Posts Tagged ‘north dakota’

Where’s Ward? 1881.

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Click on this map to see a bigger version.   In 1881, eight years before statehood, this is how the county lines were drawn in north-central North Dakota:

Your first question if you’re familiar with this area is probably  ”Where’s Ward?”    Ward, home to the city of Minot, is one of the most populous counties in the state but just a few years before statehood Minot didn’t show up on maps and the county didn’t exist.

Ward County was created in 1885 and named after the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Counties (how convenient).   Portions of Stevens, Renville and “Mountraille” were merged to create what is today known as “Imperial Ward” County. Imperial Ward was the largest county in the state until 1910 when it was broken up, reforming Mountrail and Renville and adding Burke County to the north, and leaving a much-smaller Ward County to the south.  From the 7/15/1881 Bismarck Tribune.

All That Glitters, 1909

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

One-hundred and five years ago today, a gold miner from California arrived at the doorstep of Herbert Chaffee, the president of the Amenia and Sharon Land Company, in Amenia, ND.  This seventy-something, gray-haired man called himself John Armstrong, and he believed Chaffee to be a long-lost uncle.   Having established their family trees didn’t cross branches, Armstrong brought up a deal that Chaffee couldn’t refuse: a loan with gold held as collateral.   This wasn’t just a few nuggets for a bit of pocket change: Armstrong’s collateral was over a hundred fifty pounds of gold worth $40,000 at the time.  At about 2,000 ounces, this would be over two million dollars of gold at today’s prices, but even at the inflation rate $40,000 is worth over a million 2013 dollars.  Chaffee offered $30,000, but Armstrong played it conservative and insisted that $25,000 was all he needed.

Gold scams have been going on for centuries, as long as people have ascribed a precious desire for the shiny gold metal.  All the gold that has been mined, ever, out of the entire history of mankind, would form a cube about 60 to 80 feet on a side, depending on who you ask.  That’s even accounting for the fact that gold mines are still in operation, and amateurs and professionals alike head down to the river with a pan and high hopes every day.

There’s other ways people intend to get their gold, though, and not on the open market.   The ridges on your coins harken back to days when people shaved off the edges of coins, making them imperceptibly smaller but still appearing to have their full value.  People would put coins in a bag and shake them around, causing a bit of gold dust to get rubbed off; other soaked coins in acid briefly to take a layer off, to be decanted from the corrosive fluid later.

Chaffee tried to head off being scammed: his son, Eben Chaffee, was a gold assayer, so Herbert brought Eben along to Minneapolis to evaluate the old miner’s gold.   The three men went to where the gold was stored, and a drill was used to get a small sample.

Just testing the outside of a bar of gold is the least reliable way of testing it:  gold leaf can be only a few atoms thick and a layer can make a chunk of lead appear to be a solid bar of gold.  Reports of desperate-sounding people peddling 5oz gold bars at malls has relied on this trick.  Scammers bought real bars of gold and filled the centers with a non-precious metal, keeping what they removed and selling the much-smaller amount of gold to gullible customers at full price.    So, you take a core as deep into the gold as you can get, also to make sure that the gold is of a consistent quality throughout and not just quality-gold on the outside.

Armstrong got the names of a few independent, impartial assayers to get the gold tested.  Eben Chaffee made arrangements to purchase some nitric acid, a component of the test for gold content, from an outside source to guarantee accuracy.   The three men took their little shavings to assayer W. H. Harper and had him perform the test.   Harper’s result: the shavings were the highest quality gold, almost completely pure.  The Chaffees cashed a check for $25,000 and gave Armstrong his loan in cash.

It’s no wonder that both Armstrong and Harper disappeared shortly after.

Their scam didn’t rely on adulterating the gold or covering base metals with precious ones.   Armstrong — not his real name — relied on a confidence game.  His story was believable: he, of course, had the name of a reliable assayer; and he was happy to let the Chaffee’s bring whatever testing materials along they liked.   Armstrong knew that once they got to Harper’s office the test was going to show the gold bars to be real gold,and then the Chaffees would be hooked.

Herbert Chaffee was out $25,000, over a million dollars in today’s money, and what he had to show for it was 80 pounds of polished brass.   The Chaffees missed one of the more obvious gold tests:  gold is a very heavy element, and a scale could have quickly identified the scammer’s metal as something other than gold.

And Armstrong, whose real name was so inconsistent in the papers that I’m not even sure which is correct, would have gotten away with Chaffee’s money if he hadn’t gotten caught performing the same scam on a woman in Ohio. Back in his home state of California, Armstrong paid his bail and was left to his own recognizance pending his extradition court appearance.

