Dakota Datebook:

Vilhjalmur Stefansson,
Arctic Explorer


written by Merry Helm
August 26, 2019 — A legendary Arctic explorer died on this date in 1962. He was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, born in 1879 to Icelandic immigrants in Manitoba. When he was two, the family moved to the Icelandic community of Mountain, in northeastern North Dakota, where Vilhjalmur remainder of his younger years.
Stefansson is said to have been a rugged boy who loved the outdoors and who only had occasional access to schooling. His father died when Vilhjalmur was just a boy, and to ease his mother’s hardship, he moved in with his sister and helped a brother with his cattle and horses.
The early Icelandic settlers have become recognized for their strong quest for higher education, especially in the field of law. Stefansson enrolled at UND in 1898, where he shared a small drafty house with another Icelander, Gudmundur Grimson, who later gained national recognition while investigating the death of a North Dakota boy in a Florida work camp.
Three years later, Stefansson was forced to leave UND for allegedly inciting a student protest. He transferred to the University of Iowa, and upon receiving his degree, he was offered free tuition at Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister. Stefannson soon lost interest in theology, however. He was more interested in learning about other cultures, and in 1906 he joined the Anglo-American Polar Expedition. He spent the next two years in the Arctic, spending the winter months with the native Inuit of Tuktoyyaktut.
In an early example of his independence, he failed, at times, to stay in contact with his colleagues.
Upon returning in 1908, Stefansson immediately went to New York’s American Museum of Natural History to ask for funding to conduct a second expedition. With some financial help from the Canadian government, the Stefansson Anderson Expedition set out for northern Alaska to continue the study of the native cultures. Stefansson became particularly interested in a remote group of primitive Inuits during the next four years. The tribe had strong Caucasian features, and it was speculated they descended from Vikings.
Of one experience during this expedition, Stefansson wrote, “…the group was short of three things: ammunition, which we all knew was a necessity, and tea and tobacco, which the Eskimos believed were necessities.
When we reached the mouth of the Horton on our way back to camp, we divided our party in two (and our) troubles began. It took us thirteen days to get to camp. We were delayed by blizzards, and found the hunting poor along the way. There was not enough food for the six of us,” he went on. “We ate what we could, including the tongue of a beached bowhead whale. Four years dead, the carcass would have been hidden in the snow except that foxes had been digging into it… The pieces we ate were more like rubber than flesh.”
The Stefansson Anderson Expedition concluded four years later, and arrangements were immediately made for another – the Canadian Arctic Expeditions – which took place from 1913 to 1918. Stefansson’s findings were now being published in scientific journals and literary digests, and he also published a book titled, “My Life with the Eskimo.”
Stefansson’s success unfortunately became laced with controversy, but that’s a story for another time…


Fingal Enger


written by Merry Helm
August 27, 2019 — It was during harvesting in 1913 that Fingal Enger was caught in a downpour. He wouldn’t go inside until he was certain that all the wagons were in and every horse properly tended, and he ended up catching pneumonia. It was a hard thing for Enger to be slowed down by illness – the 6’ 4” farmer was legendary for his size and strength and had always done the work of two men.
Enger was born in Norway in 1846. Early in 1872, he left Fargo with two other men to find land in the Goose River area. According to historian Erling Rolfsrud, each man carried an axe, a gun and a knapsack. By the time they chose homestead sites, they were out of food and were lucky to share fox stew with a hermit known as “Gamle Erick,” or Old Eric.
The men took turns helping each other build their 16’ x 16’ log houses, with Enger’s being the first settler’s house built in Steele County. They used no nails. Instead, they used wooden pegs and had roofs made of bark covered with sod. Once they were finished, Enger knew he could make more money in town, so he hired a neighbor to break his land and headed back to earn enough to buy farm equipment and more land.
In Fargo, Enger cut firewood in what is now Oak Grove Park. He rarely tired, starting early in the morning and chopping into the night by firelight. When loading river steamers, he would sling bags of wheat or flour over each shoulder when others could handle only one.
Within three years, Fingal found the “right girl,” Gjertrud Nyhus, but the two had to wait for a minister to pass through before they could marry. Rolfsrud writes that when the day finally arrived, the couple almost missed it, because a cow got out, and Fingal had to find her and then repair the fence. The service was nearly over by the time Fingal and Gjertrud walked the five miles to the church… Fingal was married in his overalls.
By all accounts, Enger was a religious and very generous man. Education was important to the Engers; they had nine children – eight boys and one girl – and Enger wanted them to be able to speak English while still retaining their Norwegian heritage. When a college-educated man filed a claim nearby, Enger talked him into teaching school in Enger’s home, then got the neighbors together and built the young schoolteacher a house.
Enger also helped start Oak Grove Seminary in Fargo, helped establish Augsburg College in Minneapolis and was on the executive board for the Grand Forks Deaconess Hospital. He helped many people with loans and gifts, and he was legendary for his kindness to animals. He bought the first threshing machine in the area, was twice elected to the state senate, invested in grain elevators and was the proud owner of a Percheron stallion from France.
By the time Enger lay dying of pneumonia, he was the largest single landowner in the state, with 73 quarters. He called for his attorney and representatives of the schools and hospital he had helped, and they arrived on this date in 1913. Fingal asked them to put in writing how many thousands of dollars he had promised them, so he could sign. The men left the room to draw up the papers, but Fingal died a few minutes later. Gjertrud died 3 months later.
The Steele County Historical Society has gathered the remains of Engers’ log house, along with its additions, and rebuilt it next to the County Museum in Hope. It’s definitely a worthwhile tour.


