The Yesteryears: Tales From Fargo-Moorhead’s Past

by on Aug 10, 2017


By Erica Rapp & Ethan Mickelson

Photos by Kilbourne Group, NDSU Archives, Fargo, and The Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County

From Front Street to the Moorhead Zoo or The Great Fire of 1893 to deLendrecie’s, Fargo-Moorhead packs an incredible amount of fascinating history going back to its beginning in 1871. We dug our heads into the archives and consulted historians, experts and veteran locals to excavate tales from Fargo-Moorhead’s past. Whether you’re a native to the area or a recent arrival, and whether or not you know about these stories at all, we hope these memories will spark some nostalgia or show you that this not-so-forgotten history is still right in front of our eyes.

Fargo North Dakota

Steve Stark
Illustrator and history program presenter, editorial cartoonist and columnist for the Fargo Forum.

Richard Chapman
Trained as a U.S. social historian, Professor of history at Concordia College and also teaches a course on world geography.

Kilbourne Group
Adrienne Olson, Kilbourne Group Communications Manager

What’s in a Name?

Northern Pacific Depot platform looking west, 1924.

Northern Pacific Depot platform looking west, 1924.

Originally called “Centralia” until 1873, Fargo got its name after William George Fargo, who was a businessman and former mayor of Buffalo, New York, an investor and director on the board of the Northern Pacific Railroad when it came to town in 1871. Similarly, Moorhead was founded the same year and is named after William G. Moorhead, a director of the Northern Pacific Railroad and brother-inlaw of railroad owner Jay Cooke. Fargo and his business partner, Henry Wells, were in the express business that delivered goods by wagon, stagecoach and railroad across the region and country. They also invested in banks–their first company being American Express (today’s credit card company) and the second was Wells Fargo & Co.

The Fargo Express to Fargo Forum

In 1874, William Fargo offered $500 for the establishment of a paper named The Fargo Express. The first contenders for the prize (A. H. Moore and Seth Boney) were unsuccessful because their paper was printed in Glyndon, Minnesota, although it was still called The Fargo Express. Moore and Boney had been publishing the Glyndon Gazette, the first newspaper in the Red River Valley. After moving operations to Fargo, the paper was awarded the prize after publishing their first issue on January 1, 1874. Thus, The Fargo Express was the first newspaper printed in Fargo. It was published weekly until 1875 when it merged with the Glyndon Gazette to form the Fargo Time, and ultimately became the Fargo Forum after buyouts and ownership changes throughout the years.

The Gate City

Because the Northern Pacific Railroad created a gateway to the northern tier of the west, Fargo received its first nickname as “The Gate City.” The fact that a major local banking company is named Gate City Bank makes total sense.

The railway provided the stimulus for economic and population growth in the Fargo-Moorhead area. The Red River served as a transfer point for goods and passengers between the Twin Cities and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Goods were also hauled by oxcart from St. Cloud, Minnesota, to Fargo-Moorhead and then loaded onto riverboats for the journey north.

Front Street

Front Street looking west, roughly 1930s.

Front Street looking west, roughly 1930s.

The first street alongside the tracks coming into town was called Front Street, which is known today as Main Avenue– hence the name of Main Avenue’s recent beer house, Front Street Taproom. The next major street was Broadway.

Roberts Street

Roberts Street looking north from the Post Office tower, 1898.

Roberts Street looking north from the Post Office tower, 1898.

This historic street is named after an early Fargo resident, businessman, legislator and lawyer, Samuel Roberts. Today, it’s the only street downtown that’s named after a local person.

Roberts was a huge influence on Downtown Fargo, and when he got into the state legislature, he helped introduce the bill that would fund North Dakota Agricultural College, which we know now as North Dakota State University. It might be a coincidence that NDSU’s first campus building in Downtown Fargo, Renaissance Hall, sits on the corner of Roberts Street and NP Avenue.

Andrew McHench

McHench Block/Eighth Street south of Main Avenue, roughly 1960s.

McHench Block/Eighth Street south of Main Avenue, roughly 1960s.

The first public school in Fargo began some time around 1874 under Dakota Territory’s first school superintendent and one of Fargo’s earliest settlers, Andrew McHench. He created Fargo School District No. 1 that year, and there were reportedly a total of 27 males and 36 females attending the school on the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street South.

Fargo school and pupils, 1878.Fargo school and pupils, 1878.

