Repurposing Fargo

Fargo has grown immensely and gone through numerous changes in its 142-year history. Growing from just over 2,500 people in 1880 to over 107,000 today and surviving such natural disasters as fires, floods and tornadoes; nothing has been able to stop Fargo from thriving.

Fargo’s downtown has always been a thriving business mecca[1] of the Red River Valley and is a key reason Fargo has survived to be the city it is today.

Recently, the city of Fargo has begun to restore much of the historic downtown district located along Broadway and Main Street.

The 1970’s were the birth of the “mall” as we know it today. Malls could be seen sprouting out of new developments in cities all across America. These malls drew businesses and shoppers away from downtowns into one central, indoor location. This spelled death for many downtowns across the nation. Fargo was no exception. In the late 70’s, the Red River Mall[2]Red River Mall was implemented on Broadway in an attempt to draw pedestrians to shop at downtown businesses after the opening of the West Acres Mall drew much of the business away from downtown. Broadway was realigned in a zigzag pattern to slow traffic and create a more pedestrian friendly environment. By the mid 1980’s many business owners were voicing their displeasure with the Red River Mall’s design. In 1986 the Mall was dismantled and Broadway was straightened.

For much of the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, downtown Fargo was a shell of its former glory days. [3] In 1999 the city of Fargo, realizing that its historic downtown was suffering, issued the “Fargo Renaissance Zone Plan.” With lucrative incentives (five-year tax exemptions and tax credits) given to property owners that invested in the rehabilitation of Fargo’s Renaissance Zone, downtown Fargo slowly began to thrive once again.

Downtown Fargo is now a flourishing mix of residential and commercial buildings. Many of the buildings in downtown Fargo date back to the rebuilding of Fargo after the fire of 1893. The 600 block of Main Avenue[4] is the only block of buildings that survived the fire. All of the landmark buildings have gone through some sort of renovation or name change in their history.

Hotel Bison and the Fargoan Hotel are no longer hotels. They now house commercial spaces on the street level and residential living spaces on the upper floors. The Ford Building is no longer assembling cars; it houses commercial spaces and high-end residential condos. Many of the buildings have always housed businesses of some sort. Yet very few of these buildings have remained the same throughout the years. The Merchants National Bank building is now the King House Buffet, and the First National Bank building is now a bar fittingly called Fort Knox.

Two of the most iconic buildings in downtown Fargo that have stood the test of time are the Hotel Donaldson, locally known as the HoDo,[5] and the Fargo Theater. The Hodo was built in 1894 to serve as a meeting hall for the International Order of Odd Fellows. As one of the first buildings built after the fire, the building is a constant reminder of where Fargo came from. In the mid-1910’s, the building officially became the Hotel Donaldson. It has had its rough patches throughout the years, changing ownership and purpose many times, but the heart of the building and its history has survived. The Fargo Theater[6] was built in 1926 as a cinema and vaudeville theater. Originally designed in the Renaissance style, the theater was restored in the 80’s with a more art deco style interior. The Fargo Theater still stands at its original location in downtown Fargo and is a major attraction to this day.

Downtown is once again a must see for anyone visiting Fargo. From its vibrant beginnings, surviving disaster, and period of rough times, downtown Fargo has risen to new heights. The Fargo Street Fair[7] every summer (the largest outdoor event in North Dakota) and Cruisin’ Broadway[8] have become staples of downtown Fargo’s thriving resurgence.

-Logan Kern, Digital History 2012









Martin Hector

Martin Hector

Martin Hector
Lewis F. Crawford, North Dakota Biography, vol. 2 of History of North Dakota (Chicago: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1931), 480.

Martin Hector is considered to be one of the most influential pioneers in the City of Fargo. His dedication to the city went above and beyond what was asked of him. Martin lived in Fargo most of his life and died here in 1938. Martin, along with other prominent leaders of Fargo, gave it the push it needed to become the successful city it is today.

Martin Hector's Signature

Martin Hector’s Signature
 Lewis F. Crawford, North Dakota Biography, vol. 2 of History of North Dakota (Chicago: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1931), 480.

In 2000, a woman by the name of Susie Yakowics wrote a wonderful article for the Fargo Forum on the life of Martin Hector. Considering that Mrs. Yakowics is the great-granddaughter of Mr. Hector, it seemed only fitting to ask her to participate by reading her article. We are pleased to say she accepted.

