Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, Published April 04 2009
Businesses still thrive in old Dakota Business College
The building was built in 1884 by Andrew McHench, a local land developer, and designed by self-taught Fargo architect Charles N. Daniels.
McHench was born Nov. 12, 1832, in Schoharie, N.Y., and grew up on his family’s farm. He graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1855. He attended the school when Horace Mann was the college president.
In 1870, he visited the Dakota Territory to determine the feasibility of farming, and in 1871 he returned with his wife and two children to settle on land made available by the Homestead Act. McHench was one of the first settlers to own land in Fargo.
He served as the first Cass County superintendent of schools; was elected to the Dakota Territorial Legislature. While there, he secured passage of a bill approving the incorporation of the city of Fargo on Jan. 5, 1875. He was also an alderman on the Fargo City Council.
After selling his farm and moving to Fargo, McHench sold farm implements and lumber and constructed several buildings. McHench died Dec. 29, 1912.
According to Lee Watkins, third-generation owner of the Dakota Business College buildings, in 1889 McHench and the Mason’s Shiloh Lodge lost ownership of the building and the property was acquired through a sheriff’s sale by William L. Lowell. In 1898 it was quitclaimed to Lowell’s brother, William Holbrook Lowell and in 1903 sold to F.L. Watkins Sr., and brothers Earl C. Watkins and Ashley R. Watkins.
The Watkins Block at 806 Main Ave., a three-story addition to the school, was built in about 1907. The DBC building was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Lee Watkins tells of a mystery door in the DBC building: “On the main stairs to the second floor there is a door that opens onto nothing. … When the building was built, there were two stores on the first floor. The second and third floors (where the Masonic Lodge was) were reached from the cast-iron fire escapes. When grandfather remodeled in 1903, he simply placed a bar in the opening and locked the door. It’s still that way now.”
Watkins also tells of several fires in the DBC building: “In the ’50s, the fire department came over and evacuated the building. When they told my mother that she would have to leave, she snapped, ‘Can’t you see I’m busy now? You take care of your business, and I’ll take care of mine!’ And she did, while they quickly doused the flames.”
The DBC building and the Watkins Block are grand old buildings. After 88 years, the college closed in 1978 and the space has been rented to a variety of businesses.
Sources: Forum files; Forum columnist Curtis Eriksmoen; “Fargo’s Heritage”
by Norene A. Roberts
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