzman’s Dry Goods did not accept this story, however. It would seem likely that he was uncomfortable to be so directly associated with the destructive fire that overtook Fargo’s business district. Herzman did, however, find a great deal of support for his assertion that the fire did not start from the rear of his store but rather from an adjoining building.Local businessman Max Stern was one of the first individuals on the scene, as his business was close to the beginning of the fire. He noted that by his arrival, the fire had not yet taken hold of Herzman’s Dry Goods. J. B. Folsom claimed to be the first person reaching the point of origin of the Fargo fire, and he was “well satisfied that it started on the outside of the frame building to the west of your store and when I reached the fire it had not reached your store building.”[2] The accounts of E. F. Steele and L. S. Seare supported this sequence of events. The strongest indication that the conventional wisdom on the beginnings of the fire being incorrect came from Sam P. Kelly, the superintendent of the water works. Kelly was the individual who pulled the alarm to announce the fire, and stated positively that the origin of the fire was not the Dry Goods store. He indicated that the origin of the fire was several doors west of Herzman’s. The statements to this effect were provided by Herzman, and are to his own benefit. The statements do effectively contradict other accounts, and seem very valid. The story of Herzman’s Dry Goods rubbish being the origin of the Fargo fire seems to have a similarity to the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow being responsible for the devastating fire from years earlier in Chicago. Both have become accepted as accurate, though both also seem to be somewhat mythologized. The statements also contradicted the story of the fire starting at the rear of the Little Gem restaurant due to hot ashes blowing to Herzman’s. Despite the unclear beginning to the fire, the events that followed were well documented.

– Chad Halvorson, Digital History, 2012

[1] Oral interview with John Hannaher, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.

[2] “Special Fire Edition,” Argus (Fargo, ND), June 7, 1894.

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.

Loss and Devastation in Fargo’s Business District

Ruins of the Fargo Fire, June 7th, 1893

An elevated view looking north up Broadway shows ruins after the fire of June 7, 1893, which caused $3 million in damage. Visible in the image is the Northern Pacific railroad crossing at Broadway. Several boxcars are visible on the right side of the image. In the foreground is a tent belonging to Frank L. Gordon, Barber Shop. Also visible along Broadway in the distance  are a sign advertising Magill & Co, other tents and the business T. E. Yerxa. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs007172]

Wood construction and row developments proved accessible and resourceful for getting Fargo’s business community off the ground, but by the end of the day on June 7, 1893, fire consumed the buildings and businesses on about  160 acres in the center of the city’s thriving  prairie metropolis. As various policy holders claimed $1.7 million from insurance, the net loss on the property insured was $435,000 thousand  and the loss on holdings uninsured likely exceeded $500,000, placing total estimated losses at over $3 million.  Few central areas escaped the reaches of the fire, and the tragedy simultaneously ignited an architectural rethinking before commencing with the arduous task of rebuilding the heart of the city.[1]

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012

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

The Fargo Fire of 1893


n 1893, Fargo was destroyed by a devastating fire. Whatever the origin, Sam Kelley spotted the fire from the waterworks in Island Park. He pulled the alarm to alert the city to the fire. Unfortunately, such communication only indicated that a fire existed and did not provide information specific to its location. Wallace Rice, a volunteer fireman who was working west of Broadway, rushed to clarify the location. The key to the fire alarm box was located in Sundberg Jewelry Store. Unfortunately, the clerk in the jewelry store had no idea where the key was to allow for the identifying alarm to be sounded. Rice alerted a nearby police officer to the concern, and finally was able to activate the alarm. By the time they had accomplished this task, the Yerxa Hose Company arrived on the scene. Some individuals indicated consderable concern with the oncoming fire, but most found comfort in the belief that Fargo had an exceptional group of firefighters.

The flames quickly spread from to the Little Gem restaurant and then to nearby buildings. One of the buildings was a gun store, and the inventory included a keg of powder and innumerable cartridges. When the fire reached this inventory, an explosion of powder rocked the afternoon air and  multiple cracks from the exploding cartridges followed.[1] The fire reduced the wooden buildings to ash in a very short period of time. The fire destroyed nearby buildings, but missed Crane’s restaurant, although the intense heat marred the facade and destroyed the windows.

The fire might have ended if not for the winds that assisted the flames in leaping across Front Street to take hold of Magill’s warehouse. According to John Hannaher, pieces of twine were on top of the warehouse.[2] Those on the scene fighting the fire turned their attention to the warehouse, but pieces of twine on the top of the warehouse caught fire and spread throughout Broadway. At that point, the winds propelled the fire on a path of devastation through the Fargo business district.

The fire moved toward the Western Union offices, setting one of the few brick buildings in Fargo ablaze. By this point, the residents of the business district had realized that the fire was out of control. Their efforts turned to attempting to save items of value and import from the oncoming flames, even recruiting those that were watching the fire to aid in the efforts.[3] The fire spread to the Red River Valley Bank Building, and it was soon destroyed. The nearby Fargo Forum building was the next to go as the fire continued. The flames spread east from the Magill warehouse toward the harvesting warehouses on N. P. Avenue and Front Street. The Argus would later provide a vivid description of what onlookers saw, noting, “Hell itself could not have presented a more terrible picture.”[4] Winds continued to stymie the efforts of those fighting the fire and again propelled the fire to leap across N. P. Avenue and consume the opera house block. Buildings on this block included the Fargo Opera Hall, the Merchant’s State Bank, Hellberg’s Jewelry Store, Yoder and Lewis Grocery, the Great Northern Express Company, and a variety of professional offices. The fire continued unabated, moving north to the Republican building, home to J.J. Jordan’s Evening Republican newspaper. The block was totally destroyed with little saved.

From the Republican block, the blaze went across Second Avenue and engulfed the ornamentation of one of the businesses. Then the blaze spread to the Keeney block, owned by N. Stanford and Alexander Stern.[5] The fire destroyed a wide array of businesses on its rampage, including Freeman’s China Hall Tea Store, Kop Brothers Music House, as well as the Alex Stern Building.[6] The flames reached the Masonic Hall on the Stern block, destroying everything in the building (including the extensive Masonic Library). The destruction continued through to Alex Stern’s Palace Clothing Store and the legal and judicial offices above the clothing store. On the corner of Broadway and N. P. also stood the Citizens National Bank, which withstood the fire longest.[7] Firefighters from as far away as Casselton were by that time tending to the blaze, and they concentrated their efforts on this location. The basement of the building included, somewhat ironically, the Thomas Baker Jr. Fire Insurance offices, and the second floor housed the United States Court Room. The fire continued west,  destroying the Elliott Hotel.

Ruins of Citizen's National Bank

Ruins of the Citizens National Bank after the 1893 fire

In only two hours’ time, the flames progressed over a mile through the city and set approximately two hundred buildings on fire. Some brick buildings had been constructed, but there were far more wooden buildings, and they readily caught fire. The wooden structures stymied the efforts of firefighters to stop the flames that swept through the city. Nonetheless, the fire ran its course by 7 p.m. In less than five hours, approximately 160 developed acres of Fargo were destroyed.

-Chad Halvorson, Digital History 2012

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

[2] John Hannaher oral interview, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.

[3] Thomas Hannher’s “Fargo Fire Memory”, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.

[4] “Special Fire Edition,” Argus (Fargo, ND), June 7, 1894.

[5] Deed, Cass County Courthouse.

[6] Image of Stern block destruction, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.

[7] Image of destruction of Citizens National Bank, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.