Martin Hector: A Pioneer to Remember

Special thanks to Susie Yakowics for recording her article for this project.

Susie Yakowicz has written hundreds of articles for children and adults on subjects ranging from history to health. She is the author of From Down East to Midwest: The Memoirs of Margaret Sewall Hector (1889-1977). For more information on Susie and her work, please visit

-Robert Kurtz, Digital History 2012





Frank Jay Haynes and Early Photography

Frank Jay Haynes was one of the first professional photographers working in the Fargo-Moorhead area.  With a creative eye and a flair for unique business architecture, Haynes maintained a prolific body of work from across the Northern Plains and early western settlement.

Please enjoy a brief pictorial biography of his life and nineteenth-century photographic pieces.

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”][/youtube]

Images courtesy of the Montana Historical Society and the North Dakota State University Archives

Soundtrack provided by Kevin MacLeod of Incompetech

Narrated by V. Diane Reikowsky

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012

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.

Vaudevillian Culture in Fargo

Vaudeville shows were a major form of entertainment in the early years of Fargo.  Records of these theaters are numerous, but  but due to the culturally tabooed art forms played in vaudeville theaters and their association with sinfulness, alcohol consumption, and sex these theaters were minimally mentioned in the press of early Fargo and are mostly noted on accounts of deaths, crime, disturbances, or imposed fees.[1]  The Argus refers to vaudevillian theaters as “dens of vice”[2] and the Coliseum itself was tied to a billiard hall and saloon, which did not improve its reputation.

The audience for vaudeville was predominantly adult males.  Any visitation of these theaters by women would be considered scandalous.[3]  Many reports of loud and rude audience behavior were reported in the Argus.  It mostly was said to come from the galley of the theater, the center seats closest to the stage.[4]

The performances in vaudeville theaters were varied and often spectacular.  They included acts such as boxing, contortionists, gymnasts, acrobats, club swinging, and knife juggling, instrumental soloists, orchestras, trapeze, tight ropes, loose ropes, right wire, character artists comedians, Scandinavian dialectician, fire eating, magicians, rifle marksmanship, female impersonation, and knife throwing.[5]

There was also a particularly interesting report in the Argus concerning a woman named Rosa Thu-Zett. The description of this act was as follows:

“Miss Rosa Thu-Zett holds cannon said to weigh 239 pounds, in her teeth, while she hangs suspended from a trapeze.  The cannon is discharged while she is in that position.  She is said to be the only woman in the world who has accomplished this feat.”[6]

One of these vaudevillian theaters was the Coliseum which opened in March of 1880.  On its opening night it featured acts such as operatic selections, Irish sketches (with the “burnt cork” blackface of the era), jigs, clogs, comic, sentimental songs, and ballads.  It was not certain when the theater itself closed down but it remained active for at least eight years.  Ballets, acrobatics, full-length dramas, plays, musicals, and burlesque were also featured in this theater.[7]

The vaudevillian theaters were monitored closely in early Fargo.  Each theater needed specific licenses for operation and liquor sales.  If not in compliance owners were arrested, such as W.M. Talbot of the Odeon Theater (located on Front Street) and B.P. Reynolds were arrested for failing to obtain licenses for their shows.[8]  The arrests occurred on the same day and showed a crackdown on the vaudevillian culture of Fargo.

Much of the pressure being exerted upon vaudevillian theaters in the mid-1880s was due to a community dilemma which occurred after vaudevillian actors employed at the Star Theater passed out tickets to school children.  The community was enraged, writing scathing complaints to the Argus, most of which demanded all vaudevillian theaters be closed.  There was a fine given to the Star Theater, license prices for all theaters were raised, and an additional fee given to the mayor was also tacked onto monthly expense.  Later, all were ordered to close at midnight rather than 2 a.m.  Many of the theaters folded in the following years as a result of this as well as the economic effects of prohibition.

The actors of the vaudevillian theaters were usually given short contracts before moving onto the next job.  It was a rough life with early rehearsals and late nights six days per week.  However, the early economy of Fargo had a significant tie to vaudeville theaters.  Aside from alcohol sales. the theaters employed 458 people alone between 1880 and 188.