McHench graduated from Antioch College, where the “father of education,” Horace Mann, was president and taught McHench as a student. Years later, Fargo’s oldest elementary school to date would be called Horace Mann Elementary. McHench was also highly involved in the community, owning the “McHench Block” on Eighth Street where businesses such as Nichole’s Fine Pastry, Violet Vintage, Rando Studio and more currently stand. McHench was also the first owner of the Dakota Business College building on the same block, and you can still see the faded painted sign for the college on the building today.

Fargo’s First Movie Theatre

The first moving picture theatre was called The Bijou, and it was also the first movie theatre in North Dakota. It opened in 1906 and was located at 106 Broadway, right around the area where Halberstadt’s on Broadway and Scan Design are now. The theatre had both a stage and a screen, and advertised motion pictures and live stage performances with the offer to their patrons of “high class and refined vaudeville.” It became the Garrick Theatre in 1915 and a department store filled its place by 1932.

Divorce Capital of The West

For many years in the late 1800s, the abundance of lawyers mixed with the lenient divorce laws made Fargo the place to go for thousands looking to get a divorce. A territorial code from the Dakota Territory was amended in 1877, and only required three months of residency for a divorce. While establishing “residency” in town, soon-to-be divorcees would register at hotels for the required three months, leave town and then return months later when their “residency” had been established. It was cheap to come to Fargo for a divorce and at the time, the Northern Pacific train stopped in Fargo for 10 minutes at the lunch hour, making it easy for people to use those few minutes to check into a hotel and return back to the train. The law was finally changed in 1899 to require state residency for a year and U.S. citizenship.

The Great Fire of 1893

Post-fire, Third Avenue North and Broadway looking southwest.

Post-fire, Third Avenue North and Broadway looking southwest.

It was a hot, windy afternoon on June 7, 1893. It is said that someone supposedly threw out their hot coals or ashes into a trash pile behind the Little Gem Restaurant and Herzman’s Dry Goods Store on Front Street (close to what is now Bank of the West on Main Avenue and Broadway). A fire quickly erupted and was picked up by the wind, where the blaze essentially jumped from building to building. By the end of the day, over 160 acres were in ruins and over 31 blocks of businesses and homes were destroyed stretching along Broadway from NP Avenue to Fifth Avenue North and a little bit to the west.

The fire was a huge blow to the city, but residents didn’t leave because they luckily had great insurance. The rebuilding of Fargo began immediately and city leaders adopted building codes that resulted in the use of brick for building construction. Many of the buildings along Eighth Street South (south Roberts Street) are some of the only original buildings left that weren’t destroyed in the fire. Today, you can find a monument for The Great Fire of 1893 outside of the Bank of the West tower.

The Black Building

The Black Building

A drawer with a logo tag for Store Without A Name and a stamp used by Black found in the building

George Black came to Fargo in 1912 and opened a store at 112 Broadway and within a few years, he purchased the neighboring spaces around it as well. In 1929, Sears Roebuck & Company bought Black’s properties and Black used the finances from the sales to construct the new Black Building. Several hundred people gathered to watch the cornerstone be placed for the building in November of 1930. It was the tallest and one of the most prestigious buildings in Fargo and the tallest in North Dakota for many years until the capitol building was built in Bismarck. Sears occupied the lower levels, while the upper levels housed office space and even the WDAY station on the eighth floor. The eight-story building was even featured in Ripley’s “Believe it Or Not” newspaper because it was called the Black Building even though it was white.

From The Forum, January, 1934. (Courtesy of Kilbourne Group)From The Forum, January, 1934. (Courtesy of Kilbourne Group)

After the Black Building was constructed, Black caught wind that his old employees weren’t being treated well, so he built a new store right around the corner on First Avenue in the Walker Building. He couldn’t use the name Black in his store anymore because of the sale with Sears, so he called it the Store Without A Name, and the logo for the store was even a swan.

A broadcast photo from when WDAY had its studios on the eighth floor. As part of the lease agreement, the station would use the phrase "This is WDAY in the Black Building, Fargo," during their sign-on.

A broadcast photo from when WDAY had its studios on the eighth floor. As part of the lease agreement, the station would use the phrase “This is WDAY in the Black Building, Fargo,” during their sign-on. (Photo courtesy of WDAY/Kilbourne Group )

Sears relocated to the West Acres shopping center as one of the first tenants in 1972, the same year that George Black passed away. The building was then managed by William Schlossman and John Gunkelman. Interestingly enough, Schlossman had also founded West Acres and was married to Black’s daughter.

