For all that Joel Weiser did to help establish Valley City as a thriving North Dakota city during the last quarter of the 19th century, I believe he could justifiably be considered the “father of Valley City.”
After his service in the Civil War and working as a mason and farmer in eastern Minnesota for over 20 years, Weiser and his family packed up their belongings in 1877 and relocated to the Sheyenne River Valley, 60 miles west of Fargo. Weiser filed a homestead and tree claim of 320 acres 4 miles northeast of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) stop called Worthington. The NPRR laid tracks there in 1872, and the land company owned by the NPRR hoped to attract settlers to the area, but because of severe winters, bad droughts and an economic depression, people did not move to Worthington.
Shortly after Weiser arrived, immigration to Worthington began to pick up, and by 1878, there were about 30 people living there. Weiser built a house and a general store in Worthington, and it has been written that although the store was small, it “carried the largest and most complete stock to be found in [Dakota] Territory at that time.” Along with Weiser’s store and house, the town consisted of 11 other houses and a saloon.
Worthington was also the name of a town in Minnesota, which caused confusion over mail delivery. The U.S. Post Office requested a name change for the town of Worthington in Dakota Territory, and on May 10, 1878, Weiser renamed it Valley City.
On Jan. 6, 1879, Barnes County was organized. William Howard, governor of Dakota Territory, named Weiser as the county treasurer and justice of the peace, and Valley City was selected to be the county seat of government. On March 8, 1881, Valley City was incorporated, and Weiser was elected mayor.
To facilitate education and religion in the town, “the first school and church services were held in his house.” Later in 1881, he helped establish a Methodist church in Valley City and donated the block of land on which it was built. Two years later, he expanded his store to include a lumberyard and a farm equipment dealership.
In the early 1880s, something unexpected happened that required Weiser’s full attention. George Ellsbury, the founder of Tower City, plotted with officials from Sanborn to deprive Valley City from continuing to serve as the county seat of Barnes County. They were going to do this by creating the county of Tower, located between Cass and Barnes counties, with Tower City as the county seat. Ellsbury could justify naming Tower City as the county seat because it had a larger population than Valley City at that time.
Although the new county would cut off 3 miles of Cass County, including Tower City, located on the western edge of the county, most of the new territory would come from Barnes County. Tower County would stretch from Tower City, 12 miles west, including Valley City, and 3 miles east.
There was immediate opposition from Weiser, but Ellsbury received support from powerful people in Cass County, notably Allanson Edwards, the editor of the Fargo Argus. Since Valley City would no longer be in Barnes County, Sanborn would likely become the new county seat.
To put a stop to all of this, Weiser met with some of his powerful political friends in the territorial capital at Yankton, and the scheme failed. In order to make certain that no other similar scheme would be launched, Weiser ran for a seat in the 1886 Dakota Territorial Legislature and was elected.
On Feb. 22, 1889, the passage of the omnibus bill by Congress provided for the division of Dakota Territory into two states. A Constitutional Convention was to be held in May in Bismarck to draw up the constitution for North Dakota, and the 75 delegates to the convention chose Weiser to be the “watchman” to make certain everything was done properly.
His active presence at the convention gave him the opportunity to lobby with the delegates so that Valley City would become the recipient of one of the normal schools (teacher colleges). In 1890, Weiser was elected to the North Dakota Senate, and he introduced the bill that provided funding for the Valley City Normal School, so that what is now Valley City State University could begin operation.
From 1878 to 1890, Valley City had grown from a population of 30 to over 1,000. To deal with this rapid growth, Weiser decided to retire from state politics in 1891 and concentrate on local issues, including the running of his growing business interests. He served for many years as an alderman and as an active member of the school board.
By 1910, Valley City had surpassed Mandan, Wahpeton, Grafton and Jamestown to become the fifth largest city in North Dakota.
About this time, Weiser’s eyesight was becoming very poor, and he was forced to turn over his businesses to his son, John. Because Weiser’s wife, Louisa, had died in 1909, he spent the remaining years of his life living with his various children.
Joel Weiser died on Jan. 17, 1925.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.