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[2] Fargo Daily Argus 6 December 1884:  Print.

[3] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[4] Fargo Daily Argus June 14 1881.

[5] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[6] Fargo Daily Argus 22 May 1884: Print

[7] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota Territory from 1880-1888. Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

[8] Fargo Daily Argus August 1884: Print

Fargo’s First Theater

The first theater in Fargo was built by John Erickson in 1880.  In 1888 the theater was purchased by Alexander Stern and was located on the second story of the Stern Building.  It burned down in the fire of 1893 but was undoubtedly a rich source of culture for Fargo.

The theater featured actors of which many went on to become prominent in their time such as the famous 19th century Italian actor Salvini who played in “Don Caesar de Bazan” on January 4, 1893.  Other featured performers included the famed Jim Crowe actress Clara Morris, Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde, and other renowned actors such as Joseph Jefferson, Marie Wainwright, William Collier, Frank Daniels, Stuard Robson, Blanche Walsh, Chauncey Olcott, John Drew, Melbourne MacDoweell, Herbert Kelcey, including “Don Caesar de Bazan” which was one of the last that the theater ever featured, running through January of 1893.[1] Popular theater productions of the time included “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as well as Shakespearean Plays.[2]

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Masonic Library Staff. Fargo Masonic Files. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

[2] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota Territory from 1880-1888. Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

The Fargo Opera House

The Fargo Opera House was a source of pride and a symbol of prestige for the town’s early residents.  In contrast to vaudeville theaters, the Opera House was acceptable for all ages and genders in the community to attend openly.  The building stood on the corner of Broadway and N.P. avenues. It was originally called Chapin Hall and housed the Luger Furniture Company on the first floor.  Initially Chapin Hall was open to many events and ceremonies as well as performances by traveling musicians and thespians that began to visit Fargo in the late 1870s as transportation became readily available.  However, performance space was non-existent prior to 1879, and afterwards a lack of seating and appropriate stage space was a looming issue.[1]

Motions were first proposed to renovate Chapin Hall into the Fargo Opera House in a city council meeting in 1881; J.J. Guhey was given a wage of $25 per month to oversee operations in its constructions and renovations.[2]  After the grand opening in 1882 complaints were resounding through the community and feeding the need for constant renovation.  One common lament was the stage size. An article in the Fargo Argus called it a “mere toy of a stage”.[3]  These views may have led to the Opera House’s closing in late 1888 for renovations in which the interior was completely remodeled as well as the scenery.[4]  These renovations were ongoing  until the original Fargo Opera House burned down in 1893.  Construction of a new opera house began in 1894.[5]

A.S. Capehart was one of the early managers of the Fargo Opera House. He was popular within the town due to his thoughtfulness and taste in running the establishment.  According to the Fargo Argus he scraped the mud off the walls of the theater[6] and provided safe transportation for patrons.[7]   He was responsible for contracting its performances as well.  One of the main performing companies in Fargo was the Hess Company out of Minneapolis, which was secured by Capehart.  The Hess Company is mentioned favorably in the Argus for its performance of “Martha”.[8]

Performances included not just traditional opera, but also operettas, burlettas, grand operas, light operas, and comic operas.  Popular performances included “The Mikado” by Gilbert and Sullivan, “Il Trovatore” by Verdi, “The Mascotte” by Edmond Audran,  and “The Magic Slipper” by Rossini. [9]

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[2] Fargo City Records 1881

[3] Daily Argus, November 8, 1880

[4] Sunday Argus, November 4, 1888

[5] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

[6] Fargo Daily Argus 15 March 1883: Print

[7] Fargo Daily Argus 10 August 1881: Print.

[8] Fargo Daily Argus 23 May 1883

[9] Browning, Richard James. Early Fargo Theaters: Record of the professional theatre activity in Fargo, Dakota

Jasper B. Chapin

Among the prominent names of Fargo’s early history is that of Jasper B Chapin, a hotel tycoon who contributed to a large portion of its building, economic development, religion, and the arts. Chapin was a native of New York and found his way westward into California as a result of the Gold Rush of 1855 which fueled settlement and economic development in US territories.  There Chapin began as a miner, eventually branching his capital outwards into freighting and hotel keeping.  He was known to have lived and opened businesses in Leavenworth, KS, Denver, CO, and Utah.   He then followed another Gold Rush into Montana, made his way to Ohio, and then to Brainerd, MN where he met John E. Haggart who was a freighter and a horse dealer offering his services to the North Pacific, and from there following the development of the railroad to Fargo, ND.

