There are some individuals who appear to have a golden touch, where everything they become involved in turns into a success. Jerry Bacon, of Grand Forks, may well have been such an individual.
He left his home in Iowa at the age of 17 and began farming in Grand Forks County. Four years later, he moved to the town of Grand Forks and constructed a livery establishment (a building for the feeding, stabling and care of horses for pay), and the facility he built was “the largest livery barn in the state.”
In 1898, Bacon and Warren B. Wood rebuilt the Dacotah Hotel, making it “the largest hotel in North Dakota.” In 1905, Bacon established a daily newspaper and, six years later, purchased controlling interest of the Grand Forks Herald. Under his ownership, “the Herald became the largest newspaper in the state.”
Jeremiah “Jerry” Dempster Bacon was born June 24, 1865, in Waverly, Iowa, to Elijah and Sylvia (Barker) Bacon. Elijah was “a prominent businessman in northeastern Iowa,” operating as a merchant, grain dealer and proprietor of a bank. Jerry attended school in Waverly and worked with his father on the family farm.
In 1882, Jerry left Iowa and began operating a farm near the small town of Ojata, N.D., 10 miles west of Grand Forks. He also began buying horses from Iowa through his connections there. He had the horses transported to his farm and then sold them at a profit to farmers in the Grand Forks area. Jerry, as a teenager, must have earned quite a reputation because, when a new post office was established in Nelson County on Nov. 21, 1883, it was named Baconville “in his honor.”
In the winter of 1887-88, Jerry Bacon moved to Grand Forks and opened a livery and horse sale business. His livery barn was “100 x 140 feet, two stories high, with steam heat, electric lights, elevator and all modern appliances, making it a first-class, up-to-date livery business.”
In order to provide pasture for his horses, as well as hay, oats and corn for feed and straw for bedding, Bacon began to purchase farm land close to Grand Forks. As the acreage of his farm increased, he named his agricultural operation “The Lilac Hedge Farm.”
On this 2,500-acre farm, Bacon began breeding pure-bred horses and then added Holstein cattle, Duroc Jersey hogs, Pekin ducks, Toulouse geese and Rhode Island Red chickens. He also used great care in selecting the various grains and produce he grew on his farm. Bacon “was especially interested in the raising of new varieties of corn and other grains, sweet clover, alfalfa and potatoes, and also had large gardens in which vegetables and fruit were produced.”
Bacon was one of the first North Dakota farmers to provide electricity for his farming operation, and Lilac Hedge became a popular showcase for people interested in witnessing the latest technology in agriculture.
RELATED COLUMNS: Woman was rescued from captivity largely through the efforts of Sitting Bull and John Grass | Woman's actions may have saved many lives while she was held captive by the Lakota | After months of Lakota captivity, Fanny Kelly's freedom was secured by Sitting Bull | North Dakota-born Broadway star was nominated for 26 acting awards in less than 20 years | One of the most celebrated stage actresses was born and raised in North Dakota
One of Bacon’s closest friends was Warren B. Wood, a real estate dealer, farmer and member of the North Dakota Legislature. Wood was a conservative Republican and a strong advocate of capitalism, and this fit in very well with the financial success that Bacon was experiencing.
Bacon was able to benefit financially from the rapid population growth of Grand Forks, which rose from 1,708 in 1880 to 4,979 in 1890 and then to 7,682 in 1900. The hub for much of the financial activity that took place in Grand Forks was at the large Dacotah Hotel. However, on the morning of Dec. 17, 1897, the Dacotah burned down.
When the Dacotah was built in 1888-1889, it was one of the largest and most elegant hotels in the Midwest. The five-story structure contained “107 rooms, a parlor dining hall, reading room, bar and billiard rooms, along with a barber shop, and bath rooms.” It attracted many tourists to Grand Forks and became the location where many large transactions took place.
Very shortly after the hotel was reduced to ashes, Bacon and Wood decided to rebuild it. Using the same 125-foot-by-125-foot foundation, it reopened as an elegant, three-story, 100-room structure on Dec. 20, 1898. Five years later, a fourth story was added, providing another 50 guest rooms, making it “the largest hotel in North Dakota.”
Overseeing the construction of the Dacotah and tending to business at his Lilac Hedge Farm were not the only activities that necessitated Bacon’s time and energy in 1898. Wood had decided not to seek reelection for his North Dakota House seat in District 6 in Grand Forks, and Bacon announced his intention to run for the seat. Bacon was elected and reelected in 1900. In 1902, he was elected to serve a four-year term in the North Dakota Senate.
While in the Legislature, Bacon supported bills that were favorable to agriculture, education and immigration to North Dakota. The primary bill that he introduced occurred in 1905, which “allowed Boards of County Commissioners to levy taxes to raise funds to establish and support county agricultural fairs and fair associations.”
In essence, Bacon ended up being one of the prime beneficiaries of the bill. The choice animals and produce that he raised at Lilac Hedge would receive public exposure and publicity at the fairs, allowing Bacon to sell them at higher prices. The first fair to benefit from this legislation was the Grand Forks State Fair, held in September 1905.
Now that Bacon was actively involved in Republican politics, he established friendships with a number of influential political leaders. One of them was U.S. Sen. Henry Hansbrough, who was finding himself isolated within the party. He was quite conservative in most political matters, but opposed the dominance of large corporations, and this put him in conflict with Alexander McKenzie, the North Dakota Republican Party boss.
Knowing that he would need favorable press to help retain his Senate seat, Hansbrough enlisted the assistance of Bacon to establish a new newspaper in Grand Forks. Bacon, along with Sylvester Small, the editor of Hansbrough’s Devils Lake Inter-Ocean newspaper, and three other partners established the Times Publishing Co. on Nov. 24, 1905, to publish the Evening Times in Grand Forks.
As publisher, Bacon began recruiting some of the best journalists in the area, and he hired Norman B. Black as general manager, William Preston Davies and Holger “Happy” Paulsen as the editorial and news department leaders and Alice Nelson Page as society editor. On Jan. 1, 1906, the first issue of the Times was released, and within a short period of time, it was a serious rival to the Grand Forks Herald.
We will conclude the story of Jerry Bacon next week.
“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.