Dakota Datebook

Dr. Grassi…Santa Claus

by Merry Helm

December 24, 2018 — James Grassick started his career as a physician in Buxton in 1885. Among his many interests were Indian lore and archaeology – you might remember that he once owned the Highgate mastodon that now resides in the ND Heritage Center in Bismarck. He also enjoyed writing, and each year, he put together handsome booklets for his friends for Christmas. In one of these, he wrote of a special Christmas Eve he experienced back in the horse and buggy days. It was after nightfall when the good doctor was called to attend a woman in labor in a remote settler’s home.

“The wind was blowing briskly, the air crisp, the sledding heavy and the snow falling thickly,” he wrote. “It was time for anyone that was out to seek shelter, for everything indicated an approaching storm, and that, for a benighted traveler on a trackless and treeless prairie, was enough to make the bravest think of home, wife and kiddies. But our good Doctor,” he wrote, “was used to such conditions, they were in the line of his calling. He had faced storms before…”

Dr. Grassick soon found the trip tough going. “It was now quite dark,” he wrote, “the stars were hid, and all sense of direction was gone except what could be learned from the wind. The prairie trail was obliterated…”

Grassick thought he finally spotted a light in the distance, but his eyes were playing tricks on him.

“The snow, charged with icy particles came down more thickly,” he wrote, “the biting wind increased in velocity, the cold became more intense and our traveler was beginning to feel its effects in lessened willpower and benumbed sensibilities…”

When Grassick felt himself giving up, he let up on the reins, and his horses instinctively moved toward safety. Finally, they stopped in the shelter of a haystack, and the doctor looked around to get his bearings. When the snow lifted for a few seconds, he made out the dim outline of a sod shanty and made a dash for it. It turned out to be the home of his patient.

Inside, two small children, Betty and Bobbie, thought he was Santa Claus and were disappointed he wasn’t bearing presents. Grassick comforted them and went in to see their mother. “As midnight approached,” he wrote, “it became evident that a visit from Santa was a certainty and just as the clock struck twelve a terrific swirl of the wind made the rafters creak and the pane of the little window rattle; but these sounds were only the prattle of tiny feet as Santa’s coursers mounted the roof on their way to the chimney…”

“And within,” he continued, “stood Grandma with her outstretched apron ready to receive the parcel as she had often done before. She evidently was not disappointed for in the fullness of her heart she cried out excitedly, ‘Look here! What is this?’ and there, sure enough in her lap lay two little pink, plump, pulsating parcels.” A boy and a girl.

Grandma had clothing for only one baby, so Dr. Grassick spread his heavy coonskin coat before the fire and wrapped the newborn twins in it. There was no thought of heading back to town.

“The sun came up without a fleck to mar its brightness,” Grassick wrote, “a million diamond points sparkling in its course. Soon the news of Santa’s storm journey, and of the gifts he had left for Betty and Bobbie, were known in the settlement, and they were not long wanting in clothes for the two infants, for the good ladies of the neighborhood soon provided the needful. And the Doctor’s coat was thus released from its mission of Christmas helpfulness.”

Ringing the Bells

by Merry Helm

December 25, 2018 — In 1974, Walsh County resident Kenneth Johnson began a tradition of ringing Trinity Lutheran’s bells each Christmas. The 114-year-old prairie church had closed its doors in 1953, but the congregation continues to take good care of the building.

Johnson’s tradition started because of Nelly Almen, a local who had moved to California. In 1974, she sent a gift to help with the building’s upkeep and wrote that on Christmas, she would listen in her mind for the bells. That Christmas Eve, Johnson called her on his mobile phone so she could hear him ring the bells, and now his son and grandson help carry on the tradition. Bernice Hall is one of about 20 who have received these calls. “I get a lump in my throat, listening to it,” she said. “I wonder if the people doing it realize how much it means to us who are away.”

Hope’s Midnight Raid

by Merry Helm

December 27 2018 — Cooperstown and Hope were once in the same county – Griggs – which was established by the Territorial Legislature in 1881. But that wasn’t to last.

Mr. Edward Steele founded the town of Hope on the east side of the Sheyenne River and named it after his wife. Governor Nehemiah Ordway declared Hope the county seat in the summer of 1882, because it was already a thriving little community and – well – it was also the county’s only town. The commissioners began meeting in the impressive Hope House Hotel in June of that year.

Meanwhile, Rollin Cooper, a bonanza farmer, registered a plat for a new town on the other side of the Sheyenne just weeks before the first county elections. Cooper wanted the county seat moved to his new town, which at that point consisted of one building – a granary that housed three carpenters who were building the Dakota House, a boarding house to rival the Hope House.