Chapin quickly established his success in Fargo, opening a tent hotel-saloon on August 5, 1871.  By 1873 he was hired by the Northern Pacific to take over operation of the Headquarters Hotel.  In 1879 Chapin opened a market in on Fargo’s East Side, which was reported to have covered areas lying between N.P. Avenue and First avenue North and was also the owner of a large hotel.  He also served on the Fargo city council as street commissioner, was an alderman, and also a mason.  He was a wealthy man, demonstrated by his funding of large building projects and his offer to purchase a large portion of Fargo north of the railroad for a sum of 33,000 up front in 1879.  He was rumored to have earned $500,000 per year.

Chapin was influential on the arts and entertainment industries of Fargo.  He was known to have a love of music and provided the Orchestra for the Independence Day Dance in 1873.   In 1879 Chapin Hall was built on the corner of the intersection of Broadway and N.P. Avenue.   It was one of the earliest Public Halls of Fargo housing a variety of events including those involving arts and entertainment. This hall became the site of performances of famous traveling musicians and actors.  It also housed Luger’s Furniture Company on the lower floor.  In 1882 the hall was renovated to become Fargo’s first Opera House and Chapin contributed $160,000 towards renovations up until its destruction in the fire of 1893.

The life of Jasper Chapin was lauded in Fargo but was full of scandal.  He was known to be a gambler, rumored to have dipped into state treasury, and although he generously donated to church charities he was reported as seldom if ever present in religious ceremonies.  After his wife, Julia Chapin, died as an invalid in 1884 he reportedly sank into a deep depression, lost his fortune to creditors, and his remaining assets to the fire of 1893, before ultimately ended his own life in Minneapolis at the age of 72.[1]

Valerie Tescher, Digital History 2012

[1] Masonic Library Staff. Fargo Masonic Files. Fargo: North Dakota institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 1979. Print.

Northern Pacific Railroad: Fargo’s first industry

Railroad: The First Industry in Fargo


[1]                                                             [3]





When the N.P.R.R. crossed the Red River in 1871the city of Fargo was formed. The railroad fueled the city, bringing in large numbers of people and along with the people came the need for industry. Fargo grew around the railroad tracks as is visible in the above 1880 photograph. The main N.P. tracks travel East and West along Front Street. The railroad had spur tracks that ran to several businesses including Crockett & Shotwell Lumber.[3] Businesses along the tracks were some of the most profitable in the city as they had direct access to shipping and receiving goods. The businesses that were not located on the spur tracks had to use more common methods of transportation including horses, oxen, carts and human laborers.

The site of the railroad bridge crossing the Red River from Moorhead into Fargo was a very thought out, strategic and secretive plan. Thomas Hawley Canfield and George B. Wright traveled the Red River Valley in search of a crossing point that would not flood with the Red River in the spring.[2] Once N.P.R.R. was in control of both the eastern and western banks of the Red River and the crossing was announced, land speculators rushed to the area to purchase the very valuable land. These earlier settlers opened the first industries in Fargo and paved the way for the growth and prosperity of the town.

Logan Kern, Digital History 2012

[1] Regional Studies # 2029.8.7


[3]  Regional Studies # 2029.8.28

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 Checkered Years”: A Diary by Mary Dodge Woodward

Historically, women in the West were portrayed in a stereotypical manner: they were either the unwilling followers of husbands who were seeking wealth and adventure, or the rebellious Annie Oakley types or brothel operators. The reality of women’s lives in the West is entirely different. Mary Dodge Woodward helped her son manage her cousin’s farm by maintaining the household. She cooked for up to 30 people during certain times of the year, as well as cleaning, sewing, and other household tasks. While many women on the plains were unwilling participants in their husbands’ searches for wealth, other women prospered in the West. Some, like Ellen Cooley, opened boarding houses for travelers and others threw decadent parties on the plains.

Mary Dodge Woodward kept a diary from 1884-1888 while she was living in the Dakota territory on a Bonanza farm. She discusses a variety of topics, from the ever-changing Dakota weather to education, crime, natural disasters, and alcohol use.

