Music in Early Fargo

There were a significant number of thespians, musicians, and other artistic entertainers in Fargo between 1880 and the 1893 destruction.  Music and theater entertainment appears to have been a substantial industry in Fargo.  In 1888, according to the directory there were at least two music stores operating in Fargo.[1]  In addition to this, most theaters ran six nights per week and also had daily rehearsals.  The Vaudevillian theaters employed 458 individuals between 1885 and 1887, alone.[2]  Most of the performers of Fargo came through on short contracts or with traveling troupes.  Aside from traveling troupes, Fargo also had professional bands and orchestras which were permanently established in Fargo during this time.

The Union Orchestra was an example of such a group.  It was arranged in 1889 and led by C.W. Simmons until 1882; when Steven Braun, a music teacher and director, took over.  The group was comprised of violinists, a viola, a bass, a flue, two clarinets, two coronets, a trombone, drums and traps, a piano, along with the director and conductors.  Its members included A.M. Vorhees, G.C. Grafton, E. R. Wright, George Holgate, W.D. Allen, C.A. Douglas, R.C Henry, W. F. Cramer, B. C. Holes, H. L. Babst, T. A. Evans, William Hart, and C.W. Simmons.

There was also the Union Band which was a brass band with positions held by many players from the union orchestra and was also under the direction of Steven Braun.  Instruments included clarinets, saxophones, cornets, trombones, euphoniums, bass, and drums.  The presence of a drum major indicates that this was also a marching band in addition to a brass band.  The members included Herman Leushch, C.A. Douglas, R.C. Henry, W.D. Allen, J.F. Treat, W.F Cramer, H. Rud, B.C. Holes, George Holgate, Charles Beck, L. Lensrud, C.W. Simmons, Fred Irish H. L. Babst, E.R. Wright, Mark Ramer, P.A. Evans, P. Sloan, and William Hart as the drum major.

Another was Rupert’s Orchestra which was organized by A. O Rupert, a violinist.  It contained instruments such as cornets, two violins, and a bass.  It had a membership of four.  It later expanded to become known as the Fargo Orchestra and included instruments such as the flute, the piano, drums, and a trombone.  Its members included Mr. Rupert, A.j. Schirrmann, E.R. Wright, A.V. du Vall, H. Leusch, J.H. Rupert, Arthur Walves, W.A. Stickley, H.A. Lensrud, C.G. Baernstein, and James Butts.[3]

-Valerie Tescher


[1] Fargo City Directory. Fargo, ND: City of Fargo, 1891. 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.

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

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.