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.

Charles A. Roberts Home, 611 8th St. S.

Charles A. Roberts Home, 611 8th St. S. Image appears in “Fargo’s Heritage” by Norene A. Roberts.

One of Fargo’s grandest old homes, the Charles Roberts House was built in 1884, anchoring the north end of the historic South Eighth Street district. It is an enormous dwelling: it features over 20 rooms and measures in at well over 7,000 square feet. It has a carriage house and a large, picturesque yard. According to architectural historian Ron Ramsey, the Roberts Home is a “truly exuberant piece of architecture, this house in High Victorian Style exhibits the use of spindles, brackets, spikey ornaments, decorative brickwork, high ceilings, and steep roofs.”[1]  Astonishingly, this home was designed not by an architect, but an untrained pioneer woman who also wore many other hats during her lifetime.  Her name was Matilda Roberts, widely regarded among locals of the time as the “most beloved women in Fargo.” [2]While her husband, Charles, was away on railroad business in 1883, Matilda Roberts decided to build a home that would demonstrate her family’s position on Fargo’s social ladder. She designed the house and superintended its construction. She and her boys installed lathing to all 20 rooms, their handiwork still buried under plaster and decades of paint. The brick of the home was taken from the Roberts family brickyard–in fact, it is the same brick that is used in Old Main at NDSU. On the main floor, Matilda designed four large rooms that could be opened into one large meeting area, the floors covered with thick Axminster carpets. The house was filled with mahogany furniture and featured eight fireplaces. According to the Fargo Forum, “The dining room was in polished golden oak. Willie’s room was in blue with a water lily motif… Lee’s red, Tan’s pink, and Matilda’s gray and rose… When Charlie came home, he was even more amazed than usual at his practical wife.” [3]

The 1890s were an exciting time in the Roberts household, for Matilda seemed determined to open her home to any and all social opportunities.  A large ballroom on the third floor was the scene of many parties. Often, Schirrman’s Orchestra would play from the balcony to gathered guests outdoors. The Roberts were generous to the students of the Agricultural College (now NDSU), for their “basement was fitted out as an amusement room, a clubhouse to the young men of the town. There was an $800 billiards table and everything else was on the same scale.” [4] Lawn parties were also very popular at the time. “Chinese lanterns strung from tree to tree, ices in a tent at a smilax trimmed table, an orchestra playing behind the shrubs. Eucre occupied the place that bridge now does and there was always a prize for high score and for lone hand. At one party, the guests had ten minutes to make a buttonhole; a gold thimble went to the best one, a silver to the worst.”  The Roberts were not involved in many social clubs.  However, Mrs. Roberts was instrumental in founding the Fargo YMCA and a ladies’ club called the Quiva Club, which met in her home. [5]

– Zach Jendro, Digital History, 2012

[1] Richardson, Jerry, and Kevin Carvell. “A Walking, Driving, and Horse and Buggy Tour of Historic Fargo” (brochure). Fargo: Fargo Heritage Society, 2011.

[2] “First Citizen of City Passes Early Today”, Fargo Forum, June 27, 1934.

[3] Owen, Ida Mae. “Roberts’ Fortunes at High Tide”, Fargo Forum, February 20, 1930.

[4] Owen, Ida Mae. “Fargo Rivals Reno in Early ’90s”, Fargo Forum, February 21, 1930.

[5] Ibid.

James Holes House, 1230 5th St. N.

James Holes home, circa 1915. Courtesy NDSU Archives, Photo 2093.40.26.

The James Holes House is built in a style that was popular in the 1870’s called Italianate, which drew inspiration from late-16th century Italian architecture. The October 11, 1879 Fargo Times had a detailed write-up about the home, as its grandeur surely was a novelty to the some of the rough-hewn settlers of the prairie.  “One of the handsomest and most conveniently arranged residences in Dakota Territory. The building is of brick, laid in double walls, with a three inch air space in between, making the wall 15 inches thick. A beautiful continued rail platform staircase at the end of the spacious hall connects the upper and lower floors. The cellar is an immense affair… containing over 2,300 square feet of space. A 200 barrel cistern in the bottom of the cellar affords an abundant supply of filtered water for the house. The whole affair was superintended by John Pray, formerly of Ogdensburgh, New York, who has had 28 years’ experience in the building of first class residences.” [1] Someone asked Holes why he built such a big house, and he explained, “to catch lots of rain water.”[2]Following the death of James Holes, Sr., in 1916, his children, James Jr., and Marguerite, took over the family business concerns. Marguerite married Charles Finkle, and the farmhouse became the Holes-Finkle House, as it was known for many years in the community. As Fargo grew, Broadway was rerouted, changing the address to its present designation, the 1200 Block of 5th Street.  The house remained in family hands for over one hundred years.  It now stands oddly recessed from the street, remaining proudly among the newer, more modest single-level dwellings of its residential North Fargo neighborhood.

– Zach Jendro, Digital History, 2012

[1] “A Model Residence.” The Fargo Times, October 11, 1879.

[2] Johnson, Roy P. “Pokin’ Around in Your Home Town”, Fargo Forum, February 4, 1964.

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.