The Black Building

Schlossman had the empty Sears portion of the Black Building renovated into a mixed retail mall called Elm Tree Square, most of which is still present in the lower levels today. Ownership and retailers changed throughout the years but now, Kilbourne Group bought the property and plans to return the Black Building to its rightful place in history with a historic renovation over the next few years.



Onesine Joassin (O.J.) deLendrecie arrived in Fargo in 1879 and by the end of his first day in town, he was already drawing up plans for his Chicago Dry Goods House located at 618 Front Street. His business grew quickly, so he purchased the lot just west of his first store and built a new two-story brick building, the deLendrecie’s department store, on the southeast corner of Front Street and Seventh Street South in 1894. Three more floors were added to the store in 1909 and thrived until it was moved to West Acres in 1972. DeLendrecie’s operated in the mall until 1998 when the company was purchased by Dillard’s and then later became Herberger’s. The downtown deLendrecie’s building is now occupied by various businesses and apartments under the Block 6 building name.

Island Park

Island Park was part of the original townsite of Fargo based on the location of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Early maps show that the park almost resembled an island with a lagoon on the west side and the Red River jutting all the way in to what is now Fourth Street along the east side.

In the late 1950s, it was recognized that Fargo land needed to be protected from flooding and a dike was built starting in 1962, which is the one that remains today as Dike East. A part of the land was cut out in the bend of the river that went up to the park and a new dry channel was dug that essentially moved the river over to where it is today. However, this change in land resulted in a border change and quite a few acres being taken from Minnesota and suddenly becoming part of North Dakota.

Island Park

In the park today, you’ll see a statue of Henrik Wergeland, who was Norway’s national poet and a symbol of Norway’s independence. The statue of Wergeland was unveiled in Island Park in June of 1908 and more than 3,500 people came to watch, which makes sense given the history of Norwegian descendants and culture to this day in Fargo-Moorhead. The statue was built by Norway’s leading sculptor Gustav Giveland, and it is said that his work is very rare to have in the United States.

Roberts Commons

Carnegie Library, 1954.

Carnegie Library, 1954.

The site of the current location of Roberts Commons on Roberts Street and Second Avenue North was first the home of the Columbia Hotel. It was a four-story brick building that opened in 1888 that had 100 electric-lit, superbly finished rooms. It burned down five years later in the Great Fire of 1893. The site stood vacant for a decade until Fargo’s first public library, the Fargo Carnegie Library, was constructed in 1903 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie. The library was demolished in the ‘70s to make room for a parking lot.

Columbia Hotel, south and west sides, sometime between 1888 and 1893.Columbia Hotel, south and west sides, sometime between 1888 and 1893.

The site today is the home of Roberts Commons, a new parking ramp and mixed-use building constructed under Kilbourne Group’s renewal and urban infill project. During excavation, Kilbourne Group uncovered various artifacts from the former buildings such as original bricks from the Carnegie Library, which are now seen in the lobby of the Roberts Commons. The company also found a dish that they think was from the Colombia Hotel, because back in the day when buildings burned down, they were rebuilt right on top of the ruins instead of clearing them out. Another indicator is that the dish was also made in New Jersey at The Trenton China Co., which was only in operation from 1859-1891.

Roberts Street and Second Avenue North looking southeast. Ruins of the Colombia Hotel after the Great Fire of 1893.Roberts Street and Second Avenue North looking southeast. Ruins of the Colombia Hotel after the Great Fire of 1893.

Other items found at the excavation site include storage tanks, some containing fuel oil, indicating the possible occupation of a car dealership or service shop back in the day. Film strips, a Coke bottle with a patented designed from 1937-1957, Jas-EPeppers bottle and metal printing plates were also found at the site.

The Exchange Building

Telephone Building, roughly 1930s.

Telephone Building, roughly 1930s.

Although there is no official record of a telephone company occupying 502 1st Ave. N. in the past, old photos show the name “Telephone Building” in large letters on the side of it. It was built in 1902 and has been occupied by restaurants, offices, pool halls, clubs, services, fur vaults and more. Kilbourne Group renamed the building The Exchange Building after they purchased it as the Gibb Building a few years ago. Today, the building is seen with a grey and white energy efficient-type façade over the outside, but the original brick supposedly still remains underneath.

Stone Building

Indiana native Charles Stone founded Stone’s Music House in 1894 on First Avenue North. The business was renamed Stone’s Piano Company in 1909 and Stone built a new three-story building in 1910 for the company. The building featured yellow brick and stone trim in Classic Revival style, and housed the Fargo College Conservatory of Music in the upper floors. The building was restored in the 1990s and became home to the Avalon Events Center for many years, but now it stands vacant.