Chase Lake National
Wildlife Refugee


written by Merry Helm
August 28, 2019 — Theodore Roosevelt established the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge on this date in 1908. The refuge encompasses 4,385 acres northwest of Medina and is one of state’s largest surviving blocks of native prairie. As a wilderness area, no motor vehicles and no roads are allowed, leaving the area almost identical to pre-settlement days. The refuge is home to at least 230 bird species (some of them rare), 35 species of butterflies and untold numbers of wildflowers.
Chase Lake has also been home to the largest nesting colony of American white pelicans on the continent – approximately half the North American population. This June, however, scientists were baffled when approximately 29,000 pelicans disappeared from the refuge in a matter of days. Experts have no concrete reason for why the birds suddenly abandoned their eggs and hatchlings… no indication of disease or undue disturbances of nesting habitat. Some theorize the cold, wet spring altered the pelicans’ food supply, and others believe this may be a “natural population correction.” They are optimistic that the birds will return next spring.

Judge Davies Integrates Southern Schools, Part 1

written by Merry Helm
August 29, 2019 — On this day in 1957, a North Dakota judge made a decision that marked a milestone in the civil rights movement.
Ronald Davies was born in 1904, and his early education took place in Crookston, MN, Fargo, and Grand Forks. He was the son of a newspaperman, and two of his uncles had newspapers, too. “I don’t quite know how I escaped the smell of printer’s ink,” he later said, “but I told my father and my uncles almost from the start that I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Davies went to UND, paying his way by selling newspaper subscriptions. He was athletic and sports-minded, but because he was on the small side – 5’ 1” – coaches didn’t take him seriously. Showing the determination and tenacity for which he would become known, Davies built up his legs and stamina by plodding through deep snow – and won a varsity letter as a sprinter.
Davies graduated in 1927, earned his law degree from Georgetown University, and then hung out his shingle in Grand Forks. “I was in general practice,” he later said.
“Criminal, civil, probate – anything any misguided client would retain a young lawyer for. It was tough going. So in 1932, I ran for municipal judge and was elected. You see, I didn’t like to get out of the habit of eating.”
He was only 28 years old when he ascended to the bench, and he was appointed to the North Dakota State Board of Pardons eight years later. World War II interrupted his career in 1942; he was discharged in 1946 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Davies went back to private practice, and then, in June 1955, President Eisenhower appointed him United States District Court Judge for North Dakota. Two years later, on August 26, 1957, Davies was asked to temporarily fill a vacant seat in Arkansas’s Eastern District. He wasn’t aware that he was walking into a minefield.
The Deep South was struggling with desegregation, as it had for many decades. Arkansas was considered the most progressive of the southern states, and it was in Little Rock that the first integration of a secondary school was about to happen. Nine black students had made the courageous decision to attend Central High School in the “Plan of School Integration.”
When Davies arrived, he was immediately given a case called Aaron vs. Cooper in which the “Mother’s League of Central High School” had won a temporary injunction to block the school’s integration, charging that it “could lead to violence.” Davies was there not only to interpret the law, but also to see to it that it was carried out. Brown vs. the Board of Education was the historic case in which school integration was slated to take place “with all deliberate speed.” Davies believed in “less deliberation and more speed,” and four days later – on this date in 1957 – he nullified the injunction and ordered Central High School to integrate the following week.
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had no intention of letting that happen. Claiming he wanted to avoid bloodshed, Faubus called up 100 armed National Guardsmen to surround the school when the young African Americans arrived. The Guards barred their entry, and a mob of 400 white extremists surrounded the teenagers with threats of lynching. The students were forced to leave.
Faubus’s defiance of Judge Davies’ court order was the first major test of Brown v. Board of Education. Tune in tomorrow to learn what happened next.


“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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