He missed the trial and a few days later a body washed up on shore.   Armstrong’s wife and a “business associate” were both quick to identify the body as Armstrong’s.  With little other evidence to go on, the case was closed…but police were suspicious at the circumstances of Armstrong’s supposed death.   Both California authorities and the Minneapolis detectives sent to extradite Armstrong believe it wasn’t the old “miner’s” body.  It was one last switcheroo, brass switched for gold, to let the con man get away.

Secession And The US

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

That cool cat up there is “Wild Bill” Langer, voting in the 1940 election that would send Mr. Langer to Washington.    Nothing was ever easy for William Langer: when he got to Washington, Congress refused to seat him.  They cited a history of lawbreaking, bribery, an attempt to secede from the United States, felonies, and general ethical shortcomings as reasons why he was unfit to be a Senator.

Wait, back up a bit:  sedition?  Yup, as you’ll hear in my Dakota Datebook for today, Langer decided nobody was going to remove him from office, so he called out the National Guard and proclaimed that North Dakota had declared independence.   His intentions are a bit clearer when you combine the two; just signing a Declaration of Independence for political reasons isn’t all that remarkable.   However, Langer claimed he called in the National Guard because of protestors around the capitol grounds.  His executive order, however, covered the entire state.   When the leaders of a developing nation, fearing a coup through the courts, call out the military, declare martial law, and issue a declaration of independence, the international news starts to declare either fascism or rebellion.

In Langer’s case, all was forgotten the next day.   Even the Congressional records of his Senate hearings only briefly cover his Declaration of Independence.  The biography The Dakota Maverick barely mentions the event.  It’s almost like people would rather forget that Langer got that close to really following through on his intentions.

Whenever the U.S. has been heavily divided politically, the secessionists come out of the woodwork.  There are currently a number of active secessionist movements operating in the U.S., from Hawaiian royalty to white supremacists to Native Americans.  Some of it is honest interest in establishing an independent nation, but much of it is rhetoric to emphasize how important a policy or stance is to the group.   They believe in their position so much they are willing to leave the United States to prove how important it is.

In this way, Langer was late to the came with secessionist talk.   Two years earlier, North Dakota state senator William Martin passed a resolution to advocate for secession — not just North Dakota, but a huge chunk of the west.   His motivation was due to percieved abuse by Eastern financial interests of the poor western farmer, who had been hard hit by the Depression and hadn’t recovered despite the banking industry’s rebound (sound familiar?).   Here’s what Martin’s US would look like:

This is pretty clearly more about making a point than creating a functioning nation;  Martin knew it, and when the national news started calling his motion sedition, he downplayed it as rhetoric.   Martin’s archives at the State Historical Society are almost 100% letters of support from around the U.S., thanking him for pushing his opinion through a secessionist statement, because people stood up and paid attention.

The difference between Martin’s secessionist motion, or the micronation movements, or actual seditionists, is the lack of power.   Few have any actual position of power to actually put secession into motion.  They need a leader, with financial and military power, to back their separation.

This is why Langer’s secession should have been more terrifying than any other secessionist movement:  Langer had a vibrant set of followers in his wing of the Non-Partisan League; he had power over the National Guard and support form the leaders in the Guard; the Bank of North Dakota and the State Elevator both put the state itself in a position of economic power.    When Langer and his followers signed the Declaration of Independence, the Supreme Court hadn’t yet filed their motion to remove Langer from office.  ”Wild Bill” Langer was entirely in power, with all of his assets and support, when he declared independence.    Of all the United States secessionist movements that have gotten close to actually getting their way, Langer did them one better:  he actually had the power to execute it and then actually did it.

Amenia, ND, 1880s.

Monday, July 15th, 2013

If you head north on Highway 18 from Casselton, on your way to Arthur and Hunter, you’ll pass by the little town of Amenia.  You might not even notice it: the highway takes a bend to the east, and a thick shelterbelt blocks the view of town, other than the grain elevator peeking over the trees like a giant on patrol.

Eben Chafee was an old man when his family contributed a large chunk of money to what would become the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.   The investment group had bought railroad shares, which hadn’t done well in the 1870s, and they cashed in their stock to reinvest in something else West-related.   Rather than trains, the group bought land in Cass County, North Dakota, and send ‘ol Eben west to run the place.

