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Published November 13 2010

Fargo's ghosts in the stones

Walk down Broadway. Look up. There you’ll find the names of Fargo’s most prominent business families etched in the masonry of the street’s historic buildings – silent memorials to the movers and shakers who helped shape the city.

It has been nearly a century since Samuel Reid Aggie first set foot in Fargo. The Lebanese immigrant set out for New York in 1907 at age 12, and ended up in Fargo at 16.

His was a classic rendition of the American dream: Settle in, start a business, start a family. He married a girl from Chicago and took her back to Fargo. He joined the local Elks Lodge. He built the real estate company today known as Aggie Investments – a firm still run by his family.

Aggie died in 1968, at his home at the corner of 13th Avenue and Fifth Street North. But a few blocks south, he’s still here, etched in stone in the façade of the Aggie Block on Broadway.

It’s one of a dozen long-standing downtown buildings that bear a family name in the masonry – a collection of historic sites that serve as silent memorials to the movers and shakers who helped shape the city.

A warm welcome downtown

By the time the Aggie Block – which covers 514 to 524 Broadway and today houses a home-décor shop and an antique store – was built in 1926, a handful of prominent Fargo businessmen had already lent their names to the local architecture.

Johnsons Block at 216 Broadway – built to house the bicycle shop of John E. Johnson – went up in 1900. Up the street and around the corner at 512 1st Ave. N., Jacob and Lena built the Kopelman building in 1906 to house their wig-making business.

That family is probably less famous for the building that carries its name (now the site of the Red River Valley Women’s Clinic) than for the son who didn’t. Dave Elman, a multitalented national radio personality in the 1930s and 1940s and one of Jacob and Lena’s six children, dropped the first three letters of his last name when he went into show business.

Meanwhile, George M. Black, a young businessman from Kansas, was busy sinking his teeth into Broadway’s retail scene.

Black, the son of an Irish immigrant, stopped into town one day in 1912 while changing trains on his way from Crookston, Minn., to Minneapolis. He’d been scouting northern Minnesota looking for the right location for a new branch of his family’s clothing stores.

A bit of sunny May weather and a bustling crowd of shoppers convinced him Fargo was the place, despite the objections of his banker (who told him the town had too many retail shops already) and his parents (who insisted North Dakota was too cold).

The store tallied $75,000 in sales in its first year – more than $1.6 million in today’s dollars. In short order, Black snapped up a number of other Broadway shops. By 1930, he owned 130 feet of frontage on the street. That year, he broke ground on the Black Building at 118 Broadway for Sears, Roebuck and Co., a retailer that was a downtown mainstay until 1972.

A few months after Black’s death at age 90 that year, the store left the Black Building for the brand-new West Acres mall. But even in departing, Sears only bolstered Black’s legacy: The shopping center was conceived by William Schlossman, Black’s son-in-law, and Black’s grandchildren hold leadership roles at West Acres and Goldmark Schlossman.

Hides, hotels and high society

While Black was building a small empire on clothing sales, a handful of his contemporaries were carving their own place in Fargo history via the hospitality industry.

In 1905, laundry shop owner J.E. Dixon opened the Dixon building at 305 Broadway. He used the new spot to relocate his business, which had previously been situated alongside a fur and hides store that permeated his customers’ clean clothes with the rather unfortunate scent of skunks.

Today, the Dixon building is open for rent. In Dixon’s time, it housed Turkish baths on the first floor and hotel rooms on the second (but not prostitutes, according to Dixon's son, George, who insisted the establishment was “a nice clean hotel” despite the prevalence of houses of ill repute in Fargo at the time.)

In 1909, Frank Gardner, a cigar wholesaler from New York who married a Jamestown, N.D., native, built the Gardner Hotel at 26 Roberts St. The rooms have since been converted to apartments, but the Gardner namesake remains.

In 1933, the Gardner came into the hands of Fargo’s preeminent hotel family, the Powers. Thomas F. Powers, a bricklayer from St. Paul, came to Fargo in 1896, three years after a fire leveled most of the downtown business district. The industrious contractor set to work rebuilding the city.

He had a hand in the construction of a myriad of Fargo landmarks – the Cass County Courthouse, the Fargoan Hotel, the Fargo Theater, the Black Building – but only put his name on one: the Powers Hotel at 400 Broadway, built in 1914.

His company – T.F. Powers construction – is still around (a few years ago, it remodeled Hector International Airport). So is the hotel, (like the Gardner, it’s been converted to apartments). But like George Black, Thomas Powers’ highest-profile contribution to the city may have been his children – in particular his son, Francis, better known as F. Urban.

F. Urban Powers, along with brother Tom Jr., bought his father’s Powers Hotel in 1925. Like other Fargoans of means, F. Urban became something of a local celebrity, popping up as a regular fixture in the “society pages” of The Forum. When he vacationed in Hawaii, it was news. When he broke his arm after falling off a horse, it was news.

After he took an extended trip to Europe to study hotels abroad, The Forum dutifully reported that F. Urban (patriot that he was) preferred North Dakota corn-fed beef to the English grass-fed variety.

Two weddings and a legacy

In 1929, F. Urban Powers married Elizabeth Elliot in Fargo, bringing him into the family of an original paterfamilias of downtown Fargo.

That’d be Peter Elliot, a bona fide pioneer who drove an ox team to Fargo as a teenager in 1873, two years after the city was founded (and 13 years before North Dakota became a state.)

Elliot himself was a hotel man. In 1883, he built his first incarnation of the Elliot Hotel. It burned to the ground in the fire of 1893, and he built another on the site of what is now the Syndicate Block from 64 to 74 Broadway.

Elliot also had a strong hand in public policy – he was a member of the state board of regents, a longtime city councilman, and served as mayor of Fargo from 1907 to 1910.

In 1909, his daughter, Margaret, married Frank McKone, the head of cigar and beverage companies in town. The McKone Block at 206 Broadway, built in 1905, bears his name.

By the time his daughter, Elizabeth, married F. Urban Powers, Peter and his wife had passed away. Frank McKone escorted Elizabeth to the altar.

And while Peter Elliot’s name is nowhere to be found in the stonework of the city, the blackened parapet of one of his downtown projects – the building that now houses Billiards on Broadway and Boerth’s Gallery – bears the name of his youngest daughter, Loretta.

Stand in front of 212 Broadway and look up: She’s still here.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502