Moving the county seat was a bitterly contested issue by November 7. Election fraud was rampant on both sides. Railroad crews were paid to vote, whiskey was flowing, and people voted several times by changing hats and casting their ballots at different polling spots.

Almost every official who won that election lived near the Cooper brothers’ farm, and Cooperstown was named the new county seat. Before anybody could get to Valley City to ask for an injunction, the Cooper boys took possession of the county records and handed them over to William Glass, one of the carpenters living in Cooper’s granary.

“When the records were brought from Hope, I was made deputy register of deeds and placed in charge of them,” Glass later wrote. “John Houghton and Allan Pinkerton, (my fellow carpenters) slept in my ‘office,’ because they had no other place on the town site to occupy, and besides, they were counted on to assist me in holding the records in case an attempt should be made to steal them… It was cold and we all slept on the floor under loads of blankets.”

Glass asked for more protection than the “25 cent lock” they had on the granary door, but he was assured they wouldn’t have any trouble. The exact date has been lost, but it was near the end of December that the carpenters were put to the test.

“When they came we were asleep,” wrote Glass. “They went through that door with one little push and were right on top of us in a second. They lit our lamp and I saw that every one of that dozen raiders had a gun in his hand, while ours were hanging on the walls. They soon had the records carried to their sleighs and then ordered us to dress and accompany them as far as the Sheyenne River, presumably so we could be delayed in sounding an alarm. We all refused to dress and go. They tried force, but after the stove and table had been overturned and the place thoroughly wrecked, they left, taking our guns with them.”

The midnight raiders hid the records in a bin of oats and then sent them to Minneapolis for safekeeping. A few weeks later, Steele and Cooper came to an understanding, and the records were given back to Cooperstown. Griggs County was divided up, and Hope became the first county seat of the newly established Steele County. Two years later, the town again lost the seat to the more centrally located town of Sherbrooke. When the railroad failed to come to Sherbrooke, the seat was moved again in 1918, this time to Finley, where it (so far) remains.

Donald “Don” Stevenson

By Cathy A. Langemo,

WritePlus Inc.

December 28, 2018 — On this date in 1908, Donald “Don” Stevenson, one of the state’s best-known early ranchers, died.

Don Stevenson was born on April 12, 1833, in Scotland, coming to Ontario in 1842 and to Minnesota in 1856. By 1860, he was on the way to Texas to herd cattle and do some freighting between Kansas and Nebraska.

Stevenson returned to Minnesota in 1861 and purchased a farm on land that became Osakis in Douglas County. He married Lydia Ann Stone in March 1863 in St. Cloud, and they owned cattle, sheep, horses and hogs until 1872. He also served as the town’s postmaster and owned the town’s first grist mill.

While farming, Stevenson was also hauling freight, supplies and people from St. Cloud to the forts and new establishments in northern Dakota Territory, maintaining the business from 1866-1882. As an Army contractor, he delivered supplies to the forts and put up hay and firewood for them. He had as many as 125 mowing machines and the men to run them.

He also ran teams to the Black Hills, bringing out the first nuggets that showed there was gold in the Hills.

He moved to Dakota Territory in May 1872 and established the D.S. Ranch in Emmons County, ranching there until 1886. By then, Stevenson had about 800 head of longhorn and beef cattle and horses. He lost about half of them that winter of 1886-1887.

From 1882-1886, Stevenson operated a butcher shop in Bismarck, supplying it with beef, pork and mutton from his ranch and established the Stevenson Post Office at his ranch.

Along with ranching, Stevenson ran a freight business with up to 300 wagons, operating from the ranch. Using mostly oxen and later some Missouri mules and horses, he ran between Bismarck and Camp Meade in southern Dakota Territory.

In 1887, Stevenson moved his ranch to Morton County, where the old Deadwood Stage Road crossed the Cannonball River, about 50 miles south of Mandan. He gave up the freight business then and ranched full time until retiring in 1906 because of poor health. At one time, Stevenson had as many as 1,600 head of horses and cattle.

In 1896 and 1898, Stevenson was elected to the State Legislature. He was an imposing figure in the House chambers, standing well over six feet tall and weighing more than 300 pounds.

Stevenson was also active in community and county affairs as a Mason; in the Clan of the Caledonian Society of North Dakota, a Scottish organization; as postmaster; church trustee; and the first elected Emmons County treasurer.

After retiring from ranching, Stevenson moved to Shields in western Grant County. He died on December 28, 1908, in Dickinson and is buried in the Mandan Union Cemetery.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.


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