Broadway Theatre Garage/Former Schumacher Goodyear

Fargo Mercantile Building, roughly 1950s

Fargo Mercantile Building, roughly 1950s

The building on the corner of Fourth Avenue North and Broadway used to be four stories occupied by the Fargo Mercantile Company, a wholesale grocer, in the early 1900s.

Bud's Popcorn

Bud's Popcorn

This popcorn shop stood in the storefront space directly next door to the south of where Beyond Running is today on Broadway.

Cowboy Mural

Cowboy Mural Downtown Fargo

Charles Selberg from Grand Forks, North Dakota, was only 17 years old in 1949 when he painted a mural for Sunny Brook whiskey on the south side of the McCormick Building on Fifth Street North and Third Avenue. A week after it was painted, the building was whitewashed and it inadvertently preserved the painting for years before it was resored by artist E. Chandler O’Leary in 2003.

Kopelman Building

Kopelman Building

The Kopelman Building at 512 1st Ave. North, currently occupied by the Red River Women’s Clinic, was built around 1906 by wig maker Jacob Kopelman. It became a wig shop that was ran by his wife Lena Kopelman when he passed away in 1908. She was also a skilled wig maker and the store became Kopelman’s Beauty Shop, one of the very first beauty shops in Fargo. Lena Kopelman also had a business agreement with the Fargo Hebrew Congregation to help run mikvah rituals in the basement of the store, where women could purify themselves for their religious obligations. The business became a formalwear shop in 1972 and was then home to a few different restaurants before becoming the clinic in 2000.

Melvina Massey: Fargo’s Most Notable Madam

Madam Massey Crystal Palace

Melvina Massey’s brothel at 201 3rd St. N., The Crystal Palace, around 1917.

One of Fargo’s most common early vices was prostitution and many prostitutes came to town with the railroads where there was construction. That’s how Melvina Massey became such a successful African American businesswoman in the city’s early days. Fargo had a “red light district” along the river downtown toward the lower end of Front Street, roughly in the area of the current city hall building and the Civic Center area, that was commonly known as “The Hollow.” From the 1880s to the early 20th century, it is said that Fargo almost had two parts to it, one part being the slum or poorer section (“The Hollow,” “Fargo in the Timber,” “Fargo in the Woods”) and the other side being the nicer part of town occupied by the respectable settlers, dubbed “Fargo on the Prairie.” By 1910, the “red light district” had expanded north along Third Street.

Massey owned and operated a notorious brothel out of her home built in 1891 called The Crystal Palace (201 3rd St. N.), roughly where the current city hall parking lot stands. In 1910, the Federal Census showed at least eight houses of prostitution operating in Fargo even though brothels and prostitution were illegal at the time, so law enforcement would have the brothel owners arrested and brought to court. Each month, Massey paid the $56.50 fee to avoid prison and went back to operating her business until the next month. It wasn’t until 1901 that she was finally sent to prison on liquor charges at a time when alcohol was illegal in the city. Her business continued on throughout her nine months in prison until at least 1905.

Massey died in 1911 and according to her estate and her belongings, she was a very successful local woman “of high class” who enjoyed many of the finer, expensive things in life. She is reported to be buried at an unmarked grave in Fargo’s Riverside Cemetery.

West Fargo

West Fargo started as a village supposedly called Riverside and then became a city called Haggart sometime around the 1930s. The Haggart name came from one of the area’s first settlers, John Haggart, who owned almost 2,000 acres of land along the Sheyenne River between Fargo and Mapelton, now known as the area of West Fargo. Haggart was a man of many positions in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but he was commonly known as one of the city’s first fire chiefs and Cass County sheriffs. In 1967, residents voted to become the City of West Fargo.

West Acres

West Acres – Alissa Adams
Senior Vice President of Marketing & Business Development
Photos courtesy of West Acres

Founder William Schlossman on the construction site of West Acres.

Founder William Schlossman on the construction site of West Acres.

The Beginning
The history of West Acres dates back to the Black Building in Downtown Fargo, which was built in 1930 by George Black, the father-in-law of West Acres visionary William (Bill) Schlossman, and the grandfather of West Acres’ current CEO, Brad Schlossman. In 1966 when Sears, the centerpiece of the Black Building, was looking to expand to nearly double in size, William Schlossman approached the city about its urban renewal district on Main Avenue from Broadway to the river to build a small shopping center. The project was rejected by the city, and Schlossman instead turned his sites to a bigger regional center.

