Fargo Churches: Then and Now

This slideshow features historic photographs of several of the churches of Fargo, accompanied by recent photographs, which allow for side-by-side comparison. The recent photographs were taken by Scott Becklund in 2012. Mr. Becklund attempted to recreate the original location and angle of the archival photographs. Most of the churches retain some of their original character, while some have been demolished.[divider scroll]

1. Elim Lutheran Church- 321 9th Street North. (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Elim Lutheran Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

2. First Congregational Church- 224 8th Street South.  (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Site of former First Congregational Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund. None of the original structure remains. It was demolished in 1979.

3. First Presbyterian Church-  650 2nd Avenue North.  (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) First Presbyterian Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

4. Gethsemane Episcopal Church-  204 9th Street South.  (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Site of former Gethsemane Episcopal Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund. The cathedral burned beyond repair in 1989.

5. Grace Lutheran Church- 821 5th Avenue South. (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Grace Lutheran Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

6. Methodist Episcopal Church- 906 1st Avenue South. (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) First United Methodist Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

7. Plymouth Congregational Church- 901 Broadway North.  (Left) Photo Mss 48.1.25, courtesy of NDSU Archives. Taken c. 1920. (Right) Plymouth Congregational Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

8. Pontoppidan Lutheran Church- 309 4th Street North. (Left) Photo taken from Clara Byers’ Scrapbook, 1937, courtesy of NDSU Archives. (Right) Pontoppidan Luthean Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

9. St. Mark’s English Lutheran Church- 400 Roberts Street. (Left) Photo taken from NDSU Libraries (http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/churches/st-marks-eng-luth.htm). (Right) Site of former St. Mark’s Church. Building was demolished, c. 2000. Photograph by Scott Becklund, 2012.

10. St. Mary’s Catholic Church-  619 7th Street North. (Left) Photo 2023.M-4, courtesy of NDSU Archives. Taken c. 1935. (Right) St. Mary’s Cathedral, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

11. Swedish Baptist Church- 300 4th Street North. (Left) Photo taken from NDSU Libraries (http://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/churches/swede-bap.htm). (Right) Site of former Swedish Baptist Church. Photograph by Scott Becklund, 2012.

12. Unitarian Universalist Church- 121 9th Street South.  (Left) Photo 2003.2.3, courtesy of NDSU Archives. Taken c. 1935. (Right) Unitarian Universalist Church, 2012. Taken by Scott Becklund.

-Zach Jendro, Digital History 2012


Introduction to the Churches of Fargo

If you were to ask several Fargoans to describe what role religion has in the city today, it is safe to say that you would get a variety of answers.  When Fargo was established in 1872, the railroad began to connect the Wild West with the social and economic systems that were prevalent in the East.  To determine the religious feelings at the time and the role they played in Fargo, it is important to address several individuals and organizations that shaped the city from its very beginnings to the end of our period of study. During these 28 years, Fargo’s religious life grows significantly even from the first church service that was held down in “the timbers” and offered free whiskey to those who attended.  In 1900 we leave off with the completion of St. Mary’s Cathedral, an edifice that even non-Catholic Fargoans take pride in.  In all of this growth, Carrol Engelhardt’s argument for middle-class moral dominance is evidenced in Fargo’s religious development. Traces of this influence can be seen in nearly every social and religious organization.[1]  All in all, the clashes between different cultures and classes created a diverse religious profile that would be the foundation of future religious and social development.Brief History_01

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[1] Engelhardt, Carroll L, Gateway to the Northern Plains Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 157.

The First Methodist Church, 1874

The First Methodist Church, 1909

The First Methodist Church, pictured here in 1909, was preceded by the congregation’s original building constructed in 1874 [Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota]

First, this picture of the First Methodist Church indicates that it was built in a dense growth of older trees.  This would indicate that it was taken close to water and not deep into the prairie.  Therefore, there was no retreat for the early settlers of Fargo if faced with outside threats.

Next, the windows are exposed and remarkably made of stained glass.  Not only were the new settlers resilient, but they showed that they had less common resources like stained glass.

This picture also indicates that many church builders chose structures with wood frames and concrete footings and were not primitive; they even used mortar and expensive brick. For example, the First Methodist Church (pictured above) located on Broadway represents a religious building with a steeple and the entrance is on the right front side of the exterior.

