Ft. Pembina Deserted

written by Merry Helm
August 15, 2019 — The U.S. Army abandoned Fort Pembina on this date in 1895. The only other military fort that remained operational after that year was Fort Yates, which was abandoned in 1903.
The great Sioux Uprising had largely ended when, in December 1890, reservation police killed Sitting Bull outside his cabin at dawn. Sitting Bull and many others had embraced a new religion called the Ghost Dance, during which exhausted dancers fell into trance-like states in which they might glimpse a wonderful world that would soon come to pass.
The religion promised an Indian Messiah who would restore them to their former glory. The earth would swallow up the whites, suffering would end, the buffalo would return, and dead ancestors would join the living in a world in which the Indians were free and surrounded by plentiful game.
After Sitting Bull was killed for perpetuating the ritual, some three hundred Ghost Dancers who escaped into the South Dakota Badlands were rounded up and massacred by the 7th Cavalry while encamped on Wounded Knee Creek.
The Indian Wars were over, and the military forts were no longer needed.


Man’s Inhumanity to Man

written by Merry Helm
August 16, 2019 — World War II didn’t officially end until September 2, 1945, but it was generally considered to be over two weeks earlier. With the announcement that Japan surrendered on August 15, a flood of previously classified and other war-related stories hit the newspapers in the following days.
Among those being published in North Dakota was a letter received by a Minot attorney from his son, Sgt. Paul McCutcheon, who had witnessed the conditions in newly liberated concentration camps. The younger McCutcheon was a Minot State graduate who had worked for International Harvester before joining the army in 1942. Two years later, he was sent overseas with a field hospital unit and ultimately ended up caring for Holocaust survivors.
“At Nuremberg,” McCutcheon wrote, “we had charge of a number of displaced persons who were for the most part prisoners of war until liberated. While these cases were bad, they nowhere came near approaching the persons at this notorious slave labor and concentration camp. There is a large cemetery here, and beside it a long trench filled in, in one mass grave, for I don’t know how many of the dead.
“Believe me,” he continued, “if you have seen any…pictures of these camps, you can be just plain damn sure they show a softened scene. You must understand that now these people are receiving the best medical care and attention we can give them…,” he wrote. “They are fed well, but not the same food as we, for it probably would prove fatal to them.
The death rate has fallen almost vertically since the U.S. took over. But some are just too far gone to save.”
McCutcheon went on to describe the beauty of the Austrian countryside, the clear, blue-green water of the Danube River, the small picturesque farms and victory gardens. But, neither he nor any of his fellow soldiers ever wanted to see the area again.
“Beautiful as it is,” he wrote, “it is only skin deep. That is the tragedy of the thing, for the people really have everything they should want to be peaceful and happy. (But) you know they are not content… a large portion of their country lies in total ruins to remind them of their folly… Beautifully landscaped countryside,” he went on, “coupled with advanced industrial areas and poverty-stricken rural communities – blissful in their ignorance – and above all, concentration camps, just don’t mix.”
McCutcheon wrote of the stench of the death camps. Images of the horrific treatment the “human skeletons” had endured would remain with him forever.
“To see people,” McCutcheon wrote, “lots of them…who are nothing but a skeleton covered with skin… arms and legs no larger than broomsticks, was sickening enough. To have them fight over the garbage we throw out, or pathetically to beg for scraps of leftovers, is almost too much to (handle). But above all is the way they act about the whole thing… They dart and scurry like rats. Long, skinny bones dart out to steal whatever they think they can eat or use. If gently reprimanded, they slink away like dogs with tails between their legs.
“Above all else,” he wrote, “are their eyes. I wish I could…describe them. They are all big and very prominent. It’s almost the first thing you notice. Like snake’s eyes, seeing everything, watching everything, hunted, hurt, pathetic and as surely as the sun rises, reflecting like a painted picture the consequences of man’s inhumanity to man…”