Summer 1981 West Acres

From Wheat Field To Retail
At the time, a city-sponsored engineering and land-use study showed that the best place for “regional marketing” would be the intersection of interstates 29 and 94. Schlossman purchased a wheat field located along I-29 and 13th Avenue South as the site of West Acres, a mile outside of Fargo’s city limit. He and his partners faced many obstacles, including obtaining financing and completing off-site improvements such as water, sewer and roads. In fact, 13th Avenue South, which connected West Acres to Fargo, was not paved until two years after the mall opened. Today, the intersection where West Acres is located is the busiest in the state.

August 7, 1972. You can see the sign for the deLendrecie's store (in the current Herberger's spot), which used to be located downtown in what is now the Block 6 building.

August 7, 1972. You can see the sign for the deLendrecie’s store (in the current Herberger’s spot), which used to be located downtown in what is now the Block 6 building.

Early Leasing
Another obstacle for West Acres’ original partners was securing tenants. When Bill Schlossman first attended a national leasing convention in 1971, only one tenant showed up. Local merchants were hesitant to move out of downtown and national stores didn’t know where Fargo was. Fast forward to 1978, after the mall had a proven track record, there was a steady stream of retailers interested in the space and the meeting schedules at leasing conventions filled up. To this day, West Acres still attends this same conference and continues to have more stores interested in spaces than they have spaces available, including 30 meetings with retailers and restaurants at the recent convention in May of 2017.

West Acres Opening Day, August 2, 1972.

A Vision Comes To Life
Construction for West Acres began with a groundbreaking ceremony held on April, 21, 1971, three months before there were any signed leases. Schlossman and the other partners worked diligently completing deals with handshakes and on scratch paper. Sears opened in the spring of 1972 and West Acres opened August, 2, 1972, with 52 stores and approximately 230,000 square feet of retail space. The opening of West Acres led other businesses to relocate or build in the area, sparking the development of the 13th Avenue corridor, which today is full of restaurants, retail, businesses and hotels.

West AcresOpening Day, August 2, 1972.

All nine of the original West Acres partners were local. Each partner had something to offer to the original development of West Ares–from an architect to a contractor and a store operator. Today, West Acres is majority owned and operated by the second generation of the original partners.

West Acres Expansion

Dayton’s (now Macy’s) opened in 1973 and the JCPenney wing opened in 1979. The food court at West Acres was added and opened in 2001. Today, West Acres spans approximately one million square feet and finds opportunities to expand within its existing footprint by bringing in new retail, experiences and eateries.

Roger Maris and Bill Schlossman at the museum opening.

Roger Maris and Bill Schlossman at the museum opening.

Honoring a Hometown Hero
When approached with the idea of creating a museum in his honor by his friends, Fargo native Roger Maris–who hit a Major League Baseball record 61 home runs during the 1961 season for the New York Yankees, breaking Babe Ruth’s singleseason record of 60 home runs in 1927–declined. An incredibly humble man, Maris eventually relented but requested that the museum be “put where people will see it.” He also requested that the museum be open to the public free of charge. Maris chose West Acres as the best location for his museum and it opened at West Acres in 1984, and, true to his wishes, it’s still visible, accessible and free.

Stabo, 1981, which still operates in the mall today.

Stabo, 1981, which still operates in the mall today.

Retail Mix
Retail is ever-changing. Although West Acres is still home to some of the original stores (such as Stabo seen here in 1981), much of the retail landscape has changed over the past 45 years. On average, every 10 years, one-third of West Acres stores change (relocate, change size or rebrand), one-third close and one-third stay the same. West Acres has always found success in a mix of both local and national retailers. Today, over one-third of West Acres stores are locally owned and operated.

Throughout its history, West Acres has played host to an abundance of events, including numerous interesting attractions in the early years.