Also, the attention to detail at this time in history shows how fast the growth escalated and progressed.  According to the photograph, communication lines are running, thereby demonstrating a significant measure of growth within a relatively short period of time.

Knowing that from 1871 to the date of this 1909 picture, the  38 years from rail and working treaties, it is obvious that the progress of making the small prairie tent city to one that now holds such infrastructure such as concrete and brick facades and a diversity of churches is quite a remarkable feat.  The city of Fargo by 1909 was full of bustling populations and advanced architecture of brick churches highlighted congregations’ dedication to their individual heritage and the diverse backgrounds in the growing city.First United Methodist scott_01

Rusty Ouart, Digital History 2012

Introduction to Religion and Architecture in the Community, 1880-1910

The Red River Valley boom began in the 1880s. Heavy immigration, mostly of Scandinavians, Poles, Bohemians, and German-Russians, helped first populate the area. The migration demographics of the West were shaped by the Red River tributary that ran through the Minnesota and North Dakota valley and railroad lines to the newly formed area that we know as Fargo. With the migration of people came the expansion of religion and customs; many practices and backgrounds came to the communities that were taking permanent form.

Quickly, the railroad crossed into the Fargo area and two small communities surfaced on the landscape west of the river. Each community soon acquired the local names of “Fargo in the Timber,” located on the banks of the river, and “Fargo on the Prairie,” which was nothing more then a tent city built upon the present-day Main Avenue locale. Ironically, it was the tent city where United States Army officers accompanied railroad surveyors and their families. Many historic calculations estimated that this tent city consisted of about 100 people who lived in approximately 50 tents total.

Fargo’s early ethnic migration helped establish “Old World” or traditional religion. Those different practices and places of worship help with the understanding of how each brought together individual religious enclaves into a larger community of devoted settlers.

As one might expect, the area was home to many Native Americans before the arrival of European immigrants and Euro-American migrants.  The early exploration of the Red River Valley also brought in migration from Norway, Sweden, and France. Therefore, a great deal of heritage was concentrated within the confines of Fargo and many religions naturally began as migration of the ethnic groups continued to  grow.

Additionally, the new settlements also included many other sectors of ethnic diversity that many might not expect on the prairie, among them Russian Ukrainians, Asians, African Americans and Arabs. The working railroad greatly facilitated the new and diverse people who came through Fargo.

The significance of so many immigrants brought diversity, but by the year 1885, many of the immigrants were Russian-German. Still, the census and other records of population growth proved that by 1915 over 79 percent of North Dakota’s overall population consisted of immigrants and their offspring.

This composite of the churches that arose in the period of 1890 – 1900 helps to  better understand how the different ethnicity brought a different flavor to the landscape of Fargo.

Churches of Fargo North Dakota and the Diversity of Religion, 1890-1910

Churches of Fargo North Dakota and the Diversity of Religion [Courtesy off the North Dakota State University Archives]

This picture was taken of the churches in the time around 1890-1910. It indicates that during this time, the facades showed there were skilled craftsman in Fargo’s early settlement period. Each of the churches found seems to have a brick facade. The churches appearing in on this photograph are Gethsemane Episcopal Church,   First Congregational Church, First Norwegian Baptist Church, Robert Street German Evangelical Church, and the Broadway Methodist Episcopal Church, all of which represent the religious diversity in the new settlement called Fargo.

The photographs of the churches also bring out many details that often not noticed when first viewing a vintage photograph, but after a little bit of time spent reading and fact finding, it is the unseen that speaks the loudest when you examine a picture and consider its historical context.

Please click here to be linked to a slideshow featuring Fargo’s churches.

Rusty Ouart, Digital History 2012

First United Methodist

members of Methodist Church photo

This is a photo of some charter members of the First United Methodist Church.


In 1871, Father James Gurley held the first formal Methodist service in Fargo in Pinkham Hall at the corner of Main Avenue and 5th Street.  However, it was the Rev. John Webb who organized the first Methodist Sunday school and helped to build the first Methodist Episcopal Church.  The land for the church was donated by the Northern Pacific Railway and was 30′ x 50′.  It was completed on July 1, 1874, at a cost of $1,200 and was chartered 19 days later.[1]First United Methodist scott_01

First Methodist church exterior photo

The exterior of First Methodist Church.

First Methodist Church interior church

The interior of First Methodist Church.

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] First United Methodist Church. “Our History”. web. Oct. 30, 2012.