Here are various excerpts from her diary in chronological order by topic:

Drinking: The Early Days

Mary Dodge Woodward did not drink and therefore had a somewhat negative view of people who did. While she had a negative view she also felt sorry for people who lost their money drinking or died in a blizzard due to alcoholic excess. Over the years on the farm, she stuck to her convictions and was happy when, in 1887, Cass County supported prohibition.

1884- “I think nine-tenths of the people who have frozen to death in Dakota have been under the influence of intoxicating drink. A clear brain is needed to find refuge in this storm”.

1885-“The law requires an order to buy strychnine; yet whiskey kills ten-thousand where strychnine does one”.

1887-“If we kept a saloon it would be a town. That is the first thing in a new western town”.

1887-“The County of Cass has gone strong for prohibition. Now the saloons will go from Fargo to Moorhead, just across the Red River into Minnesota. I hope the country will soon pass a prohibition law which is the only way to reach one class of drunkards”.

Dakota Magic (or something like that)

There was not a day in her diary that Mary did not at least mention the weather. We all know how dynamic, and frequently crazy, the weather in North Dakota is and it greatly affects life today as well as early life in the territory.

1887-Mary and her family lived through the coldest temperature in recorded history as of 1937.

1888-“Dakota is different in many ways from the country down east. Nobody keeps track of his neighbors here. People come and go; families move in and out, and nobody asks whence they came nor whither they go”.

Early Farming

Mary did not do the hard labor expected of farm hands, like her sons and the many men they hired every season. While she was not directly involved with farm work, Mary knew a good deal about farming, raising animals, and the value of quality goods.

1884-“Dakota is a fine place for vegetables, especially peas. We have great quantities of them. The men are haying, all thirteen of them, and we send their dinners to the fields…Tonight I went out of doors and there, by the corner of the house, stood three tramps. They wanted to sleep in the barn, so Walter took them some blankets…The country is full of men tramping about and begging at farm houses where they stop to hire out”.

1884- The following is an excerpt from a prayer given during a church service, which shows how valuable wheat is to farmers in Dakota. “We know the value of wheat, O Lord, but we pray thee to tell us what we should receive when we deliver it”.

1885-“There is no better market for eggs in America. I think some enterprising people might get rich in this business. Now that wheat is so low, farmers should turn their attention to some other industry”.

1886-“It [mustard] is overrunning the country. The authorities are trying to compel the owners of the land to pull it under the law against noxious weeds. The people have been warned by officers of the law that, if allowed to remain, it would be pulled by the county and a tax put on the land to pay the expense. But we think it will be difficult for the county to enforce the law or collect the tax”.

1885-“Our little nigger cat has been having fits. This is the fifth one that has had them.” “Our cow, Daisy, gives a pailful of milk, and what do you think, we have cream in our coffee!”

1888-p. 243 “I think wheat will rise in price, for there is a shortage everywhere, so the papers say. We have hoped for that change for six years and now that we are about ready to leave, it has come”.

1888-“It’s [butter] thirty-five cents a pound in Fargo”.

Crime and Native Americans

Mary’s writing on crime seems to be merely reporting. She does not have much of an opinion on crime except the Louis Riel execution, which she believes will not end the Metis insurrection.

1884-“The Fargo Argus reports that an unknown man tried to assassinate Sitting Bull Wednesday evening in St. Paul as he left the Opera House. The motive is thought to be revenge and the would-be assassin is supposed to be a relative of one of the Custer Massacre victims. The frontiersmen are disgusted with the way the old Indian is being lionized. People say he would lead his braves on the warpath at the slightest provocation, scattering murder and rapine wherever he left”.

1885-“We have just heard that the man who was murdered in the car of wheat was a Norwegian from Tower City who had just sold his claim for $1,000. Part of the money was paid him in gold, which the murderer must have taken from his pockets”.

1885-“I supposed Louis Riel was hanged today in Canada; but I am afraid that will not end the insurrection”.

Passing Time

Without a television or a radio to pass time, life on the farm must have been pretty boring at times. Mary mentions in many entries about various books she and her children are reading at night after a hard day’s work. She also mentions in passing other ways the girls and boys on the farm pass time.

1884-“The girls are sewing, crocheting, ironing, and visiting, and so passing the time which is very pleasant to me. Evenings they make molasses candy and invite in the farm hands”.


