Early Fargo and Alcohol

During the 19th century, the battle over alcoholic beverages was fierce in the United States, and the young community of Fargo was not immune to this social issue. On February 17, 1871, a U.S. Army regiment that had been dispatched from Fort Abercrombie disbanded “Fargo in the Timber,” a collection of shanties and huts that constituted the less affluent section of town. The charges levied against the deportees: selling alcohol on Indian land. Thus began a difficult relationship between Fargo and the cultural and legal acceptance of alcohol.

During the 1870’s and 1880’s, a collection of saloons, sporting houses, and brothels sprouted up in Fargo  and both the town’s gentlemen and “rougher elements” frequented them. However, in 1887, a local election was held to determine whether the city should discontinue the sale of alcohol. According to an early resident, G. Angus “General” Fraser, the balloting was held at the request of local farmers because, on rainy days, the farmhands would go to town and “frequent the saloons and rarely would they return until a week later.”[1]  Liquor was briefly voted back, but in 1889 North Dakota was admitted to the union as a dry state. The efforts of the Fargo-based North Dakota Women’s Christian Temperance Union  was influential in granting the “dry” status to the new state. This group was founded in 1888 and was headed by Elizabeth Preston Anderson for more than forty years. According to Fraser, many thought the loss of the saloons and gambling halls would be devastating to the infant community. However, he stated, “There were men here who believed in Fargo. They saw a future for the town. Among such men was the late Alex Stern.” [2] Fargo remained a dry community until the repeal of prohibition in 1933.

“I hereby solemly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented, and malt liquors, including wine, beer, and cider, and to employ the proper means to discourage the used of and traffic in the same.” — Oath from North Dakota Women’s Christian Temperance Union literature, c. 1892.


[1] “Fargo Once Was ‘Wide Open,’ Fraser, Here In 1880, Says.”Fargo Forum, March 17, 1946.

[2] Ibid.

Letter serving notice of Stern’s appointment as trustee of the North Dakota Agricultural College

This is a copy of the letter that the Secretary of State for North Dakota sent to Alex Stern confirming him as a trustee for the North Dakota Agricultural College.  This was scanned from records held in the NDSU archives and the information can be found here.


Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

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. <http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/people/stern.htm>.


[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.  http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/theaters/first-opera-house.htm


[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. <http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/people/stern.htm>.



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.

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.