Plymouth Congregational Church

Plymouth Congregational Church photo

 On April 25, 1885 the Plymouth Congregational Church was organized by Revered William Ewing.  The congregation had 10-12 original members, but by 1893 it had grown to 50 members with Reverend A.H. Tebbets as its pastor.  Reverend O.C. Clark built the first church on Ninth Ave North near Tenth Street, but the building was moved to the west side of Broadway between 8th ave and 9th ave in 1884. That building was blown down on July 7, 1980 by a gale.  The church was rebuilt again at a cost of $3000 and was dedicated on December 21, 1890.  [1]Plymouth Congregational_01

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/churches/plymouth-cong.htm>

First Norwegian Lutheran Church

Norwegian Lutheran Church photo

A group of Norwegian immigrants settled in the Fargo-Moorhead area in 1871.  Many of them were living in tents located in the river town district.  The first service for this group was held on October 4, 1872 by Rev. Niels T. Ylvisaker in a Moorhead home.  The congregation named itself Moorhead Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation at that time and built their first church in 1874.  They were forced to sell the building because of the financial hardship it caused and rent meeting facilities in Fargo.  They changed their name another three times before landing on the current name.  The congregation was finally able to build another church in 1895 on the corner of Roberts Street and Fourth Avenue North for $14,000.  At this time their membership had grown from 31 to 283 people.[1]First LutheranChurch

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] First Lutheran Church. “History” 2009. web. Oct. 30, 2012  <http://www.flcfargo.org/aboutus/history>

The Swedish Baptist Church

Swedish Baptist church photoThe First Scandinavian Church was founded in 1883.  It held its services in Norwegian.  The Swedish population left the church because of the language used for services and formed their own church on August 1, 1891: the Swedish Baptist Church.   The members of the Swedish church were A.J. Solestrom and his wife, Nels Johnson and his wife, Mrs. Anderson and her two children, Charles Wiklund and his wife, Lars Loren, Annie Nelson, and C.A. Hedlund.  Before a church could be built, the members met in a building that had once been a saloon. Unfortunately, before the first church could be used it was destroyed by the fire of 1893.  By that time, they had 60 members and the pastor was ON Lind.  They rebuilt the church for a cost of $5000 and it was located on the northwest corner of Third Avenue and Fourth Street North.[1]SwedishBaptistChurch_01

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/churches/swede-bap.htm>


First Baptist Church

First Baptist Church was organized on January 27, 1879 by 26 people who were meeting at Chapin’s Gall on NP Avenue.  Their first pastor was a supply pastor, Rev. George Vosburgh, who only stayed for a few months.  The church was incorporated on July 20, 1881 and a new building started in the summer of 1881.[1]First Baptist Church photo  Many involved in the divorce rush during the early 1890’s found a home at the church because of “the eloquence of Rev. Cook and the musical ability of his wife who directed the choir.”  When the topic of divorce came up in a sermon, the temporary members seemed to give little notice and still continued to attend the church.

Many involved in divorce rush during the early 1890’s found a home at the church because of “the eloquence of Rev. Cook and the musical ability of his wife who directed the choir.”  When the topic of divorce came up in a sermon, the temporary members seemed to give little notice and still continued to attend the church.[2]FirstBaptist_01

Heather Brinkman, Digital History 2012

[1] First Baptist Church. “Our Church Over the Years.”  Web. 30 Oct. 2012. <http://firstbaptistfargo.tripod.com/history.html>
[2] First Baptist Church, Fargo, N.D. 1978. History of First Baptist Church, Fargo, North Dakota, 1879-1979. Fargo, N.D.: The Church.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church

On May 30th, 1899, St. Mary’s Victorian Gothic cathedral was dedicated.  It is located at 619 7th Street North.  The cathedral’s tower is 172 tall and houses the sole bell of the church.  This is the church built by Fargo’s first bishop, bishop Shanley.[1]St. Mary's Catholic Church photo

St. Marys_01

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/churches/st-marys.htm>.

Fargo Hebrew Congregation

Fargo Hebrew Congregation photo

Photo of Fargo Hebrew Congregation’s synagogue from page 68 of Images of America Fargo North Dakota 1870-1940 by David B. Danbom and Claire Strom.

Lesk family photo

Rabbi David Lesk and his wife, Chaye Lesk, with their son Ben.

