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Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, Published June 05 2011

Halgrimson: Palmer was an North Dakota trailblazer

In a column shortly after Bertha Rachael Palmer’s death in 1959, Forum reporter Roy P. Johnson called her one of North Dakota’s most notable women.

Born in Worthington, Minn., Palmer came to Devils Lake, N.D., shortly after her birth on Aug. 29, 1880. At that time, the state was still Dakota Territory and the family – Bertha, her brothers and sisters and her parents – settled beside the lake in a house built by Mr. Palmer.

Bertha Palmer attended Devils Lake High School, graduating in 1898, and got a teaching degree at Mayville Teacher’s College in 1903. For many years, she taught in North Dakota schools in Larimore, Dickinson, Williston and Bismarck.

In 1924, while attending the World Sunday School convention in Scotland, she traveled throughout the British Isles and continental Europe. She wrote an account of her visits to Canada, Scotland, England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy in a 15-part Forum series that ran in the paper from August through October 1924.

She had also been a field worker for the children’s division of the North Dakota Council of Religious Education and state chairwoman of the art division of the North Dakota Federation of Women’s Clubs.

After serving as deputy superintendent of public instruction in the state for five years, she was elected as the superintendent, a position she held from 1927 to 1932.

During her time as school superintendent when road conditions were bad, she hired Harry Potter, a Bismarck aviator, to fly her around North Dakota for speaking engagements. One trip took her from Mott, in southwestern North Dakota, to Fargo on the same day.

In 1932, Palmer moved to Boston and took a position in the editorial offices of the Scientific Temperance federation. In 1934, she moved to Evanston, Ill., after becoming head of the education department of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In that role, she spoke to groups in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia before addressing its world convention in Stockholm.

Palmer died at her home in Wheaton, Ill., on Dec. 15, 1959. Before her death, she donated her papers to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

While her accomplishments were many, Roy Johnson considered her book, “Beauty Spots of North Dakota,” published in 1928 in Boston, to be her crowning achievement.

Johnson says the book “grew out of her travels throughout the state, her captivation by its natural beauty, history and geography, and her inability to repress a burning desire to tell her neighbors what she had seen.”

Her 266-page book contained 50 photographs, sketches and interviews with pioneers and Indian legends.

I don’t believe it has ever been reissued, and I think it’s about time it was.

Sources: Forum library, Kevin Carvell, www.history.nd.gov/archives/whatarchivesmanuscripts.html


Readers can contact Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson at ahalgrimson@forumcomm.com