  • On Valentine’s Day in 1997, West Acres hosted Massive Matrimony. Four couples got married at West Acres and hundreds of others renewed their vows.
  • On West Acres’ 20th anniversary in 1982, Captain Dynamite built a specialized coffin in the parking lot surrounded with dynamite and blew it up on live television.
  • West Acres has played host to several animals over the years. In 1982, a huge pig named Big Ed visited. In 1985, West Acres hosted the International Lion Show and in 1983, West Acres was the site of a Milking Contest in addition to the annual petting zoo visit.
  • In 1999, West Acres First annual It’s a Wonderful Night community shopping event took place. Now in its 18th year, It’s a Wonderful Night raises money for over 60 area organizations, each year totaling over half a million dollars. The event is part of the West Acres Cares Program.
  • The Freedom Train (a U.S. bicentennial special exhibit) parked at West Acres for customers to visit in the late ’80s. The railroad tracks were alongside West Acres property for around 20 years until they were removed and an off ramp was added in their place for vehicles traveling north on I-29 to exit directly on to West Acres property.

For More Information:
3902 13th Ave. S, Fargo
Twitter/Instagram: @westacresmall

Moorhead Minnesota

The Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County

Mark Piehl, archivist, and Davin Wait, Communications Coordinator, HCSCC’s exhibit “Wet and Dry: Alcohol in Clay County 1871-1937”

Saloon Boom in a Tent Town

August Rustad's Saloon, Main Avenue Bridge around 1910. With North Dakota dry, Fargoans flocked to Moorhead's countless saloons for alcohol.

August Rustad’s Saloon, Main Avenue Bridge around 1910. With North Dakota dry, Fargoans flocked to Moorhead’s countless saloons for alcohol.

With the arrival of the Northern Pacific railroad in 1871, the tent town of Moorhead was officially staked on the very dirt it remains today. At the edge of the railroad’s pursuit west, the precise intersection of a river and railroad gave life to two sister cities–but one would dominate the booze industry for decades.

Moorhead’s location offered a clear advantage over alcohol sales when North Dakota was admitted to the Union as a dry state, the first constitution of its kind to stipulate state Prohibition. The saloon town boomed along the flood-ridden waters with establishments stacked one after the other. Free carts called jag wagons were sent out to pick up North Dakota residents and bring them to saloons in Moorhead, but left customers to find their own way back.

A drastic reality check came in 1915 when Clay County voted to outlaw the sale of alcohol. Four years after this local ban on booze, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed alcohol federally.

Temperance advocates claimed outlawing alcohol would solve the nation’s most pressing problems: poverty, crime, violence, but in spite of the push against alcohol-associated crime, Prohibition ended up igniting a nationwide crime wave. Millions of average Americans ignored the laws, and all the money that went into the nation’s largest pre-Prohibition domestic revenue source–alcohol sales–slipped into the hands of criminals who became increasingly violent and more organized.

From Soaking Wet to Bone Dry

Main Avenue and Fourth Street saloon district, about 1912.

August Rustad’s Saloon, Main Avenue Bridge around 1910. With North Dakota dry, Fargoans flocked to Moorhead’s countless saloons for alcohol.

The Fargo-Moorhead-Dilworth-West Fargo metro area is said to be one of the binge drinking capitols of America today, in part due to the 277 liquor licenses given out between them in the summer of 2015, but it’s still nothing in comparison to the beginning of the 1900s. In the early years of development, the area still saw more drinking establishments per capita than exist presently. To put it in perspective, if there were as many bars per person today as then, the metro area would have 686 saloons, with every one of them located in Moorhead alone.

Bars and saloons along Center Avenue and Fifth Street, 1908.

Bars and saloons along Center Avenue and Fifth Street, 1908.

Blind Pigs & Prohibition

The blind pigs of Fourth Street north of Main Avenue. Each building was a business or residence of a blind pig operator that was busted in 1928.

The blind pigs of Fourth Street north of Main Avenue. Each building was a business or residence of a blind pig operator that was busted in 1928. Businesses left to right: Peter Meehan’s soft drinks, John Karlstrom’s soft drinks, Charles Dougherty’s soft drinks, Old Hilde’s groceries, George Swamweber’s barber shop and Matt O’Neil’s café.

Unlike the dazzling upscale speakeasies that offered food and entertainment, the fronts that developed on the Moorhead streets took a page from the lower-class dive bars of Prohibition. Also called “blind tigers,” the name “blind pig” was a common term in the area, originating from bootleggers who would charge customers to see an oddity or attraction, such as a blind animal, and also serve a “complementary” alcoholic beverage, thus circumventing the law.

“Nobody can make a living selling hamburger sandwiches in Moorhead, unless there is cheap alcohol or moonshine hidden behind the sandwich.”
— Edward Humphrey, Moorhead Mayor, 1936

As the economy delved deeper into the shadows, essentially any candy store, soda shop or cigar store were very likely selling booze, too. Old records of a strip mall-like building in Moorhead during Prohibition showed three or four cigar stores right next to each other, which clearly didn’t make sense for the market. At one point, every building on the first block of Fourth Street was either the business or residence of a blind pig.