While there is little information on the Fargo Hebrew Congregation, it was the first Orthodox Jewish temple in Fargo. On July 6, 1886 William Giles, Abraham Rubel, and David Mezirow incorporated the temple, however it did not open its doors until 1906 and it took two years to complete the building.  The synagogue was built across from Island Park on First Street. Until it opened, the congregation held services in their homes.  The rabbi was David Lesk, who also provided services to smaller settlements in the area.  One possible reason for the lack of information regarding this original temple is the fact that later in its history there was a split within the congregation between those that were Orthodox and Reformists, as well as the fact that the temple is no longer in use.[1][2]


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/churches/fargo-hebrew-cong.htm>.


[2] Bizapedia.com. “FARGO HEBREW CONGREGATION OF THE CITY OF FARGO IN THE STATE OF NORTH                 DAKOTA.” Bizapedia.com. N.p., 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.              <http://www.bizapedia.com/nd/FARGO-HEBREW-CONGREGATION-OF-THE-CITY-OF-FARGO-IN-   THE-STATE-OF-NORTH-DAKOTA.html>.


Mary Dodge Woodward speaks

Mary Dodge Woodward

Mary Dodge Woodward

Listen to Ms. Woodward, as narrated by Dr. Ineke Justitz, by clicking the play button below.

Mary Dodge Woodward speaks

Mary Dodge Woodward was well informed for someone living in the isolated Dakota territory. In the two excerpts read by Dr. Justitz, Mary discusses the weather in the Dakota territory and the surrounding environment as well as solicitations and politics. She mentions the grain elevators resembling Bartholdi’s statue; Bartholdi’s statue was in fact the Statue of Liberty before it was officially named. In the second excerpt, Mary mentions the nomination of Harrison for President and Morton for Vice President in 1888; she made a reference to getting “some Tippecanoe in it” referring to the battle of Tippecanoe in which William Henry Harrison (the grandfather of the nominated Harrison Mary mentioned) was lauded as a hero.

Special thanks to Dr. Ineke Justitz at North Dakota State University for being the voice of Mary Dodge Woodward.

Brenna Adams, Digital History 2012

Fargo’s First Christmas Tree

Fargo’s First Christmas Tree


In 1873 the people of Fargo went to church services in Moorhead as a church had

not been established.  As the people of Fargo believed that the Christmas tree

being planned for in Moorhead was more for the children of that church they

decided to have their own.  Two trees were sent for but were stolen mid route.  It

was decided that the men from Moorhead that were suspected of stealing the trees

would be hung in effigy so the next morning the bridge for the red river was

decorated with what looked like dead men.  The next night the trees were returned

and money raised for the decoration of the trees and presents for all of the local

children under the age of fourteen.  Each child under the age of fourteen also

received a silver coin that had a hole punched in the center of it so that it could be

hung on the tree.  You can read the account given to The Record in 1896 here.[1]

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/other/firstchristmastree.htm>


Jewish Women

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     “Jewish women played important religious roles in the home. There they were responsible for upholding all religious laws that involved keeping kosher.  They helped their Jewish neighbors through tzedakah (righteous acts), such as providing a Sabbath dinner for a poor family and working in benevolent societies called khevres.”


~ Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest

The domestic sphere was the responsibility of the women within the Jewish community, and this included child rearing and keeping a kosher home.  Women had to make sure that the food they were buying did not contain food that was treyf, or unfit to eat.  This meant making sure that all meat was butchered according to the church’s regulations and was kosher.  They also had to read labels on the food that they purchased to make sure that it did not contain any foods that were tabooed by the church.  The women were required to have two separate sets of dishware, one for fleishig, or meat, and one for milchig, or dairy.  These dishes normally sat if different locations within the cabinets and had different patterns.

“My parents got tired of eating potatoes, and prairie dogs weren’t kosher.”

   ~Isadore Pitts, oral history, 1974. Courtesy of the South Dakota Oral History Project, University of South Dakota.

While women in the Jewish community were responsible for the domestic sphere, they also had responsibilities to the community through work within the synagogue, charities, and work outside of the home.  There is a Jewish law that states that women cannot be managed by a man other than her husband so working outside of the home was limited.  The first women to immigrate to the Fargo area typically either were seamstresses or went into business alongside their husbands.  However, some women took in boarders and/or helped their husband with farming responsibilities.  Second generation women tended to be more educated and took jobs as social workers, teachers, and bookkeepers.

– Heather Brinkman, 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.