Dakota Datebook

Red River Valley University

written by Merry Helm

February 25, 2019 — In his poem, “Reborn,” Bishop Ralph Spaulding Cushman wrote:

Deaf, dumb, and blind, I walked His earth,

I breathed His air, a thankless clod,

Until that blessed summer’s night

When my dead soul found life and God!

It was on this day in 1891 that the North Dakota Methodists founded a private school in Wahpeton — Red River Valley University. It was a school that would move several times before settling into its final phase. At one point, Bishop Cushman was on the board of directors.

Classes at Red River Valley University opened in 1893 with 85 students. Dr. Knox of the New Hampshire Conference served as president. From the beginning, RRVU struggled financially, so in 1905, RRVU made a historic move by affiliating with a state school, UND at Grand Forks, where it was renamed Wesley College.

Sixteen years later, Wesley College established a branch, the School of Religion, on the campus of the North Dakota Agriculture College in Fargo. Course offerings included the history, literature, philosophy, and psychology of religion. Wesley College provided the funding for the Fargo school, and NDAC provided academic credit to participating students.

Under the directorship of Walter Lee Airheart, the School of Religion enrolled its first four students in 1921. By 1929, just eight years later, there were 253 students attending. But in 1931, two serious problems threatened to shut down the School of Religion.

First, the Fargo-Moorhead Lutheran Pastoral Union protested the School of Religion’s use of NDAC classrooms, saying this violated the separation of church and state. Second, Wesley College was nearly broke and was forced to withdraw its funding for its Fargo branch.

That winter, Airheart and 16 Fargo businessmen organized the Fargo School of Religious Education, a private corporation that proposed to provide religious education at NDAC that was non-sectarian and non-denominational. They went looking for private contributions, and in 1936, a donation from Mr. and Mrs. S. Fred Knight allowed the school to construct a new building across the street from NDAC on land leased from Wesley College.

The Fargo School of Religious Education got off to a better start, and in 1962, it was renamed the North Dakota School of Religion. Then, in 1971, Wesley College donated the land on which the school sat, and in 1973, both the building and the land were donated to the NDSU Development Foundation. In exchange, the Development Foundation had to agree to operate the school as it was for two more years, and then maintain a professor of religion at NDSU.

Since that time, John Helgeland has served first as the director of the North Dakota School of Religion and then as professor of religion at NDSU. In 1996, the building was demolished to make way for the New Alumni Center, but the nugget of what the North Dakota Methodists began in 1891 still exists. Three cities and five names later, it’s the little school that could.

Nancy Hendrickson

written by Merry Helm

February 26, 2019 — Today is the birthday of a sweet-spirited woman, Nancy Hendrickson. She was born in 1886 in a house built of cottonwood by Nancy’s Swedish father, Sone Christenson. They homesteaded on the Heart River where, just 10 years before, the 7th Cavalry crossed on their way to the Little Bighorn.

Nancy was the only one of Christenson’s six children to be born in America. She later homesteaded an adjoining quarter of land, and her little claim shack is now on display in the Heritage Center Museum in Bismarck. Nancy lived on that ranch until the year she died at age 92. Even her education took place there, with school for 10 children in the front room every other winter. Nancy married twice, and both husbands moved in with the rest of the family, but by 1970, she had outlived them all.

Nancy was barely over five feet tall, but she had a great curiosity, was energetic and was a voracious reader. When she died in 1978, her library included copies of the Mandan Pioneer going back more than 100 years; she also owned every copy Life Magazine that had been published up ‘til that time – appropriate, because newspapers later played a major role in Nancy’s life.

Nancy didn’t get to nearby Mandan until she was nine years old. Then, she got a white gelding called Two Bits, which she kept for 22 years, and her horizons started to expand. Around 1915, she got a motorcycle, and the world opened up even farther.

Nancy had a hobby of sketching animals, which took an unforeseen turn when, at age 14, she bought a Kodak box camera – one of the first purchases she ever made. Her subjects could now be caught in real life. She dressed her farm animals in clothing and constructed little props to mimic human situations. In one photo, a cat lounges in a rowboat, while another tugs on the oars. In another, a cat and a rabbit sit side-by-side playing a duet on a toy piano. Two dogs are dressed for going out on the town – one is in a polka dot dress and feathered hat, while the bulldog wears a fedora and a suit and tie. Others include animals doing chores.

While photographing costumed animals is quite common today, Nancy was breaking new ground back then, and she soon gained national attention. She built a darkroom in her cramped house, where she did all her own developing and printing. Under the pseudonym, P.C. Bill, she published a series of post cards, and then a number of her pieces made it into publications like the Minneapolis Tribune, the Denver Post and the New York Times.

Money from her photography helped carry her family through the Great Depression, but when World War II made photography materials became scarce, Nancy had to instead rely on the ranch for a living.