Hebron Brick

written by Merry Helm
August 19, 2019 — In the early years of North Dakota, there was a severe shortage of building materials, which is why many people made their homes from prairie sod. In some areas of the state, however, a good grade of clay was discovered, and within a few years, at least 18 brick factories sprung up. It was on this date in 1904 that the Hebron Fire and Pressed Brick Factory was founded.
Hebron was settled as a spin-off of a successful campaign in New Salem, where the NP Railroad worked with the German Evangelical Colonization Society to recruit settlers. In 1882, Society pastors from Illinois and Wisconsin had sent recruitment pamphlets to other Evangelical pastors and also wrote optimistic letters to German-language newspapers.
An agent in New York caught German immigrants coming off the boat, promising them a town with a church, school, and “Christian hotel.” By the following spring, New Salem had two hundred new settlers, and in 1885, the Society established a second colony 33 miles west called Hebron.
The majority of those who ended up settling in Hebron were from Johannestal, Crimea, in South Russia.
The town’s founder was generally considered to be 31-year-old Ferdinand Lutz. Less than ten years later, Lutz and his partner, Charles Weigel, started the Hebron brick factory. Within a few years, their proposed budget of $50,000 quickly escalated as equipment and other improvements were added.
The clay has been coming from the Bear Den Member of the Golden Valley Formation, which is about 58-64 million years old. At first, it was brought to the factory by horse and wagon.
A couple different methods were used to form bricks – some were dry-pressed and others were made of “stiff mud,” which used powdered clay mixed with water. The clay was cut into bricks and then fired – or “baked” – in large coal-burning kilns for many days before hardening into usable bricks.
In 1913, the plant expanded, and 12 continuous kilns were built into an outdoor embankment. With arched brick openings, the side-by-side kilns resembled an ancient Roman aqueduct.
That year, the factory turned out slightly fewer than five million bricks. By the following year, railroad cars replaced horse-drawn wagons, and 8,500,000 bricks were produced by 1916, with a potential to turn out as many as 13,000,000.
Market conditions during World War I hit the factory pretty hard, and it became almost impossible to keep the plant solvent. Bankruptcy looked likely, and the stockholders authorized the sale of the property.
The “general and sales office” was moved to Fargo in 1921, and five years later, the sales manager, the plant superintendent and the president were all replaced. Disaster hit just a few months later when the major portion of the operating plant burned to the ground. Still, the company hung on. The factory was rebuilt, converting to gas-fired kilns.
Since then, the company has survived the Great Depression, another world war, has gone through five different owners, and is estimated to have manufactured one billion bricks.
After more than a hundred years of existence, Hebron Brick is not only the only surviving brick factory in the state, it is also the oldest manufacturing company, of any kind, in North Dakota.


Early Oologists

written by Merry Helm
August 20, 2019 — By the 1890s, Stump Lake in northeast North Dakota was a Mecca for waterfowl hunters, and a magnificent three-story hotel called the Wamduska House provided room and board to hunters from as far away as New York City.
Oologists, too, found the area ripe for the picking. What’s an oologist, you ask? That’s a person who collects birds’ eggs – or used to, anyway.
One collector, Alf Eastgate, got married in 1893 and later wrote, “As money was not as plentiful as hard work, my wife said to wait until spring and she would go with me on a collecting trip.” The following year, the couple arrived at Stump Lake, and over the next months, they collected both eggs and bird skins. When Eastgate was injured in an accident in mid-June, the couple decided to stay and settled on the south end of Stump Lake.
A frequent visitor at the Eastgate farm was a Grand Forks county clerk and fellow collector, Holton Shaw. The two men had been collecting bird eggs together since 1892. In fact, in 1895, they and five East Coast collectors spent four months on an oology expedition, during which (they later said) they were “in the field every day collecting and noting the migratory and breeding species of this territory.”
During one of his expeditions, Eastgate wrote: “Found the nest and eggs of Ruby throated hummingbird It was a climb for your life up a small poplar leaning over the road on a dead branch leaning way out about 35 or 40 feet We got in to Carpenter Lake. . . takes about 5 hours to drive 12 miles by section line so you can guess how the road winds and twists around the hills with a mud hole or creek at the foot of every hill. . . It is my sorry work to look for a nest after driving over the prairies. . . We have been out 20 days and have 159 skins…driving 125 miles over as bad roads as you want to use but every thing else has been in our favor – fine weather and no mosquitos to speak of have not had to use our netting one night.”
The oologists provided documentation about each set of eggs found, including the collector’s name, date, weather conditions and location of where the eggs were found.
In the early years, oologists would often kill and skin parent birds for proving the authenticity of the eggs.
Interestingly, it was a matter of “scientific honor” to take every egg in the nest.
During his hunts with Eastgate, Shaw collected eggs not just for himself but also for selling and trading with other oologists.
For example, on one day in June 1893, he found 29 common tern’s nests for a total of 85 eggs; 16 sets were to fill orders from other collectors, and 11 sets were for a “private collection” – perhaps his own.
Although the area had an abundance of birds, by 1912 Stump Lake was the nation’s last known breeding ground for the white-winged scoter, and needless to say, oologists got good returns on scoter eggs. Whether collectors were part of the problem or not, the bird soon disappeared from North Dakota. Bird enthusiasts noticed other species start to dwindle, as well.
Teddy Roosevelt recognized Stump Lake’s importance as a migratory breeding ground, and in 1905, he set aside five islands in Stump Lake – totaling 28 acres – as a national bird reserve. It was the third such reserve in the country. Eastgate, who was still living at Stump Lake, became the reserve’s first warden, and shortly after, both he and Shaw stopped the practice of collecting eggs. As opposition to egg hunting grew, oologists started using cameras to document their research instead of robbing nests. It’s pretty safe to say that our feathered friends have appreciated the change.


