GRAND FORKS -- What we have here is halfway public-spirited and halfway self-promotional – a kind of public service announcement with a personal motive behind it. On Sunday, March 1, the Grand Forks Historical Society will have another of its “Entertaining History” presentations. These are a feature of the winter season at the society’s headquarters and museum just off Belmont road.
That’s the public service part of today’s column.
The personal motive is that I’m doing the entertaining. I’d appreciate an audience.
To me, at least, the subject is actually a pretty interesting one, the 1920s. This is appropriate. A year ago, I gave a talk about March 1919. In that month, the state Legislature approved the Nonpartisan League’s “industrial program,” including the North Dakota Mill and Elevator and the Bank of North Dakota.
These institutions have become “embarrassing” because of their success, Lloyd Omdahl wrote last year. Omdahl is a former state tax commissioner and lieutenant governor, but I am more indebted to him for his work teaching political science at UND. I took his classes in the late 1960s, and I’ve used that training every day of my professional career.
The first state mill was in Drake, a town just a bit northwest of the center of North Dakota. Early on, a decision was made to build a larger, more modern mill in a bigger town. Grand Forks got the nod, and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator has been on the city’s north side ever since. Legend says that officials of the NPL built it there to get back at J.D. Bacon, publisher of the Herald, who was a strident critic of the League “socialistic” program. The League had spectacular success, but it was short-lived. League officials were recalled from office in October 1921, and that’s where this year’s story begins. Bacon’s grip on the Herald lasted a little longer. He sold the newspaper in 1929.
The 1920s tend to be overshadowed by events immediately before the decade began and after it ended. The first was the drama of the League’s rapid growth and subsequent collapse; the second was the tragedy of the drought and depression of the Dirty Thirties.
The Twenties were a turbulent time politically. Three governors were defeated for re-election in that decade, more than in any other 10-year period in the state’s history. The decade also established the highwater mark for popular democracy. There was the recall, of course, the first in U.S. history. There were referendums about the League’s program. There were farm relief measures, government reorganization measures, attempts to limit government power and attempts to increase it markedly.
But most of all there were measures about moral questions, ranging from making beer to playing baseball, how boxing should be regulated to who could own farmland.
The Twenties are notable for reasons particular to Grand Forks, as well. Three of the governors during the decade were from Grand Forks County. In the 100 years since, no Grand Forks resident has been elected governor. One of the state’s U.S. House members during that decade was also closely identified with Grand Forks. The decade brought a number of politicians to prominence in the state, individuals whose names still resonate in the state’s history. Not all of them liked one another, and their personal and political fighting enlivened the pages of North Dakota’s newspapers a century ago. Most important, the Twenties were a kind of bridge linking good times and bad.
The state had its troubles from the beginning, but the years between 1910 and 1920 – the Teen Years – were a time of general prosperity, partly fueled by World War I. The settlement era ended about that time, and the state stepped forward as an important source of food for the world. Times were good.
A sharp contraction occurred when the war ended. Hard times followed almost immediately, and North Dakotans began seeking programs and policies that would relieve economic hardship. To a large extent, this meant turning to the federal government rather than imagining how the state government could take advantage of good times, the aim of the League and its programs. This give-and-take shaped state institutions and state politics well into the 21st century.
The “Entertaining History” program is Sunday at 2 p.m. at the County Historical Society’s museum at 2405 Belmont Road.
More wind: Erik Fritzell of Grand Forks suggests that I missed the point of Thingvalla’s reputation as “the windiest place in Pembina County” in last week’s column about North Dakota’s Icelandic heritage.
Iceland’s parliament – the world’s oldest – is known as the “Ting,” he pointed out, and the reference to wind might have political overtones. Thingvalla – originally known as the Eyford Church – is located three miles south of Mountain, N.D., the undisputed center of Icelandic heritage in the United States. It is the burial place of K.N. Julius, an Icelandic poet, as I pointed out, and the wind does blow there, so perhaps the title is appropriate three times over.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.