Writer Ted Upgren described Nancy at age 91: “Her specialty is lifestyle. Though she herself may not be conscious of it, others are. Her unbending loyalty to her Heart River Valley heritage, her mockery of Father Time, and her rather successful avoidance of the ‘developed establishment’… is her adopted way… (She’s) unwilling to turn her back on the peaceful valley that has been her whole life and move to the city where some say she would be ‘so much more comfortable.’”

“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.


DAKOTA DATEBOOK: Maxwell Anderson

Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall

February 27, 2019 — Located in some of North Dakota’s most beautiful farmland, Brenner Crossing State Historic Site marks the location of an old crossing station run by Ernest William Brenner.

Born in Germany in 1844, Ernest Brenner spent little time in his native land.  Like many other Germans in the mid-nineteenth century, Ernest’s father hoped to make a better life for himself in America, and set sail with the family for Boston in 1848.  Ernest stayed in Massachusetts for some time, working for two different Massachusetts governors. However, the young man grew restless with life in the east, and by 1868 he had made his way to Dakota Territory where he established himself as Fort Totten’s post trader and married Mary Bottineau, the daughter of the famous North Dakotan guide and scout, Pierre Bottineau.

In 1882 Brenner left the fort to try his hand as a farmer, settling just south of the Sheyenne River along the Fort Totten-Fort Seward trail. Located along a well-traveled trail, and near a shallow stretch of the river, Brenner started a river crossing service and established himself as a local postmaster.

While perhaps a creative way to earn money, Ernest’s personal post office venture was not a success, closing only a few years after it opened. Not to be deterred, Brenner and his family moved to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation where he was appointed a government agent in charge of farming.

While Ernest Brenner only lived at “Brenner Crossing” five years, the name became a permanent fixture, and about 75 years later, on this date in 1959, the State Historical Society acquired Brenner Crossing, keeping Ernest Brenner’s name alive well over a century after the postmaster at the little outpost along the Sheyenne passed away.

“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.


DAKOTA DATEBOOK: Maxwell Anderson

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

February 28, 2019 — Today marks the anniversary of the death of playwright Maxwell Anderson, who died in 1959. He was one of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century.

Born in 1888, Anderson spent his first three years on a farm near Atlantic, Pennsylvania. His father worked as a railroad fireman while studying at night to become a Baptist minister. The family moved to Jamestown in 1907, where Anderson graduated from high school. Going on to UND, Anderson joined nearly every club related to writing and drama. For money, he waited tables and worked at the night copy desk of the Grand Forks Herald.

After getting his B.A. in English literature, Anderson moved to Minnewaukan, where he was the high school principal and English teacher. He was an avowed pacifist, and two years later he was fired for protesting World War I in front of his students. So he moved to Palo Alto, California, to get his masters from Stanford. He became chair of the English department at Whittier College near Los Angeles, but was fired again the following year for making public statements on behalf of a student seeking conscientious objector status.

Anderson decided it was time to get into a different business – newspaper reporting. He worked for several different papers in San Francisco and New York, and then began following a different calling – he penned his first play, “White Dessert.” It enjoyed only twelve performances, but it won the attention of Laurence Stallings, a reviewer for the New York World, and the two collaborated on a war comedy, “What Price Glory?” It was a giant hit and had a run of more than 430 performances. Anderson quit the newspaper business and went into writing plays full time.

In the next few years Anderson wrote many plays, and he also wrote radio shows and collaborated on screenplays for movies like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Death Takes a Holiday.”

1958 marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of UND, and Anderson was conferred a Doctor of Humanities degree during the festivities. He was too ill to attend, but he wrote a letter saying the university had been there for him when he needed it very badly and thanked them for providing – in his words – a retreat for those more interested in the creation of beauty or the discovery of truth than in making a profit. He wrote, “If I hadn’t gone to the university, I might have been an unhappy and mediocre banker, farmer, or store-keeper. I’d have gone no farther.”

Maxwell Anderson died the following year after having a stroke. To honor the spirit of a man and his deeply held principles, we offer one of his most famous quotes:

“When a government takes over a people’s economic life it becomes absolute, and when it has become absolute, it destroys the arts, the minds, the liberties and the meaning of the people it governs.”

Maxwell Anderson may have lost jobs because of his words; but his words also made him a resounding success. He is a great North Dakota treasure.

“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.



Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

March 1, 2019 — Among North Dakota’s many immigrants have been women who married American servicemen stationed abroad. One such war bride arrived in Bismarck on this date in 1948.

Anni Leier was to marry her WWII sweetheart, Edwin Ackerman, a schoolteacher in New Leipzig. But when she got off the plane, she found herself stranded, because she couldn’t speak English. After some difficulty, cab driver L. W. Zacker realized she needed a ride to New Leipzig and agreed to drive her there the next day.  He then took her home to stay with him and his wife for the night.

Mrs. Jacob Opp, who spoke German, came over to the Zackers’ to translate. When asked what she thought of the United States, Anni said she was surprised at the abundance she encountered. In Germany, she said, one could get little food or clothing, and almost everything was sold on the black market.

“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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