Rachel Taylor Proves Up

written by Merry Helm
August 21, 2019 — When people filed homestead claims in North Dakota, they had six months to build themselves a dwelling and start living on the land. Rachel Taylor, a 21-year-old single teacher, filed in McKenzie County in late November 1903, and then went back to Steele County to finish out the school year. She set out for McKenzie County as the deadline for building her house approached in the spring, but the river was so swollen, she couldn’t cross it. In fact, it took three weeks for the water level to drop enough so that friends could take her across in a rowboat.
Rachel was soon captivated with her surroundings. “That first summer there,” she said, “I grew to love the prairie in it natural, wild, untamed state, and I felt a bit sad that now it would be cut up, plowed up, fenced up, used and trampled over by the feet of men, many caring only for the money it would bring.”
Well, six years later, Rachel Taylor proved up. It was on this date in 1909 that she received the “final certificate” on her claim.


Chicken Mystery

August 22, 2019 — At the beginning of the summer in 1945, the secretary of the American Legion Post in Ashley asked the editor of the Ashley Tribune to report on what he and many others called a mystery: Some chicken had strayed from the chicken barn, and were lost.
The paper really upped the advertising ante on these chickens. Every week or every other week, at least, something was announced about them. Certainly residents of Ashley followed the tongue-in-cheek calls for lost chickens with interest.
The birds were some of those being fed and cared for by the members of the local Legion Post and so belonged to the returning brothers, husbands, “sweethearts” and friends. A “substantial” reward for the chickens, “dead or alive,” was offered.
Throughout the summer, the mystery merely increased. The Ashley Tribune increased this hoopla, asking, “Have you ever argued the question as to which came first, the chicken or the egg? … Another mystery, almost as great and intriguing as (that question), is the whereabouts of the Legion chickens.”
Continuing the story, they reported to have hired a “super snooper sleuth” by the name of Slim Seekumout from an agency known as the “Huntem and Findum” detective agency.
The week after “Slim” entered the tragic chickens’ tale, he reportedly left, and was evasive upon questioning.
The paper reported that “In fact, (Slim) was almost genial, making apparent attempts to be funny even to the extent of springing that old corny gag about ‘Why does a chicken cross the road?’
When (the Ashley Tribune reportedly) told him it might be to get one of the lost Legion Chickens trying to find its way home, he emitted a laugh that sounded like a hyena chasing a cackling hen, called us a dope, and said the chickens merely wanted to get to the other side. As if we didn’t know.”
It was determined that the detective had run “afowl” of some bribery tactics—or that he had found nothing at all.
On this day, the tongue-in-cheek was mostly done, and residents would soon find out what the chicken story meant.
The Legion had intended to raise the chickens and sell them in the fall, using the proceeds to fund a huge one-day celebration for servicemen, once they returned.
One farmer wrote to the Ashley post of the American Legion, having read about the chickens all summer, and he not only offered up two of his own chickens, he said he thought that local farmers and townspeople would be glad to supply a chicken to the Legion. Moreover, he said that since they “used to have …give-a-way days in Ashley years ago, …why not have something like that next month?”
Therefore, a Chicken Day was planned for September 26. Money raised would go to a huge county-wide celebration fund for returned veterans.
The American Legion advertised for it as “Victory Chicken Day,” reminding that the money went for returning veterans, who, it was guessed, would likely be back for the big party by the next summer.
The Legion did not make much money from the event, so they promised to make another announcement in the future as to the raising of money for funding their celebration. Any farmer wishing to donate “the equivalent of a chicken in cash” was, of course, still able to do so. Nonetheless, those who came seemed to have a good time.


Valley City Post Office

written by Merry Helm
August 23, 2019 — Today is the anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone for the Valley City Post Office, an architectural gem.
The first post office for the town was established back in 1876. Peter Connors was the postmaster, and his salary was $16 a year. Over the next 40 years, its location was changed four times, including one move that took place in the middle of the night.
The present post office was built in 1916-1917, using the classical revival style – the only federal building like it in the state and one of the last post offices of its type in existence.
It’s also the state’s oldest building built specifically as a post office and still run by the U.S. Postal Service.
It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and was restored, inside and out, in 1997. The only missing pieces are beautiful metal grills that once covered the windows.
Those were sacrificed to the WWII scrap iron drives, but remnants are still visible on the basement windows.

“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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