The Last Saloon

Hanson and Peterson's Gold Mine Saloon in the 1890s, before it became Peter Meehan's Tourist Canteen.

Hanson and Peterson’s Gold Mine Saloon in the 1890s, before it became Peter Meehan’s Tourist Canteen.

Like many people who owned bars and saloons before Prohibition spread nationwide, Peter Meehan’s business was pushed into the shadows. Meehan was a bartender during federal Prohibition at the Hanson and Peterson’s Gold Mine Saloon before he took it over and renamed it Peter Meehan’s Tourist Canteen, formally located at the corner of Main Avenue and Fourth Street. His business operated as everything from a cigar store, soft drink parlor or candy store and Meehan was arrested several times for running a bling pig. Meehan’s patience and persistence was rewarded with one of the original 30 licenses to welcome back beer on April 7, 1933.

New Beers Day

New Beers Day

With unemployment soaring, many believed reviving the alcohol industry would put people back to work and bring needed revenue to the government through alcohol taxes. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution completely repealed national prohibition. Although many Clay County communities allowed 3.2 beer in April of 1933, coined “New Beers Day,” the county didn’t legalize hard liquor and strong beer until 1937.

Ralph's Corner Bar

Ralph's Corner Bar, about 1990.

Ralph’s Corner Bar, about 1990.

Peter Meehan’s business was renamed Ralph’s Corner Bar in the late 1950s after the successive owner, eventually becoming a regionally important venue for punk and rock music and a well-known hub next to the river. The very last building from Moorhead’s saloon era was ordered demolished by the City of Moorhead in 2005, and with it went the last architectural connection to Moorhead’s past.

Present-day Moorhead is far removed from the age of saloons and blind pigs, in part due to the urban renewal movement of the ’60s and ’70s when federal money was made available to communities to renovate their towns. Moorhead was already playing second-fiddle to Fargo at the time and decided to renovate their buildings to gain an upper hand, but with the restoration came a loss of history.

The Magnuson Family

Emma Magnuson and her children around the start of the Prohibition era. Magnuson and her brother-in-law were both involved in a network of blind pigs along First Ave North in Moorhead.

Emma Magnuson and her children around the start of the Prohibition era. Magnuson and her brother-in-law were both involved in a network of blind pigs along First Ave North in Moorhead.

While some took advantage of Prohibition for its unchecked flow of cash and power, other proprietors used the industry as a means of supporting their family. After Emma Magnuson’s husband left her and their two adopted children, she turned to bootlegging in order to provide for her family.

Her adopted son, Warren Magnuson, was born and raised in Moorhead. According to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Magnuson served in the Washington State House of Representatives from 1933-34, the U.S. Navy during WWII and the U.S. Senate from 1944-81. He went on to become one of the most powerful Senators in the U.S. after moving to Washington State to attend law school, writing the Magnuson Act of 1943, a foundational piece of legislation for the civil rights movement which overturned the Chinese Exclusion Act. As a prominent figure in national politics, President L.B. Johnson was even in Magnuson’s wedding.

John Erickson

An 1877 advertisement in the Moorhead Advocate for the Erickson House and Moorhead Brewery

An 1877 advertisement in the Moorhead Advocate for the Erickson House and Moorhead Brewery

The late 1800s and early 1900’s saw turbulent ups and downs of resettlement as Moorhead businesses found their footing in the frontier market. One prominent local, John Erickson, was no stranger to the changing winds of the period.

Within a few years of arriving into the Moorhead tent town, the recent Swedish immigrant was the owner of Erickson’s General Store, a meat market, lumber year, blacksmith shop, farms, saloons and a brewery. After the Larkin brothers of Winnipeg lost the brewery they started in 1875 to foreclosure, Erickson brought the business into his political, hotel and real estate empire. While the operation expanded for a short time, the site near present-day Riverfront Park was again foreclosed by the National Bank of Moorhead in 1895, burning to the ground in 1901.

John Erickson

With his hand in a broad band of business interests throughout Moorhead, Erickson was also elected mayor three times and holds the unique title of being the first person in town to own a telephone. Shortly after Alexander Graham Bells’ demonstration of the telephone in July 1876 at the Philadelphia Exposition, Erickson had a system installed to monitor his businesses stretched across Center Avenue. While his brewery closed after a short period of growth, Erickson died a rather prosperous man in 1919, the first year Prohibition was experienced federally.