Most of the other “bonanza” farms were merely owners, not farmers; the investors managed inventory and land and workers, but land was leased out, or crops were grown on a cost-sharing method, so there wasn’t a whole lot of tools lifted by the full owners of a bonanza farm.    Chaffee saw things differently:  sure, it was a lot of work to grow crops, and labor was expensive, but Chafee knew that the fertile land of North Dakota could be very profitable if the Amenia and Sharon Land Company controlled everything, from seed to trains.

They attempted to build their own rail line, but not much came of it; the big railroad companies were happy to run rail lines themselves where needed.   Everything else, though, Chaffee build himself: a network of grain elevators, towns full of general stores and blacksmiths and gas stations and hotels, everything needed to support an army of farmers hired to work the land for the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.

The company existed until the 1920s, well past the age of the bonanza farm, but the towns Chaffee built are still there.   Amenia may not be much today, less than a hundred residents on the census, but in its day the town was a industrial hub, providing a valuable service to hundreds of farmers, all for the profit of the Amenia and Sharon Land Company.

The town might not be visible, but Amenia was where this photo was taken — which was immortalized on a two-cent stamp commissioned for the 1891 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.   The stamp shows Chaffee’s farmers working the land with a massive horse teams all lined up.   This stamp bent the rules a bit: only in the past years have US Postal Service rules allowed for a living person to appear on a postage stamp.     In the “Farming in the West” stamp, however, it was quite certain that there were at least a couple of the people in the photo still living when the stamp was released.   Although the town of Amenia might not have the value it once did, the “Farming in the West” stamp still holds value to stamp collectors.

Learn more about Chaffee and the founding of Amenia in the Dakota Datebook story I filed for today.

Footbridge over the Sheyenne River

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Armour & Company, W. Fargo; January 8, 1938; Footbridge.” from 8×10 photo. (more here)

Leatherheads: North Dakota High School Football, 1930s

Friday, April 4th, 2008


Yeah, you could consider this a tie-in to the new movie Leatherheads (opening today across the country!), but it’s as good an excuse as any to show an old movie of leather-helmeted football I own. The video linked above was part of a very small film-reel from the late 1920s or early 1930s; it couldn’t be any earlier, because the buildings depicted weren’t around before 1927. The first 80% of the film is an Armistice Day parade, which, of course, sets the date as November 11th. The last few minutes of the film, however, shows the Fargo-Grand Forks football game that evening, held on NDSU’s football field. Not much is shown, however it’s probably the oldest movie of North Dakota high school football on the internet. Sure, it doesn’t have any George Clooney, but it’s real high school football, the way it once was: full of bruised faces.

Little Eddie Schafer and His Dad

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Eddie” over there on the right, has a tough road ahead of him — despite his shaggy appearance and obese lapels, he’s got big shoes to fill. His dad, a prominent North Dakota businessman, had appointed Eddie to be his successor in taking over the family business. How do you think Eddie did? Would a guy named “Eddie” ever do well in any career other than car sales or running a pawn shop?

As president of Gold Seal, Eddie was in charge of the Mr. Bubble fortune, but it didn’t take long to drop the childish suffix. Harold Schafer’s son, now just “Ed Schafer”, went on to be North Dakota’s governor for most of the nineties — only 11 years after this photo was taken. He remained politically active after his term, and just recently George W Bush appointed Schafer to the position of Secretary of Agriculture. Here, have a look at Eddie today: he’s come a long way from a goofy smile and gingham dress-shirts.

Armour Stockyards, West Fargo ND, 1938

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

More of the Scenic Red River Valley of the North — about the same time period as yesterday’s photo, but from one of the tallest structures for quite some distance, the water tower at the Armour Processing Plant in West Fargo, North Dakota. This view is of the stockyards — each of those tiny dots in the distance is a hereford. See anything else between here and the horizon? I didn’t think so. Snow and nothingness as far as the eye can see. It’s the desert and the ocean all rolled into one, but it doesn’t have nearly as many poems written about it.

Stay At The Auto-House

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

This funny little tin house is a throwback to an earlier time — one before houses were automatically assigned a wide-open, roofed, cement-floored siamese twin known as a ‘garage’. When people started buying cars they needed someplace to put them, and one of the competitors in the ‘automobile storage kit’ was the Rusk Auto-House, an overtly-fancy steel shed that owes its beauty to its Fargo-based manufacturer: a producer of embossed tin ceilings and copper cornices. Sadly, the metal shortages of the World Wars put an end to tin ceilings, copper cornices, and, as you might guess, stylish little steel car-homes.