Mary has a little more to say about politics in the country as well as Dakota, especially when the question of a liquor license was raised in Cass County. She also mentions the unkind remarks made by the candidates for Sheriff; just goes to show that not much has changed since 1886 in terms of politics and mudslinging.

1884-“Today is the great national election and what a lot of excitement will prevail over all the land! The boys have gone to Fargo where they will remain in the theatre to hear the election bulletins read”.

1885-“A book agent called with The Lives of Cleveland and Hendricks. We will wait until their term at Washington expires before we buy, as we might possibly be ashamed of them”.

1886-“There has been great excitement in Cass County over the election of a sheriff. Part of our men are for Benson and part, for Haggart. I shall be glad when the election is over for the papers teem with the meanness of each candidate. One would think they ought to be hanged instead of elected to a responsible office”.

1888-“Cleveland was nominated for president on the sixth, and Thurman for vice president on the seventh at the St. Louis convention. (I wrote the above in the dark. I am not sure but that it is an improvement)”.

1888-“Fred has gone to Mapleton to election. He wishes he were out of the territory so that he could vote for Cleveland. The liquor license question is the greatest subject of controversy here now”.

School Days

Remember when grandparents used to talk about walking to school when they were little? “I had to walk two miles to school in a blizzard, uphill both ways” is not very far from some of the truths that Mary talks about in her diary. In addition to tragedies and deaths during blizzards, Mary also talks about courageous acts to save children’s lives.

1884-“The school closed today and there will be no more until spring. Last winter the attendance was so small that it was thought advisable to have no winter school”.

1885-“Katie has twenty scholars in her school” (Woodward 1989, 66).

1887-“The farmers hereabouts have been quarreling over the location of the schoolhouse”.

1888-“Some of the school children stopped here today completely exhausted from the heat. They walk two miles”.

In sickness and in health

Mary’s discussion of sickness in the territory gives a good insight into what people used when they fell ill. She also mentions the lack of sickness in the area since doctors charge a lot of money to go into the country; it might not have been a lack of sickness so much as people refusing to call a doctor when they did get sick.

1884-“I was sick all day yesterday. Walter brought me Cherry Pectoral, Bushe’s German Liniment, two bottles of medicine from the doctor, peppermint brandy; besides oranges, candy, and gum”.

1885-“There are very few sick people in this country. We have not had to call a physician once since we came here which is fortunate as doctors charge a great deal to go into the country”.

Dumb Laws

Mary mentioned in one of her entries that she was fixing up a dress for Katie, which was prohibited in Oregon; maybe the dress caused pollution and landslides as well.

1885-“in Pendleton, Oregon, that type of costume is prohibited unless worn belted. Bills to that effect have been posted in the town, ladies who violate the ordinance being fined heavily. The alleged reason is that such garments ‘scare horses, cause accidents, and ruin business’”.

Natural Disaster

In addition to blizzards, Mary talked about other natural disasters, like fires and tornadoes in the area. She mentioned a number of people perishing in the winter due to the wind and in the summer due to tornadoes and wildfires. A good number of the people who died from the fire were farmers trying to put out the fire spreading on their fields or into their crop stores.

1885-Mary detailed the effects of a prairie fire around the farms in the area. Some of their wheat was burned but not as badly as on other farms.

1886-“A terrible cyclone in Minnesota which tore the villages of St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids all to pieces, killing about a hundred persons and injuring about two hundred more”.

1886-“The fire started from a spark from a train on the Northern Pacific. I supposed the railroad company will be responsible for the hay burned”.


Mary did not mention many businesses in her diary over the years. This could have been due to the fact that in all of the years Mary lived about 8 miles from Fargo, she rarely went into the city.

1886-Mary wrote in her diary that her children went to see Oliver Dalrymple’s farm. She said he was the farm king of the region and his 28,000 acre farm “is the largest cultivated area under one control in the territory. His crop has been known to exceed 600,000 bushels; and as many as 195 reapers are used to wake the echoes there in harvest”.

1887-Mary mentioned one of the cooks they hired came to them from the “Gay Cook House” in Fargo. She also mentioned he is fat and lazy.