Solomon Comstock

The Comstock House in 1937

The Comstock House in 1937

In the lawless working-man area, a single gunfight in 1882 would establish law and justice in Clay County. Using a Colt Model 1849 with a solid ivory handle, “Shang” Stanton fatally wounded “Slim Jim” Shumway in John Smith’s saloon. Bringing order to the otherwise lawless area, Jim Blanchard arrested the man and Solomon Comstock, a local lawyer, banker and politician, tried the case. The affair was just a preview of the trouble alcohol would bring to the area, but also sparked the career of a prominent local.

Solomon Comstock

As a former U.S. Congressman, Comstock helped found the First National Bank of Moorhead, the Bishop Whipple School (now Concordia College), and sponsored a bill in the Minnesota legislature that led to the establishment of the Moorhead Normal School (now Minnesota State University Moorhead). During 1881, the same year he founded the First National Bank of Moorhead, Comstock experienced the aftermath of a Red River flood. With the help of land surveyors, he reestablished his home at the highest point in the area, using his wealth and resources to build a house that remains today on Eighth Street.

Shang's gun from the famous shootout, which is now on display in an exhibit at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.Shang’s gun from the famous shootout, which is now on display in an exhibit at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.

Jake Schumacher

Jake Schumacher

1944 when Schumacher was released from prison on parole. He died four years later.

Starting out almost innocently, bootleggers transported alcohol via road while rum-runners moved booze along waterways. As the years went on and more money flowed into the underground market, crime became organized and benevolent. By 1930, Jake Schumacher, the eldest son of Clay County’s most notorious rum-running family, formed a gang that stole cars, robbed banks and assaulted people on the street.

On December 29, 1931, Schumacher ordered four men to rob the Sabin State Bank six miles southeast of Moorhead. It all went wrong, exposing the local criminal underworld through several exciting trials that involved 23 witnesses and 16 arrests that brought down two rival Moorhead gangs. In the end, Jake Schumacher was convicted of bank robbery and served 12 years in the state prison in Stillwater, Minnesota, and the Institute for the Criminally Insane in St. Peter. By the time he got out on parole in 1944, prohibition was a thing of the past and his career was over.

Moorhead Dairy Queen

As one of the oldest in the country, the Moorhead Dairy Queen was built in the late 1940s, missing the city’s Prohibition era by only a few years. In the 1980s, DQ’s corporate headquarters put out an order that all the stores were going to be redesigned, but the Moorhead owners got permission to retain the old design. As the story goes, the first owner of the establishment, Bob Litherland, was the one who came up with the idea for the Dilly Bar. At some point a DQ salesman was at their location and Litherland had a bunch of tongue depressors on hand, so he put ice cream on them. Apparently, the salesman even uttered the phrase, “That’s a real dilly.”

Moorhead Zoo

Moorhead Zoo

The brick cage built in 1930 for the bears named Jacquiline and Bruno still stands just northwest of Usher’s House. Today’s Memorial Park was the site of the Moorhead Zoo from 1929 through the mid-1930s.

Rum-runners, bootleggers and moonshiners weren’t the only thing filling up the Moorhead jail during the early 1900s. Supposedly, one cell held two young bears which would go on to become the main attraction at the makeshift Moorhead Zoo. Located behind what is currently Usher’s House, volunteers built a cage for the bears using recycled bricks from MSUM’s Old Main building after it burned down and cage doors from the Clay County Jail after it underwent renovation. While the zoo accumulated deer, raccoons, badgers, snapping turtles and even a monkey, it was no place for wild animals. An HCSCC member, Beth Dille, said that she even remembers some kind of snake being in the zoo but oddly enough, they kept it in a long and narrow cage even though it was always curled up in the corner.

Moorhead photographer Ole Bergstrom shot a few seconds of motion picture film of deer in Moorhead’s Zoo in the early 1930s. It's the only imagery known of the zoo. This is a still from that film.Moorhead photographer Ole Bergstrom shot a few seconds of motion picture film of deer in Moorhead’s Zoo in the early 1930s. It’s the only imagery known of the zoo. This is a still from that film.

In 1933, the Moorhead City Council passed an ordinance asking the local game warden to get rid of the animals, effectively closing the zoo. At it’s peak, hundreds of people visited the site daily, including drive-by guests who viewed the animals on a looped road. One of the cages still remains today.