In addition to the excerpt in the politics section about the man selling a book about the lives of Cleveland and Hendricks, Mary wrote about other people coming by to sell goods or just looking for shelter and perhaps a job. The first extract also gives an insight into the relationships between Catholics and Protestants in the area.


Throughout the years in her diary, Mary used poetry to convey emotions and supplement the stories she wrote.

1888-Poem by self, “Oh haste little birdie to some warmer clime, The wind whistles o’er the bleak wold, The stubble is brown and all seared with the rime, Fierce winter is coming, so cold!”

– Brenna Adams, Digital History, 2012

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For more information on Ellen Cooley see “The ‘Boom’ Through the Eyes of Cooley” posted by Murchison on this site.

For more information on Bonanza farms see “Bonanza Farming West of Fargo” posted by Jenna Clawson and “Mary Dodge Woodward” posted by Brenna Adams.


Dodge Woodward, Mary. The Checkered Years: A Bonanza Farm Diary 1884-1888. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.

Peter Elliott


Ad for the Elliot House from the Fargo Forum 1893

Ad for the Elliot House from the Fargo Forum 1893

Peter Elliott was a man who moved to Fargo in April 1893. Before he moved, he worked on a steamboat sailing up and down the Red River, to and from Winnipeg. After his time working on the steamboat, he spent two years working as a surveyor for the United States surveyors. When he relocated to Fargo, he opened a restaurant in the basement of Martin Hector’s building on the corner of Front and Fifth. His restaurant was very popular among the Fargo citizens. In 1882 he leased a massive three story building that was located just to the west side of where the Citizens National Bank was located. Here,  he opened his hotel, “The Elliott House”, and restaurant of the same name. Both the restaurant and hotel grew in popularity within the community. It grew so much in popularity that Peter Elliott had to turn people away nearly every night because both had reached full capacity. When the fire ravaged the city in 1893, it destroyed the building, a loss of approximately $10,000.  The devastation of the fire didn’t keep Elliott down for long. It wasn’t more than five days after the fire and Elliott already had tents set up and was serving food to the distraught citizens of Fargo. Elliott did his best to run a  first class operation, even if it was under canvas. Very quickly he entered an agreement with I.P. Clapp to invest in the Syndicate Block. He had a two story structure built for his new Elliot House. It had offices, a kitchen and multiple dining rooms on the first floor, and hotel apartments up on the top story. The entire building was heated by steam and illuminated by electricity. – Mathias Zastrow, Digital History, 2012

Prairie Progress: An Introduction to the Development of Fargo’s Commercial Center, 1871-1898

View on 500 block, Front Street, Fargo, N.D., Downtown, 1878

Front Street (Main Avenue) showing the City Meat Market, Moore Bros. stationer, Fargo News Depot, George Cooper Harness Shop, and a hardware store in Fargo. Men standing along sidewalk in front of businesses [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000959]

At the heart of nearly any fledgling prairie town of the latter decades of the nineteenth century in the United States lays an arterial business and commercial sector regardless of size or scope.  Without reliable establishments that provide basic services to meet the needs of an early population, growth becomes hamstrung and a town’s future uncertain. Business and commercial enterprises not only dictate the ebb and flow of a town’s economy, but also provide local denizens with access to everyday products and services for sustaining day-to-day activities that contribute to both the sustainability and growth of a prairie town capable of transforming into a city.

As a result, the physical buildings themselves underscore the importance of stable, sustainable, and accessible commercial presence to ensure the long-term viability of a burgeoning city. The architecture, buildings, planning, and development of businesses of early Fargo, North Dakota, therefore played an important role in the city’s original foundation and ascension to becoming the “Gateway to the West” on the Northern Plains with marked success well into present-day.

At the same time, Fargo’s prosperous business-driven economy and expanded growth represents seminal building, commercial, and infrastructural firsts that ultimately reflect the rapid, significant, and visible changes over time and embody the vital elements of a lasting community on often harsh and unforgiving landscape of the Northern Plains.

By following an exhibition of Fargo’s early commercial and infrastructural planning, business development, and construction photographs from 1871 to 1898, a sense of rapid change and significant growth soon emerges as a testament to Fargo’s vitality and successful growth on the Plains.  Despite instances of social, political, economic, and environmental adversity, settlers’ early vision for assertive business and commercial construction helped secure the city’s permanent place on the Northern Plains.